M Sanjay, a 40-year-old doctor from Pondicherry and a seasoned hiker, was horrified. While the snow-capped pristine ridges in the distance were a sight to admire and love, plastic wrap, bottles and all manner of trash filled the roadside slopes near her.
“The villagers blame the trekkers for the pollution of this beautiful city of Garhwal, the trekkers blame the villagers,” she told me. “In this blame game, the environment loses. Unfortunately, people don’t even realize that they too will be affected.”
With more and more Indians choosing to travel (mostly without any knowledge of sustainable treks, understanding of fragile ecosystems, challenges of mountain waste management and basic civics and common sense), India’s mountainous regions are becoming littered.
Unfortunately, local communities are equally responsible because they care more about the jobs (local guides, porters and cooks) that adventure tourism creates than the environment that supports them.
Furthermore, even if they do collect garbage, most mountain villages do not have a local, decentralized facility for safe garbage disposal. So, they either burn or dump the garbage on the slopes. And fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies are not doing enough to eliminate non-biodegradable waste such as packaging and plastic bottles.
Uttarakhand HC order: The right step
So, I was delighted to read a story in a national paper today. On Wednesday, the report said, the Uttarakhand High Court (HC) stayed the state government’s ambitious proposal to open 40 mountains and trails to tourists and directed the state pollution control board to first conduct an environmental audit of the peaks.
According to the report, a bench of Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice RD Khulbe issued the order while hearing a Public Interest Litigation filed by Almora resident Jitendra Yadav for alleged “ignorance” and “non-compliance” of the Extended Producer Responsibility Act and ” non-compliance with solid waste management rules by state authorities.
In a brief order, the HC said, “While the state should promote tourism, the aspiration should be to ensure responsible tourism. This means that before such new areas are opened to tourism, an assessment will be made of the impact these ventures would have. …”
This is an important order and the government should comply with the directive. While job creation is essential, keeping the mountain ecosystem clean is equally important. That’s because these mountains provide several ecosystem services—timber, livestock grazing, drinking water, and clean air—that are important to local areas and the country. They are produced by complex processes maintained by the community of different species and their interactions among themselves and with the abiotic environment.
Mountains also have their own microclimate. Its unique fauna and flora have a short reproductive period and are sensitive to disturbance. Too many travelers and tourists can disturb the natural balance.
Not only the tourists/trekkers but also the vehicles that travel to the base camps pollute these areas. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how these factors could lead to permafrost degradation and glacier shrinkage, since every aspect is so dynamic in the mountains. For example, permafrost is permanently frozen soil and occurs mostly in high latitudes, and its melting is known to cause erosion, disappearing lakes, landslides, and land subsidence.
In a climate-affected world, India must do its bit—and more—to save these important and fragile mountain ecosystems, not destroy them for short-term economic and political gains.
Opinions expressed are personal