Sacred Mountains and Economics

August 26, 2019

The recent announcement of the Ministry of Home Affairs regarding opening of Mount Khangchendzonga and other peaks of Sikkim has been received with resentment from the general public of Sikkim for whom these peaks are sacred. 
This announcement by the Ministry is in line with the recent policy of the Central Government to attract more tourists especially in the adventure tourism sector. It is unfortunate that the State Government and other stakeholders were not consulted before making this decision. 
Tourism sector is targeted by the Central Government for generating foreign revenue and employment in the country. In his Independence Day speech, the Prime Minister specifically asked the public to visit at least 15 places in the country to boost domestic tourism. 
Mountains have played a very important role in tourism sector and mountaineering is an imperative part. However, how mountaineering is exploited differs from country to country. Mountaineering and climbing in Europe is well managed and controlled. The Pan-European Biological and Landscape Diversity Strategy (PEBLDS) - approved in 1995 by the Conference of European Environment Ministers - for the first time explicitly envisaged the closure of mountain areas of particular topological and biological value not only in low-lying mountain areas, but in all European mountain regions. 
The sustainable management of climbing areas in Europe is well regulated by laws. The need for a Europe-wide management of climbing areas takes into consideration the interests of climbers and the requirements of conservation - in other words the sustainable practice of sport climbing. 
In India, however, management of mountaineering and climbing is not so developed as in Europe or America. In regard to mountaineering, Sikkim can choose the model of our neighboring countries Bhutan or Nepal which practice completely opposite approaches to mountaineering economics. Bhutan briefly opened up for mountaineering in the early 1980s, climbing peaks above 6,000m was prohibited by the mid-1990s and mountaineering was banned altogether in 2003. This was done primarily to respect the beliefs of the local communities which attached strong spiritual value to the mountains, and wanted to protect the peaks for their own culture for future generations. 
On the other hand, Nepal has gone full steam to earn revenue from its mountains especially Mount Everest. 
Regarding expeditions to Khangchendzonga, it has been summited several times by different groups in both pre and post merger period but the majority scaled it from the Nepal side. The question now is whether the economics of allowing expeditions will have any economic benefits for Sikkim. If the economic benefit of Nepal government from Everest expedition is to be taken as an example of earning from mountaineering, it earns $ 11000 as climbing fee per person but the other economic benefits go to the companies for arranging the expedition. In India the fee for climbing peaks over 7000meter is $1000 for two members. Nepal has a very mature mountaineering business which is very well equipped to cater to the needs of mountaineers and due to the competition among the different mountaineering companies the cost of expeditions are very competitive. Due to the aggressive marketing of mountain expeditions the equipments and manpower required is easily available including private helicopters and planes for emergencies. 
The biggest assets of Nepal for mountaineering are the Sherpa people living near the base of the mountains who have adapted themselves to climb the mountains. In comparison with Nepal; mountaineering in India is a fledgling affair as it faces a wide range of impediments. The biggest one, is the way climbing is regulated in the country. To attempt a peak in India, you require permits from the IMF. If the peak you want to climb falls within the "inner line", or the border areas, then the permit application has to go through a long-drawn bureaucratic process involving the IMF, the Armed Forces, Home and Defence ministries, as well as  the state governments under which the peak falls. Since most of the Himalayan range is in the border areas, this policy puts hundreds of mountains peaks off-limits to civilian climbers. The government restriction on GPS systems or satellite phones make things very difficult during emergencies. Lack of manufacturing companies for mountaineering equipments and absence of insurance for rescue are other hindrances for mountaineering development in India.
The economic benefit for Sikkim from allowing expeditions to Kangchendzonga needs to be examined in light of the economic benefits that Nepal earns through Everest expeditions. It is seen that mountaineering fee is only a small part of the bigger economic benefit earned from mountaineering, the bulk of the benefit comes from the cost of preparing for the expedition. 
Direct benefit of expeditions to the local people near the base camp is from porter wages in Nepal. This is not applicable to the local Sikkimese people as they are not trained or conditioned to carrying loads in high altitudes like Nepali Sherpas. The base camp on the Sikkim side lacks facilities and supporting manpower required for mountaineering. 
The other source of earning comes from hiring or purchase of equipment for expeditions. In this regard also there are very few Indian companies manufacturing mountaineering equipment. Most equipment has to be sourced from Himalayan Mountaineering Institute or Nehru Institute of Mountaineering both of which are government undertakings. Logistics cost also make up a major part of expedition budget. In this regard, Sikkim can provide some help being the host state and earn some revenue but providing advance logistic support like helicopters and planes will have to be provided by the Central Government. Therefore, the loss outweighs the benefits of opening Kangchendzonga for expeditions to the state.  
However, the state could benefit economically by organizing high altitude treks through local travel agents than from mountaineering. The Bhutan approach to mountaineering may suit Sikkim better since we share the same beliefs. The Concerned Citizens of Sikkim was able to stop the Austrain expedition in 2000 through protest, now since the people are more enlightened similar protest will be able to change the mind of the Home Ministry. 
An Appeal also needs to be made to Nepal government to ban expeditions to Kangchendzonga from their side since most expeditions are made from there. Appeal can be made to Nepal to treat Kangchendzonga at par with Machapuchare peak which is closed for climbing due to religious reasons.

[The writer is former Director General, Department of Economics, Statistics, Monitoring and Evaluation Department, Government of Sikkim]

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