Pollution and garbage greet tourists on Himalayan treks

Banning loud music and cooking in the higher reaches can go a long way in maintaining the fragile ecosystem  

By Abhishek Bhati
Published: Wednesday 12 August 2015

 Restricting the use of vehicles and promoting trekking on foot in the Himalayas can protect the fragile ecosystem
Credit: Sam Hawley/Flickr

On my journey to Chandertal Lake in Himachal Pradesh this summer, I found how the pristine beauty of the Himalayas was marred by pollution and heaps of garbage.

The lake, which is situated at a height of 4,200 metres from the sea level, is a popular trekking destination. My first stopover was at the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation’s (HPTDC) hotel in Swarghat.

Though the stay was comfortable and I got hot water for bathing, it was disappointing to find the use of plastic water bottles at the place. Just behind the hotel, garbage mixed with rainwater was making its way towards the Sutlej river.

Despite my initial disappointment, I continued on my journey to Chandertal via Manali. After spending a night there, I tried to get a permit to cross the Rohtang Pass.

The recent law passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) allows only 1,000 vehicles to cross the Pass daily. Though it is a welcome step designed to protect the fragile environment, the current process is cumbersome and time consuming.

One has to stand in a queue for hours at the sub-divisional magistrate’s (SDM) office to get the permit. The bureaucratic red tape can be smoothened by introducing e-permission.

If the process of getting permission to visit the Rashtrapati Bhavan is so efficient, I don’t see why the permission to cross the Rohtang Pass is still based on archaic procedures of submitting documents a day before to obtain the permit.

The entire process is not only inefficient and frustrating, but also opens up the possibility of corruption and harassment of tourists by middlemen.

As I crossed the Rohtang Pass to go to Gramphu (a point of diversion for going to Keylong Valley and Lahaul/Spiti Valley), potholes on the road greeted me. I had to climb out of the vehicle several times so that it can easily pass along the places dotted by waterfalls. 

Finally, after a tiresome journey of around 150 kilometres (12 hours), I reached the meadow of Chandertal. Initially, I was glad to hear that nobody was allowed to camp near the Chandertal Lake for fear of polluting the environment.

Having trekked to Roopkund Lake two years ago where I witnessed environmental damages due to over-commercialisation of trekking (read Wrong Trek), I was surprised to see clear blue water and no sign of plastics in and around the lake.

After spending some time in the lake area, I climbed a small hill and saw the peaks of the mesmerizing Chandra Bhaga mountain range in the distance.

Though at that moment, I felt it was “worth it” to come to Chandertal, I got a rude shock when I decided to head back towards the meadow.

When I reached there, the number of tents and vehicles parked at the site disturbed me. There were at least 40 tents erected in an area of only four square kilometres and around 100 people camped there at night.

It would take years for the human excreta of these tourists to decompose at such a high altitude. Further, it will contaminate the nearby water sources and spread water-borne diseases among the locals.

As food was being prepared in the tent around 6.30 pm in the evening, I heard loud music in the meadow. The tranquility of the place was broken and it seemed like a marriage ceremony with a DJ playing Bacchanalian songs.

The anchor was shouting at the top of his voice, “Aaj ki raat, Chandertal ke naam” (Let us dedicate the night to Chandertaal).

As if loud music was not enough, some of the tourists expected food similar to the kind served in a Punjabi dhaba. The expectation of having a similar kind food served in the plains in high altitude areas also gradually leads to environmental damage.

Instead of cooking, tourists should be encouraged to eat processed food so that the amount of cargo carried from plains to the hills can be reduced.

The music continued till midnight and disturbed the tranquility of the place. I wondered how disturbing high decibels can be to animals living in the meadow or whether they have all gone deaf!

As more and more I trek in the Himalayas, I think about how tourists can enjoy the beauty of the mountains while at the same time preserving the fragile environment.

Obviously, restricting trekking or travelling in not a solution. Rather, I think the answer lies in restricting the use of vehicles and promoting trekking on foot.

On my way to Chandertal, I noticed several taxis carrying only two to three passengers. If the vehicles carry five to six tourists, it will reduce the number of cars plying in the area.

When it comes to fees, it should be charged per person rather than per car and foreign tourists should pay at least three times higher than Indian citizens as they have higher purchasing power than Indians.

When it comes to Indians, many do not keep the environment clean and spreading awareness about environmental degradation, especially in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, becomes important.

Coming back to fees, whatever is collected should be handed over to environmental groups so that they can ensure the protection of the environment.

While entering Manali, tourists have to pay green tax, but there is no clarity on how the money is used. Tourists, who visit the higher reaches of the Himalayas, will be ready to pay higher amounts if they know that their money will be used for a right cause.

The Himachal Pradesh government can set up an online monitoring system and ensure transparency regarding what happens to the so-called green tax.

To tackle noise pollution, a complete ban should be announced on the use of loudspeakers in the higher regions and meadows.

The government should announce a helpline number where tourists can complain if other visitors or tent owners break the rules.

Local taxi drivers and tent owners should be educated how in long run commercialisation of trekking routes will be detrimental to their growth, as they are the ones who depend on the beautiful mountains to earn their livelihood.

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