Recycling the Himalayas

Source: Asia Times, Aug 28, 2008

The city of Rishikesh, located in the foothills of the Himalayas on the banks of the Ganges River, is more renowned as a holy city for Hindus and as a famous center of pilgrimage than as the waste recycling center.

Eight years ago, though, to protect the region’s sacred landscape, a diverse mix of local and expatriate volunteers developed a recycling and waste management project called “Clean Himalaya”, which has since blossomed and last year won a World Bank’s India Development Marketplace award for grassroots initiatives.

“Clean Himalaya” not only works to protect one of the most precious eco-systems on the planet, it has shown how local communities in India can handle its booming economic growth without being overwhelmed by pollution and garbage.

Waste management is one of India’s most urgent problems, but solutions are elusive and there is little public awareness and cooperation, particularly in smaller towns such as Rishikesh, which have little municipal infrastructure to deal with a construction boom and tourist influx.

Rishikesh thrives as one of India’s sacred meditation and pilgrimage centers, and is the yoga capital of the world, an adventure tourism hub and the gateway to upper Himalayan destinations such as the Valley of Flowers and India’s second-highest peak, Nanda Devi, which towers 7,817 meters above sea level.

Hotel construction is booming, reflecting the growth in India’s small-town economies, which have been turbo-charged by the country’s rapidly growing wealth levels. Even Abhinav Bindra, India’s celebrated gold medalist at the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, has been gifted land by his father to build a five-star hotel on the outskirts of Rishikesh.

Efforts are growing nationwide to keep the country clean and keep development in check, with even cities such as Mumbai roping in leading Bollywood stars to urge the use of litter bins. The “Clean Himalaya” campaign in Rishikesh had much more humble origins. “The Clean Himalaya campaign started as a hobby,” said Susan Eilers, one of the project leaders, who left her home in Vancouver 28 years ago to work in India as a nun. “We were concerned about the amount of garbage being dumped in the streets, in the Ganges and in the [Himalayan] ravines and decided to do something about it.”

Combining an eclectic workforce of spirituality students, Mumbai-based media professional Amit Bhatnagar, long-term tourists and local businessmen, the “Clean Himalaya” project reflects the diverse population living in Rishikesh, which means “Lord of the senses” in Sanskrit.

The project was launched in 2000 in the busy Laksman Jhula-Tapovan area of the town, with local Jitendra Kumar as the founder-manager, and although it began more as a “devotional response” rather than environmental activism, it has since grown into a more professional operation, said Eilers.

Green-jacketed “Clean Himalaya” garbage collectors have made the town one of the cleanest in India’s northern Uttarakhand state, earning praise from an increasing numbers of tourists. In recent years, young Germans, Dutch, Americans and Israelis have began pouring into the town, sprouting falafel snack bars, “German” bakeries, French riverside restaurants and menus dotted with humus, schnitzels, pastas and pizzas.

“Clean Himalaya” was initially met with cynicism by locals, but it has since won them over with its “you can see our work for yourself” approach, and its image was enhanced when Ramprasad Thapliyal, an 87-year-old social worker well respected in the local community, was made honorary president.

Funds remain a challenge, and although the US$20,000 World Bank grant barely paid for the project’s Tata mini garbage lorry, the project leaders have not chased corporate charity managers or large foundations. Instead, they insist that local communities pitch in, with clients paying an average of $500 annually to have garbage – already separated for recycling – collected.

Further breakthroughs have come through the support of leading local hotels, supermarket and eco-tourism firms, and “Clean Himalaya” now serves over 150 ashrams, guesthouses, restaurants and households in the area.

The project has also initiated awareness campaigns, with banners urging “Use litter bins” now stretching along the Rishikesh-New Delhi road, and posters seeking volunteers with reminders, “Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.” Local schools are involved, such as the Ganga Valley Educational Society, with the aim of “helping children help themselves”.

But other challenges loom besides snagging the occasional tourist or schoolchild volunteer. “Clean Himalaya” depends on garbage collectors who are paid a monthly starting salary of 3,500 rupees(US$80), and although growing absenteeism hurts daily operations, dedicated workers such as 23-year-old Vikas Kumar have been with the project for four years.

“Such litter-free efforts should spread throughout the Himalayas,” said Vikas, adding that through his work he can simultaneously earn a living and contribute to his community.

People as enlightened as Vikas may boost staff levels in the near future, but for now local workers are more interested in the better money they can get from construction work, says Amit Bhatnagar, an unofficial troubleshooter for “Clean Himalaya”. He often commutes 1,500 kilometers from Mumbai to work on the project.

The decision by Abhinav Bindra, and the ever-increasing number of hotels, spas and resorts planned for the sacred sites of the Himalayas, strengthen the significance of the “Clean Himalaya” project, and the importance of India’s local communities grasping the initiative and ensuring the economic boon does not spell disaster for its environmental treasures.

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