River Tourism:A Socio-Environmental Hazard!

The mighty Ganga is much revered by the Hindus. It is believed that a dip in the holy river and all the sins are cleansed. Pilgrims throng the river banks at Rishikesh in hordes. The population pressure can be seen every where and banks of the River Ganga are no exception. 

During the last 40 years a new dimension has developed on the banks of the Ganga in the area between Biyasi in the mountains and Rishikesh in the plains. It is the 'River Tourism' that is bugging the environmentalists and the sociologists alike. The stretch of Ganga is made available to the tourists for various purposes ranging from camping to river rafting. Tents are pitched bang on the banks of the river and the impact of all this activity on the River and the surroundings makes an interesting reading.

N.A Farroquee, T. K. Budal and R. K. Maikhuri of G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, Garhwal Unit, Srinagar (Garhwal) carried out an environmental and socio-cultural study of the impact of tourism along the banks of the Ganga in this area. Their report in the March 2008 issue of Current Science is quite illuminating.

Charmed by the mountain slopes, lush green forests and the rivers, tourists are lured to the Himalayas. These mountains have been a centre of attraction for the foreign and the Indian tourists alike. Even in the days of the past lots of travelers, adventurers and the like covered the length and breadth of the mighty Himalayas. But in the recent years tourism has caught up as an industry in a big way in the Himalayas. 

Tourism has been one of the global economic success stories in the last 40 years say Farroquee et al. It accounts for about 5.5% of the worlds Gross National Product (GNP) and 6% of the employment.

Well if it is such a paying business then where is the problem?

Truly speaking a fall out of this kind of activity that involves people flock to one place in hordes and its impact on the local society and environment has not been studied systematically. The study carried out by Farroquee and co-workers is one of the pioneering efforts in this direction. They have been able to bring out a picture of possible fallout of such tourism on the society and environment.

Tourism on one hand promises assures employment for the hill youth, it leads to sociological imbalance often because of the tourist host relationship and development of the industry itself. For example a farming community of the foothills finds sudden income by working as porters with the tourist camps quite lucrative. The adverse impacts are loss of interest in their traditional vocation, farming and lure of the glitter. Social and cultural changes to host societies include changes in value systems, traditional lifestyles, family relationships, individual behavior or community structure say Farroquee et al.

Local society and the government do consider the positive side of the impact of tourism on the society that is pecuniary aspect. However, the negative aspects have been ignored. For example, Ganga being a pious river should it be used for commercial activities like river rafting etc in this area or not has not been studied. 

Dotted along the 36 km length of the River Ganga between Kaudiyala and Rishikesh along the road to Badrinath road, are a number of tourist camps. Farroquee and his co-workers selected this area for their study.

There are around 45 villages within 500 m of the camps between these two locations along the Ganga. There were two private camping sites at Brahmpuri and Shivpuri near Rishikesh in 1994. And these researchers found that prior to 1996 there were just two river camping sites one near Shivpuri and the other at Byasi some 35 km upstream from Rishikesh, owned by the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam, Government of Uttar Pradesh.

The growth of the camping sites has been phenomenal in the post 1997 period. Today the area boasts of 45 camps between Byasi and Shivpuri. The maximum number of camps are concentrated at Singtali and then at Shivpuri. These camps along the Ganga cover an area of 183,510 sq m area. These camps have accommodation ranging from 15 to 35 persons per camp. The average number of toilets per camp ranges from 4 to 10. Each camp has a separate kitchen and a dinning hall.

The lure of earning money through river tourism was so much that many locals pitched tourist camps on their land on the river bank. Others sold their lands to tour operators. That is how suddenly there has been a spurt in the number of camps. The figures quoted by Farroquee are for 2006. A ten percent rise in the number of camps can not be ruled out. Locally people of the villages within 500 m of the camps have mixed feelings bout encouraging river tourism on the Ganga. While a majority feels that it is good for economic growth, a section of the population says that their social and cultural fabric was being threatened.

A liberal attitude of the government to boost river tourism is not entirely wrong, but on the other hand a close watch has to be put on the activities. We already know the consequences of large scale tourism on the beaches of Goa. The freedom has been misused there.

The tourist camps on the banks of Ganga are being extensively used for river rafting. During the year 2004-05 the paper by Farroquee et al informs that about 12,726 visitors used the commercial facility available. The camp sites are allotted measured spaces. Apart from this the government does not permit rafting after 6PM, use of firewood in camps is prohibited, camp fires are allowed only on gazetted holidays and Sundays and that too on metallic plates and not directly on the surface of the beach, only solar electricity is permitted that too till 9PM only and loud music and bursting of crackers is totally prohibited in camp areas. Wood for camp fire can only be procured from the forest department and not from local sources, the ash generated after a camp fire has to be disposed off at designated places and not directly in to the river. Toilets are permitted at a minimum distance of 60 m from the river and dry types of soak pits are mandatory.

The forest officer can inspect any camp at any time and the camp owner can be fined or prosecuted according to the offence he has committed.

On the economic front the river tourism may be beneficial as it provides succor to many. But on the environment front, despite the governments above regulations there is a grave threat. The camps are pitches in areas much larger than allotted. All other regulations are flouted. The worst being, the construction of toilet tents right on the sand on the river bank. During rains these toilet pits get flooded and the fecal matter in them percolates down to the depths polluting the groundwater of the area. Camp fires are held as and when demanded and the matter is directly dumped in to the river. 

The financial gains by the tour operators and employment generated for the locals is miniscule compared with the loss of environmental resources. As it is studies have shown that between 1970 and 2000 biodiversity has declined by 40%, whereas the footprint of man on the earth has grown by 20%. Thus the impact of development has been such that the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. The pressure on environmental resources has increased tremendously in the area studied by Farroquee and co-workers. It is imperative. When tourists flock in demand for all local resources is bound to increase. Energy requirements of the locals have also increased many folds owning to growing population. On the other hand they find it difficult to manage as selling wood to camps seems to be a more paying proposition to the salesmen. Similarly other local produce too finds a way to the camps in search of more money. The local women and girls have to constantly search new areas for bathing etc as their traditional areas have been captured by the campers. Some of the camping sites have even usurped the cremation grounds and the locals have to search for new sites to cremate their dead. Wood for cremation too is becoming scarce as it has more demand in the camps.

It is time that before encouraging further camps the government should take up environment impact assessment of the area. An in depth study of the socio-environmental impact on the area due to river tourism is also recommended by the authors. It is time that the quantum of garbage generated by the camps is a major concern and needs an institutional study on the pattern of Sagar Matha base camp, the starting point for the Mount Everest climbers.

By encouraging adventure tourism, river tourism etc in the mountain areas we are certainly emulating the western countries. There is no harm in doing so. But on the other hand we have to impose some discipline amongst the camp organizer, local population and also the campers to maintain the religious, environmental and social sanctity of the area.


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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