M Sanjay, a 40-year-old doctor from Pondicherry and an experienced trekker, was horrified. While the snow-capped pristine mountain ranges in the distance were a sight to be admired and cherished, plastic wrap, bottles and all sorts of trash filled the roadsides near them.
“The villagers blame the trekkers for polluting 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 will be affected too.”
As more Indians choose to trek (most with no knowledge of sustainable trekking, an understanding of the fragile ecosystems, the challenges of waste management in the mountains, and basic common sense and common sense), India’s mountainous regions are becoming littered.
Unfortunately, local communities are equally responsible as they are more interested in the jobs (local guides, porters and cooks) that adventure tourism creates than the environment that sustains them.
Furthermore, even if they collect the garbage, most mountain villages do not have local, decentralized facilities to dispose of the garbage safely. So they burn the rubbish or throw it on the slopes. And fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies aren’t making enough efforts to remove non-biodegradable waste like packaging and plastic bottles.
Order Uttarakhand HC: The right move
So I was delighted to read a story in a national newspaper today. On Wednesday, the report said, the Uttarakhand High Court (HC) stopped the state government’s ambitious proposal to open 40 mountains and trails to hikers and ordered the state environmental protection agency to conduct an environmental assessment of the peaks first.
According to the report, a chamber of Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice RD Khulbe issued the order while hearing a public interest lawsuit brought by Jitendra Yadav of Almora for alleged “ignorance” and “failure to comply” with the Extended Producer Responsibility Act and the authorities’ “failure” to follow the state’s waste management rules.
In a terse order, the HC said: “While the state should encourage tourism, the aim should be to ensure responsible tourism. This means that before opening up such new areas for tourism, an assessment would be made of the impact of such efforts…”
This is a significant order and the state government must comply with the directive. While job creation is essential, keeping the mountain ecosystem clean is just as important. This is because these mountains provide multiple ecosystem services – timber, cattle grazing, drinking water and clean air – that are important to the local areas and country. These are produced by complex processes maintained by the community of different species and their interactions between them and with the abiotic environment.
Mountains also have their microclimate. Its unique fauna and flora has a short reproductive window and is sensitive to disturbance. Too many hikers and tourists can disturb the natural balance.
It’s not only tourists/hikers, but also vehicles that commute to the base camps and pollute these areas. Unfortunately, since everything is so dynamic in the mountains, we still don’t know how these factors can lead to the depletion of permafrost and the shrinking of glaciers. For example, permafrost is permanently frozen ground found mainly at high latitudes, and its melting is known to cause erosion, lake disappearance, landslides and subsidence.
In a climate-affected world, India must do its part – and more – to save these important and fragile mountain ecosystems, not destroy them for short-term economic and political gains.
The views expressed are personal