Sight seeing, pony-rides or do-nothing vacationing aside, what really can Pahalgam offer to visiting tourists? Come to think of it, Pahalgam has its own gold mine in the form of meandering river lidder, and miles and miles of it both from Aru and Chandanwari which offer a great, world class opportunity for river rafting. Thus far, it seems like the officials have failed to realize what they are sitting on. It has been left onto small time entrepreneurs to harness this opportunity. And like the story of rest of India, they are able to pull through, inspite of all the odds. But only till a point. Objections are now being raised from many quarters.
I am optimistic that its only a matter of time when the Pahalgam Development Authority, or Tourism Department or the Fisheries Department will put their act together and lay out a holistic plan which will benefit both the locals and the tousists, and put Pahalgam on the world map of premier river rafting destinations.
At its core, whitewater rafting is simply the act of taking a raft down through turbulent areas of a river. These turbulent areas are known as rapids. Rapids are classified by six categories. Category 1 is a smooth river with no rapids. The categories climb from their too Category 6, which is either impassible or should only be attempted by experts. Most river rafting trips occur on Category 3 and 4 rapids, where the turbulence gives you an exciting ride, but with limited risk. Pahalgam from Chandanwari to Nunwan offers all 6 categories of rapids.
There seem to be three major government agencies involved in the issue. Looks like while Tourism Department would like to encourage the activity, the PDA and Fisheries department hold an opposing view. Or atleast have expressed their cocerns, to make their side of the point. The concerns and issues are genuine, though not insurmountable. Yes, you don’t want to spread garbage, you dont want to effect fauna and fishes, you want to cover the risk via some insurance cover, or at least no-liability paperwork. But at the end of it, this all is doable with proper guidelines and implementation.
Rafting provides a big economic opportunity for locals. One way to handle this is to make co-operatives of local low income people, including ponywallahs, and have them operate the rafting agencies in collaboration with experienced tour operators. This will ensure that tourist’s share of disposable budget doesn’t only go to tour operators from outside. There should only be a handful of agencies allowed, and the bigger thing is that the annual contracts should be openly auctioned off. The generated revenue should be shared amongst PDA, Tourism Department and Fisheries or Forest department to provide for facilities. Forest department can get parking fees for vehicles, Fisheries department can get to sell fishing licences. PDA can get its share to keep the area clean and tourim department can promote the facilities internationally. So on and so on…
From a news coverage in GreaterKashmir dated 5/24/2008, this is how the players/interested parties stack up:
Pahalgam Development Authority
Chief Executive Officer, Pahalgam Development Authority, (PDA), Abdul Rasheed Parray said: “While the pollution caused by the rafting affects the flora and fauna of the region, the garbage damages the shores of the Lidder river as it is not being disposed off properly.”
Fisheries Department that has raised objections to the rafting in famous Lidder Nallah here citing “disturbance of fish habitat.”
Joint Director Fisheries, Kashmir, Showkat Ali said, “The rafting boats definitely affect the flora and fauna and disturb the habitat of the fish. The government should wake up to the call and instead select some other rivers for rafting.” According to Ali the rafting agencies are violating the Fisheries Act and are operating the rafting without getting no-objection from the department.
Ponnywallahs and locals
The ponnywallas and the residents here have also objected the rafting. “Pahalgam has its own charm and people don’t visit here for rafting, so tourism department should never have given the permission to the local agencies for rafting,” said Mohu-din a local.
Director Tourism Farooq Shah, however disagrees that the rafting will create pollution. “If our youth want to earn their livelihood then why this fuss,” Shah said. He said the department’s job was only to register the agencies and the permission is given after due consultation with the PDA.
However, the owners of the rafting firms said the rafting boats don’t create any pollution. “We fail to understand how the rafting boats can affect the fauna and flora of the place and destroy the fish habitat,” they said. They said it speaks volumes about the wisdom of the authorities when they say that the garbage gets dumped into the water. “There is no connection between garbage and the rafting,” they said.
Earlier (2005-2007) the rafting was conducted in Pahalgam itself. But following objections by the CEO, PDA, the spot was changed to Batakote, 2 kilometers away from here. Even as according to the application received by the PDA CEO only six agencies have been given permission by the tourism department for operation of commercial rafting, there are 13 companies presently operating their boats. Besides, the agencies are operating more boats than permitted.
Per PDA, though the agencies are strictly responsible for the disposal of the solid waste material and the cleanliness of the area, the tourism department is not taking any action against the violators.
On complaints about improper disposal of waste material, Tourism Department’s Farooq said, “The PDA has been assigned the job of looking after the proper disposal of waste material and it should create facilities to ensure pollution free environment.”
Most of the agencies according to the sources in the PDA do not have a necessary insurance cover for the raft guides and clients against risk/accident.
Shah however asked the PDA not to allow any agency to operate boats that doesn’t have proper insurance documents and violate any of the guidelines laid down by the tourism department.
The agencies are also charging more than the tariff fixed by the tourism department.