Almost two years after a petition against rafting operators on the Ganges, India’s top environmental court has said “yes” to 25 beach camps. However tour operators are not happy with the decision, calling it “rhetorical.”

Two years ago, a non-profit filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal, India’s top environmental court, demanding action against rafting camps by the Ganges along the much sought-after 36 km Kaudiyala to Rishikesh stretch of the river in Uttarakhand. The Outdoor Journal had reported extensively on the issue, explaining its nuts and bolts in a four-part series.

After a series of hearings and delays and a conditional ban, the National Green Tribunal released a final verdict last Thursday. The court has allowed 25 beach camps to operate on the 36km stretch during the rafting season.

According to the order,

“Beach camping activities to be carried out only on the sites which have been declared fit by the study of the referred Wildlife Institute of India” (a national wildlife research institute) and are to be carried out between “1st October and 15th June,” after which they must be removed.

The Wildlife Institute of India recommended 25 sites fit for camping. The order also demanded all camping activity to occur at a distance of at least 100m from the river, as well as demanding the use of biodigestor toilets instead of dry pit toilets.

The order has also made the rules for camping more stringent, and has introduced more people from the Forest Department and the State Department to seek permissions from for camping.

The tour operators are not happy with the decision.

“The verdict has not taken into consideration many facts placed on record about the rafting beach camps that have been in operation seasonally, for 30 years. There are many contradictory directions that will complicate a simple seasonal activity into a hugely complex one through added layers of bureaucracy to gain permission to use the camping site. The process is not clear. They have played this game to get the beaches diverted to ‘non forest status’ to enable state to auction the sites.,” said a frustrated Yousuf Zaheer to The Outdoor Journal in a telephone conversation.

Yousuf Zaheer is the founder and director of Himalayan River Runners, one of the oldest adventure tour operators in the country, and the first whitewater rafting company to set-up camp in Shivpuri.

When the petition was filed, there were 87 registered beach camps along the Ganges, and over 100 unregistered camps. Rampant growth in the number of operators required an intervention, a form of regulation, and several tour operators were in favour of it, and even launched an online petition calling a stop on unregulated licensing.

“Also, this 100m ruling is applicable only if there are permanent structures. There is no logic or sense to apply this for a temporary, seasonal camping activity.” Yousuf said.

Camps are required to be at least 100m away from the river.

“The decision is rhetorical. Not backed by data. An alleged pollution issue with unaffected water quality. It was about crowding and indiscriminate licensing brought about by a handful of violators. And its consequences are faced by many genuine companies for failure to regulate,” fumed Vaibhav Kala, founder and director of Aquaterra, a 25-year-old adventure tour operator based in Shivpuri, in a telephone conversation with The Outdoor Journal.

“After two years of the bench telling us this will be a landmark decision, encompassing all tributaries and side valleys, the judgement was ultimately about 25 beach camps. There was no mention of revenue camps, private land camps, camps within reserved forest areas. Seems like the NGT bench fell short on delivery, and also short on memory,” he scoffed.

Land in Uttarakhand comes under four categories—reserve forest, civil forest, revenue land and private land. Depending on the authority controlling the land, permission has to be taken before using it for any activity.

The Ganges is one of the most fascinating rivers of the world. Right from stand-up paddleboarding source-to-sea to highlight water problems, or going on a river expedition to spread awareness on water to documenting life around the entire length of the Ganges, the health of the sacred river has been a subject of concern for many adventurers, explorers and athletes.

Feature Image: A section of the Ganges in Shivpuri. Photo: Supriya Vohra

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