Uproar in India's 'Valley of Gods' over green ruling


KULLU VALLEY, India - Its ski slopes are considered among the best in India while its stunning views are a magnet for hikers, horse riders and paragliders in the summer.

But a new ruling by India's environmental court designed to protect the Kullu Valley from its hordes of visitors now threatens to devastate the tourist industry, according to furious local businesses.

"The vast majority of the people are engaged in tourism activities in and around the Rohtang Pass," says Anup Thakur, president of the Kullu-Manali Hoteliers Association.

"Isn't the livelihood of the people more important than the environment?" Thakur's fears are echoed throughout the Himalayan valley known as the "Valley of the Gods", a favourite haunt of the British during the colonial period and now one of India's most popular tourist hotspots.

The valley is framed by the majestic Rohtang Pass which rises to a height of 13,050 feet (3,978 metres), its roads often gridlocked in the summer months and flanked by a seemingly endless row of stalls selling tea, food and trinkets.

The accompanying mounds of rubbish and other pollution has reached such alarming levels that snow on the slopes has been turning black while glaciers have been melting at a record rate, the court has been told.

In a move aimed at reversing some of the environmental damage, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) last month banned all commercial activity around the pass and the adjoining ski slopes.

The NGT also banned horse riding, snow biking and paragliding on the top of the valley while the food shacks were all ordered to close.

"Except water, everything else is prohibited in and around the pass," the green court said in a ruling which caught locals by surprise.

"There is a right to tourism but it has to be within the framework of the fundamental rights of the public which takes precedence," the court added.

Melting glaciers

Scientists from the Pant Himalayan Environment Institute told the tribunal that vehicle emissions and other pollution were causing huge damage to the environment, including the melting of glaciers.

Campaigners say the situation had been allowed to reach crisis point as authorities in the state of Himachal Pradesh had turned a blind eye for decades.

Although the state government did introduce a daily limit of 1,000 vehicles on the Rohtang Pass earlier this year, the tribunal said the quotas were rarely enforced.

During the tourist season, the sheer weight of numbers means the 50-kilometre journey from the base of the pass to the town of Manali - which should take around two hours - lasts up to seven.

The pass can experience sudden and dramatic changes in the weather that have claimed countless lives over the years. In Tibetan, its name translates as 'heap of dead bodies'.

It remains closed to traffic for half the year due to wintry conditions and can sometimes be buried in up to 30 feet of snow.

But once the snow clears, the situation changes dramatically and there is no shortage of local businesses ready to cash in.

'All doomed'

There are also close to a 1,000 hotels in the twin resort towns of Kullu and Manali, which have been attracting generations of Western backpackers as well as Indian tourists.

The hotelier Thakur acknowledged there should be "a check on tourism activities in the area" but said the court had taken no account of "our bread and butter".

Other businesses, from taxi drivers to tea stall owners, also fear for the future if the bans are not soon lifted.

Suresh Acharya, a local resident, said a whole range of outdoor pursuits would be effectively brought to a halt by the ruling.

"Hundreds of locals are engaged in paragliding, pony riding, snow scooters and mountain bikes, what will they do after this ban," said Acharya.

But Raju Banon, who runs one of Manali's oldest hotels, Banon Resorts, said the environment needed to be protected so that tourism could flourish long-term.

"If this court order is not implemented, Manali will finish, and if that happens we are all doomed," he said.