A month after Mountain Cleaners started off on a unique expedition to clean up the route leading to Manimahesh lake, Judie Underhill chronicles their fight with the ugly monster of garbage that has taken hostage the heavenly mountains. Though an uphill task, with heaps of plastic waste clogging every brook on the mountain-sides, what she also saw was a slow change happening in the mindset of people, which will be reason enough for her to return again and again for the clean-up act.. till gods reclaim the peaks.
Manimahesh was described as an ecological disaster by one of the Mountain Cleaner volunteers and I, sadly, have to agree. The word ‘pilgrim’ conjures up images of holy men, but the majority of people who come here have absolutely no respect for nature whatsoever. The river that runs down from the mountains is choked with discarded clothes and underwears and there are sheep carcasses not just in the garbage pits but scattered everywhere, the stinking rotten remains of many sacrifices that go on here. We asked the priests who run the temple that when they bless the animals before the sacrifice, if they could ask pilgrims to put the carcasses in one pit. They said that pilgrims wouldn’t do it so we were forced to segregate waste amongst the sheep remains, finding carrier bags of innards and other disgusting bloody remains.
The hazards of being a Mountain Cleaner
Needles and syringes are a big problem and the saddest part of all is that they are from the mules, not humans. There are vet tents handing out steroid injections to mule owners so that when a mule is so exhausted that it’s going to collapse they inject them with a steroid, then throw the needles on the ground or in a garbage pit.
Human faeces and urine is another big problem. Toilets have been built this year but they are treacherous to get to and are generally empty, dirty, open topped and with a 20 cm gap in the door. People here prefer to use nature, ie just behind all the shops and campsite.
We had approximately 30 volunteers, but this was half of what we expected, making our job much more difficult. We were unable to have a base camp at Gauri Kund due to lack of bags and volunteers. Trying to juggle, everything has been hectic and stressful but I’m proud of what we’ve achieved with the limited manpower we have. The volunteers have been amazing and struggled on despite the often harsh, cold and always filthy conditions and I take my hat off to each and every one of them and thank them for their commitment and hard work.
There was a major improvement at Dhancho. Langars and shops were obviously cleaning up and taking pride in their area and helping by segregating some of their waste. It was truly amazing and I felt so proud of my team for encouraging and inspiring them to do it. We spoke to them about segregation and avoiding disposable plates, cups and crockery and expect a large reduction during next year’s Yatra.
Our lack of presence at Gauri Kund was blatantly obvious as we passed through on our way back down the mountain. It looked like a war zone, with the Sulabh International employees (waste workers) setting fire to the piles of trash piled high all around. Tons of waste was spilling into the river below and the whole area was awash with junk food and paan wrappers, discarded plastic, cagoules, tarpaulin, disposable plates, etc.
We collected garbage on the way back down and although it would take an army to clean it properly, we certainly made a big improvement. The trail near to Hadsar was heavily littered but it was getting dark and we were too few and exhausted after 10 km of cleaning to even tackle it.
The base made from recycled tetrapak continues to be a success and has enabled us to raise a lot of awareness about waste and recycling. More vendors are bringing us their cardboard, plastic, etc and it’s great to see people coming over and checking that they are putting it in the correct bin. We really hope the Panchayat (village council) will continue with the recycling scheme after we’ve gone. There is a meeting on October 2 where the village will decide if they are to continue with the recycling scheme.
Last year’s Yatra
We found out that hundreds of people became ill in Bharmaur after last year’s Yatra due to drinking contaminated water. People suffering from upset stomachs and diarrhea were laid on the ground outside the hospital as there were no more beds available inside. It is therefore no surprise that our efforts to reduce pollution have been gratefully received. We most certainly created awareness and made a noticeable difference during the Yatra and were touched by the numerous words of thanks and encouragement.
The forestry department has been extremely supportive, but their absence during the closing down of the Yatra was a missed opportunity to clamp down on littering. Some shops left behind huge amounts of waste and made no effort whatsoever to clean the area they occupied for the duration of the Yatra. This is supposedly the abode of Lord Shiva, making lack of respect rather surprising. Shops that have a lot of waste have obviously been making a lot of money and should be penalised if they abuse and pollute forestry department land.
It isn’t going to be easy to change a whole mindset regarding waste and its disposal, but it’s certainly not impossible. Despite the hardships and setbacks over the past month, I still feel immense hope for the future. Once again it has been proved that people can adapt and change the way they do things. Our presence most certainly made a difference and we can only improve next year.