Jagatsukh, the base for Indiahikes staff for the Hampta Pass and Brighu Lake treks, is a few kilometers outside of Manali. Going to this small village, you leave behind the hustle and bustle of Manali. In exchange you get calming apple orchards, humble streets lined with shops and dhabas selling perfectly crafted momos, and plenty of smiling faces.
The rushing Beas River flows alongside this quiet mountain village, and young school children run through the streets doing their best to disturb that quiet. By all standards, it’s your classic small Himalayan town. That means those humble streets are not only lined with shops and smiling faces, but with litter too.
Scattered trash can be found all over town. It is especially concentrated down by the shore of the river. This is where most people in the community dump their unwanted waste. The abundance of garbage in this otherwise beautiful landscape and how easily villagers drop their trash in the flowing waters, begs the question, “Don’t they care?” Because, at a glance, it certainly seems like they don’t.
Do people really care about waste?
At Indiahikes, we care a lot about waste in the mountains. So, the situation at Jagatsukh bothered us. Considering this was going to be our home for the summer, we wanted to do whatever we could to help the situation in the short time we were there.
One afternoon, I, along with the other Green Trails interns, brought the Indiahikes staff together with community locals to clean the entire village. In only an hour and a half, we were able to remove 250 kg of waste from the streets. This is amazing, right?
However, we feared that without longer term solutions, the village and the river would just get trashed again. So, we decided to conduct educational sessions with the Mahila Mandal on waste segregation. We looped in the local primary school to teach children the importance of protecting the environment. Both met with great enthusiasm!
Through these activities, it became quite clear that the members of this community do care quite a bit about keeping their community and their home clean.
This, then left us wondering, “what is standing in the way of them doing so?” This began our investigation to more deeply understand the waste management issues that mountain villages across the Himalayas face.
Understanding the problem of waste at Jagatsukh
Jagatsukh’s problem can be explained in a single line – it does not have a waste collection service. Locals are left to deal with their garbage on their own. The easy thing for them to do is to burn it or dump it in the river.
Armed with this knowledge, we approached Jagatsukh’s Pradhan about developing a private waste management system for the village. One in which we could build community dustbins where villagers could dump their waste. Once a week, a truck would pick up the waste from the dustbins and take the recyclables to the local kabadiwallah and the non-recyclables to the dumpyard at Manali. We proposed that the cost of the truck would be split equally amongst all interested members of the community.
Roadblocks to Waste Management in Jagatsukh
The Pradhan was keen on the idea to see his village become cleaner. He was also certain that villagers would commit money to the project if he recommended it. However, he raised a few points as to why this would not work:
- Poor Waste Management in Manali: The Pradhan argued that Manali barely has enough space to accommodate its own trash. They certainly wouldn’t have enough room to accept Jagatsukh’s waste as well. “Even if they do accept it”, he went on, “half of the waste in the dump spills out into the river anyways. Meaning that it really makes no difference if our waste is dumped by the river in our village, or transported to Manali and dumped by the river there.”
- No Funding for Waste Management: He told us that Kullu District allocates a budget to the village for waste management purposes. Due to corruption, the village never sees any of it.
- No Space for the Dustbin: Lastly, he recalled two prior occasions where they had tried to build community dustbins in the village. Due to uncertainty around private vs. public property, they built the dustbins on private property and were asked to remove them. The only place they were certain was government land was along the river. However, government policy does not allow any structure to be built 25m of the river, making it illegal to build a dustbin there.
Disheartened by this meeting with the Pradhan, we left his office with our heads down like Charlie Brown on a bad day. But, we certainly weren’t going to give up.
We had a few other ideas up our sleeves, but first we wanted to check if his claims regarding the Manali dump were founded in truth. A few days later, we followed the scent of garbage and wound up where few visitors to Manali ever try to go – the dump!
Is waste management any different in larger towns like Manali?
Manali, though a large tourist destination, is clean in comparison to smaller places such as Jagatsukh. The reason for that is the “Green Tax.” Everyone in the city pays a small tax which allows for the government to collect municipal waste within the city limits and take it to the local dump.
About 3 km down the road from the Bus Stand, the Manali dump is a relatively small facility. It is hidden from public view behind a length of brick wall. What we saw once we entered the dump was quite shocking.
Trash was overflowing from every corner of the facility. Rusted and busted old bicycles, frayed electrical wires, rotting organics, shattered glass, outdated toys – anything and everything you can imagine was swimming in this massive pile of waste. After walking around a bit, we were able to see what the Pradhan was talking about – the dump was desperately short on space.
In some areas, the trash was pushing over the wall separating the dump from the river just 5 meters away. We continued to explore, until we struck up a conversation with the staff, who were quite surprised to see us casually strolling around.
They were a scrappy bunch, these trashmen. Skinny gentlemen, wearing clothes with holes in them, covered in all sorts of unknown substances, and continually followed by a swarm of flies, but incredibly friendly and helpful nonetheless.
They told us that the municipal corporation of Manali controls the dump, with the city’s mayor at the helm. Periodically, the municipal corporation puts out a tender for a private company to manage the facility. The company that posts the most competitive price, gets the job. The intense competition leads to very low-cost proposals being made, which the workers said, are insufficient to run the dump properly. In July, the tender was 145,000 INR per month.
The dump collects waste from all over Manali. Residences get their waste collected for free. Shopkeepers and hotels have to bring their waste to the dump themselves and they have to pay to dump.
At the dump, the waste is segregated by plastic bottles, tin cans, cardboards, glass and organic waste. The non-recyclable and non-organic materials are collected in the dump. All the organic waste is buried inside pits, kept there for a year underneath a cover, made into manure, and then sold. The recyclable materials are sold to kabadiwallahs.
However, if recyclable materials are too dirty when brought to the dump, the staff do not segregate them. Looking around the dump, we could see significant amounts of recyclables that had not been segregated. Despite a national law requiring separation of wet (organic) and dry (non-organic) waste, that practice was not being followed in Manali. All the waste arrived together in one dirty mess.
Asked what problems they faced at the dump, the still-smiling workers answered that there is not enough space to store the waste. As far as they knew, there was no plan to expand or move the dump to a new location anytime soon.
For some time, a foreign company has been planning to build an incineration “waste to energy” plant in Manali to deal with the overflowing waste. They visit the dump occasionally, asks questions but haven’t acted on anything yet.
Additionally, the workers said that the conditions at the dump are too dirty and unsafe. The contract that the government signed doesn’t give enough funding to the company to manage the dump properly. They recognized that their work was inherently dirty, but they felt as if they were being subjected to extreme circumstances.
Is there a way ahead?
Leaving the dump, we couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by the enormity of tackling waste management issues in the Himalayas. Naively, we had thought we could come into Jagatsukh and help solve their waste problems in just one summer. But, after talking with the Pradhan and the workers at the dump, we realized that these issues go way beyond Indiahikes and way beyond whether or not villagers care to keep their communities clean.
Even if villagers collect and segregate all their waste, and Indiahikes removes all their waste from the mountains, if the government does not establish and maintain safe and environmentally beneficial means of managing that waste, the villagers’ and our efforts are for naught. Furthermore, issues of landfill management, lack of space, and corruption are causing trouble across the Himalayas, not just in Jagatsukh.
Feeling overwhelmed for some time, we went to eat away our worries at a local Manali bakery. After a donut and some cookies, we realized that, yes, these are large scale issues that ultimately need high level government involvement. But that may never come unless there is a true demand for it. Our work to ignite a passion for cleaning the Himalayas amongst trekkers and mountain locals is the spark that will light the fire under government officials to get them moving!
With full bellies, and calmed minds, we took the rickety bus back to Jagatsukh. We gazed happily at the calming apple orchards, humble streets lined with shops and dhabas selling perfectly crafted momos, and plenty of smiling faces, and couldn’t help but feel reinvigorated to do this important work.