MUMBAI - The city of Rishikesh, located in the foothills of the Himalayas on
the banks of the Ganges River, is more renowned as a holy city for Hindus and
as a famous center of pilgrimage than as the waste recycling center.
Eight years ago, though, to protect the region's sacred landscape, a diverse
mix of local and expatriate volunteers developed a recycling and waste
management project called "Clean Himalaya", which has since blossomed and last
year won a World Bank's India Development Marketplace award for grassroots
"Clean Himalaya" not only works to protect one of the most precious eco-systems
on the planet, it has shown how local
communities in India can handle its booming economic growth without being
overwhelmed by pollution and garbage.
Waste management is one of India's most urgent problems, but solutions are
elusive and there is little public awareness and cooperation, particularly in
smaller towns such as Rishikesh, which have little municipal infrastructure to
deal with a construction boom and tourist influx.
Rishikesh thrives as one of India's sacred meditation and pilgrimage centers,
and is the yoga capital of the world, an adventure tourism hub and the gateway
to upper Himalayan destinations such as the Valley of Flowers and India's
second-highest peak, Nanda Devi, which towers 7,817 meters above sea level.
Hotel construction is booming, reflecting the growth in India's small-town
economies, which have been turbo-charged by the country's rapidly growing
wealth levels. Even Abhinav Bindra, India's celebrated gold medalist at the
Beijing Summer Olympic Games, has been gifted land by his father to build a
five-star hotel on the outskirts of Rishikesh.
Efforts are growing nationwide to keep the country clean and keep development
in check, with even cities such as Mumbai roping in leading Bollywood stars to
urge the use of litter bins. The "Clean Himalaya" campaign in Rishikesh had
much more humble origins.
"The Clean Himalaya campaign started as a hobby," said Susan Eilers, one of the
project leaders, who left her home in Vancouver 28 years ago to work in India
as a nun. "We were concerned about the amount of garbage being dumped in the
streets, in the Ganges and in the [Himalayan] ravines and decided to do
something about it."
Combining an eclectic workforce of spirituality students, Mumbai-based media
professional Amit Bhatnagar, long-term tourists and local businessmen, the
"Clean Himalaya" project reflects the diverse population living in Rishikesh,
which means "Lord of the senses" in Sanskrit.
The project was launched in 2000 in the busy Laksman Jhula-Tapovan area of the
town, with local Jitendra Kumar as the founder-manager, and although it began
more as a "devotional response" rather than environmental activism, it has
since grown into a more professional operation, said Eilers.
Green-jacketed "Clean Himalaya" garbage collectors have made the town one of
the cleanest in India's northern Uttarakhand state, earning praise from an
increasing numbers of tourists. In recent years, young Germans, Dutch,
Americans and Israelis have began pouring into the town, sprouting falafel
snack bars, "German" bakeries, French riverside restaurants and menus dotted
with humus, schnitzels, pastas and pizzas.
"Clean Himalaya" was initially met with cynicism by locals, but it has since
won them over with its "you can see our work for yourself" approach, and its
image was enhanced when Ramprasad Thapliyal, an 87-year-old social worker well
respected in the local community, was made honorary president.
Funds remain a challenge, and although the US$20,000 World Bank grant barely
paid for the project's Tata mini garbage lorry, the project leaders have not
chased corporate charity managers or large foundations. Instead, they insist
that local communities pitch in, with clients paying an average of $500
annually to have garbage - already separated for recycling - collected.
Further breakthroughs have come through the support of leading local hotels,
supermarket and eco-tourism firms, and "Clean Himalaya" now serves over 150
ashrams, guesthouses, restaurants and households in the area.
The project has also initiated awareness campaigns, with banners urging "Use
litter bins" now stretching along the Rishikesh-New Delhi road, and posters
seeking volunteers with reminders, "Nobody can do everything, but everybody can
do something." Local schools are involved, such as the Ganga Valley Educational
Society, with the aim of "helping children help themselves".
But other challenges loom besides snagging the occasional tourist or
schoolchild volunteer. "Clean Himalaya" depends on garbage collectors who are
paid a monthly starting salary of 3,500 rupees(US$80), and although growing
absenteeism hurts daily operations, dedicated workers such as 23-year-old Vikas
Kumar have been with the project for four years.
"Such litter-free efforts should spread throughout the Himalayas," said Vikas,
adding that through his work he can simultaneously earn a living and contribute
to his community.
People as enlightened as Vikas may boost staff levels in the near future, but
for now local workers are more interested in the better money they can get from
construction work, says Amit Bhatnagar, an unofficial troubleshooter for "Clean
Himalaya". He often commutes 1,500 kilometers from Mumbai to work on the
The decision by Abhinav Bindra, and the ever-increasing number of hotels, spas
and resorts planned for the sacred sites of the Himalayas, strengthen the
significance of the "Clean Himalaya" project, and the importance of India's
local communities grasping the initiative and ensuring the economic boon does
not spell disaster for its environmental treasures.