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How Solid Waste and Lack of its Segregation Destroying Ecologically Sensitive Himalayas

Waste dumping like this in mountains is choking the spring water sources and causing flooding. (Photo credit: Hridayesh Joshi)

Waste dumping like this in mountains is choking the spring water sources and causing flooding. (Photo credit: Hridayesh Joshi)

According to Niti Aayog, more than 60% of the water supply in Uttarakhand is spring fed and garbage dumping in storm water drains can pollute all the water sources.

Barely a few kilometres away from the lake city of Bhimtal, a huge pile of garbage is rising in the hills of Uttarakhand. Several truckloads of solid waste carrying garbage from nearby markets and homes are dumped here every week.

“There is no segregation of waste before they (municipal authorities) bring it here. You can see how paper, plastic, polythene and glass bottles everything is dumped here with wet waste. This is forest area and several animals chew plastic when they come in search of leftovers,” says Pravin Pathak, 38, a resident of Bhimtal.

This is not the only spot in the ecologically sensitive Uttarakhand where waste is being dumped in violation of rules. Scores of such spots are becoming a serious threat to the Himalayan ecosystem.

Nine of the 13 districts of Uttarakhand are hill districts and they have precious wealth of flora and fauna along with a number of rivers originating from the glaciers and forests. In the absence of any waste processing infrastructure and implementation of solid waste management rules, waste leachate contaminates the springs and water bodies in the mountains.

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(Garbage dumped in the forest near Bhimtal in Nainital district of Uttarakhand)

Garbage is often dumped in storm water drains – known as ‘gadheras’ in hills - choking the water flow and causing landslides and flooding. According to Niti Aayog, more than 60% of the water supply in Uttarakhand is spring fed and such dumping can pollute all the water sources.

Uttarakhand Worst Performer

In 2016, the government 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.”

However, these rules work just on papers in the hills. The problem is particularly worrying in Uttarakhand because it is the worst performing state in India, in terms of solid waste processing and management.

According to the data placed by the government in Parliament, Uttarakhand generates more than 1,400 tonnes of waste every day and processes zero per cent of it. This information was provided in March 2018 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development in the Rajya Sabha.

In a written reply, the government revealed that only 3 per cent municipal wards in Uttarakhand have the facility of waste segregation at source. However, the administration says that segregation of garbage at source is a “mandatory part” of waste collection exercise.

“The contract agreement we have done for waste management in Nainital, includes that whatever waste (the agency) collects from home, it should be segregated at source. But the problem you can say is awareness because many people haven’t still understood the importance of waste segregation. But people still give mixed garbage despite the fact that we have provided them special dustbins to segregate the waste at home,” says District Magistrate Savin Bansal.

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But why are the people not complying? Experts say the local administration simply assumes that citizens will segregate waste voluntarily which often does not yield the desired result.

“If they have never done it in the past, how will they do it now? Expecting citizens to segregate waste without any checks or punitive measures will never work,” says author Ankur Bisen who works on environment and accountability of citizens to improve the conditions of sanitation.

There are civic bodies like the Indore Municipal Corporation that imposed penalties on the city’s domestic and commercial consumers and established an effective waste management system for the country to see.

However, experts says there is another side to this story.

“Officials, sometimes, use this (segregation problem) as an excuse to hide the severe incapacity to collect waste from all homes and shops or to cover the inadequate pricing or poor commercial terms on which contractors are taken on board. This is also true that without adequate pricing and framework to monitor guidelines, waste segregation can’t happen at homes,” Bisen adds.

Despite a poor infrastructure to deal with solid waste particularly in hills, the administration often winks at or even connives with the offenders.

For instance, this year in July, the high-profile wedding ceremonies of two sons of an NRI businessman left more than 32,000 kg of garbage in the fragile slopes of Auli in Garhwal. Not only the authorities allowed this to happen, but bureaucrats and ministers of the state government also attended the event where all basic concerns for ecology were flouted openly.

Threat to Wild Life and Ecology

Wild animals and birds are eating the waste dumped in the forests and mountains of the Himalayan region and this is causing serious threat to their lives. In July this year, an image of a leopard chewing polythene went viral. Several environmentalists have expressed concerns, but the problem is not limited to one or two places.

According to a research published in Current Sciences in December last year, several creatures are feeding themselves on garbage. The study was done at two spots in Nainital region where more than 200 birds and 75 mammals visit around the year. The study shows that birds and animals are now increasingly dependent on leftovers in the garbage for their survival.

Expert say salt content present in fast food items and products like biscuits and chips attracts the animals more towards the waste. These creatures then get attracted towards the wrappers of such products in the garbage and become prone to consume polythene and plastic.

In January 2006, hundreds of steppe eagle were found unconscious near a garbage dump yard in Ranikhet, a hill station near Nainital. These migratory birds come to India from Russia every year in winters for breeding and return in the months of March and April.

(The steppe eagles were found unconscious near a waste dumping yard near Ranikhet. Photo credit: Jogendra Bisht)

“Many steppe eagles were found dead and several fell sick that year (in 2006) near the waste dumping yard in the place called Ghingharikhal in Ranikhet. Several (birds) were crawling on the ground. We gave them glucose water and tried to treat them. Some eagles were revived, but 78 birds died in that incident. Later, it was found they had consumed something poisonous here in the forest.” said Jogendra Bisht, an activist who was a part of the team that rescued the ailing steppe eagle.

“Every year, about 125 steppe eagles come here from Russia. Death of 78 birds that year was the first serious warning about the mismanagement of waste in the hills,” said Bisht.

It is clear the absence of strict enforcement of guidelines for solid waste management can pose a multitude of problems and destabilise the already stressed Himalayan eco-system. Hill stations like Mussoorie and Nainital are particularly threatened because they see a sharp rise in waste generation during the tourist season every year.

Tourists also visit ecologically sensitive inner parts of Himalaya, like Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangori. The authorities have no structured plan to execute and enforce the rules here and enormous amount of waste is often dumped in the backyard of hotels and resorts.

“The solution (of solid waste management) should be tailor-made for hilly areas considering the fragile ecosystem and the difficult terrain. Remember that hills don't have an informal work force like rag pickers, who minimise the pressure of sorting the unsegregated waste in the urban areas and metro cities. Therefore, in the hill regions, both villagers and tourists should be sensitised towards the need of collection, storage and transportation of dry waste,” says Manoj Pande, assistant professor in the urban development cell of the RS Tolia Uttarakhand Academy of Administration, Nainital.