Kullu Paragliding Death Raises Questions About Safety Standards

The death of a woman has raised concerns about the safety of paragliding activities in the country and prompted a closer examination of the regulations and practices governing this adventure sport
Paragliding is a popular tourist activity in Himachal Pradesh
Paragliding is a popular tourist activity in Himachal PradeshShutterstock

In August 2019, the internet was set ablaze by a video. Spanning over two minutes, it showcased a man named Vipin Sahu's paragliding adventure in Manali. Fully harnessed and seemingly secure, Sahu's regrets and an earnest plea to the instructor for an early landing entertained viewers. The instructor's persistent calls for proper posture clashed with Sahu's perception that his harness was inadequately fastened. Netizens, in no time, seized upon the video, using it as comedic fodder for commentary on the Indian economy and everyday scenarios.

But what if the fear of slipping while paragliding becomes a real catastrophe for someone? Tragically, the apprehensions depicted in Sahu's video materialised for 26-year-old Ashima Varma (name changed), a native of Telangana. In February 2024, during a paragliding excursion in Dobhi village near Manali, Varma tragically lost her life. The pilot reportedly mishandled Varma's safety belt, causing her to fall and land on a house roof. Regrettably, Varma's incident is just one of several cases in the past few years.

Kullu is is located on the banks of the Beas River
Kullu is is located on the banks of the Beas RiverShutterstock

Following the tragedy, authorities have taken swift action. Preliminary findings shared by tourism officer Sunaina Sharma suggest "human error" in the accident. The pilot has been arrested under IPC sections 336 and 334. Consequently, paragliding activities in the region have been temporarily suspended, and a magisterial inquiry is underway.

Though action has been taken, the tragedy exposes the need for stricter oversight of adventure tourism in India. We examine legal provisions, the inherent difficulties in the sector, and the path forward.

What Do The Laws Say?

According to the National Qualification Register (NQR), tandem pilots (individuals responsible for taking one student/client at a time on an assisted paragliding flight in a controlled and evaluated environment) must have a minimum educational qualification of a 10th-class degree and two years of flying experience. 

Tandem pilots are responsible for taking one client at a time on an assisted paragliding flight
Tandem pilots are responsible for taking one client at a time on an assisted paragliding flightShutterstock

However, Nirat Bhatt, the Treasurer of the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI) and Managing Director of Nidus Enterprises Private Limited, a company providing adventure tourism services, highlighted that tourism and sports activities in India are regulated independently by each state, leading to variations in requirements. "While various organisations have established standards for paragliding in the country, regulatory authorities often incorporate recognised foreign standards when formulating rules or acts."

Moreover, Bhatt emphasised that the number of training centres in India falls significantly short of the increased demand in recent years. Expanding the infrastructure requires a substantial and organised investment of effort and resources.

The Fundamental Challenge

Sudhir Sharma, MLA and President of the Adventure Sports Federation (ASF) of Himachal Pradesh, mentioned that the primary issue arises from the fact that in the state, sports and tourism activities are governed by the same regulatory framework, without a specific Act. These rules fail to distinguish between sport and tourism activities.

Sudhir Sharma (first from right), MLA and President of the ASF
Sudhir Sharma (first from right), MLA and President of the ASFInstagram/Sudhir Sharma

"The absence of differentiation poses a challenge, especially regarding licensing. Furthermore, the tourism department issues tandem flight licenses, often without considering the pilot's experience. This results in a situation where a person trained in Dharamshala is permitted to operate in Billing despite significant differences in weather conditions and flight requirements that demand distinct skill sets," added Sharma.

He further mentioned that according to global regulations, those engaged in paragliding are classified as pilots, and their experience levels are designated from P1 to P5. Additionally, there are various titles, such as trainee instructors, instructors, senior instructors, sports tandem pilots, and commercial pilots. In Himachal Pradesh, tandem flight licenses are occasionally issued without pilots completing the required levels and sometimes even without the necessary solo flight license.

Finally, the issue is exacerbated by the commercialisation of paragliding, leading to the issuance of licenses to inadequately trained pilots. "The lack of a robust mechanism to verify their credentials has resulted in fatal mishaps," said Sharma.

The Other Side Of The Story

Although the prevailing belief attributes mishappenings to the pilot, company, or authorities, some additional factors also play a role in these incidents.

"One of the challenges operators face with tourists is a lack of understanding about adventure sports. These activities involve risk and require a cautious approach, substantial knowledge, skills, and patience. Some tourists tend to prioritise the lowest price, fostering negative competition in the market," said Gurpreet Dhindsa, a paragliding instructor with over 20 years of experience.

"They may also disregard weather conditions, leading to unrealistic expectations and unsafe situations," added Dhindsa, who obtained his certification in the UK under the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (BHPA) in 2001.

A know-it-all attitude, and pressure to capture Instagram-worthy videos can compromise safety while paragliding
A know-it-all attitude, and pressure to capture Instagram-worthy videos can compromise safety while paraglidingShutterstock

Also, according to him, communication between operators and clientele tends to focus on reassurance rather than accurately conveying the associated risks. The market's negative competition often leads operators to downplay the risks, emphasising that the activity is 100 per cent safe. "A more responsible attitude would be acknowledging the inherent risks and catering to those willing to accept them rather than appealing to those seeking a carefree experience."

Mental preparedness is also a challenge, as some tourists may appear confident initially but freeze during the experience. "Preconceived notions, a know-it-all attitude, and pressure to capture Instagram-worthy videos can also compromise safety," concluded Dhindsa.

The Way Forward

As per Bhatt, the problem of accidents in adventure tourism can be attributed to two main causes: challenges posed by nature and mistakes made by humans.

"To address and mitigate this issue, a comprehensive solution involves implementing incident/accident reporting and conducting thorough investigations. This approach increases the understanding of possible scenarios and contributes to reducing future incidents in adventure tourism," Bhatt said.

"The process for ensuring safety in industrial operations involves many components. Firstly, qualified professionals, like engineers, should certify facility structures. Secondly, equipment must be certified by professional inspectors to ensure safety and functionality. Lastly, qualified operation reviewers should conduct comprehensive reviews of operations to ensure alignment with safety standards," he added.

Awareness Is Key

To address the need for heightened awareness and safety in adventure tourism, Bhatt mentioned that a comprehensive approach includes an awareness drive covering crucial aspects such as information dissemination, regulations, guidelines, terrain difficulty levels, weather conditions, and the basic prerequisites for participation.

"Participants should be equipped with knowledge about verifying the authenticity of operators. In support of these efforts, the ATOAI and other associations play a pivotal role in contributing to awareness and training programmes for guides and operators," he said.

Paragliding workshops are necessary to avoid accidents (For representation purposes only)
Paragliding workshops are necessary to avoid accidents (For representation purposes only)Shutterstock

Specifically, ATOAI takes proactive measures by organising workshops on first-aid, skill training programs, and awareness workshops. These initiatives are designed to enhance the skills and preparedness of guides and operators, fostering a culture of safety within the adventure tourism sector. Additionally, as per Bhatt, India's standard developing body, the Bureau of Indian Standards, is also helping the industry to develop much-needed India-specific standards for each adventure tourism vertical.

"Regulation is not the only thing that can curb accidents. A safety consciousness embedded in the regulatory system, commitment of operators, awareness of participants, and effective monitoring are needed to avoid accidents and incidents," he said.

Gurpreet Dhindsa's Pro Tips For Tourists

  1. Before engaging in any adventurous activity, it's crucial to conduct thorough research. Learn about the sport you plan to participate in and gather information about the area and operators.

  2. Be cautious when operators boast about their achievements. Verify their claims by checking relevant certifications and rankings. For instance, refer to the World Pilot Ranking System (WPRS) for accurate information in paragliding.

  3. Beyond rankings, pay attention to certifications. Ensure that the operator is certified and recognised by relevant authorities. When meeting the operator, assess their profile thoroughly. Look for signs that indicate their level of expertise, such as understanding aerodynamics and athleticism.

  4. Take note of local habits and influences. For instance, smoking is prevalent in Himachal Pradesh. Consider these factors when evaluating the operators and their ability to ensure a safe experience.

  5. Trust your instincts when interacting with operators. Even if the equipment seems simple, focus on the pilot's knowledge, skills, and overall demeanour. Ensure they exhibit professionalism and a commitment to safety.

(With inputs from PTI)

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