Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Chugging the Green Hiker way…

Ragini Letitia Singh, WWF-India

As the train pulled away from the station, I snuggled into my corner with a book to keep me company and to disassociate for a moment from my awry thoughts. This was not a routine journey to a holiday destination with some fun to look forward to. There was work to be done, important work and I wondered if I was up to it.

My gaze strayed to every passenger sitting, snoring, reading, munching and chatting around me. And then it happened! A hand crumpled an empty packet of chips and out of the window it went! I was livid. WHY? Why do they have to do that? There are dustbins on the train, waiting to be used. Or a simple makeshift dustbin could be devised by a few berth occupants, where all the trash could be collected.

Solutions are many, but actions only a few.

One thought brought comfort. At least these people had opted to travel by train which is a far cleaner and eco-friendly mode of travelling than by road or air, since it has reduced amounts of harmful emissions. I remembered reading bits from the Interim report on ‘Low Carbon Strategies for Inclusive Growth’ by the Planning Commission, Government of India, during the course of my work. It said, “In contrast (to the aviation sector), rail contributes only five per cent of the transport sector emissions while supporting about 40 per cent of freight activity and 12 per cent of passenger activity. Therefore, reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from the transport sector would broadly require a shift away from road and air towards rail and water, in addition to improving efficiencies of individual modes.”

The train raced towards my destination – Pathankot in Himachal Pradesh, from where a bus to Chamba and then another to Bharmour would wind me up at the base of the famous Manimahesh trekking route. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims ascend the difficult mountains here every year to reach Manimahesh Lake at an altitude of 4,088 masl, to eventually bathe in its holy waters. What they leave behind is plastic litter, left-over food, wrappers, fruits, offerings, sheep and goat carcasses, clothes, noise pollution, and tons of human excreta along the path and in and around the lake.

This is why I was here. Representing WWF-India, I had come to spread awareness amongst tourists and pilgrims on the importance of keeping the lake and the trekking route clean, with the help of my teammates from the WWF Himachal Field Office. I had come to tell them about the Green Hiker campaign, which simply put, encourages a more ‘responsible’ kind of tourism.

Our basic objective was to protect the Himalaya because our most important rivers - the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus and the Yangtze, are all born here. It is also here that we find pristine wetlands, mostly fed by snow and glacial melt. These are some of the last sources of freshwater on Earth on which depended the massive human population in Central and South Asia, several species of migratory birds, fish and mammals. Any change to the dynamics of these wetlands could reach all the way downstream impacting fish populations, biodiversity, agriculture, river infrastructure, flood cycles and communities. This is why it was so crucial to leave this fragile environment clean and undamaged.

The movement of the train set off a chain of thoughts. Every year, a huge number of travelers visit the Himalayas through the railway network. Unfortunately, a large percentage of them are responsible for littering and solid waste management problems. Why don’t train travelers do something about it? Surely they could contribute by keeping the railway tracks and their surrounding environment clean. The simplest measure to adopt would be to use the dustbins available in the train or to collect garbage and leftover food in a bag to dispose in a dustbin later. This small act could actually go a long way in keeping our pathways to the pure and pristine mountains litter-free and pure.

Suddenly there was a pleasant whiff of hot food, instantly enticing my appetite. The pantry staff arrived with trays. Once my tray was before me, it had all my attention. As I chewed fervently, I wondered how the staff always knew when to serve at the right time. When they came to clear my tray, I handed back the unused napkin, plastic spoon and sachets so they could be used next time by someone else. They looked surprised and probably thought, “What a strange thing to do!”

I received their look of surprise with a grin. Maybe this would make them stop and think. And why not? Train travelers could actually help conserve resources by returning unused sauce/salt sachets, cutlery, napkins and food packets to the attendants. If this became a regular practice encouraged both by the staff and travelers, it would make train travel so much more eco-friendly and reduce the railway system’s carbon footprint. Just a small action as this!

Wanting some fresh air and picturesque views, I went to stand at the door. The view certainly wasn’t very picturesque. Litter adorned the tracks that we raced over, and the grassy meadows that began where they ended. A sad contrast to the gorgeous mountains that rose in the distance. I prayed that the litter would never reach them. I hoped that everyone would become a green hiker, embracing the environmental consciousness that comes with a deep love for nature and its purity.

When I alighted at Pathankot, my head still buzzed with thoughts. I looked back at the tired giant that had carried me here, thinking of the important choice that travelers had - to litter or not to litter, and the great power to impact the environment that they passed. I walked away wondering, in the end what that choice would be.

Published in Rail Bandhu, January 2012

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