A few years ago, the photo of a man sitting in the middle of a pile of trash in Himachal Pradesh's Malana caught everyone's attention. This tottering tower of filth had created a mountain of its own. This is not the plight of one village but the entire Himalayan region, a tourist haven where increasing urbanisation and tourism have led to growing concerns around waste management.
"On my visits to the region, I was both irked and saddened to see the piles of garbage disfiguring famous trekking spots," says Pradeep Sangwan, the man from the picture. But unlike most people, who simply choose to look the other way, Sangwan decided to take matters into his own hands. His journey began when he asked friends and family to accompany him on treks to help bring the trash collected along the way back to base for proper disposal. It eventually turned into a movement with more volunteers joining him on his treks. These were the founding days of the Healing Himalayas Foundation.
When one thinks of Himalayas, pristine mountains, coniferous trees swaying to the cold breeze, framed by alpine peaks come to mind. But there is more to it than meets the eye. As more and more settlements pepper the range's unique topography, the growing mountain of waste has also issued a clarion call for address. And it is not only about protecting the environment there is a need for concentrated effort to co-exist with nature and adopt an eco-friendly way of life.
The arduous task of cleaning out the trash from the picturesque Himalayas forms the core mission of the Healing Himalayas Foundation (HHF), founded by Sangwan in 2016. Through clean-up drives and waste management, they seek to bring behavioural change at a community level. He and his team embark on relentless journeys and bring back the garbage. So far, HHF has cleared 8,00,000kgs of non-biodegradable waste from the foothills of the Himalayas. And they show no sign of stopping anytime soon.
"We always look out for tourist spots frequented by travellers," explains Sangwan, on how the team picks their clean-up campaign sites. "A key part of the mission involved sensitising tourists, travellers and trekkers, as well as locals, to the urgency of safeguarding the Himalayas from environmental degradation. We conduct 40-50 treks and hikes every year that double up as cleaning drives, during which trekkers pick up waste left by tourists who frequent the region in growing numbers," he adds.
In 2022, Healing Himalayas completed clean-up campaigns in Kaza, Kheerganga, Shimla, Manali, Prashar Rishi lake, Manimahaeshkailash Yatra and Chitkul. Since the drives are conducted in hilly destinations, HHF believes it is imperative to include local communities, volunteers, and concerned departments in the waste collection process.
Picking up discarded bottles and wrappers is only part of the solution to the mountainous garbage problem plaguing the Himalayas. The next step is waste management. The harsh climate, remoteness and limited land availability are key issues that hamper appropriate waste treatment and disposal. To address this, Sangwan and the team at HHF are focussing on building material recovery facilities.
"I want to build material recovery facilities (MRFs) across tourist destinations to create and sustain a circular economy. Waste should be treated and re-used instead of thrown into landfills or burnt in the open air&mdashall the more important in a region as fragile as the Himalayas," says Sangwan. At these facilities, the foundation collects 1.5 tonnes of non-biodegradable waste daily. In the last two years, five such facilities have been in operation at Pooh (Kinnaur District), Tabo (Spiti), Narkanda (Shimla), Mansari (Kullu) and Rakcham. "An MRF is as important as a temple, school or a primary health care centre. From source segregation to the collection, to recycling through an agency, to reintroducing waste as a material, we are achieving our circular economy goals."
Healing Himalayas hopes to create a sustainable waste ecosystem while preserving the Himalayan region's fauna, flora, and natural beauty. Alongside, it is working to raise awareness on, knowledge of and share best practices around solid waste management, with the ultimate aim of enhancing the livelihood prospects and opportunities for the local communities.
Healing Himalayas wants to ensure every trekking route has a system that can audit incoming waste, have collection facilities (MRF), provide information to tourists and trekkers, educate indigenous communities, and in the long run, raise local champions to become torchbearers of sustainability. "I believe this will help considerably reduce the stress that the mountain environment is under, due to high volumes of trekker and pilgrim traffic leaving behind solid waste, polluting water bodies, and disturbing the wild inhabitants on the land and in the water. Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than any mountain range in the world, and we are trying to reverse the effect by reintroducing circular economy in Indian Himalayan ranges," Sangwan iterates.