Pradeep Sangwan is on a mission to clear the Himalayas of the waste left behind by tourists. With this aim, he established Healing Himalayas Foundation six years ago.
His foundation has set up five material recovery facilities in Himachal Pradesh for the mission.
"Approximately, we collect about 1.5 tonnes of non-biodegradable waste on a daily basis in all five facilities, which otherwise would have been landfilled or burned in open air," says 37-year-old Sangwan, a native of Haryana's Gurugram who was praised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his "Mann ki Baat" address in December 2020.
Sangwan says the projects of his foundation, which sustains on voluntary donations, are focused on clean-up drives, waste management and other activities in the rural Himalayan region.
Each December, Sangwan prepares a calendar for the following year and volunteers align their trips accordingly.
"While going up for a trek, we collect all trash. Mainly, we find plastic bottles, multilayer packaging plastic waste, and then we store it at one location on the route. While returning, we bring it back to the base village and transport it to the nearest facility," he says.
Sangwan says while doing his graduation from Chandigarh's DAV College, he came in contact with some students from Himachal Pradesh, with whom he started to explore the state in 2007-08.
After moving to the state in 2009, he undertook extensive travelling and during that he met a group of people from the "gaddi" (shepherd) community in Lahaul. He was impressed how, even in a very remote area, they cared so much for their environment.
His foundation set up its first waste collection and sorting unit two years ago in Rakcham near Chitkul of Kullu district followed by other four facilities in Mansari (Kullu), Pooh (Kinnaur), Tabo (Spiti) and Narkanda (Shimla).
The Rakcham unit is close to Chitkul, popularly known as India's last village along the international border.
"We are looking forward to build another two to three facilities in the next year at remote locations. Its importance is like a school or a primary health care centre, at least according to me, and it must be realised by communities as well," he says.
"But realising the fact that we still transport our waste to other states for recycling which generates a lot of carbon footprint, we need to develop a holistic ecosystem of solid waste collection, storage, segregation and recycling at the district level," he adds.
Sangwan says his foundation is working with the Department of Environment, Science and Technology, Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board and the state's forest department to set up a plant.
"Easier said than done, our biggest hurdle in a topography such as Himachal Pradesh is to get the land at a desired location to keep operations and maintenance sustainable. This has become my focus now and I am hoping that by the end of 2023 we will be able to set up two such facilities in Himachal Pradesh," he says.
Sangwan says they often came across people who dispose of beer and other glass bottles in a reckless manner. Sometimes, cattle are injured when the glass gets stuck in their hoof, he says.
Sangwan says this year, volunteers of Healing Himalayas Foundation took a small step towards the rising problem of solid waste management during the Manimahesh Yatra by embarking on the journey and bringing back 3.5 tonnes of discarded materials and handing it over to the Chamba Municipal Corporation.
With this, we aim to sensitise tourists to "travel with a purpose" and be more mindful of the impact of their actions on the natural surroundings, says Sangwan.