India's Games Ground the World's Paragliders

From September through November, India's steep Himachal Pradesh valleys on the edge of the Himalayas offer some of the most spectacular paragliding on earth, with hot air rising and forming thermal currents in vertical columns that lift participants hundreds of meters into the air.

But hundreds of paragliders from as far away as Britain, Russia, Germany and Sweden who were due here to practice for the Himalayan Open Paragliding Championships have unexpectedly been grounded. Practice for the championships, to take place Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, has been blocked by an unexpected edict from the Indian government, apparently out of an unlikely fear that somebody might glide all the way to New Delhi, nearly 400 kilometers away, and attack the Commonwealth Games, which got underway on Oct. 3. The world record for paragliding is 130.9 km, set in 1992 by a French pilot, Xavier Remond.

"I feel helpless since the ban has come so late, and without practice, going for the championship will be nothing fruitful," said Ranbir Rana, a pilot at Bir Billing in the breathtaking Kangra Valley. "The organization committee should have been told of this ban prior to our visit. The government just for the sake of its image on the Commonwealth Games is casting shadows over aero sport activities in the country."

There have been past reports past that terrorist groups might target major cities by over flying them on powered paragliders. India, still freaked out by the Mumbai massacre of November 2008 in which a handful of Pakistan-based terrorists murdered at least 173 mostly innocent bystanders and wounded hundreds more, wants no part of any risk. The most recent warnings came in January when India went to Red Alert over a "paragliding terrorist threat attack" that never appeared.

Delhi's ban on paragliding and other micro-flight activities originally extended 300 kilometers from the Games. Some 70 paragliders have already shown up and are camping out at the site to practice for the championship. For this region, which derives considerable revenue from their annual journeys, there are worrying signs that many plan to leave the country and others are telling their friends and associates not to bother to come.

Those who came to the Bir-Billing range say the ministry's directive shouldn't extend this far -- to one of the world's finest aero sports sites. Superintendent of Police Sanjeev Gandhi told reporters the blanket ban has been put in place until almost a week after the end of the Commonwealth Games – on Oct. 14.

"The ban on aero-sports activities has been imposed in Bir-Billing as a precautionary measure. It will remain in force till Oct 20," Gandhi told reporters.

The young paragliders are furious, both at the late notice of the ban and the fact that the national open championship site is well outside the 300 km radius. Extending the ban a week after the end of the Games is giving the pilots no time to practice.

Suresh Thakur, vice-president of the Billing Paragliding Association, said the ban was imposed without giving any notice in advance. "All of a sudden, the ban was imposed because of the Commonwealth games. Already a large number of paragliders from India and abroad have reached here to practice for the championship. Moreover, it's not right to impose the ban in Billing as it does not fall within the aerial radius as mentioned in the advisory. If the ban continues, the sport event will land up as a village fair."

The month of October comes packed with of action in the Himalayas for adventure sports events. Every year more than 300 paragliders come during the season to glide aloft on the dazzling thermals. The site was host to the Paragliding Pre-World cup in 2008 and was recognized by the Federation Aviation International (FAI) and the France-based Paragliding World Cup Association, which has granted it Category-II Status in the international rankings.

Steve Purdie, a British instructor who has led groups to India for a decade, wrote an open letter to officials and local media protesting the decision. "The day after our arrival at Bir, we were advised that paragliding had just been banned across India following security concerns," he wrote. "The Commonwealth Games has been some 10 years in the planning. That the government should spring a paragliding ban at the last minute is unacceptable."

He said his group was on the point of leaving India and would cancel further trips this year and in the future. Appealing to the economic argument that 200 international pilots bring to the area he said "I alone bring revenue to paragliding site in the order of Rs 2,000,000 [US$45,336] each year. The total value of paragliding tourism to the state must be 10 times that."

Purdie said he could see leaving the site permanently, "There is no doubt that the paragliding community will see this ban as a last straw in their relationship with the Indian authorities."

Locals whose bread and butter depends on the adventure sports and pilots who see the ban as a hit to their daily livelihood are concerned.

"With the ban over paragliding we do not see much pilots to arrive from foreign countries, as many those have come earlier are returning home and those planned are canceling their plans, hitting the most at the peak season and also leaving the championship to zero" said Ramesh Sharma, a local travel guide and paragliding pilot.

The Paragliding Association of India says no official proof or copy of the advisory from the Civil Aviation Ministry has been made available by the local administration.

"This is the same sport in which India's top pilots ended the Asian Paragliding Championships with a podium finish, winning bronze for third place as a team. "They made the nation proud by standing on the podium with the Indian flag raised high with respect."

The association blasted the government, saying "On one hand we are promoting sports and culture through the Commonwealth Games with a lot of vigor. We also project our country as developed and advanced in sports activities. At the same time we are suppressing another sport without knowing the facts and lack of understanding about the same."

Many pilots still hope that an appeal to the government removing the ban will work. Neil Charles is due to fly out to Himachal Pradesh on Oct. 14 but has been watching the situation closely.

"At the moment we're planning to travel anyway," he was quoted as saying in a free flying magazine. "The pilots out there put in an appeal on Monday [6 October] and are due to hear the decision so fingers crossed for a sensible result."

Saransh Sehgal is a writer based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com.