The Pahalgam Raft Tragedy –An Overview

Rubon Saproo
The famous tourist spot of Pahalgam was recently in news and public debate after tragic incidents of boat capsize in river Lidder left three persons dead including a young female rafter from Jammu. The two different incidents of same nature within a short period of time have occurred on such an occasion when the tourism season in Pahalgam had just started. The tragic incidents have upset people of adventure nature and water sports lovers besides adding worries to persons associated with adventure tourism industry. The river rafting has emerged as popular sports activity in Pahalgam for last many years and with the result it attracts both local and foreign tourists’ every year for joyride in ice cold white waters.
For many, rafting is simply a great fun adventure but in reality it is an expedition full of thrills and risks. This is what officials of tourism department Kashmir believed. Besides it, they stated that different circumstances which led to these incidents could have been averted had standards of water sports followed on such fatal days. However, their claim and assertion were rejected by the families of the deceased Rinku Raja Pandita and Sajana. They accused the concerned authorities and management of the event for laxity in their job on the incident day. They also accused event organisers for not giving proper instructions to deceased persons before permitting them to board on raft boats. The tourism department after sensing gravity of the situation ordered an inquiry in the matter so that exact cause and circumstances of the incident could be learnt.
Sadly, there were two different heart-breaking stories related with these raft tragedies that occurred back-to-back in same river. As reported, first a tourist guide Rouf Ahamed Dar lost his life while saving tourists after their boat capsized in river during strong winds on evening of 28 of June. His bravery and daring efforts were praised by everyone in the state including politicians, officers and a state head. His name was also recommended for bravery award by the concerned deputy commissioner of the district. But, the second incident was contrary to the first. This incident threw up several questions after an employee of tourism department and a young female rafter were swept away by water currents after boat overturn. The second incident happened on June 18 when raft championship was organised in the memory of brave heart Rouf Dar. The organisers and the concerned department drew large criticism over this mishap as far as preparedness against disaster and safety measures were concerned.
It is true that proper mechanism for rafting was not in place as the suspension order has clearly mentioned about this point. It has also been learnt that various tour operators engaged with water sports in Kashmir were missing professional guides due to many reasons. Therefore, most tour operators in valley performed their land, water and air based activities with the support of local guides. Although, adventure tourism activities are being carried out mostly by private tour operators in the state but all of them are not following the guidelines on safety and quality norms so far as minimum standards for adventure activities are considered. They are short of modern equipment and other kind of facilities. The travel bodies managing adventure activities have mandatory to be registered with state tourism department.
Despite violation in rules and regulations, the rafting activity was going on in rivers of Kashmir particularly Lidder in Pahalgam and Sindh in Sonamarg for last two decades without any checking. Although, the river Lidder is not known for dangerous and aggressive water currents but its gushing waters can prove fatal once someone got stuck under its rocky bed and slippery boulders. The river Lidder is union of two streams one originates from Kolahai glacier and the second from Sheshnag Lake. These two tributaries meet at Pahalgam giving rise in waters and power of the river. Mostly, rafting point started from Aru branch of river Lidder near Mandelan to Mawoora and beyond it. Therefore, it seems important for everyone to know few things before taking part in rafting. The rafter must listen carefully to guides instructions on river and defence mechanism. He or she must wear life saving jackets and helmet while on raft boat since the activity is full of challenges and risks.
Tourism is a resource based industry and therefore it plays a key role in enhancing economy of people connected with this business but this industry is vulnerable to natural and man made disasters. Therefore, it is vital for both the government as well as people living around tourist spots to ensure safety and physical security of visitors. This can help in the development of the tourist places all over the state once large number of tourists plans to visit the state.