New Delhi: The Bagini Pass trek in Uttarakhand is on the outer wall of the Nanda Devi sanctuary, which gives a 360-degree view of snow-capped mountains all around. Part of this panorama, on the northwest corner of the sanctuary wall, is Dunagiri.
Dunagiri is one of the highest peaks in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, at a height of 7066 metres. Less commercialised and a tad obscure, this mountain has much of its beauty intact. It was first scaled on 5 July 1939 by Swiss climbers André Roch, F. Steuri and D. Zogg, via the southwest ridge. In 1978, the first Australian Himalayan expedition by the Australian National University Mountaineering Club made the fourth ascent using the same route.
According to a notice issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 13 August, Dunagiri, along with 136 other mountains in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Jammu & Kashmir, will now be open to foreign tourists. Before this notice, non-Indians needed permission from the Defence Ministry as well as the Home Ministry to climb these peaks. After this move, expedition leaders can directly apply to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation for permits.
Opening up the Himalayas
Among the 137 peaks opened up for foreigners is Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world at 8,598 m. Fifty-one of the peaks are in Uttarakhand, 24 in Sikkim, 47 in Himachal Pradesh and 15 in Jammu & Kashmir.
Captain Swadesh Kumar, president of the Adventure Tours Operators Association of India, has been closely associated with the process of making these peaks more accessible.
He told ThePrint how, eight or nine years ago, the Ministry of Home Affairs had made 114 peaks more accessible by granting the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) — the apex Indian body for mountaineering — permission to give permits to tourists.
“The permission to open up these 137 peaks was sought four or five years back. First, the Ministry of Defence gave permission and now the MHA has made these peaks more accessible and less bureaucratic,” he added, “In fact, the MHA has opened up more peaks than we had sought permission for.”
He said the ultimate goal was to make all the peaks in the country accessible to everybody, and project the Indian Himalayas as a serious adventure sport destination. He added, “It is important to note that mountain climbing is the mother of all adventure sports. Once a place becomes a climbing destination, the area will automatically gain prominence. It is also important to understand that when you open up a mountain, you provide employment and jobs for many people.”
Seconding this is Maninder Kohli, the director of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation Film Festival and the IMF risk management team.
An avid trekker, skier and mountain biker himself, Kohli said this move will help the Indian Himalayas emerge as a good climbing destination.
“Indians have traditionally always been allowed on all peaks, the problem arose when it came to foreign expeditions. While there were some peaks that the IMF could approve, whose permits were granted fairly quickly, other peaks under the home and defence ministries had a very long process to get permission,” he added.
“It is because of this that people were getting uncomfortable with this bureaucratic situation and going to Nepal instead for trekking,” he said, “However, with this move, that will now change.”
When asked how long the IMF will now take to issue permissions to scale these peaks, Kohli said less than a week.
Following suit from Nepal and Pakistan
Romesh Bhattacharjee, former narcotics commissioner of India and member of the Himalayan Club, an association of Himalayan enthusiasts, has taken many people on expeditions, especially in the Ladakh area.
He said, “Many people found the wait for clearance and permission irritating and would get disgusted by it. What would also happen many times is that, just as they were about to leave, they would be told ‘Sorry you cannot come’.”
“The Home Ministry has followed the examples of Nepal and Pakistan,” he added, “People will now come in droves.”
The Nepalese government has conferred the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), formed in 1981, with the power to give permits for all of the peaks in the country to mountaineers. From granting permission to scale the peaks, to time given for tourist visas, their extension, to withdrawal of permits and safety guidelines, the NMA controls all activities on the mountains, thus reducing the red tape.
Following the same mechanism is Pakistan. The main mountaineering body of the country is the Alpine Club of Pakistan, which has launched expeditions since 1974. The Alpine Club is famous for granting permission to foreigners extremely efficiently, approximately within a period of 15 days.
Addressing the new rules, the Indian Minister of Tourism Prahlad Singh Patel told ANI, “Our long-time demand has been fulfilled finally. I would like to thank our Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah for this. It is not only a great deal for the country but also for foreigners. People across the world must be celebrating the decision.”
Ensuring safety while reducing the red tape
The move to open up the peaks has also been followed by reports of the Modi government looking to extend the e-visa from one year to five years. There are also talks of reducing the price of the e-visa for foreigners.
ThePrint tried speaking to the MoS of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai, to understand why such a step was taken now and what prompted this decision. However, the MHA representatives said they were currently giving no interviews on this topic.
Irrespective of what prompted this move, it seems that people all over are welcoming it.
Kohli said, “Expeditions by Indians were going up, while those by foreigners were going down substantially because of the bureaucratic procedure. And now that will change. Especially among serious alpinists who climb on their own steam and are serious mountaineers, not like the aided commercial climbing expeditions.”
Ashok Prasad, former special secretary in the Home Ministry, explained that the ministry used to define the interline permit conditions for some of the peaks, while the defence ministry would enforce it. With the opening up of these 137 peaks, it seems that this process will change.
While the MHA has opened up these peaks to foreigners, it has stressed that the expeditions have to strictly follow approved routes.
Going off the set routes has been a common practice across expeditions, with the most recent one involving eight foreigners who died on Nanda Devi this June.
The wait will be to see whether this move by the MHA will truly lead to an influx of tourists and India becoming a mountaineering/trekking destination. Or if India just doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle a large number of mountaineers.
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