Rohtang was former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's favourite summer destination and attracted another former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to construct his summer retreat. It was also the location for shooting scores of Bollywood films like Bobby and one of the major attractions around it was a 13,500ft pass - it was the most easily accessible pass at such a height en route Lahaul and Spiti as well as Leh - about 52 kilometres from Manali.
Everyday, hundreds of vehicles used to ply tourists to the pass during the tourist season even though it remained closed for over six months every year due to heavy snow.
The recent decisions of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to restrict the number of vehicles plying to the Rohtang Pass and ban all commercial and tourism activities in Rohtang and Solang valley near Manali, have adversely affected tourism in one of the most popular tourist destinations in Himachal Pradesh.
The NGT has allowed restricted movement of 1,000 vehicles, including 600 petrol-driven, to the Rohtang Pass everyday. Earlier it had also imposed an environmental cess of Rs 1,000 for petrol vehicles and Rs 2500 for diesel ones. However, the cess was withdrawn later.
On July 7, the tribunal banned commercial activities in the Rohtang and Solang Valley with immediate effect, directing that all dhabas, tea stalls, skiing, sledging, horse riding, snow scooters and all-terrain vehicles should be taken off the route as they harm the fragile ecology of the area.
Solang valley is the site of many adventure sports, including paragliding and skiing. It has training centres for such sports, where even army personnel are trained. Solang has over 60 certified paragliders.
Thousands of tourists to the area will now have to return disappointed as they will be unable to obtain passes to visit the Rohtang Pass during their stay in Manali.
The NGT directive has affected over 4,000 taxis plying in the area. Almost every family in the town was associated with the tourism industry in one way or the other.
The directive, which was unsuccessfully challenged in the Supreme Court, was based on the ground that the huge traffic to Rohtang and other tourist attractions was leading to pollution and adversely affecting the sensitive ecological balance in the area. The tribunal was of the view that the pollution caused by vehicles as well as garbage, including plastic waste, was leading to a lasting impact.
It has asked scientists from the GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development to survey the sources of pollution and the extent of damage caused in the area. The institute has attributed vehicular traffic as the main cause of pollution. Its scientists said that black carbon and aerosol optical depth levels have been found to be much higher than the normal.
There are, however, others who do not agree with the findings. For instance, Dr Milap Chand Sharma, Professor of Glacial Geomorphology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, has said there was no evidence that carbon levels had impacted melting of snow in the region. While pointing out that there is no glacier within a ten-kilometre radius of Rohtang, Sharma has said that the carbon dioxide level was less than 0.04 at Rohtang, as per a study undertaken by him.
It is debatable that such drastic measures, as enforced by the NGT and challenged by various petitioners, would effectively reduce pollution levels, but there is no doubt that little care has been taken in the past to protect the mountains. Most tourists had no qualms about littering and throwing away plastic bottles and carry bags. Some years ago, the Supreme Court had to intervene and impose heavy penalty on two top Cola companies, which had painted rocks on way to Rohtang Pass to advertise their products.
The NGT has rightly brought the issue to focus, but it needs to ask experts to tackle the problem in such a way that pollution is checked while the tourists are not deprived of the joys of nature.