a big team about to climb the Rupin Pass. Do not forget to find some dots in the center. Those are our team as well !
Please Note: In this blog I have shared my operational experience and that includes personal as well as professional experiences. My opinions are formed based upon facts, professional experiences of operating treks for other big companies, close view of the business of Guided Trekking in India and Nepal, Unbiased analysis of what is ethical and what is not, etc. Some of your opinions may vary form mine.
To start with the article, let me put a thought forward -
IN THE RACE BETWEEN ETHICS, MORALITY AND MONEY - MONEY ALWAYS WINS. How many do actually care for ethics and morality ?
As per the current scenario of the Trekking World in the Indian Himalayas, with a burst of some 'just for profit' trek operators in our country, often lot of ethical problems and moral breaches happens in the divine land of the Himalayas, apart from the immense pressure on the ecology. The problem starts from the fact that the local resources are limited, and 'Local Quality Resources' are even more limited. The increasing demand often puts a lot of pressure on the local resources and most of the time DOES NOT assure complete safety and depends on the LUCK factor to take care of things in the wild, rather than preparation and planning. While things can still be taken care of, bigger groups are the ones which causes a problem, not just for themselves, but for others too, who want to venture in the same region.
The infrastructure of the Indian Himalayas is NOT Suitable for huge traffic of trekkers like that of Nepal. We lack quality resources, trekkers huts, proper regulation, pollution control, waste disposal facilities, insurance facilities, emergency rescue system, etc. The infrastructure of Indian Himalayas is just not upto the mark to sustain this huge burst in the trekkers flow. The end result of the ongoing scenario in the trekking world of the Indian Himalayas is that - every other person in the local villages has become a guide, or rather a trek operator in himself. Himalayas are no more peaceful and the difficulties and raw adventure offered by the Himalayas are not faced properly, creating a wrong breed of trekkers in our country.
Unethical Practices Of Big Groups Trekking In The Himalayas
A bigger group is forced to make unethical choices. Some do to save cost. Some are forced by the situation. Its not very difficult to find a group of overloaded mules and porters on your trek, specially with larger groups. Whereas, it has to be opposite, isn't it so ? Large groups are supposed to earn more revenue and hence should not overload their porters and horses. Well, that's not the case. The fact is, the local resources are limited in a region, and with increase in number of trek operators and groups, the limited local resources fail to meet the demand. This leads to overloaded mules and porters on a trek. While overloading might seem very simple to few, and few even go further to say that they get more money for ferrying more load !
While it is okay to some extent if they get compensated in extra for ferrying more weight, but that seldom happens in India. Yes, it happens in Nepal, because there the Sherpas are much more aware of their importance. On the other hand, how many will want to agree to the point that overloading is okay if being compensated for with money. The problem happens later while already into the trek, when if one of the porter fails to carry the agreed weight, changes his mind, or falls sick !! The entire team lands into the problem then and the problem further cascades down to all the other remaining porters in the team, who now has to carry even more weight or do double rounds. In such altitude, where a normal trekker finds it hard to even walk with his own load, imagine a porter or a overloaded mule. The problem is further magnified when a group of 25 - 30 trekkers decides to offload their personal bags too !!
Personal Experience From The Field
In one of the trek batch for the Rupin PassTrek, I was leading a group for one of the pioneer trekking company in India. We were trekking with 26 trekkers which required 21 staffs including 18 porters. Its very difficult to find 18 porters for a single group, but I could still manage get them. 3 days into the trek, and I was still searching for porters to add on. Finally, before leaving Jakha, I could manage all the required porters with personal contacts and bond. I felt lucky that the porters didn't deny me, otherwise that batch would have failed miserably, and all the blame would have landed on me for being inefficient :-)
Though everything seemed to be all fine, it offcourse was a huge task on me to manage 26 trekkers ( and in such a large varied group, you do not expect all of them to be fit, experienced or possess the correct mentality for trekking in the remote Himalayas ) and on top of them, there were 21 other porters and staffs for me to keep disciplined as per the service expectations. The local guide failed miserably at it since he was not from Jakha and was younger. While crossing the pass, few of them gave up and left early with as minimum weight as possible.. so few ended up doing 2 rounds up to the pass carrying more than normal and double carry the weight on the descend from the Rupin Pass. When few of them was denying to do the load ferry, I and my guide got furious and and started to go down ourselves to carry some of the extra weight. That's when they took the responsibility and stopped us from descending the pass to complete the load ferry. Completely unethical isn't it. Though I knew it was too much on them, I was helpless.. By the end of the trek, I went out of the way to compensate them a bit with financial benefits and asked my team to tip them generously, without letting my boss know about it. However, I don't think money can be a compensation for the long term health effect of these kind of work. While few of the porters acted smart to run off quickly with less load, few of them were good human beings and professionals to not leave the task uncompleted and leave us in a problem in the wild remote terrain.
An opinion formed with practical experiences from the field
Bigger group size forces you to make unethical choices.. I often turned myself into a porter on several occasions. A sight of overloaded horse / mules is disheartening to see. In Kashmir, I lead batches of sizes 32, 30, 28 etc for a company. That's a huge size !! I was managing the entire base and operations when about 5 - 6 horses died on a trek due to cold. I literally had to beg with my employer to compensate the horsemen for the loss of their horses, but sadly with a failure, because they feared that it will turn into a habit for the horsemen, and they can't keep giving them money for dying horses on treks. All of us trek leaders decided to contribute money to the horsemen and raised a fund. Even the staffs from Uttrakhand who were with us contributed generously for the cause. However, to bring a sad end to our efforts, when I EXCITEDLY informed our boss and employer regarding our decision to contribute fund ourselves, I was replied that the idea was not liked at all and was further instructed not to do that. I was extremely surprised. It was such a disheartening reason to listen to when compared with the death of many horses together which serve as a source of income for the local horsemen, and also a killer for the spirit with which our fellow staffs from Uttrakhand had contributed the money to the horsemen which they earned as tips form the trekkers. I am too sad now for heeding to my office instructions and not follow my heart. Somehow I managed extra bonus for every one as these staffs had saved and rescued almost 75 trekkers of the same company who were stranded in the mountains in the floods of August 2014. That's when the horses had died, but they did not let any of the trekkers to be harmed.
Well, too emotional and human we trek leaders were may be.. not a shrewd entrepreneur who claims to love the Himalayas but does not show the love in his actions.
Too Much Pressure On The Ecology, Mostly Unwanted; Earn From The Nature, But Without A Care For It
Personal Experience From The Field
In Kedarkantha, I lead a batch of 100 students from IIM in a span of 2 days for some company. 50 in a batch !! We required huge campfires everyday evening which was not a necessity but a luxury. September isn't that cold. When I questioned, a justification was given to me by another of my boss (who was with me on the trek ) that only those firewood could be burnt which lie dead on the ground. Is that at all the justification?? Imagine the push on the local and natural resources.
Huge campfire to satisfy a pack of 50 + trekkers
I had long before sensed the destructing nature of fire making on treks for fun. I mostly had restricted that to just a single camp - usually the last camp, but was always thinking about it. Then in December, I introduced the idea of Coal and Bukhari to reduce the impact in the Kedarkantha snow trek. It did well serve the idea but only on base camp where the trees were far in the snow filled campsite. Otherwise, for other campsites like Juda Ka Taalab and Hargaon, the idea failed to convince everyone as the woods were readily available. Big fire means more satisfied trekkers and better FEEDBACK. I lost to that cause. My idea was not carried forward as it costed a bit extra to buy the coals and ferry it to the camps, but was nowhere a big hole in a sea of profit.
Well, corruption and malpractices exists too !!
When I first confronted with corruption, I was shocked. I was still unknown of this fact and was excited after getting a job done and attend a meeting where our work would be discussed. In the company I was working for, our performances were measured on cost efficiency and for the same IIM batches which was a package conducted by the trek operator in three different trails - Bedni Bugyal, Dayara Bugyal and Kedarkantha. I was the operational head for Kedarkatha. We discussed our operation efficiency after the batches in a meeting where all the Trek Leaders and other staffs participated, and when my efficiency was compared, I lacked behind, as I had actually paid about Rs. 31000/- towards the Forest department as permit for camping, entry fees, vehicle charges, etc. ( A simple calculation: 100 trekkers X 200 Rs. = 20000/- + 42 tents X 50 Rs. X 3 Days = 6300 + 4 big tents X 3 X 100 = 1200 + Vehicle Entry Charge = 500 X 7 = 3500 Total: 31000/- ) while my other counterpart paid just about Rs. 4000/- for the same batch strength in Dayara Bugyal, and for the same forest rules of Uttrakhand. Thanks to my colleague's efficient skills of 'under-the-table settlement with forest official' !! The respected owners of and our bosses were laughing on it before I frowned and suggested that being the pioneer of trekking in India and also being respected by everyone around, we should not be involved in such malpractices.
I mean, I was not a FOOL to show my commitment and work ethics to make a government official work as per law, and be judged inefficient for someone else's corrupt practices !! Later on, I found out with the locals that lots of Government money was being cheated off for the forest permission required for Rupin Pass, Har Ki Dun and Kedarkantha trek. I doubt if it was unknown to the owners of the company, because its a huge amount of money. Some of these were a result of a culprit local operator or coordinator who works for these big companies as a local aid and resource provider.
Well, that's how unethical and unlawful some of the big groups are. Sometimes the choices are a decision, sometimes a forced choice by the situation. These just used to be the case with local porters, mules, forest permissions, etc. A group of 25 - 30 different trekkers with varied level of skills, knowledge, background, experience gets very difficult with just a single leader in the group.
Unrealistic Management And Team Sizes
For the Sandakphu Phalut trek, Phalut has only a single trekker's hut with sleeping capacity of just 18 beds. There is a forest rest house which is meant for government officials but is also used by the trekkers because of less sleeping space. It can accommodate another 6 trekkers. Being a popular trek, the same accommodation is under lot of pressure with trekkers mostly from Kolkata and other small local operators from Darjeeling bringing their own group. The destination can also be covered by land rovers and some extra people gets added due to it. However, the land rovers are non-functional in the months of December - January depending on snow condition.
Often it happens that a bigger then the capacity team size is booked for the Sandakphu Phalut trek which as usual goes beyond 23 - 25 and is way above the limit. Its very practical that Phalut cannot sustain this huge number and operators are supposed to know this well in hand. So when it comes to ground I wonder what happens. Phalut, which is the best part of the entire Sandakphu Phalut Trek gets missed. They could very well arrange for camping and resolve this problem, which would ease out the resources and would help other individual trekkers or small operators too to find some space for their trekkers. Since camping gets expensive, they seldom do it. Sometimes they do not take the group to Phalut sighting some false reasons and divert the trekker team to Molley, Gurdum, etc.
Insensible and Inhuman Brand Building
The competition induced by these bigger group trek operators are sometimes very unethical and goes beyond moral justification. In one on the incidences when I was operating the Kashmir base for the company I was working for, we were instructed NOT TO HELP OTHER TEAMS IN DISTRESS by our mentor or HR. When one of my colleague helped another team with gas cylinders, he was frowned upon and further advised not to indulge in helping other teams in distress and let them face the consequences as being 'a lesser value brand'. Lots of such instructions had to be tolerated. Come on, brand building in the remote terrain of the Himalayas by not helping other teams in distress. When we replied by saying that sometimes even we require help, we were replied with - YOU SHOULD NOT FACE SUCH PROBLEMS AND SHOULD PLAN BETTER !! Luckily, the trek leaders I was working with were sensible enough to not heed to those advice and practiced mutual brotherhood in the mountains.
Care a hell about the Inconvenience caused to Others.
It is offcourse not the a matter of concern to these big profit-hungry trek operators to care for other trekking groups or individual trekkers. For some smaller team who goes up there for peace, it will turn out to be a horrifying experience. Sometimes, it even gets difficult to find a camping space. They also have to bear with bluetooth speakers playing bollywood songs, loud noises, sharp whistles, etc. Trekkers huts made by the government for the trekkers are all booked and sometimes used as a kitchen, etc. So the individual now has to carry his own tents and other camping equipment which increases his cost of trek.
Well, there are much more I could write, may be next time