After hitting headlines for the soaring temperatures this summer, Bhira in Patnoos village of Raigad district is in the news again — this time because of excess inflow of tourists, mostly young bikers from Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad who are thronging this little hamlet during the rainy season to visit the Devkund waterfall. Earlier in the week, two tourists from Pune, including an Army officer from College of Military Engineering (CME), died near the waterfall, the first such tragedy to hit the village, that otherwise is sparsely populated.
Located at least 70km from Pune, the waterfall has recently made it to the list of monsoon getaways among Puneites, thanks to social media. Since it takes just two hours from Pune to reach the waterfall, it is popular as a day trip with college students, who throng here in large numbers, authorities in the local administration said.
The latest figures indicate that as many as 5,000 tourists visited the locality during the last two weekends. The administration is now grappling to man the steady and rising in-flow of tourists, as villagers living at the foothills of the Sahyadri ranges too have now been roped-in to guard and control the flood of tourists. Patnoos village, which very few outsiders visit except its residents who are working in either Mumbai or Pune — has now been forced to erect a checkpost informing would-be visitors about the temporary closure of the waterfall in the backdrop of the death.
“At the checkpost, we have employed two people to keep a constant watch on the vehicles. Even then, some tourists do not cooperate and prefer to risk their lives by walking towards the waterfall,” said Sandeep Rathod, head master of Patnoos primary school.
The village is surrounded by the Sahyadri ranges on all four sides, making it one of the areas most cut-off from the outside world. The situation becomes even more precarious given that heavy rains force little movement of people or vehicles, making rescue operations extremely challenging in case of an emergency, as was the case in the army officer’s death earlier this week, said villagers.
When asked about the special measures taken by the gram panchayat to rectify the situation, Patnoos village sarpanch Vijay Mhamunkar said, “We have sensitised all residents of the village and have urged them not to act as guides to the visitors as the risk involved is too high. We are noting down the details of the vehicles and tourists at the check points too.”
“The terrain is such that there is no way except walking for at least 8km for any rescue or help to reaching in case of an emergency,” Mhamunkar told Pune Newsline. Taking note of the tragedy, the Raigad district administration on Wednesday issued an order to impose Section 144, which prevents people from gathering at the waterfall. “We received the tehsildar’s order of Section 144. It states that it will remain in force for three months from now,” confirmed the village sarpanch. Yet another difficulty for visitors is that there are hardly any facilities in this remote village, offering neither places to stay overnight nor eating joints. Moreover, villagers now fear that the area around the Devkund waterfall, which houses a temple and is considered as a revered place of worship, will lose its sanctity.
“We are happy to host visitors but of late, we have been called in the late evenings, learning of some group stranded in the forest. Given limited communication lines, it becomes extremely risky in such instances,” said another local resident from the village.
Local residents recalled how even the team of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) that was called in to rescue 55 college students in late June, was forced to travel first by boat through the Mulshi Dam waters and after that they had to proceed on foot.
Having tourists can add to the income of the village residents, who are mostly tribals.
Many said they are not against visitors, who are free to come at anytime other than the monsoon, but they do not want any untoward incident to occur.