EDITORIAL: Mountainous scam

Fake rescue operations in high Himalayas have increased in recent years, tarnishing Nepal’s image

Nepal’s high mountains are a big draw for international tourists. Mt Everest is the most iconic symbol of Nepal and the biggest revenue earner for the country. The world’s tallest mountain attracts hundreds of climbers from all around the world every year. Nepal has eight out of 14 mountains higher than 8,000 metres, and all are equally popular among climbers. The sheer height of these mountains and their majesty keep pulling expedition enthusiasts, and during peak seasons, the country welcomes thousands of tourists. Climbing high mountains does carry a myriad of associated risks, but that have never discouraged mountaineers from plunging into the adventure. With the number of expeditions and trekkers growing in recent years, there has been a surge of helicopter evacuations. And here is where the country is running the risk of getting a bad name, as some unscrupulous people in the industry are taking scam to new heights.

Following reports of “fake rescues” from high mountains, the government had launched an investigation into what is being dubbed “insurance fraud”. A panel formed by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation on Monday submitted its report recommending action against fake rescuers of mountaineers and trekkers. The report has also called for urgently initiating key reforms to ensure safety, reliability and regularity of services to tourists. Acute mountain sickness – with symptoms like headache and nausea – is a given while climbing high Himalayas, but there have been reports of rescue operations for even those who do not show any symptoms at lower altitudes, making it difficult to tell whether “the evacuation was medically necessary”. Recent reports have shown that some unscrupulous people in the industry are pocketing tens of thousands of dollars from insurance companies by making multiple claims for a single chopper ride or pushing climbers to accept airlifts for even minor or no illnesses.

Investigation into this fraud on high mountains was urgently required. The government panel has recommended further investigation into three helicopter operators, four hospitals and eight travel/trekking and rescue companies for claiming high insurance costs. The problem basically emanates from the fact that the country lacks centralised dispatch centre for helicopter flights due to which the precise number of rescue operations is difficult to figure out. The panel’s suggestion of establishing “Tourist Rescue Coordination Committee” for six months a year – from March to May and September to November – can largely help in addressing the problem. The country does have Mountaineering and Trekking Search and Rescue Guidelines, but it has largely remained unimplemented. Its early implementation is also a must. Rescue in the high Himalayas has dramatically changed in recent years. Timely evacuations of sick climbers from the mountains certainly can increase the chances of their survival. But lack of regulations will make the scam industry in high Himalayas thrive, which will be a major setback for the travel and tourism industry – a major contributor to the country’s GDP. Such scam of Himalayan proportions is tarnishing Nepal’s image.

Brickyard sans kids

Child labour is widespread mainly in brick kiln industry, which is one of the major sources of air pollution and environmental degradation. Law of the land has imposed a ban on employing children below 18 years of age in the hazardous sector like brick kiln industries. However, the illegal practice is rife due to poverty, illiteracy and lack of jobs to the children’s parents. Most of the children working in brick kilns hail from impoverished areas with their parents who cannot afford education to their kids.

However, some positive development has taken recently. The Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security and Federation of Nepal Brick Industries have reached a deal to end the use of child labour in the brick industry. This will be a step forward to eliminate child labour from the country. An estimated 300,000 children are currently working in 1,100 brick industries across the country. Ending child labour from the hazardous sector is not enough. The government also should come up with plans to send children to schools by creating jobs to their parents. The children should be persuaded to go to schools, not to the brick factory.