Tsomgo lake, also known as Changu lake, is one of the most popular tourist destinations of Sikkim. The glacial lake at an altitude of 12,406 feet is considered sacred by the locals.As the massive influx of tourists was causing rampant pollution in Sikkim’s wetlands, Sikkim government decided to form Lake Conservation Committees which involved the local community in protecting the lake. Tsomgo Pokhri Sanrakshan Samiti was the first notified lake conservation committee formed in 2008.Tsomgo lake which shares its catchment area with Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary is a biodiversity-rich area known for species like red panda, Himalayan black bear, musk deer apart from being a stopover for migratory birds. “Long time ago, there was no lake in this place. This used to be a huge valley where yak herders used to graze their animals. One day, an old woman appeared in the dream of one of the herders. She asked the man to leave the place the next morning with his friends as a huge lake will come up there. However, none of his fellow herders believed his dream. The next morning, he alone went away from the place. That evening, a giant lake was formed suddenly. Rest of the yak herders who had decided to stay back got drowned in the lake along with their yaks. Even today, it is said that on full moon nights, yaks can be seen in the middle of the lake.” Sangay Lama Sherpa narrates the folk tale about the genesis of Tsomgo Lake in Sikkim. Also known as Changu, the lake is located at an altitude of 12,406 feet, and is one of the biggest tourism draws in the Eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim receiving around 300,000 (3 lakh) tourists annually. Sangay lives in Thegu, which, along with Changu and Chipsu, forms the troika of villages in the vicinity of Changu Lake. The 37-year-old is involved in the conservation of the lake in his role as the Office Secretary of the Tsomgo Pokhri Sanrakshan Samiti (TPSS), the Tsomgo Lake Conservation Committee, since its inception more than a decade ago. “We have been listening to the folklore about the formation of the lake since our childhood. Our village elders used to say that it is our duty to protect the lake and keep it clean. Else, calamity might befall the villagers like it did with those yak herders in the story. This is something every villager believes and they are fully committed to keeping the lake clean,” says Sangay. As the high altitude and harsh climate in the region make agriculture mostly unsuitable for the terrain, the local populace, mainly comprising of communities like Sherpas, Lepchas and Bhutias, almost entirely depend on the eco-tourism potential of the Tsomgo Lake for their livelihood. While tourism has generated revenue for the locals, it also contaminated Tsomgo Lake and its biodiversity-rich surrounding areas. In 2008, with an aim to protect the lake from deteriorating, the TPSS was formed based on guidelines by the Department of Forest, Government of Sikkim, with support from organisations like WWF-India. Since then, TPSS has been the custodian of the lake. And Sangay, a core part of it. From being the bridge between the government and community to running back-end matters like accounts, he and the community that makes up TPSS is committed to keeping their sacred lake litter-free. Tsomgo Lake or Changu lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations of Sikkim. The glacial lake is situated at an altitude of 12,406 feet. Photo by Sangay Lama Sherpa, map from Datawrapper. The birth of Pokhri Sanrakshan Samiti Tsomgo Lake is situated in the East Sikkim district on the Gangtok-Nathu La Highway and is a part of the ancient southern Silk Route, a trade route connecting India with China. In the Bhutia language, Tso means ‘lake’ while Mgo means ‘head’ literally meaning the source of the lake. The oval-shaped glacial lake, surrounded by steep mountains is covered with snow during winter. Apart from its breathtaking beauty, another reason the lake is so popular among tourists is its convenient location. It lies around 40 kilometres from Sikkim’s capital Gangtok. Around 16 kms from the lake is another popular tourist destination Nathu La pass, which connects Sikkim with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Nathu La is one of the three open trading border posts between India and China. Sangay says, “This area is so popular among tourists because they can visit Changu Lake, Baba ki Mandir (a shrine built in the memory of Indian soldier Harbhajan Singh who was martyred near Nathu La in 1968) and Nathu La and return back to Gangtok on the same day.” However, this convenience and popularity have brought along an influx of tourists which has had a detrimental effect on the lake. At one point, things were so bad that the Sikkim government had to intervene. On August 11, 2006, the Department Of Forest, Environment and Wildlife Management, Government of Sikkim came up with a gazetted notification laying down the guidelines for lake conservation in partnership with Gram Panchayats and Pokhri Sanrakshan Samitis. The notification reads, “And whereas the lakes in the state have immense environment, ecological, cultural, spiritual and economic importance, they are important tourist destinations, also offering livelihood opportunities to the local communities. Whereas impacts of unplanned tourism, unregulated pastoralism and other unregulated human activities pose a serious threat to long term ecological security of these lakes and whereas, these lakes are located in remote high altitude areas and securing the long term future of these lakes is largely dependent on the active participation and involvement of the local community.” Tourists at Tsomgo Lake, Sikkim. Photo from Tsomgo Pokhri Sanrakshan Samiti (TPSS). After the notification, TPSS was the first lake conservation committee to be formed and notified by the forest department of Sikkim. Since then, a PSS has been formed for another wetland in the state – Khecheopalri Lake in West Sikkim. Soon after, WWF-India came on board to provide technical support and help TPSS in framing and designing the work plan. Laktsheden, Landscape Co-ordinator, Khangchendzonga Landscape, WWF-India tells Mongabay-India, “In 2007, the lake was in a really bad shape. When we did a recce of the lake, we found out that all the kitchen wastes from the periphery of the lake was going directly in the lake. Apart from that, there was open defecation and garbage throwing happening around the lake.” As per the guidelines, it was decided that the Ward Panchayat of the area will be the President of the PSS. Speaking about the functioning of the PSS, Rinzing Doma, the incumbent President of TPSS tells Mongabay-India, “There are around 180 households in the three villages in the vicinity of Changu lake. From every household, there are two members in the TPSS. We have also got the Divisional Forest Officer (Territorial), East Sikkim as the Chairman and Range Officer, Kyongnosla as the Member Secretary of TPSS. Other stakeholders like police, drivers association and shopkeepers association are our Executive Members. As per the guidelines, we collect Rs. 10 from every tourist as the Pokhri Sanrakshan Shulk or Lake Conservation Fees. The fees collected are credited with the revolving fund account of TPSS on a monthly basis. 50% of it is transferred to the State Environment Agency and the rest of it is used for the conservation of Tsomgo lake.” At the time when TPSS was being formed, Sangay was looking for a job. “I did my graduation in Commerce from North Bengal University in 2005. I was then working on part-time basis in a bank in Gangtok when I was approached by the Panchayat of my area for the position of Office Secretary of TPSS. As I was interested in working for the conservation of the lake, I accepted the offer.” Sangay gets an honorarium for the work he does as the Office Secretary where his main role is to be the bridge between the government and the community, oversee awareness programmes, maintain accounts and co-ordinate with other stakeholders like police, cab drivers and shop keepers association.