Healing Himalayas Foundation organises trekking expeditions to obscure Himalayan summits. However, to join them you have to keep gloves and jute sacks ready – to collect non-biodegradable garbage from these trek routes and protect the mountains.
Founder Pradeep Sangwan believes that with Bollywood movies like Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, Highway, 3 Idiots portraying the magical thrill of mountaineering, more and more youngsters are setting out on trekking trails in the Himalayas. Trekking clubs and travel agencies are mushrooming everywhere, luring the enthusiastic explorers with panoramic sunset points or foggy waterfalls.
The reality, however, is a far cry from the calendar photographs, with heaps of plastic waste cluttering the pristine Himalayas.
In an exclusive conversation with The Logical Indian, 33-year-old Sangwan narrates how irresponsible tourism is devastating the serenity of the Himalayas, and how he embarked on a mission to keep the mountains clean from 2014.
“I had to lose everything to start this”
Born and brought up in a strict disciplinarian family, Sangwan was expected to follow his father’s suit and join the army. During his college days, he started trekking as a hobby and before long, he found his calling in the mountains.
After graduating, much to the disapproval of his family, he permanently shifted to Manali to live his passion for trekking. To support himself, he started a homestay business in Manali.
Within the first few years, Sangwan started to notice that with the growing popularity of mountain tourism, plastic waste has also started piling up in the pristine valleys, beside the mountain roads and in the picturesque lakes. “At one point, it became the unsaid norm to indicate the direction of a trekking route by asking one to follow the garbage trail. That deeply affected me,” shares Sangwan.
He shares, “If you look at the local shepherds; they are mostly uneducated, but they live in such a sustainable way. They treat the mountains as their God. Unlike us urban people, these villagers lead a life full of immense hardships. They go beyond limits to protect every bit of the environment. I was determined to make their mountains beautiful again.”
In 2014, Pradeep Sangwan started as a lone crusader on his cleanliness campaign. Whenever he went trekking, he would come back with the garbage he collected on the way. The locals encouraged him by offering some discounts on transporting the waste to recycling plants. But, other than that, he got no exposure or support from the outside world. “In fact, my own family questioned the point of spending on my education if I was going to be a ragpicker in the end,” he recalls.
For two years he carried on this work entirely on his own which shifted his focus from his business. Dwelling in dilemma for months, he finally made up his mind to completely dedicate his life towards restoring the natural environment of the mountains. He had to sell off his profitable homestay business in Manali, his mountain jeep and pledge his valuable assets to continue his efforts. Yet, he did not shy even an inch from his aim.
In 2016, he launched The Healing Himalayas Foundation, hoping to find like-minded individuals to join hands in his noble endeavour.
Healing Himalayas: collect, recycle and restore
The Healing Himalayas community comprises volunteers who join Pradeep and his core team on their expeditions to Kheerganga, Chandrataal, Manimahesh, Srikhand Mahadev, Jogini Falls, Hampta Pass and other popular trekking and religious routes.
The entire process works in a cycle of a few months when plastic waste like abandoned tents, bottles, plates, bags etc. are collected in jute bags and brought down to the base village. Along with the help of the villagers, these wastes are transported to two recycling plants in Himachal, where electricity is generated through waste to energy conversion. The Government has intervened to supply this electricity to the surrounding villages, thereby promoting the use of sustainable energy. In a nutshell, the tireless efforts of Pradeep Sangwan and his young brigade are lighting up remote villages from the litter everyone has discarded. “So far we have collected around 400,000 kilos of non-biodegradable waste,” he reveals.
In Chandrataal, the team coordinated with the local camp owners, urging them to prohibit environmentally harmful tourist activities. Fast forward two years, strict restrictions have been imposed on making campfires, using diesel generators, playing loud music or fixing more than 15 camps at a particular area. Instead, the use of solar panels is being promoted.
In villages like Nakthan and many others, Healing Himalayas has integrated the women groups (Mahila Mandal) to spread the awareness among incoming seasonal tourists as well as the villagers.
“Now we pay occasional visits to these areas to ensure the regulations are maintained and that the awareness drives are in full swing,” he explains.
Self-sufficiency is the key to cleaner mountains
“Today people are flocking to the mountains in hordes but leaving behind a huge mess. Instead of inhaling the fresh mountain air, they want to drink, smoke and have chicken biriyani while playing loud music around a bonfire,” Sangwan narrates. He added that the popular pilgrimage routes like Kheerganga or Manimahesh are the worst polluted as most of the pilgrims are least eco-sensitive. “Pilgrimage routes demand more serious attention than the trekking routes.”
“In Kheerganga, we highlighted this menace to the authorities. Now the High Court, Forest Department and NGT have come together to ban permanent camps in this route. Now you have to carry your own tent, cook your own food, have the night’s rest and leave the spot clean the next day,” he shares proudly.
He emphasises that unless the tourists learn to love the mountains, they would not understand the importance of cleanliness.
“This year we have started cleanliness drives in Shimla city twice a month. We also continue to educate the villagers about sustainable energy, rainwater harvesting and other eco-friendly measures. We are also planning to come up with two plastic processing units that would electrify more villages and create garments and daily supplies out of recycled plastic,” Pradeep Sangwan enlists the future plans of Healing Himalayas.
The Logical Indian appreciates the tireless and selfless efforts of Pradeep Sangwan.
With #MySocialResponsibility, we aim to bring you more inspiring stories of individuals and organisations across the globe. If you also know about any changemakers, share their story at [email protected] and we'll spread the word.