Monday, November 22, 2010

The ‘Green Hiker’ attitude slowly picks up at Manimahesh

September 11-16, 2010
Ragini Letitia Singh & Dr. Sanjeev Sharma

The annual Hindu pilgrimage to the high altitude Manimahesh Lake, in the Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh (HP) saw a change this year.

Mythologically, believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, this sacred lake is visited by religious tourists every year from April to September. These tourists embark on a 14 km yatra (pilgrimage) from Harsar village to the lake nestled at an altitude of 4,088 masl, to eventually bathe in its holy waters. They do this along with prayers to the reflection of Kailash Peak looming high in the distance, on one side of the lake.

Every year, Manimahesh receives an average of 300,000 visitors, in 2009, the number going up to 700,000 during the peak season. Pilgrims would come, trek to the lake, bathe and make their way down after their tryst with god. What they would leave behind was plastic litter, left over food and wrappers along the trekking path; fruits, offerings, sheep and goat carcasses, and clothes in and around the lake, and tons of human excreta strewn all over the place. This could be attributed to the absence of a planned waste disposal system and toilets and the lack of awareness. Numerous tea stalls and tents along the path and near the lake also made the situation worse. In 2010, an estimate of 50 langar stalls and 400 dhabas and private tents were erected from Harsar to the lake. Other disturbing factors were thousands of vehicles at Harsar, diesel generators, blaring loudspeakers and the illegal extraction of medicinal plants.

Covering an area of 378.87 sq. km, from an altitude of 2,250-6,044 m asl, also lies the Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary in the same region. The sanctuary is the last home of the Himalayan Tahr in Himachal Pradesh and is also a repository of rare medicinal plants like the Gentiana kuroo (Karu) and Jurinea macrocephala (Dhup). These herbs are believed to be locally threatened due to over-extraction. A few other species found here are the Himalayan Black Bear, Brown Bear, Ibex, White-eyed Buzzard Eagle and Grey-headed Bunting. An alternative route to Manimahesh cuts through the wildlife sanctuary.
It was in 2008 that the WWF-India Field Office in Shimla, drew the attention of the local administration, to these environmental threats for the first time. Environmental impacts were documented and presented to the Secretary, Tourism Department and Additional Secretary, Forest Department. This helped secure their support in the ongoing waste management initiative. Through the distribution of awareness material with direct, clear messaging, the work began.

An initiative to raise awareness amongst pilgrims, tea stall owners, priests and taxi operators was kicked off through bilingual (English and hindi) posters, pamphlets and four-day environmental awareness camps, right from Bharmour (13 km before Harsar) to the lake, during the yatra. The focus was to highlight the ecological importance of this wetland and its catchment area, while encouraging pilgrims to respect nature in her pristine form.

This received great cooperation from stall owners and langar organizers, who encouraged visitors to throw garbage only into designated pits, and practiced the same. Moreover, with the help of the local youth, posters depicting the Dos and Don’ts for tourists were put up from Bharmour to Manimahesh, covering a distance of 28 km. Meetings with local communities, the local administration, The Mountaineering Institute, langar and shop owners were also held to secure support. An appeal went out to maintain hygiene and dispose all non biodegradable waste in pit holes dug by the HP Public Works Department. The WWF Field Office also installed banners in prominent spots throughout the trekking route, as well as, in the vicinity of the lake, asking pilgrims to not leave their clothes behind or not throw rubbish into the lake. The disposal of waste and cleanliness of the lake were regularly monitored by WWF-India volunteers.

This year, the situation was an improvement from the last. Combined conscious efforts by WWF-India, Sulabh International who erected and maintained 100 temporary toilets this year and kept the lake area clean, the Mountain Cleaners and other local bodies proved fruitful. At every langar (open kitchens), there were designated garbage dumping pits, with signs and posters, encouraging people to use them. The installation of toilets made a big difference this year, solving if not all but most of the human waste problem.

The Mountain Cleaners too approached the problem through a mechanism to collect and recycle garbage. They set up bins for different kinds of waste – plastic, biodegradable and glass and distributed sacks to stall owners to collect trash. This trash is being recycled into objects of utility.

According to Dr. Sanjeev Sharma from the WWF-India team in Shimla, and his volunteers, Anil Sharma and Bali Ram Sharma, there has been a considerable improvement in the garbage situation. They made 4-5 trips to the lake in this very season to spread awareness and gauge the results of their efforts. Of the same opinion are the tea stall owners and tent organisers who leave their main occupations every year to set up shop during the yatra.

Chamanlal, a stall owner just outside the entrance of the lake had a lot to share. “The situation is much better this year. There are bags and dustbins all around which people are using. After all, every person is responsible for himself. All of us clear up our stalls before we leave after the yatra.” He tells of how people used to discard their clothes in the lake after bathing. But since banners by WWF-India were put up discouraging the act, it has been banned. Now the government officials and priests stop the people from leaving anything behind.

Similarly, Deshraj who rents out tents to tired pilgrims felt that a big difference had been made to the garbage situation in Manimahesh. “But while on one hand bodies like Sulabh Shauchalya and langar organisers have become more conscious about where they dispose their waste, there has been very little change in the attitude of pilgrims.”

Rajesh Talwar, a pilgrim from Punjab worries about the repercussions of the waste lying around. “The waterfalls carry the waste down with them, so the water is not pure anymore. What we need are more toilets, especially for the women and children.”

While some have adopted the ‘Green Hiker’ attitude, there are still some left to win over. Plastic rain coats discarded on the trekking paths and plastic bottles and wrappers rolling down the stony slopes, only to join a heap at the bottom were evidence of a battle half won. As Chamanlal said, “Those who have to litter will litter.”

A socks seller on the way to Manimahesh Lake revealed to our team, “You put up such clear signs but it’s a pity that some people don’t avail of the message. They throw whatever they want, and wherever. But we, who are present here every year, are your supporters. We will tell them to not litter.”

The shift towards a ‘greener’ way of travel is slow. But at least it has begun.


  1. Hi People,
    I loved to read it all, i am so desperate to be a part of this kind of mass event. once i went to trek on a hill in south india, thadiyandamol. while on the way up we thought of one agenda for me and my frens, we will pick up any and every piece of litter we will see on the route and also ask the people around to take care of it at the end when we reached back we had few bags of litter but what felt gr8 was that others whom we talked to also did the same. we enjoyed the trek, loved and lived the serene beauty and also did our bit for the lovely nature.
    I need to know how feasible it is to actually announce a plan from WWF/Green Hiker about a mass event that happens on a regular basis inviting volunteers to attend it, let all know that we are going to so and so place only with 2 point agenda 1. inform people and do our bit for the nature 2. enjoy and the beauty
    Not all can go everywhere but atleast some will always make it and we will be spreading the awareness. I am really available and would not mind paying the fees that would be applicable and there would be thousands like me i am sure.

  2. Congrats on your success, however small that might be..
    It's difficult to change habits overnight but perseverence by the 'green' people would surely change the situation for better.

  3. Thanks to WWF- India, for their especial contribution towards the environment and it's surrounding. Go Green....
    It is a beautiful journey towards the beginning of the new life......

  4. The journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single step, says Laotzu..kudos to Dr. Sanjeev Sharma, his team and WWF...har har Mahadev !

  5. Hello everyone, firstly i appreciate d efforts by this group. I am from distt chamba & belong to local gaddi community. Attidunal changes with more awarness among yatris is the need of the hour as they form major part of this pilgrimage.

  6. I really appreciate WWF-India, its team members and other such organisations who have started this campaign to save and protect nature from our abuse. Through sustained efforts our people would certainly transform. No doubt. This is a nicely written blog.