Pradeep Sangwan has mobilised tourists and local communities to clean up the wetlands in the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh through clean-up treks and waste management activities. Plastic and other waste degrade waterbodies and affect the ecology as well as cultural heritage. Illustration by Mohit Negi for Mongabay.

Getting the residents to join hands

Sangwan, along with the local communities, has cleaned the Chandra Taal lake and Suraj Tal lake in Lahaul and Spiti, sections of Chandrabhaga also known as the Chenab river, and the Baspa river along trek routes, he says.

Before conducting a clean-up drive in any village, he travels to the village and conducts awareness programs for the residents. “Whenever we visit a village, we make it a point to work there on a long-term basis. We do not go there and lecture them. Rather we get hands-on into the work with them.” He adds how community participation depends on the mores of the village. “Some villages have only men participating, while in others, the Mahila Mandal (women’s organisation) holds the reins. Other villages have a mixed crowd joining in.” Speaking about how many residents have joined him, Sangwanstates that “if a village has 100 people, 60-70 people definitely join in. All this is possible because the community knows that we do good work. It has helped us establish our credibility which was not possible earlier.” Kumar added that from his village in Manali “approximately 40-50 people definitely join in.”

The ubiquitous issue of plastic waste

Even though plastic has been banned in Himachal Pradesh, the majority of waste collected by Sangwan remains plastic (one-time packaging plastics, food wrappers), glass and tin (alcohol bottles, canned drinks, etc). “Plastic (waste) hinders underground water recharge and becomes a reason for flood eventually. Till last year, the team had collected more than 800,000 kgs of waste.”

In a study conducted by IIT Mandi, to explore the feasibility of improving waste management at trekking routes in Himachal Pradesh, the findings revealed that, “Scattered litter along Himachal Pradesh’s trails has become a problem partly due to increased tourism, but can also be attributed to the explosion of single-use packaging and snack wrappers from portable foods. These kinds of products are a departure from traditional containers originally carried by pilgrims or shepherd communities.” The study also made a heat map for the presence of waste around Prashar Lake. The heat map showed that within 100 meters of each trash can, there was below-average waste accumulation but the waste accumulation increased further away from the trash cans.

To give a long-term solution to this, Sangwan came up with the idea of waste collection centres to facilitate a material recovery facility and create a “waste economy”. Mobilising the local community, Sangwan has formed a waste collection centre at Rakcham village. He chose that spot “because the area has a good tourist footfall. The location was chosen because Rakcham can handle waste from three villages.” Through these centres, the local community will manage their problem of solid waste disposal as well as have a livelihood option in their village. He plans to form similar solutions in Barshaini, Kullu and also in Kinnaur which is a “popular tourist destination and also has army personnel stationed there.”

A clean-up drive in Shimla. Increasing tourism and irresponsible disposal of plastic waste are threats to wetlands. Photo from Healing Himalayas.
A clean-up drive in Shimla. Increasing tourism and irresponsible disposal of plastic waste are threats to wetlands. Photo from Healing Himalayas.

Travelling with a purpose and a step towards sustainable tourism

In a 2018 report by NITI Aayog, a policy think tank of the Government of India, sustainable tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) was promoted. The report mentions how “tourism development and promotion in the IHR should therefore be built around the principles of sustainable tourism as opposed to mass tourism.” Nearly 50 million people reside in the IHR alone. The report also suggests measures such as the introduction of a “green cess”, a convergence of tourism with different sectors, spreading awareness and sensitization about the IHR to state a few.

Sustainable tourism, eco-tourism,  Attri feels, can bring changes. He says that “the local government is trying its best by investing in conservation but it should come naturally even from the tourists and the local bodies”. Tourist spots are “opened for hardly four months but the influx of tourists at that time is too much for the government to handle.”

Kumar also echoes this sentiment and feels that “tourism should be controlled according to the capacity of the place. Excessive exploitation is the cause for pollution in a lot of Himalayan areas.” Both state that even local communities should also be proactive.

Sangwan mentions how it will take him years to revive wetlands that have been dirtied through the ages. “A lot needs to be done; we are just scratching the surface as of now.”

Pradeep Sangwan at one of the cleaning treks in the Himalayas. Photo from Healing Himalayas.
Pradeep Sangwan at one of the cleaning treks in the Himalayas. Photo from Healing Himalayas.


Illustration by Mohit Negi, an illustrator and communication designer from Garhwal, Uttarakhand. He works as a visual designer and is interested in untold stories of the Himalayas and the natural world.

Article published by Aditi Tandon
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