Illustration: Shyam G Menon
A recent Court order that bans camping on Uttarakhand’s alpine and sub-alpine meadows has left trekkers and the outdoor industry confused. Confusion can be clarified. Of worry is trends inspired by commerce, noticeable in some of the responses to the ruling. As life becomes hive, the question is: to bee or not to bee?
Recently a friend needed assistance in articulating what the outdoors means and I found myself writing so:
Wilderness and open spaces are not merely part of human heritage. They are fundamental to the evolution of our aesthetics. One manifestation of such aesthetics inspired by nature is our idea of freedom. For some inexplicable reason, open spaces and wilderness with few humans in it, remind us of freedom; alternatively whenever we think of freedom, we imagine open space. We periodically yearn to be away and alone in the outdoors because we wish to reconnect with dimensions of existence denied us in the human cluster. Thus much before the outdoors is industry or industry to be regulated, it must be acknowledged as a side of us we are bound to go seeking, allowed or not.
To mindsets like the above, regulation is self-regulation and that is inextricably linked to education and awareness. The goal should be to create better informed practitioners of outdoor sports and adventure activity.
I reproduce the above here because of a recent Court order in the Indian state of Uttarakhand and responses to it I noticed on the Internet; in fact, with reference to my opinion on the matter, less because of the Court order and more because of the responses. Towards the end of August 2018, the High Court ruled that camping should not be allowed on alpine meadows, sub-alpine meadows and bugyals. It put a question mark on trekking in Uttarakhand because many treks – particularly long ones – require camping overnight. The order also set a limit on the number of visitors allowed at these locations.
News reports following the Court order said that the Uttarakhand government will challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court.
I leave it to the experts to decide what should be done.
What distressed me was some of the reactions in the wake of the Court order.
One big player in the outdoor industry lost no time in positioning large companies as environmentally responsible and small groups and individual trekkers as potentially irresponsible. To me, such posturing is unacceptable because there are exceptions to every generalization. There are lone trekkers and small groups of hikers who conduct themselves responsibly. Similarly, there have been big tour operators who defiled destinations by running hikes with large number of people or handled their garbage irresponsibly. Second, this argument of big operators as the most responsible ones around and therefore ideal model to support flies in the face of why we choose to be in the mountains in the first place.
My gut reaction when I saw the tour operator’s observation was: don’t compulsorily push me into a group. I come to the mountains for relief from the human hive and you are simply extending the reach of the hive when you insist I be in a group. That is not to say I am averse to groups. I am a meek fellow. Except on a handful of occasions, all my treks and climbs were with at least a friend or two. I have also hiked with groups and been on commercial treks; in the latter case, enjoying the comforts provided for I can’t handle frugality perennially. All through my life I have picked and chosen from a basket of options. What I wish to underline is that there is an element of getting away in most outdoor adventures. Outdoors, wilderness, open spaces and such have historically been a valuable counterpoint – even source of counter narrative – to life by clustering. What is the fun then, in forcing everyone into groups in the outdoors too? Why limit our choices?
The unsaid truth is – hive and group are good for business (not to mention – they are also politically fashionable these days). Companies love seeing us arranged in silos and seeming ready-made market. Before we know, the silo is swung by capital, technology and social media to the convenience of those controlling it. Such hijack of individual is overlooked. The danger implicit in this imagination resembles the tussle between personal freedom and nationalism. If you are going to put resources behind empowering anything, it should be personal freedom because that is innately fragile and typically, stands alone. Even a school student, aware of bullies and bullying, knows which side to support as a matter of principle. Somewhere in life as adults, we seem to forget this. However – and thankfully so – not everyone forgets.
Years ago, when I was introduced to hiking and climbing in Mumbai, my seniors at the climbing club talked of a book that was deemed essential reading. Its name – rather aptly I would think – was Freedom of the Hills. I didn’t read this book (it is there still on my shelf) but I read similar others. More than reading I was lucky to be with friends who liked the outdoors and respected it. Point is – nobody recommended an Outdoor Industry Handbook or How to be Hive and in the Hills At Once as essential reading for novice. My seniors were clear – the hills meant freedom. And because they are precious as abode of that freedom, you tread responsibly, you care for it. We went in small groups / expeditions and years before the Court order of 2018, were already carrying our trash back. It is my request to policy makers that individual hikers and small groups should not be automatically branded as irresponsible. Sometimes we hike alone or in small groups because we can’t afford commercial hikes or we simply wish for our own space. What you should emphasize instead, is good education about the outdoors so that anyone – traveling alone or traveling in group – is motivated as individual, to be responsible visitor in wilderness.
A commercial trek should not be anything more than an option. Much the same way, going alone or in a small group, should always be there as option. You can’t impose one option on everybody. The solution should be – no matter what option we choose (and the option we choose will vary depending on our state and stage in life), the environmental standards (and safety norms) expected of a trek must be met. Educate and train – that should be the way ahead. The hive will always tempt us with business models suiting its logic. But remember this – you will know the value of freedom only when you lose it. Even as I am yet to read it, I just can’t get over the name of that book: Freedom of the Hills. So apt. But for how long? – I wonder.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)