Green trails is Indiahikes’ mission to revolutionise trekking in an eco-friendly and sustainable way such that our impact on the environment is minimum
Adjacent to the Vishansar lake, at a height of 12,000 feet, Nayan and his team of trekkers are doing something unconventional. To a person witnessing this for the first time, this might look completely bizarre. Nayan is the trek leader with Indiahikes and is leading a team of 24 trekkers on the world-famous Kashmir Great Lakes in the northern reaches of Kashmir. At 7 in the morning, amidst the lush green surroundings, every trekker is equipped with a green, waist fitting bag and they are collecting plastic, non-biodegradable waste from the area around their campsite. The bag reads “Eco Bag’.
The trekkers had spent last night at this place, which is used by several other trekking groups for an overnight stay. In the morning, before leaving the campsite, every trekker goes around the area, looking for any traces of plastic and non-biodegradable waste, which are unwanted in the pristine mountains. Nayan explains, “Lot of people come to these mountains for getting close to nature. In the revelry and joy of being in these picturesque surroundings, we forget that our waste footprints will leave a permanent damage to these mountains. Mountains don’t have any place for plastic wrappers and hence, they should be taken back.” He says that Indiahikes has this policy of leaving zero waste in the mountains. “However, it’s also our responsibility to carry out the waste left by others.”
Once every trekker has filled the Eco Bag with wastes like wrappers, polythene bags, wet wipes, etc, they empty it in a larger sack. Nayan measures it with his scale and shouts, “Its 5.5 kgs folks, our maximum till date.” This sack is then tied to a mule and later transported to the base camp where it is emptied along with numerous other sacks, collected during the trek duration. For Indiahikes, this is a part of their Green Trails programme, which is aimed at keeping trekking in Himalayas sustainable.
Mountains bear the brunt
Trekking in India has seen a boom in recent times. There hasn’t been a concerted approach to find out the exact number of trekkers reaching the mountains. According to the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI), the growth in the domestic business has been around 30 per cent and the incoming international growth, 10 per cent. In 2016, Nielsen did a report for the Ministry of Tourism, in which it was stated that trekking, among all land-based adventure sports, is a far bigger draw than rock climbing, mountain biking, etc.
There are many organisations such as Indiahikes, Trek the Himalayas, Travel the Himalayas, and SilverSteps, to name a few, which conduct organised treks to specific locations. Still, trekking remains an unorganised sector with thousands of smaller operators who provide local guides, cooks, porters and mules to DIY trekkers. Though state forests departments keep a tab on the entry of trekkers into these restricted areas, many go into the mountains without their knowledge. Once, people are out there in the mountains, there is no restriction or watch on trashing, especially of the non-biodegradable kind.
Taking this menace into cognisance, Uttarakhand High Court put a ban on a night stay in high meadows of the state. It also passed a mandate limiting the number of tourists visiting there. On August 21, the Uttarakhand High Court ordered the state government to remove all permanent arrangements from the alpine and sub-alpine grasslands and meadows within three months, including Aali-Bedini-Bagzi Bugyals (grasslands) in the state. A bench of justice, comprising Rajiv Sharma and Lokpal Singh, capped the number of visitors visiting the high meadows to 200. The order banned commercial grazing of cattle on all types of alpine meadows.
Due to this decision, there was a distress amongst the people. A complete trekking ban in Uttarakhand meant people moving from Uttarakhand and going to other adventurous places like Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir and Leh. The locals of Uttarakhand relied heavily on the big and booming adventure travel industry. The locals were unemployed due to this decision and also filed the petition against the order. The government of Uttarakhand also challenged the order as it takes away the right to livelihood from thousands of people across the state. The blanket ban was later lifted.
A 2013 World Bank report mentioned that the fragile Himalayas are facing the brunt of climate change, which will have devastating effects on the biodiversity and natural ecosystems of the area.“Mountains have their own microclimate. Its unique fauna and flora have a short reproductive time frame and are sensitive to disturbance. Too many trekkers and tourists will upset the natural balance,” explained Parveen Kaswan, a senior Indian Forest Service official.
The whole state of affairs point to a serious concern of trashing in Himalayas. Banning cannot be a solution as thousands of lives are dependent on trekking and other adventure sports in the mountains. Arjun Majumdar, founder of Indiahikes, says, “We knew that sustainable trekking is the only option. We can’t keep choking the mountains with our trash. Almost 8 years back, we started with ‘Green Trails’ project, which has now grown into a semi organisation in itself. Green Trails is our mission to revolutionise trekking in an eco-friendly and sustainable way such that our impact on the environment is minimum”.
Who will clean the mess?
One of the key aspects of Green Trail is cleaning of the campsite and trails by the trekkers. The collected waste is then brought to the segregation facilities at Lohajung and Jaubhari. The plastic waste is then segregated into different categories for reuse, recycle or upcycle. The local teams have come up with some really innovative measures, preventing the plastic waste from going to the landfills. Some of the plastic waste is cleaned and shredded into small pieces. These are then filled inside a cloth bag to make plastic pillows which come quite handy during travelling and trekking. People can buy these pillows at Indiahikes centres.
Another use of plastic waste is to create eco-bricks, which are plastic bottles packed tightly with plastic waste. These eco-bricks can be used for small construction and decorative purposes in parks and other public spaces. Indiahikes also conducts regular waste collection drives in different trekking routes with the help of Green Trails volunteers. Till date, the organisation has collected more than 32,000 kg of waste from the mountains. Along with waste collection and upcycling, the organisation is also involved in composting, rainwater harvesting, setting up dustbins for waste segregation at source, etc. It has been composting more than 20,000 kg of wet waste from the mountains.
However, Majumdar believes that real change will come through education. Hence, they are focusing on creating sustainable models of waste collection, segregation and upcycling in villages. They have also been involving school students in their Green Trails campaign. Along with conducting awareness sessions in the schools, students are also made part of the waste collection drives and tree plantation. One of the biggest champions of the cause of sustainable trekking are the actual trekkers who see the transformation through their eyes.
Bhavesh Akula from Hyderabad is one of them. He went to Sandakphu trek with Indiahikes in March 2018. He was so inspired by the concept of Green Trails, that he came back to Hyderabad and started composting for his own kitchen garden. “That trek made me realise the cost our nature is bearing for our adventures and adrenaline rush. I could have never realised that in my urban lifestyle I am generating tons of waste every year without even feeling guilty about it. Composting was the first step. I have started reducing my waste footprint by minimising consumption also. Earlier I used to order food from outside every alternate day. But, in the last 6 months, I have ordered only twice. I have saved so much of plastic cutleries from going into the landfills”, explains Bhavesh. He also quips, “During the trek, I became so habituated of picking up plastic on the route that the habit continued back in Hyderabad too. People look at me in disbelief, but I hope that something will change inside them.”
Bhavesh is right. A small change will someday culminate into something large. An organisation or an individual will not suffice in reducing the plethora of waste in the mountains. In June, the tourism ministry along with ATOAI released the Indian Adventure Tourism Guidelines, which talk about the need to adhere to sustainable practices and protect the mountains. The onus of implementation is on the Himalayan states which are often short of staff and waste management and recycling systems.
Another man, Pradeep Sangwan understood the pain of mountain ecosystem during his multiple treks. In 2009, he decided to shift to the Himalayas and do something about it. One of the first things that he did was to start a homestay in Manali to support himself. In 2016, he launched The Healing Himalayas Foundation, hoping to find like-minded individuals to join hands in his noble endeavour. The Healing Himalayas community comprises volunteers who join Pradeep and his core team on their expeditions to Kheerganga, Chandrataal, Manimahesh, Srikhand Mahadev, Jogini Falls, Hampta Pass and other popular trekking and religious routes.
The entire process works in a cycle of a few months when plastic waste like abandoned tents, bottles, plates, bags etc. are collected in jute bags and brought down to the base village. Along with the help of the villagers, these wastes are transported to two recycling plants in Himachal, where electricity is generated through waste to energy conversion. The Government has intervened to supply this electricity to the surrounding villages, thereby promoting the use of sustainable energy.
Sangwan narrates, “Today people are flocking to the mountains in hordes but leaving behind a huge mess. Instead of inhaling the fresh mountain air, they want to drink, smoke and have chicken biryani while playing loud music around a bonfire.” He added that the popular pilgrimage routes like Kheerganga or Manimahesh are the worst polluted as most of the pilgrims are least eco-sensitive. “Pilgrimage routes demand more serious attention than the trekking routes.”
Waste Warriors is another organisation which runs waste collection drives in Dehradun, Dharamsala and Corbett. It was started by Jodie Underhill who came to India in December 2008, travelled around India as a tourist and then volunteered at the Tibetan Children’s Village in Dharamsala. The garbage situation was something that bothered her every single day, so in April 2009 she decided to do something about it. Jodie’s first mass clean up in McLeod Ganj, the home of HH the Dalai Lama, was attended by over 100 people and it proved to her she wasn’t the only person who wanted a cleaner India. She says, “I didn’t choose garbage, it chose me! When I witnessed how severe India’s garbage problem is, it completely broke my heart. I also realised then that I’d found my life’s mission.”
Change is slow, but visible
Sustainable tourism and trekking is a humongous challenge because of its scale and the underlying behavioural issues. However, in recent times, heads are tilting and administration is also taking due notice. In Triund, the Himachal Pradesh forest department conducted a raid in June and recovered alcohol and drugs. It is now charging trekkers Rs 50 per person for going to Triund and also keeping a tab on the number of plastic bottles they are carrying with them and how many they are depositing at the forest check post while exiting the trek. In May 2018, following a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order, the forest department has also stopped camping and eating in the Kheerganga trail, a popular route near Manali. In Uttarakhand, the forest department has enforced a plastic ban in the Valley of Flowers and any violation will invite a penalty of Rs10,000.
Other measures to counter the problem can include financial penalties on erring trekkers based on the polluters’ pay principle, sensitisation programmes for trekkers and hill communities, and community-based local waste management infrastructure in the mountains.” It is important to educate operators and a tourist as it is a win-win situation for both if they follow the guidelines,” said Swadesh Kumar of ATOAI. “The economic benefit that tourism provides to the remote villages is an important aspect of trekking and mountaineering tourism. Most of these areas have no other opportunities for the local communities and adventure tourism provides a wider opportunity for them to grow”.
In the coming years, a sustained and concerted effort to sensitise the trekkers, tourists and pilgrims is the only way to save the mountains. Administration and tourist operators have their responsibilities. But, like any other large behavioural change program, the onus is also on the people. We must learn not to extract more from the environment than our fair share.
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