Back in India after some years, a physician bemoans the garbage-ridden hills of Mussoorie

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect...” Aldo Leopold, scientist, author, environmentalist, forester and ecologist

A low pitched rumble in the sky marked the landing of our stalwart 747 at the Terminal 3 of New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. Within a few minutes, I deplaned along with my family, thus beginning our biennial trip to India. Upon arrival in the international terminal, I was amazed to see the positive changes that had taken place in the complex in only a few years' time. Kudos to the designing team, the terminal appeared to be state-of-the-art. We made record time clearing immigration and customs, a far cry from back in the days of the old IG International arrivals and seemingly light years ahead of the old Palam airport with hours of wait and endless queues. I thus started this trip optimistically. India was certainly showing her finest form and this was just the first day of my trip!

Flash forward a week later. I am disembarking the New Delhi to Dehra Dun Shatabdi Express.

The almost six hour ride was smooth and the time passed by quickly. A one hour ride later brought us to our destination: Mussoorie. What a beautiful landscape, certainly befitting the praise of numerous authors and fellow travellers over the years. I whipped out my trustworthy, but road-worn camera, ready to devour once in a lifetime images of beauty. Or so I thought.

Intermingled with this beautiful passage was garbage, litter, refuse, call it what you may. Did my eyes deceive me? Was this an illusion due to jet lag? Perhaps this was an isolated incident. I was wrong on all accounts. This beautiful hill station abounded with man-made rubbish! What I was expecting was a visual treat given the variety of plant-life found here and the geographic variety. What I got instead, was a rude awakening.

My earlier readings had revealed Mussoorie to be dubbed, “the Queen of the foothills,” and for good reason. Founded in the 1800s during colonial times by the British, this sparsely inhabited hill station (by the likes of Welsh surveyor and geographer Sir George Everest), situated at an altitude of approximately 1800 meters, grew into the small bustling city it is now.

This being my first trip I was expecting a visual and aural treat for the senses, given the plethora of flora and fauna in the region. What I was not prepared for were the piles of garbage strewn indiscriminately about the countryside.

The burgeoning of Mussoorie into a well-populated city has stressed its natural ecosystem. An abundance of tourism and local housing development has increased the ‘human load.' Not infrequently, problems with trash over-abundance and collection issues, in addition to water scarcity, have come to rear their ugly face in this once peaceful abode.

During my short visit, I was enthralled by the natural beauty present. At the same time, however, I was deeply troubled by the widespread presence of trash and refuse. Even the nearby town of Landour had not escaped this deluge of human waste (albeit on a smaller scale). Make no mistake about it: beyond every colourful flower, behind every flowering shrub, and underneath every picturesque bridge or park bench, litter is present. Natural beauty co-exists with man-made refuse in a bizarre manner. However, unlike the harmonious Taoist blending of opposing forces that occur in nature to create a harmonious unity, this pairing can only lead to the destabilisation of this delicate, already stressed ecosystem.

So what is the solution and why, you may ask, am I concerned? Though I am not a self-professed eco activist, I do understand the fragility of our natural environs and am concerned that we leave some semblance of nature for the future generations. The solution has to be a multi-tiered approach. Population growth continues, and with it, the amount of trash we produce. Perhaps on the government level, tougher zoning ordinances and designated wildlife refuge areas (no-build zones) would help. In addition fines for littering (though this would be difficult to enforce) would at least send a strong message that the hillside is not a dumping ground.

Ultimately, deterrence can only help to a certain extent. It is up to the people to clean up their act. In 1985, the US state of Texas had a similar widespread highway littering problem. To remedy it, the Texas Department of Transportation unleashed a large scale public education program to battle this $20 million a year problem. Cleverly, it was titled, “Don't Mess With Texas”. Banners, slogans, advertisements and the use of prominent celebrities catapulted this program into the stratosphere. Did it work? You bet it did. Within a 4-year period, roadside litter decreased a remarkable 72 per cent.

Now it's Mussoorie's turn. It faces a bigger challenge, as trash is rampant throughout the countryside. If this does not happen soon, in the not-so-distant future this once beautiful hill station will not be the ‘Queen of the Hills,', but rather the ‘Queen of the Landfills.'

(Amit Bhan is a practicing physician in the US A, and an amateur photographer.

Keywords: Mussooriegarbagewaste