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Posted at: Nov 4, 2018, 12:18 AM; last updated: Nov 4, 2018, 12:26 AM (IST)

Not much to the rescue

The open valleys around Bir-Billing have been inviting tourists since 1984. The unavailability of a helicopter to carry out the rescue operations and a spurt of illegal constructions in the area might close the doors on them

Lalit Mohan in Dharamsala

An element of risk is inherent to adventure sports. The reason, safety becomes even more crucial. A case in point here is Bir-Billing. The area has been ranked among the best destinations for paragliding. Incidentally, it fares equally poor in terms of rescue arrangements.

Recently, two paragliders died and four others sustained injuries. On October 23, Kok Chang (53), a paraglider and former army commando from Singapore, died in an accident while paragliding in Bir-Billing. Chang was a free flyer and had gone missing in the Dhauladhars. His body was spotted lying in the Big Face area in the Utrala hills in Baijnath. Chang was experienced in flying on the coastal lines, but was a novice when it came to flying in the mountains.

Experts say that one requires the knowledge of thermals and winds to paraglide successfully in the mountains. Or, an accident can be expected. Soon after, on October 24, Sanjay Kumar Ramdas Devarkonda, an NRI from Australia, died after crash landing in Jogindergar area of Mandi district. He was also an inexperienced paraglider.

Around the same time, Spanish pilot Jos Lewis too crashed in the hills. Luckily, he was rescued. Despite receiving his coordinates, the authorities could only trace him after five days. Two other pilots, a Russian and a Latavian, also sustained minor injuries in crashes. According to sources, on an average, two paragliders lose their lives every year in accidents at Bir-Billing.

A long haul, always

Helicopter with a winch is mandatory for carrying out rescue operations to pull out paragliders trapped in the mountains. However, no helicopter is available at this site. The foreign paragliders, who visit Bir-Billing, usually have an insurance to cover accidents. If a foreign paraglider suffers a mishap, his insurance company is contacted by the authorities in Baijnath. Vikas Shukla, SDM Baijnath, who heads the committee that monitors paragliding in Bir-Billing, informs that getting in touch with a foreign insurance company takes about three to four hours.

“After a go-ahead is given by the insurance company, the helicopter service-providers are contacted, which are either based in Delhi or Dehradun. The helicopters leave for Bir-Billing only after the financial formalities are complete,” Vikas adds. It takes two to three hours to reach the destination and get started with the rescue operations. As these cannot be carried out at night, it generally takes more than 24 hours to rescue a trapped.

The fatality rate is high in Bir-Billing as compared to other paragliding sites in the developed world, owing to the time lost in formalities. In Europe, the maximum rescue time is about 40 minutes. 

The SDM says that apart from the unavailability of helicopter, other mechanism for rescue has been put in order at Bir-Billing. Col Neeraj Rana (retd), member of the rescue committee of Special Area Development Authority (SADA) that controls paragliding activities these days, says, “Each paraglider who takes off from Billing is given a tracker, which gets signals from multiple telecommunication companies.”

In case a paraglider starts descending at a speed of more than 5m per second, the monitor starts blinking. There are seven rescue and retrieval teams, each comprising six members that are pressed into action to help the paraglider in a dire situation. Colonel Rana admits that the unavailability of a helicopter delays the rescue of paragliders, who get trapped in deep-mountain ravines, which sometimes leads to fatalities.

Illegal constructions or traps

With activities picking up in Bir-Billing, illegal constructions have started cropping up at both the places. A matter of concern is that hotels and guesthouses are being constructed just along the landing site at Bir. The paragliders say that the high-rise buildings here have increased the risk of accidents. The buildings disturb wind current, making it difficult for paragliders to calculate the wind velocity accurately. At Billing, some shops and buildings have been built on the forest land. Vikas says, “Notices for demolition have been issued to the defaulters at Bir. The buildings will be demolished after following the due process.” If the construction is carried on unabated, Bir-Billing might lose its tag of being among the best paragliding sites of the world.

Competition gets tough

At present, Bir-Billing is the best paragliding site in the country. However, sites have been identified in Uttarakhand and north-eastern states that can host paragliding activities. Reports say the Uttarakhand Government has been working on developing a site near Almora. Political interference in Himachal’s adventure sports and unwillingness to accept proposals to promote paragliding from outsiders can hurt the adventure sports industry. 

The government has not granted permission to internationally recognised paragliders to open training schools in Bir-Billing. Permissions are being denied due to political reasons, and absence of rules, following which such institutes can be opened.

Bir-Billing Paragliding Association, that strived to control the sport during the stint of previous Congress government, was headed by former congress minister Sudhir Sharma. Now, the sport is being coordinated by SADA, a body headed by the SDM of Baijnath.


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