How far would you go to clean the hills?
Who doesn’t dream of a perfect holiday in the hills — walking along narrow winding roads, sipping on strong, sweet tea in steel tumblers, gawking at the majestic views of the mountains in the background, and inhaling deeply fresh mountain air. All’s going well so far, and just as you’re promising yourself to come back again, you smell something foul around the corner. You walk a little further and see a heap, nay a small hill of waste and trash, full of plastic glinting in the sunlight. Such eyesores might become more frequent, environmentalists warn.
The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), which has long been portrayed as sacred, pristine and untouched by the hectic, polluted outside world has this flip side too – plastic-clogged waterways, entire hillsides transformed into a waste disposal site, the acrid smell of waste, plastic include, being burnt, and so on. With time, these images are gathering as much attention as the snow-clad peaks and the mesmerizing scenic beauty of the hills.
Over the years, the number of tourists visiting hill stations in states such as Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand has increased manifold. Rampant construction with no thought for the fragility and sensitivity of the region has not only led to the hills looking like an ugly hotchpotch of tin roofs and concrete walls, it is downright dangerous!
(Waste audit camps being organized with school kids by Indiahikes.)
However, little is being done. Tourists continue to throng the various mall roads, the local population seems to be unperturbed by the mess as long as the cash flows in and there are job opportunities for them. So what if nearly every stream and rivulet in the region is getting choked with plastic, beer cans, chewing tobacco packets, alcohol bottles and food waste. Tons of rubbish litters trekking paths, streams, meadows, and roads not just in popular hill stations but in the interiors of the hills as well. The same tourists who’d come to soak in the beauty of nature have now callously turn the region into a dumping ground. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his concerns over the changing landscape of hills and their extreme commercialization, especially towns such as Shimla, Manali and Mussoorie.
The Himalayan Cleanup that took place across 12 mountain states on May 26 revealed that more than 95 per cent of the trash collected during the cleanup was plastic waste. Responding to the call of the Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI) and Zero Waste Himalaya, 200-plus organizations with over 15,000 volunteers organized over 300 events in the 12 states. The numbers from the cleanup show that non-biodegradable plastic waste is the main polluter. There have been many initiatives and schemes by the government in regards to waste management, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan being the latest. But have we changed things get better? Are our hills cleaner? The answer is a resounding no!
You can’t give up, however. Mountain lovers and environmentalists are still hopeful we can make a difference, and they are! Take Sikkim, for instance. The tiny Himalayan state, where the population is around 600,000, tourists number three times as much annually, adding to the challenge of tackling plastic trash. The state, as we all know, has nearly 50 per cent under forest cover, and has become a pioneer in green policies. It is the first Indian state to aim to be fully organic.
Way back in 1997, it became the first Indian state to ban disposable plastic bags. This was driven by reports of discarded plastic bags choking drainage system and streams, resulting in water flows being diverted and causing a spate of landslides in and around Gangtok, Sikkim. It is also among the first to target single-use plastic bottles. In 2016, Sikkim slapped a ban on use and sale of disposables made from Styrofoam. It also prohibited the use of packaged drinking water in government functions.
The Sikkim example proves that all is not lost. Proper management practices and a change in the attitude of people, combined with innovative efforts from the administration, can do wonders for the IHR battling with the problem of waste disposal.
Recognizing the need to take on more responsibility for the areas where they work, some tourism companies are also coming forward to do their bit in cleaning up the mountains. The Greentrails initiative by Indiahikes is one such programme that stands out in terms of dedication and results. Indiahikes’ trekkers start on the treks with neon-green Eco Bags, which are distributed at the start of the trek and are carried by everyone in the group – trekkers, guides and trek leaders alike. Strapped at the waist, these bags are used to collect plastic waste generated along the trail. Similarly, trekkers are encouraged to store all dry waste they generate on the trek in their Eco Bags and take it to the day’s campsite where it is gathered and transported back to the base camp, where it is segregated and sold to the kabadiwallahs. Also, the team takes it upon itself to teach the locals about segregation, proper disposal of waste and recycling waste it into something useful. The local population is joining in enthusiastically and change can be seen on trekking trails and camping grounds.
Like we said, all is not lost.
(The writer is a Digital Campaigner with Gati Foundation. This blog is a part of an ongoing campaign #Stop Littering Our Himalayas in collaboration with Indiahikes.)