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More tourists, more garbage – Leh needs a waste management policy

The increase in tourists has led to the problem of increasing garbage in Leh, say residents of the city in the Union Territory of Ladakh. During the tourist season, about 12 to 13 tonnes of solid waste is generated daily from the 13 wards of Leh. Out of this, 9-10 tonnes constitute dry waste and 2-3 tonnes wet waste. In the absence of any important policy for a major tourist destination like Ladakh, it becomes a challenge for the administration to dispose the waste effectively, says Shailesh Shrivastava. Here is his report

Every summer, a large number of tourists, domestic and international, flock to Ladakh. While the tourists boost the income of the Union Territory, the amount of garbage also rises. Leh, the main city of Ladakh, is bearing the primary burden of the increased garbage. A significant part of the waste generated in Leh is plastic which the residents say is because of irresponsible disposal by tourists. As the garbage piles up, its disposal is a challenge due to the high altitude and harsh weather conditions.

Winter and summer waste
According to the Leh Municipal Committee, about 12 to 13 tonnes – including 9-10 tonnes of dry waste and 2-3 tonnes of wet waste – are generated daily during the tourist season. In winter, when the number of tourists is low, the amount of garbage generated in Leh is also low, with an estimate of 3-4 tonnes of dry garbage. According to a presentation made by the Ladakh Administration to the National Green Tribunal, 244 MT of waste was generated in Leh, Ladakh’s largest city, in the first quarter of 2022, between January and March, while 36 tonnes of waste was generated in Kargil, Ladakh’s second largest city, during this period. In the second quarter, 1033 tonnes of waste was generated in Leh and 759 tonnes in Kargil. In the third quarter, 658 tonnes of waste was generated in Leh and 593 tonnes in Kargil. In the fourth quarter, 319 tonnes of waste was generated in Leh and 278 tonnes in Kargil.

This fluctuating amount of waste is a reflection of the season and human activities in Ladakh. The first and fourth quarters of the year, when it is cold and there is snowfall, the amount of waste is comparatively low. In the second quarter, when tourists and workers from other states arrive in Ladakh, the amount of waste increases. These figures also indicate that in the non-tourist season, there is not much difference in the amount of waste generated in Leh and Kargil. However, in the tourist season, during which tourist influx into Leh is high, the difference stands at 274 tonnes.

According to the 2011 census, the population of Leh and Kargil is 30,870 and 16,338, respectively. Leh received 4.5 lakh tourists in the first eight months of 2022 – about ten times the number of residents. To cater to the number of tourists, seasonal staff moves to the city for work, further increasing the population during the tourist season. The Ladakh Administration claims that 100 per cent of the waste generated from all 7,360 households and 586 commercial establishments in Leh is gathered.

Speaking about the change in the amount of waste due to tourism, Leh Municipal Committee Chairman Ishe Namgiyal says, “Last year (2022), in the five-six months of the tourist season, the number of tourists stood at 4.5 lakh, and about 50,000 were migrant labourers. So, on an average, there is an additional load of about five lakh people in these months. During winter, very few tourists visit Ladakh and the migrant labourers also go back. In such a situation, there is a huge fluctuation in the amount of waste. The amount of waste in winter is 25 per cent as compared to summer.” This massive gap in the amount of waste generated in different seasons also creates hindrances in waste disposal.

Extreme cold and altitude pose a challenge
The waste management plant in Leh was installed in Skampari in 2020 and, before that, the entire waste of the city was dumped outside the city at a landfill called Bomb Guard. The capacity of the plant powered by solar energy is 30 tonnes per day. Here, things like plastic, tin, cardboard, paper, etc are separated from dry waste and processed and wet waste is composted. Fourteen people work at the plant.

Plastic waste being burnt on Leh-Manali highway. Some people blame the sudden increase in tourists for the problem of increasing garbage in Leh.

During winters, less wet waste is generated in Leh, but there are many challenges in composting this less amount of waste. Namgiyal says that during winters, wet waste gets accumulated which becomes difficult to treat. He explains that although the temperature of the chamber for composting can be controlled even in severe cold, making it possible to continue with composting, the temperatures and weather conditions impact working hours and efficiency of the employees which leads to a delay in treating wet waste. In Leh City, garbage is collected from every house by the municipal corporation which, to some extent, helps in the management of garbage disposal. But during the winter season, especially during snowfall, the movement of garbage collecting trucks gets hampered and in such a situation, residents are forced to figure out their own, sometimes ineffective ways, of disposing the garbage.

No set policy
Unlike other states of India, there is no solid waste management policy in the Union Territory of Ladakh. The administration in Ladakh is working on a draft policy for the management of solid waste and plastic waste, although the policy has not yet come into force. In the absence of such an important policy for a major tourist destination like Ladakh, it becomes a huge challenge for the administration to dispose waste effectively. When Namgiyal was asked about this, he said that dry waste is disposed off in Leh as per the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 of the National Green Tribunal and the guidelines of the Pollution Control Board. He also said that till now the municipal committee used to charge garbage collection fees only from commercial institutions but now a nominal fee of Rs 50 per house per month will be charged from all households.

At present, the entire responsibility of waste disposal and spreading awareness appears to be falling on the shoulders of the municipal committee. The responsibility of other departments, especially the tourism department, seems to be negligible. In such a situation, people believe that the tourism department should also be responsible for dealing with this problem because tourism has played a major role in the increase in garbage in Leh. Tourists visiting Ladakh have to pay an ‘environment fee’ but the fee is linked to the inner line permit given to people visiting areas outside Leh. In such a situation, those who come only till Leh and go back do not have to pay this fee. More than 90 per cent of the tourists coming to Ladakh travel by air, hence all the travellers have to pass through Leh. At the same time, after the administration makes 48 hours of acclimatisation period mandatory, all the tourists starting their journey from Leh will have to spend about two days in the city.

During the summer months, the load of people in Leh City, with a population of about 30,000, increases by more than 10 times.

Aparajita Chaudhary of Zero Waste Ladakh, an NGO working on the increasing problem of waste in Ladakh, says, “The environment fee is not collected uniformly in Ladakh. People who come only to Leh and are responsible for spreading pollution do not have to pay this fee.” Asma Yusuf of Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) says, “With urbanisation, garbage will also increase. We can’t stop it. The basic problem is that of waste management. With the increase in tourism activities, many regions are witnessing a boom in tourism. In such a situation, it becomes very difficult for the municipal committee to manage the waste as they do not have a concrete system for this.” Talking about policies, she says, “There are many policies like Swachh Bharat and many more, but authorities sitting in Delhi make these policies. Actually, these policies should be made at the grassroots level. “People always expect intervention from the government, but people also have to take the initiative to work in this direction.”

(Courtesy: Mongabay India/