Politics and people | Don’t destroy the Himalayas for tourism gains
Mr Sanjay, a 40-year-old Pondicherry-based doctor and seasoned hiker, was horrified. While the pristine snow-capped expanses in the distance were a sight to admire and cherish, plastic wrappers, bottles and all sorts of trash filled the roadside slopes near her.
“Villagers accuse trekkers of dirtying this beautiful town of Garhwal, trekkers blame villagers,” she told me. “In this blame game, the environment loses. Unfortunately, people don’t even realize that they will also be affected.”
With more and more Indians choosing to trek (most without any knowledge of sustainable trekking, an understanding of fragile ecosystems, the challenges of waste management in the mountains, and basic civic and common sense), the mountainous regions of India are covered in garbage.
Unfortunately, local communities are also responsible because they are more interested in the jobs (local guides, porters and cooks) that adventure tourism creates than in the environment that sustains them.
Moreover, even though they collect waste, most mountain villages have no decentralized local facility to dispose of waste safely. So they burn or dump the waste on the slopes. And fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies aren’t doing enough to dispose of non-biodegradable waste such as plastic wrappers and bottles.
Uttarakhand HC Ordinance: The Right Step
So I was delighted to read an article in a national newspaper today. On Wednesday, according to the report, the Uttarakhand High Court (HC) halted the state government’s ambitious proposal to open 40 mountains and trails to hikers and ordered the state’s pollution control board to first carry out an environmental audit of the summits.
According to the report, a bench of Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice RD Khulbe issued the order during the hearing of a public interest litigation filed by Almora resident Jitendra Yadav for “ignorance”. and alleged “non-compliance” with the Extended Producer Responsibility Act and the “failure” of authorities to follow solid waste management rules in the state.
In a terse order, the HC said: “While the state should encourage tourism, the effort should be to ensure responsible tourism. This means that before opening such new areas for tourism, a evaluation of the impact of these efforts would be made. …”
This is a large order and the state government must comply with the directive. While it is essential to create jobs, it is equally important to keep the mountain ecosystem clean. Indeed, these mountains provide several ecosystem services – wood, pasture for livestock, drinking water and clean air – that are important for local areas and the country. These are produced by complex processes, maintained by the community of different species and their interactions with each other and with the abiotic environment.
The mountains also have their own microclimate. Its unique fauna and flora have a short reproductive period and are sensitive to disturbance. Too many hikers and tourists can upset the natural balance.
It is not only tourists/hikers but also vehicles commuting to base camps that pollute these areas. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how these factors could lead to permafrost degradation and glacier shrinkage, because every aspect is so dynamic in the mountains. For example, permafrost is permanently frozen ground and occurs mainly in high latitudes, and its melting is known to cause erosion, disappearance of lakes, landslides and ground 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 gain.
Opinions expressed are personal