The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) spans over 5.37 lakh square kilometres, nearly 16.2% of the total geographical area of the country. Administratively, the ten states i.e. Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya are fully covered in Indian Himalayan Region, while West Bengal and Assam are partially covered including only the hill districts. 1 This region has a rich forest cover with more than 41.5% of its geographical area under forest cover representing one-third of the total forest cover in India. The region ansi forms a large portion of the Himalayan biodiversity hotspot and is home to some of the most important shrines and places of tourist interest.
Mountain tourism in the Himalayan States has been a major cause of environmental degradation and pollution of water sources in the region. In November last year, the 10 states had produced 17.5 lakh metric tonnes of waste. Plastic dumping is exacerbated, by the absence of adequate waste management infrastructure and implementation of solid waste management rules due to which waste contaminates the springs and water bodies in the mountains.
Out of the 17.5 lakh metric tonnes of waste, merely 5.4 lakh metric tonnes was processed. That is roughly more than two-thirds of the total waste produced in the 10 Himalayan states of the country is not processed and ends up in landfills and pits, according to the data presented in the Parliament by the Union Ministry of environment , forests and climate change. State-wise statistics show that the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) generates the most waste among the 10 states producing 5 lakh metric tonnes of waste. Statistics of processing are just as alarming. In J&K, 8% of plastic waste is processed, Mizoram is 4%, Sikkim 66%, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand (40%). 2 Thus a major part of the waste produced is either dumped in landfills or lies strewn across the mountains.
There have been some policy level changes in a few states, but implementation is a key challenge. Uttarakhand for example, has 13 districts, but only one waste management plant in Dehradun. In 2016, the government of Uttarakhand revised the rules of solid waste management and notified some specific and categorical provisions for solid waste management in hilly areas. According to these rules, “construction of landfill on the hill shall be avoided and a suitable land shall be identified in the plain areas down the hill within 25 kilometres.”. “In case of non-availability of such land” the rules say, “efforts shall be made to set up regional sanitary landfill for the inert and residual waste.” 3 Recently in 2019, the Uttarakhand government set a one-year deadline to dispose off around 28 lakh metric tonnes of waste that has been piling up over 20 years. This is a mammoth task. The state government is opting to treat the waste in different ways, by using it to generate electricity, biogas, etc. More states need to follow suit.
We as citizens also need to play our part by not littering and making sure to discard plastic and other waste material only in bins. Educating those who run tea shops the importance of reducing, reusing and recycling plastic can also go a long way. So would innovative and creative ideas along with determined and persistent action such as providing incentives to set up environmentally-friendly businesses might also help.
The next time you visit the Himalayas on a vacation make sure you minimise your carbon footprint by opting for eco-friendly practices and remaining ecologically sensitive in the use and disposal of any waste. After all, the beauty lies in the pristine clear mountain ranges, not in the plastic that covers them.