With the pandemic hopefully on the wane and with the easing of travel restrictions within the country, mountaineers and trekkers were eagerly awaiting the post-monsoon window, before the Himalayan winter sets in, to again head out to the wide-open spaces and snow-covered slopes, a pleasure denied to them for more than a year.

But the well-laid plans of those who were planning to trek or climb, in the Lahaul and Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh, have been effectively stymied by a terse administrative order, issued by Neeraj Kumar, the District Magistrate of these contiguous districts, prohibiting any and all trekking/mountaineering activity with provisions for punitive action under the law if the order is transgressed.

Lahaul & Spiti District

Lahaul & Spiti District (Courtesy: Govt. of Himachal Pradesh website)

In the order District Magistrate states,” I Neeraj Kumar, IAS, District Magistrate, Lahaul & Spiti in the exercise of the powers vested in me under the section 34 of the Disaster Management Act 2005, do hereby order and direct that trekking and mountaineering on all the treks shall be banned in the entire territorial jurisdictions of district Lahaul & Spiti till further orders.”

Neeraj Kumar

Neeraj Kumar, IAS, District Magistrate, Lahaul & Spiti

This prohibitory order not only prima facie affects the trekkers and climbers, it will also definitely have a detrimental effect on the local economy as well. Tour operator agencies, travel companies, hotels, restaurants, guides, and porters who must have been severely affected by the travel restrictions during the pandemic, have now had their hopes dashed once again. Our attempts to get their reaction proved fruitless for obvious reasons, as it would take more courage to speak up than it would take to guide a climb.

Though it is speculative, one wonders if this sudden order was a knee-jerk reaction to the recent accident around the Bara Shigri Glacier, where two trekkers lost their lives and the rest had to be thankfully rescued by the army and the local administration.

Gautam DuttaSenior mountaineer Gautam Dutta, expresses his views saying, “I feel this decision has been taken in haste on an urgent basis. It cannot be implemented indefinitely as, in recent times, the Lahaul Spiti region has become a hot spot for trekking and mountaineering and the local economy there heavily depends on tourism and adventure activities. The local administration may try to improve the infrastructure of the rescue operations, in the meantime, to avert tragic incidents in future.”

Anindya MukherjeeCelebrated mountaineer Anindya Mukherjee talks about the inconvenience caused by this abrupt administrative decision, “This order is unprecedented. So, people, who have already planned their trekking and expeditions in Lahaul Spiti region, and have bookings with agencies, accommodation and transportation are now forced to cancel their plans. I have shifted my plan from Menthosa to Ladakh recently due to this restriction order. It caused a lot of mental strain and I incurred a financial loss also.  Most importantly, it’s a heavy blow to the livelihood of the local people.” He also adds, “It’s Disaster Management Team’s duty to carry out the rescue and evacuation operations. The army is not supposed to be responsible for the rescue operations. Why is Disaster Management Team not executing rescue operations?”

Debabrata MukherjeeMountaineer and explorer Debabrata Mukherjee feels, “Instead of effecting restriction orders, precautionary measures can be taken to avoid accidents. At the check points like Manali, Kaza, Keylong administration can only allow teams, having proper training, fitness and experience. The complete banning of trekking and mountaineering activities will dampen the spirit of adventure.” This sudden restriction order has upset his plans and he has to cancel his expedition to Himachal Pradesh during October and he is now clueless where to go next.

Shyamal SarkarVeteran climber Shyamal Sarkar expressed his grief over this restriction order saying, “This is definitely unfortunate and disheartening for mountain lovers. We have never come across such orders before. The administration has restricted all adventure activities citing climate conditions which may pose threat to trekker’s life. But in adventure sports like mountaineering, we know it very well that we may not return from an expedition and still set out for an adventure. That’s the crux of adventure. In this month of festivals, many people plan their trek and expedition in Himachal Pradesh and now, their plans have come to a grinding halt after this restriction order.”

Karn KowshikRenowned ice-climber Karn Kowshik finds this move quite absurd, “It’s one’s choice to go for adventure activities and accident may happen. But how can accidents be termed as ‘disaster’ and why is Disaster Management Act getting implemented in this case? It will hugely affect the livelihood of the local people.”

This order has been promulgated under the provisions of the “Disaster management Act”, pre-empting any objective disaster that may/may not occur in the future and in the absence of any geographical or meteorological disaster at the time of its issuance. One wonders if the authors of this order only had the avoidable subjective human disaster in mind brought about by unqualified trekkers and climbers venturing into territories beyond their levels of competence, but affecting both the unqualified and the deserving qualified alike.

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