The present state of the holy river Ganges has been a subject of great concern within public discourse over the past few months. Most recently, the Prime Minister (PM) of India stated that we must act in time otherwise it might be difficult to save the river. He talked about the very urgent need for implementing measures to prevent discharge of sewage and industrial effluents into the river.
Uttarakhand, the state where river Ganga originates, is especially important because it has two important locations — Rishikesh and Haridwar — from where the Ganga begins to get polluted. Recently, ‘Save Ganga’ activists led by noted environmentalist Swami GD Agarwal — whose fast in 2009 stopped the damming of River Bhagirathi — agitated against hydro-power projects in the state. Hydro-power projects, it is argued, lead to submergence of villages, drying of water sources and disturbance of ecology by interrupting the flow of the river.
These are obviously crucial issues pertaining to saving the Ganges. But the river faces another issue – more so in Uttarakhand and one that is not heard of very often — pollution and ecological imbalance due to eco-tourism and adventure sports.
In the backdrop of the issue is the natural lure of River Ganga, which offers uncommon environmental diversity, captivating scenery and a remarkable adventure and wilderness experience. This encourages tourism on the bank of the river that involves camping, white-water rafting and kayaking.
The river-rafting belt of Ganga in Uttarakhand, near Rishikesh, is popular among adventure-sport lovers and sees thousands of national and international tourists every year. This nearly 40 km stretch, upstream from Rishikesh, has assumed great significance within the state’s economy. Available stats show rapid growth in this form of tourism as the number of tourist increased from 17,063 in 2004 to 76,368 in 2009-10 and the number of camping and rafting agencies increased from 27 in 2004 to 105 in 2008-09.
But use of the river for recreational purposes is impacting the river environment negatively. An important social survey conducted by scientists of the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development (Garhwal Unit) in 2006-2007 found water pollution, displacement of wildlife, loss of vegetation and cultural degradation as resulting directly from commercial river rafting and camping activities. Subsequent studies found forest pollution, soil compaction and disturbance of water channels at popular rafting sites.
Despite there being rules and regulations in place for maintaining the sanctity of the river and its surroundings, frequent violation of these institutional norms has been happening, threatening the river environment and ecology.
Official guidelines restrict the area allotted to camping companies, but camp operators are given to using more area of the beach than what’s allotted to them and making toilets near the living tents, close to the sand bank. Most toilet tent locations and dry soak pits get submerged when the level of river water rises during the monsoons and this washes away old deposits of fecal matter into the river.
Solid wastes generated from camp sites are not allowed to be dumped near the river, but are to be disposed only through municipal dustbins. Use of fuel wood for lighting campfires and detergents for washing utensils and clothes is strictly prohibited.
In sharp contravention, tourists conveniently use detergents in the river water and throw ashes and unconsumed wood from campfires into the river. Although the Forest Officer can inspect a camp site any time without prior information, this doesn’t deter tourists from lighting camp fires and playing music beyond permissible time limits. Some have even been spotted with fishing rods at various river locations during the peak camping season, listless about the absolute forbiddance of fishing.
Although local people usually favor the rafting business as they get chances to earn some livelihood, they are taken aback by the drunken revelry of tourists and general disregard towards the holy river – as they throw polythene, wrappers and various kinds of bottles into it.
River-rafting and camping activities like playing loud music and lighting fires have also disturbed the fauna of the area. Wild animal sightings have reduced drastically with the exception of wild boars and monkeys who come for eating leftovers at campsites. According to locals, prior to the camping and rafting activities, animals were frequently spotted on the river side while drinking water or resting on the sand beach; now they are not visible in the area for months, especially during the camping and rafting season.
After the widening of the highway between Badrinath—Rishikesh, vehicular traffic increased greatly, and construction of houses, shops and hotels added to the ecological disturbance. Studies note particularly that forests of the narrow Ganga valley between Devprayag and Rishikesh have been severely affected by the booming commercial camping and whitewater rafting industry.
The issue is yet to receive the attention it deserves from the state government and local authorities. For now, only environmentalists lament the deterioration of the river Ganga in the Kaudiyala-Rishikesh eco-tourism zone.