The worst fears of the strong-32,000 population at Lahaul-Spiti have come true. The heavy tourist influx following the opening of the Rohtang Tunnel has exposed the three ecologically fragile and culturally distinct Lahaul valleys – Chandra, Bagga, and Chenab -- to random littering, garbage dumps, pollution, open defecation, eve-teasing, and theft by the seasonal guests.
The theft of potato bags from the road-side stocks-- earlier an unheard thing in the Lahaul valley, mass destruction of a local apple orchard (the entire production was plucked and taken away) and cases of eve-teasing of Lahaul women are a few of unsavory incidents reported over the past 12 days. This has left locals completely baffled and visibly shaken over the impact of allowing mass tourist arrivals across the Rohtang Pass.
“We have conveyed all our apprehensions of things turning a bit ugly if not stopped and checked appropriately. Lahaul society is a very gentle and hospitable section. We want tourists to visit but don't want nuisance or breaking of the laws, and especially Swacchta must not be compromised,” said Prem Katoch, president of Save Lahaul Society, a social action group formed recently to check the side-effects of reckless tourist influx.
The local administration is partly to blame. The strategic Rohtang Tunnel, which provides all-weather connectivity to the people of Lahaul-Spiti, was opened on October 3 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But there are no public toilets along the Sissu (North-portal hamlet of the tunnel) to Keylong – the district headquarters, and Udaipur. Nor are there any signs warning against littering or open defecation. So tourists dump empty packets of chips, noodles, empty water, and liquor bottles wherever they want. And of course, the lack of toilets means people go wherever they can.
“The situation, I can say in lighter terms, is like you have fixed the wedding date, printed and issued invitation cards, the marriage party has arrived, but there is no clue about the bride and groom,” quips Prof (Dr) Chander Mohan Parsheera, Director, Institute of Vocational (Tourism ) and Tribal studies, HP university, Shimla.
Dr Parsheera, who has been vociferous about appropriate preparedness in Lahaul-Spiti, says that “our response now should be how to deal with the situation and ensure that locals are not in conflict with tourists. We are, thus, trying to involve the local community, the panchayats, Mahila mandals, and youths to host the tourists.”
And to spread awareness, Save Lahaul Society has decided to immediately put up hoardings across the region. One right at North portal will say: “You are entering a cleanest valley. Be responsible tourists /citizens. Don’t destroy the ecology .Take your garbage back “.
The people of Lahaul and Spiti want responsible tourists and visitors.
But the lack of garbage bins or scientific disposal system means the garbage rolls down to the Chandra River and its tributary Bagga –which meets at Tandi, note activists. The littering at other places including Trilokinath temple at Udaipur is already a cause of serious concern.
Yet the task in hand for the local administration is not just to regulate tourists and create amenities. There is also the need to take steps to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the tribal belt.
Rajneesh, Secretary (Environment) and Chairman HP Pollution Control Board, said that “necessary directions have been issued to the local SDMs. The administration has a duty to ensure that no damage is caused to the environment since there will be increased tourist arrivals.”
The state tourism secretary Divesh Kumar supports the view that no littering or roadside disposal of garbage should be permitted. The government will put up hoardings, and those violating the norms will be penalised, he said. “We are in the process of creating proper amenities for the tourists. All facilities like proper eating places and toilets etc. will be built very soon,” he said.