It was in 2014, during a trek from Chandra Tal in Spiti to Suraj Tal near Baralacha La in Himachal Pradesh, that Pradeep Sangwan, now 36, first came across the Gaddis—a nomadic shepherd community that spends the summer months high up in the mountains. Their eco-friendly lifestyle fascinated him.
At the time, Sangwan was working as a freelance trekking guide while trying to figure out what he wanted to do. The idea came to him when he was sharing a meal with the Gaddis: What if he could take elements from their no-waste lifestyle, infuse them into treks and create a platform that allowed people to travel for a purpose? By 2016, he had laid the foundations of Healing Himalayas, which organizes treks where participants pick up garbage strewn on the trails and creates awareness among the locals—helping to tackle the garbage menace in remote parts of the high mountains. Today, Healing Himalayas operates across the state.
“It was a time when social media and movies had really popularized the Himalaya and tourist footfalls were increasing every year. Their demands were creating pressure on local communities but a lot of them were happy to cater to them since it was generating an income,” Sangwan says.
“However, these places were not ready for this kind of influx, and over time it led to a lot of trash being generated, with no system in place for its disposal. In fact, there is a saying that in the mountains, just follow the plastic and you will reach your destination,” he says.
To begin with, Sangwan set out on small treks to understand the scale of the trash problem, the collection process needed and the nearest points where the rubbish could be disposed of. Since garbage treatment facilities were limited, he realized much of it was simply ending up in landfills. He studied how trash was managed in cities and towns and homed in on the need for segregation so that plastic could be sent to treatment plants, where it could be converted to electricity or simply incinerated.
Simultaneously, he hoped to discourage the use of plastic—a goal in which they have made headway. “You have to bend 300-400 times to collect 1kg of garbage. If you pick up someone else’s trash just once, I assure you that you will never throw any yourself,” Sangwan says, laughing.
Research done, Sangwan and a few volunteers started trekking on popular routes to collect garbage. His aim was to gain the trust of the locals, engage them in the campaign and educate them on the impact of plastic.
In the early days, volunteers were few in number and they would have to pay to stay with local communities. Sometimes, they would head to a gurdwara for the free langar meal. The organization found it hard to raise funds, forcing Sangwan to sell his vehicle. But he quickly learnt the power of social media and started drawing attention to his work, bringing in more volunteers and funds.
Initially, the locals weren’t too sure he would stay the course. But once they realized that this outsider—who had grown up in Haryana before heading out to study in Ajmer, Amritsar and Mumbai—was serious about his mission, they warmed up to the idea, even hosting the volunteers at no cost.
On average, the team would collect around 80-90 bags of plastic and glass from one route. The message spread. During one such trek on the Kheerganga route in 2017, Sangwan met a group of 12 trekkers. One of them, the corporate social responsibility head of an IT company, reached out later and offered to donate an amount each year. Two other companies also came on board over the next few months and Healing Himalayas expanded operations to places such as Malana and Prashar lake, routes which were littered with trash.
They organize four drives a month on average, with the number of volunteers varying. Since 2016, they have collected about 700,000kg of garbage, mainly glass and plastic, sending it to recycling facilities or selling it.
With a team of seven in place and functioning streamlined, Sangwan trained his eyes on the bigger picture. “How long could one keep cleaning the mountains? Besides, we had created awareness that one should not dump or burn garbage, but no one was going to leave their work and go to, say, Manali to discard it. There had to be a permanent solution,” he says.
He is now focusing on creating small-scale material recovery facilities where garbage can be collected and segregated before it is compressed and transported to a recycling facility. Over the past few months, they began setting up the first of these in Rakcham in Kinnaur, educating the locals on how to carry forward the work. The facility, expected to be operational by November, will be run by the local residents, with funds being generated through the sale of garbage.
“The lockdown was a great time to meet people, since most were home. We want to create similar facilities in Barsheni in Parvati Valley and Sissu in Lahaul next. We are also looking to start similar operations in Uttarakhand,” he says.
As a boy, Sangwan wanted to join the Indian Army. That dream may have faded into a fond memory but he has created an army of garbage warriors who are looking to heal the high mountains, one slope at a time.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.