Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the Himalayas

How we have turned the Himalayas into a garbage dump


Just imagine the scale in India; all the popular hill stations and pilgrimage sites located in the Himalayan states are now recovering from a deluge of summer visitors and trying to clean up the garbage they left behind. Photo: AFP
Just imagine the scale in India; all the popular hill stations and pilgrimage sites located in the Himalayan states are now recovering from a deluge of summer visitors and trying to clean up the garbage they left behind. Photo: AFP

For most Indians, the summer holidays are over with schools reopening and college admissions under way. Many would have travelled to the hills for a hard-earned break—for trekking, rafting, fishing or simply for a view of the snow-capped peaks. Some would also have been on a pilgrimage.

Last month, I too took off to the Himalayan wilderness for my annual fix of birding and returned satisfied with a couple of lifers (birds seen for the first time) to add to my life list (checklist of all birds seen). Unfortunately, this was the only nice thing I experienced in the Himalayan highlands.

After almost a decade, I had the opportunity to revisit one of my favourite birding spots—a wildlife sanctuary adjacent to a popular pilgrimage spot, at an altitude of 3,500 meters (or approximately 11,500 ft) in Uttarakhand. I went with vivid images stored in my memory of hiking through pristine meadows (locally known as bugiyals), rhododendron bushes and the steep climb.

To my dismay, I found the landscape had changed. Where once lush green meadows folded into little hillocks, there are ugly tourist tents and eateries that have come up to provide food and refreshments to tourists, mostly pilgrims to the famous shrine.

Over the years, the number of tourists has increased. Every stream and rivulet in the region is getting choked with heaps of plastic, beer cans, chewing tobacco packets, alcohol bottles and food waste. Tons of rubbish litter trekking paths, streams, meadows and roads. Locals seem to be unperturbed by the mess as long as the cash flows in. The same tourists who’d come to soak in the beauty of nature callously turn it into a dumping ground. So much for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Do we really care for our environment?

You may have read about tons of garbage on the Everest climbing route in Nepal. Just imagine the scale in India; all the popular hill stations and pilgrimage sites located in the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are now recovering from a deluge of summer visitors and trying to clean up the garbage they left behind. I hear that there are no off-beat places in the mountains anymore; they are long gone, swamped by humanity.

Every second person you meet today is a biker or a car owner who loves to drive up the mountains but without the slightest idea of road rules or right of way—the safety net for every driver on the long, winding mountain roads and treacherous hairpin bends. Thus mangled and twisted car wrecks were a frequent sight on the roads, at times leading to massive traffic snarls that take hours to clear. It’s high time motorists driving up to the mountains start respecting the roads they are on. Mountains should be a joy to behold, not a finishing line you race to reach.

The number of cars driving up has increased so much that it added hours to my journey. I reached my destination in two days instead of a day, thanks to mile-long traffic jams on narrow serpentine Himalayan roads. In a decade, the regular influx of tourists, lack of awareness about the need to protect the fragile environment and increase in commerce have ruined the tranquility of the mountains.

The trash in our mountains is a reflection of our society, our lack of civic sense and how little we care for our environment. Some of us marvel at the Swiss Alps. The Swiss have kept them clean and pristine; when it comes to the Himalayas, we have somehow lost the plot.

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