India’s second highest peak — Nanda Devi — has stood in its Himalayan isolation for 24 years, looming sombre over Uttaranchal’s impoverished villages — where tourism and mountaineering once brought prosperity. Seventeen women climbers from four countries want to turn around the region’s fortune.
The motley crew — from India, United States, Canada and Taiwan — will be at the Nanda Devi National Park in three weeks. Handpicked after a global selection process, they will trek to the Oxygen-sapped heights of up to 16,000 feet as part of a campaign to “resurrect” local tourism — crippled by a ban. The mountain shut its door on climbers in 1982 and the 5,860-square kilometre Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve was created in 1988 to protect the region’s fragile eco-system.
In 2003, areas outlying the national park were thrown open to trekkers — but annual footfalls were restricted to 500.
Mountaineering is still banned on the 7,816-metre (25,643-feet) peak — once a major draw for international climbers. “The aim of this all-women trek — the first of its kind — in October is to lure single women to Himalayan adventure sports. They will be guided by groups of local youth, adept at climbing, and with impeccable manners,” said Dehradun-based Sunil Kainthola, a spokesman for the organisers, the Nanda Devi Campaign. But the project has a greater goal. The campaign is part of a “larger peaceful battle” to bring back mountaineers and trekkers to the region to generate jobs and bring prosperity.
The villagers are seeking community-based, environment-friendly commercial tourism rather than have local residents work for unscrupulous tour operators, who litter the icy slopes. Accumulation of garbage and consequent eco-degradation had forced the ban in 1982.
Officials support the ban. Samir Sinha, the Nanda Devi Park director, says it should continue. “There has been pressure from various quarters to reconsider and lift the ban, but studies have shown remarkable recovery of the region’s ecology since 1982,’’ Sinha told the Hindustan Times. He, however, rejected the view that the 1982 ban had hit tourism revenue. “The women were chosen after interviews by volunteers in Europe, North America, Southeast Asia and other regions. They are paying for their travel and the group will begin its climb in the first week of October,” Kainthola said.
“I have travelled extensively and I want to connect with the people around the world,’’ American teacher Claudia Baskind, one of the participants from Portland, Oregon, said in an e-mail. “To me, eco-tourism is a way for a traveller to … support (rather than intrude upon) the lives and livelihood of a place and its people. It is a way to complete the circle: to give back to the host.” The question is resonating in India too — from the tribal villages in the tiger reserves to remote tourism hubs on mountains and coastlines, the local populace wants to strike a balance between tourism and preservation of their habitat. And they also want substantial control over commercial tourism. Sinha said efforts are being made to involve local people in the Nanda Devi region. “It should not be tourism versus local people. The community is central to any eco-tourism approach,” he said. But efforts by the government have been branded “inadequate”. “We want the local community to be involved as stake-holders — as owners,” Kainthola said.