Mountain tourism makes up around 15 to 20 percent of the global tourism industry. Mountains directly support 12 percent of the world population, most of which is in developing countries. Mountains provide 60 to 80 percent of the world’s freshwater. Why then do we do what we do to our mountains? Why do we leave tons of trash every season? Do we realise the enormity of the waste management problem up in the hills? Pradeep Sangwan did and set up Healing Himalayas, a foundation that’s dedicated to purging our mountains of all plastic and garbage by promoting purposeful travel.
“Come on everyone, help me sort it out,” Sangwan recently said through his social media. It’s not enough so far. Seems to me this lifetime isn’t enough, but if we are in it together, I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said the eco-warrior as he sent out a picture of him sitting amid a pile of trash.
On a much less optimistic note than his Instagram post, he tells Condé Nast Traveller, “It will take a lifetime to clear the Himalayas of all the trash. In fact, it would be quite an achievement to be able to accomplish this in a lifetime.”
This photograph was taken in Malana village in Himachal Pradesh, famous for the high-quality marijuaa that’s grown here and, according to Sangwan, one of the filthiest villages in the hills. Stay away from garbage, and let the trash be where it is—that’s the kind of education and mentality that people here have, he says. And we can’t blame them entirely either. The nearest recycling unit is four hours away in Manali.
Since founding Healing Himalayas in 2016, Sangwan and various volunteers have collected over 800 tonnes of waste from the mountains of Himachal Pradesh—around seven times the weight of a blue whale or eight times the weight of a Boeing C 32-A military aircraft. That’s four to five pickup trucks-full of filth every month—1,400kg of plastic waste along treks and 2,200kg from biodiversity parks around Shimla and Manali.
Sangwan’s academic background in Arts doesn’t back what he does today. Born and raised in Haryana and a graduate from Chandigarh, he’s been an avid traveller since his college days. It was a chance encounter with a shepherd on a trek up to Spiti that pushed him to dedicate his life to the mountains and lead as sustainable a lifestyle as possible. Today, he’s instrumental in organising cleanliness drives in the remotest villages of Himachal Pradesh spreading awareness about the need for waste segregation, partnering with ragpickers, local panchayats and forest departments to set up and operate waste collection centres and encouraging so many others to join his cause.
Healing Himalayas releases its calendar of treks and campaigns early in January, inviting volunteers. The foundation operates primarily in Parvati Valley in Kullu district as well in the biodiversity parks around Shimla and Manali.
Non-biodegradables like PET bottles, glass waste and the debris of chips and packets of other snacks all return to a location after Sangwan and his team clear it. However, he firmly believes that there’s been a change in the past four years. “While it doesn’t sustain, the amount of garbage reduces. If there were 100 bottles earlier, the number drops to 60 to 70,” he says.
“There’s no rocket science formula to tackling India’s solid waste management problem, but there are louder voices today about responsible travel. Fearing lower tourist footfall, local communities earlier stayed silent about littering, but that’s seeing a gradual change, too.”
The way forward
Thanks to the influence of social media, everyone wants to be a traveller today, but few want to travel with a purpose, Sangwan says, though no one party can be blamed for the state of the Himalayas. “Local communities and tourists have a 50-50 responsibility towards safeguarding the environment. Travellers have to respect the ecology of a place, and those earning from them are equally accountable for taking care of the destination,” he adds.
Lack of infrastructure and manpower in the local administration are major constraints in the waste management system up in the secluded parts of the hills. The need for small-scale waste collection centres here needs the same push that the establishment of a school, temple or clinic would, Sangwan says. Healing Himalayas is in the process of setting up such waste collection centres in various districts of Himachal Pradesh. It aims to have at least 10 of these operational by 2022.
Coming up with and implementing small-scale solutions is the first priority for the foundation. It conducts door-to-door campaigns to make people aware of the need for waste segregation and use of plastic alternatives, involves ragpickers in the collection of recyclable waste and helps provide villages with the infrastructure required to dispose non-biodegradable material. Sangwan and team also try to bridge the gap between local communities and administrations (forest and tourism departments and panchayats) to get them all involved in making their own land the pristine expanse it once was.