High on the Himalayas
(but choking them with love)!!

Yash Magan Shethia, WWF-India

Day had broken already and wanting to make the most from the first mover advantage, I decided to set off on my own to explore the surroundings. It was already dark by the time we (my family and I) had reached Chug Valley Homestay in Samtu village the previous day and I had little idea of what our surroundings looked like.

Samtu lies in Chug Valley and is not too far from Dirang which is around ten kilometers away. Dirang in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh has emerged as a popular tourist destination in recent years with many visitors from all over the country and the world too staying to see the relatively new but magnificent Thupsung Dhargye Ling monastery.

We had deliberately decided not to stay in Dirang with its narrow roads, vehicles and crowd but chose to drive a little further and stay in the village with Rinchin Zomba and her family at their homestay in Samtu. The hosts stay in one room and have another two for guests, they also have a couple of tents pitched on a patch of land across the road, a big and clean kitchen and a comfortable lounge with large windows and a lovely view where guests can relax, mingle and partake both traditional and even regular touristy meals.

As I walked out, I saw just across the road another homestay facility, I later learned that this one too had recently opened, and my eyes fell on a small heap of trash just outside of it, it comprised mostly empty glass and plastic bottles - alcohol bottles, aerated beverages and drinking water bottles, a jarring site in an otherwise eye pleasing vista comprising forest covered mountains, streams and rivulets, farms, and homes.

I thought back to a conversation I had had with colleagues from the Western Himalayas Programme of WWF-India on a visit to Leh in 2019. At the time 30000 plastic bottles were being discarded per day during the tourism season that spans the summer months, apparently that number has now gone up to 50000 bottles each day.

The Government of Arunachal Pradesh, very rightly in my opinion, has decided to promote homestays and the guidelines issued by the Directorate of Tourism acknowledge that with most sites of tourist interest in the state located in remote areas and over which local communities enjoy custodianship it is best to promote community based tourism (CBT).

Promotion of CBT provides locals with more income generating opportunities and also enables them to showcase the rich and diverse local culture. However, as the trash heap show there is a gap between vision and how things might unfold on the ground. While many locals have moved to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the state support for CBT and tourism overall and as hundreds of thousands of eager tourists now make their way to the state each year to enjoy its natural beauty and cultural heritage, the local communities and state agencies will need to plan how best to deal with and ideally avoid the mountains of waste that the tourists generate and even worse leave behind.

While COVID-19 certainly led to a slump in tourist arrivals to the state, less than 50,000 in 2020, Arunachal Pradesh had half a million visitors in 2019 and numbers were up in 2021 to a little over 100,000 (Ministry of Tourism, Government of India) and numbers for 2022 are likely to be higher than for 2021, reasons enough for the state and its peoples and even the visitors to remain concerned about waste generation, its management and importantly reduction in waste.

It is not as if the guidelines are silent on the issue, the District Tourism Officer is responsible for marking and monitoring the functioning of all homestays in a district and this includes rating the homestay on the waste management practices adopted. It is obvious, however that homestay owners, the Tourism Directorate and other stakeholders are struggling. And while they must do their bit, I believe tourists must take on some responsibility too.

As tourists when visiting an ecologically fragile region, can we not:

  1. Forsake for that period the urge to buy and consume packets of chips, cuppa noodles and biscuits shipped from distant places in the plains and brought to the hills only for the packets to be discarded all over once we have munched our way through the contents?
  2. And should it be an urge too difficult to resist, atleast keep the trash in one place and deposit it in designated Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) or other designated sites where waste can be deposited and dealt with in a somewhat organized fashion rather than strewn all over. MRFs are sorting centres for dry waste and states such as Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have begun to set these up but its early days still for these supply side solutions.
  3. Desist from buying packaged drinking water and fruit and fizzy drinks in plastic bottles and Tetra Pak and carry our own water-bottles? Understandably state and local authorities and hoteliers, home stay operators and restaurants will then need to ensure that tourists are supplied with clean drinking water.
  4. For the tipplers among us, I highly recommend the endless cups of chaang, the local equivalent of beer which most homestay owners in Arunachal Pradesh will happily ply you with solving for them the challenge of having to discard used alcohol bottles.
I borrow a quote shared with me by a friend and colleague who is among the most passionate Waste Warriors I know; she has used this quote in a booklet on waste management she and colleagues from WWF-India’s Khanchendzonga Landscape have put together recently on waste management in the Himalayas.

“There is no such thing as away, when we throw anything away, it has to go somewhere”

It is by Annie Leonard, creator of the animated film The Story of Stuff and co-Executive Director of Greenpeace USA.

As we all look forward to ushering in another Earth Hour on March 25, a symbolic call to action to all to pledge an hour for Earth and then even more, everything and anything that can be done to help our planet and help ourselves will matter. Plan and visit the remote and beautiful corners of our country, show your appreciation for the local, bring back lovely memories but don’t leave behind your TRASH and even better don’t create any.

©Kamal Medhi