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Date [ 2014-08-26, 10:33 ]

And making sure it stays that way.

Cleanup at the sacred Gurudongmar Lake before bottled water was banned (Courtesy: WWF AND LTDC)

(Kuala Lumpur=Koreanpress Azmi Annuar) = Sayantan Berareports on how a popular tourist destination in Sikkim became the first village in India to ban bottled water and manage the trash left behind by tourists, mountain climbers, explorers and other visitors. A start was made when schoolchildren in Lachen joined the campaign against bottled water inLachen.

This is a small picturesque village in northern Sikkim inhabited by the Lachenpa communityand occasionally visited by the elusive red panda. Placed in the lap of the Himalayas, the villageliterally means “the big pass”. Of late, it has become a popular tourist destination.

His report: I arrived at Lachen after a bumpy six hour ride from the state capital of Gangtok. The roads weretreacherous but the beauty of lush hills and sudden springs made up for the dizziness of travel. About four inthe evening I passed Chungthang, the last big town before ascending towards Lachen.

With theconstruction of the Teesta III hydroelectric project in full swing, Chungthang was an eyesore—agigantic concrete wall put brakes on the meandering TeestaRiver. The dam under construction wasseverely damaged during the 2011 earthquake and Chungthang town was among the worstaffected.By the time I reached Lachen it was pitch dark. “There has been no electricity for the past oneweek due to a gale storm,” said my host, 30-year-old Chwang Lachenpa. The mobile network isnot available at an elevation of over 2,750 metres, and connection to the outside world is asfragile as the young mountains. The December chill, at -10°C, hit me in the face as I steppedout of the car. Chwang’s house had all the warmth I needed—a neat fireplace that doubled upas an oven with a large pot of water on it. The tea, served in ceramic mugs with a cap, was hotand salty. 

Chwang works as a temporary staff with the health department, but he is passionate about the Lachen Tourism Development Committee (LTDC)—a group of 32 young Lachenpas who gottogether in 2006 “to do something for their village”Chwang and his friends started with promoting cultural tourism—organising traditional danceand food shows for tourists. Lachen is an overnight stopover for nearly 15,000 tourists who visitGurudongmar Lake every year. The biggest glacial wetland in Sikkim and one of the highestlakes in the world at an altitude of 5,183 m, Gurudongmar is considered sacred both by theHindus and the Buddhists.

This village of 300 households with 30 hotels and a fewhomestays,is also a stopover for trekkers on their way to the Chopta valley andKhangchendzonga base camp. As the number of tourists increased over the years, so did the pile of garbage at Gurudongmar lakeside and Lachen village—milk tetrapacks, water bottles and chips and biscuit wrappers.

Every year at the end of the tourist season, LTDC organised clean-up drives. Initially, theycollected the non-biodegradable trash and burnt it, unaware that their passion was spreadingpollution via toxic fumes.In 2010 the youths were introduced to the concept of zero-waste by the Zero Waste HimalayaGroup, a coalition of non-profitable bodies which believe in segregating waste at source and recycling it,rather than depending on a landfill."Soon after, LTDC was segregating the waste, packing and sendingit to a waste dealer in Chungthang.

“Tackling mineral water bottleswas most problematic. They were everywhere—beside the lake,choking streams and drainage channels in the village, and floatingdown the Teesta. A yearly clean-up drive was not enough,” said Chwang, who is also the secretary of LTDC.It was then that the young Lachenpas decided to do away withmineral water bottles altogether.

They contemplated a ban but thefinal word had to come from the dzumsa, the village council. This traditional governingbody of the village, which comprises elected representatives, is chaired by two heads, known as pipons and who govern all aspects of village life.

In Lachen, the word of the dzumsa is like that of god.Even after the panchayati raj system was introduced in Sikkim, there is no panchayat in Lachenand it continues to be governed by the dzumsa, literally “the gathering place.”Unlikepanchayats, the dzumsahasrevenue collection powers and can impose taxes and fines. “Initially, the pipons were hesitant.

They thought a ban on bottled water would hamper tourismand the income it generates,” explained Chwang. But the youths persisted and asked: “Why wouldanyone want bottled water when they can get spring water right from the Himalayas?” Finally,when two young pipons of the dzumsa took the charge in 2012, they concurred with LTDC.

On February 2,2012, on the World Wetlands Day, a ban was imposed on mineral water bottles in Lachen andGurudongmar—hotels and shops were asked not to stock or sell bottled water; tour agents fromGangtok were told that tourists cannot bring packaged water to Lachen; and a hefty fine of Rs.5,000 would be imposed on violators.

LTDC and the Lachen dzumsa did not stop at the ban. They installed water filters at all shopsand hotels, and water sources were regularly inspected for portability at the state-owned laboratory inGangtok. The non-profit WWF’s Khangchendzonga Landscape Programme pitched in andoffered 45 water purifiers, banners and stickers. Together with LTDC, it organised awarenessdrives among schoolchildren, shopkeepers and hoteliers to enforce the ban.

Notices showing the ban on mineral water bottles by Lachen’s local governing body, the dzumsa, were put up.On the morning of December 19, 2013, after a good night’s sleep, I opened the door of my hotel room.The entire village, covered in a thin film of snow, looked like a monochrome painting. It was thefirst snow of the season. At the restaurant of the hotel I saw stickers pasted on the glass panes. “Lachen welcomes you, but not your mineral water bottle,” read a sticker.

On the next pane werepasted the test results from the state water quality testing laboratory. The spring water is fit for consumption, even without filtering, the results showed.More than a year after the ban was imposed there is overwhelming support from the localcommunity, including shopkeepers and hotel owners.

As for the he dzumsa, it did not have to imposea single fine. Gyatso Lachenpa, secretary of the hotel association, revealed, “Tourists have complied with the ban and are happy to drink fresh spring water. Sometimestravel agents in Gangtok do not brief them. If by mistake anyone enters the village with a bottlewe make sure they take it back with them.”Kalzan Lachenpa, a woman in her mid-30s and owner of a grocery store, used to sell two cratesof bottled water daily before the ban was imposed. For 24 bottles she would make a handsomeprofit of Rs.240 per day.

Still, Kalzan would not like the ban revoked. “All of us are together inthis. The money is nothing compared to the freedom from litter and choked drains,” she happily added.Chwang and his friends have now moved towards zero waste. They are developing a resourcerecovery centre, supported by the Rural ManagementandDevelopment Department (RMDD), where all non-biodegradable waste collected from households will be segregated and packedoff to the waste trader in Chungthang.

RMDD is providing them a mechanised shredder for thewaste that cannot be recycled, such as multi-layered tetrapacks and chips packets. The youthsplan to use the shredded packets as fillings in cushions and knitting tetrapacks into bags andgarbage bins.“What a bunch of enthusiastic youths have done in a remote corner of Sikkim is for the wholecountry to emulate,” said Yishey D Yongda, joint secretary at RMDD.

Last year, the statedepartment won the Prime Minister’s award for excellence in public administration. "We hopeother tourist destinations will impose similar bans. Sikkim can be a state free of bottled water one day.”But how plausible is a ban on bottled water for a place like Tsomgo Lake, which receives aphenomenal 300,000 tourists every year? Priyadarshinee Shrestha, Gangtok co-ordinator at WWF, was of the opinion, “The lake conservation committee has distributed water filters at Tsomgo.

It is alsoformulating a plan for the supply of clean drinking water. Whether a ban can be imposed willdepend on the commitment of the locals.” I remember Chwang telling me that Lachung, another tourist destination near Lachen, was also contemplating a ban. But enforcing a ban will bedifficult in villages without the traditional dzumsa system of local governance, like Lachen, which became the first village in the country to ban bottled water.

The state has now added many ‘firsts’ to its credit. Sikkim is India’s first polybag free state. By 2015, it aims to become fullyorganic by growing its food without chemical fertilisers or pesticides.Not for nothing did Sikkim beat Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Horuriku in Japan to be listedas the top travel destination in 2014 by Lonely Planet, a travel guide book. “Sikkim has set newbenchmarks for responsible travel in the country.

Checkbox sightseeing has rapidly made wayfor sustainable community-based tourism in less developed areas, while eco-friendly policieshave lent new vigour to the virginal Himalayan wilderness that drapes the region’s mountains, “reads the Lonely Planet travel advisory. Is the rest of India listening?


Lachen after the first snowfall of the winter in December 2013 (Photograph:: Sayantan Bera)

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