I watched my home in Uttarakhand change over the years - but not for the best!!

Tripoto

I still remember sitting in front of my television screen, watching in horror at the harrowing scenes of the flash floods wreaking havoc in Uttarakhand on that unfortunate day of June 2013. It remains one of the most painful memory of mine till date - for one of my family members battled for almost 3 days in remote Himalayan mountains for survival then, with almost no access to potable water or food, before he managed to find a way to safer ground. For locals like me this catastrophe was a cruel reminder of how gravely we had undermined the delicate natural fabric of the region, stretching it to the limits before it had no option but to break away. Although most of the blame game revolved around rampant construction projects in the region and "unpredictable" rainfall pattern during that time, it is easy to overlook one of the most blatant truths that we have mastered to look away from.

We, generally speaking, are not the most responsible of travelers.

Pray for peace...and pollute - common sights in Rishikesh!! (c)BethBauer

Photo of Uttarakhand, India by Divas Bahuguna

If you feel travelling is but a cultural fad of recent times, revolving around social media impressions, then maybe a change of perspective is what is required. Cultural tourism, constituted by travelers driven by faith, has been the most prominent activity for centuries in remote landscapes of Uttarakhand. However, the sudden rise in waste dump and garbage during the peak yatra months every year is clearly not coincidental. So I knew deep down that what happened on that unfortunate day was not entirely a natural disaster - our habits on road had a huge part to play in that.

With the hills in Uttarakhand witnessing an exponential rise in footfall in recent decades, I believe that with the current awareness and information avenues around us we are better equipped now to play a massive role in having a substantial positive impact on ecosystem of this region. Evidently, banking on authorities to sort things out by themselves will probably pay no swift dividends. Therefore there is an acute need to lead a reform from our end.

But how do we do that? Being a local and having watched these issues from close quarters, I can only recommend following few observations towards responsible travelling in the region - ensuring you have an enjoyable travel experience while making a difference to the region along the way.

1. Understand the delicate ecosystem of Uttarakhand

It's a slippery road downhill, unfortunately!! (c)swamiupendra

Photo of I watched my home in Uttarakhand change over the years - but not for the best!! by Divas Bahuguna

It has to be understood that Uttarakhand is home to a young and still evolving Himalayan mountain system. The mountains here are not giant monoliths of rocks as found in the southern regions. They are made up of an upper layer of gravel and soil loosely held together by the trees along the mountain slopes. Therefore, for any traveler coming from other regions, it is paramount to understand that it does not take much to tip the finely balanced system towards disaster. Many unfortunate mishaps of getting caught in a landslide can be avoided if local warnings and recommendations are paid heed to. The locals have been living here for centuries and have a deep connect with the landscapes. Therefore local guidance is paramount when travelling responsibly in the state - both for your safety as well as the region's preservation.

Watch out...you may be heading towards their playground!! (c)hillpost

Photo of I watched my home in Uttarakhand change over the years - but not for the best!! by Divas Bahuguna

Ask the locals, take their opinion and do not venture alone unless you are trained enough to do that. The national parks and wild forests in Uttarakhand are home to some of the most dangerous wild animals on the planet - so much so that sight of leopards roaming near houses in Dehradun itself is not uncommon!! Every year, even after repeated warnings, travelers make stupid decisions in pursuit of walking the "path less travelled" and face the unfortunate consequences. In Uttarakhand, that path can easily lead to the territories of wild bears or leopards!!

The issues with garbage disposal and waste management is a pain point across the Himalayan belt, with all neighboring states facing the same challenges. The recent NGT verdict of banning camping along the banks of Ganges stems from the acute negligence both tour operators and tourists have shown towards garbage disposal around camp sites in the region. Restricting camping along Deoriyatal-Chandrashila trek during winter seasons, for example, was another one of actions taken to check unregulated trek operators showing little regard to the ecosystem. Irrespective of whose fault it is, the travelers - and more importantly the ecosystem, end up on the losing side.

Manage your own garbage and save volunteers some unnecessary efforts!! (c)indiahikes

Photo of I watched my home in Uttarakhand change over the years - but not for the best!! by Divas Bahuguna

The least one can do is manage their own garbage during their visits to the mountains. Carry an eco-friendly garbage bag in your backpacks and just collect the garbage you come across during your treks, disposing them at the designated disposal sites afterwards. Carry your own water bottles and refil them along the way - avoid buying the plastic ones. Small personal contributions of this nature go a long way in establishing this habit in the entire travel fraternity in the region. Ganges is anyway notoriously "clean" as you all know - the least we can do is try not to contribute to the problems further in its natural abode in the mountains.

2. Respect the local lifestyle

As can be imagined, the increasing tourism has been a double edged sword for the local native population of the region. Like in most Himalayan societies, the influx of money from tourism has created an unintentional chasm in the social fabric in multitude of ways. The charm of sitting under the shade of a tree in some local's courtyard, sipping freshly made local Buransh juice is now replaced by a quick sip of cold drink from one of the millions of small Maggi shops which have sprung up in the region. I cannot believe how people can exchange the joy of enjoying Kulathi (Gahat dal) chappatis and Til ki Chutney at local eateries along mountain passes for noodles, fast food and packaged products!! Even after increase in tourism the migration from Uttarakhand hills is at an all time high - clearly the society is not benefiting from tourism the way it ideally should have.

How can you resist trying out treats like these!!

Photo of I watched my home in Uttarakhand change over the years - but not for the best!! by Divas Bahuguna

Given the economic plight of the mountains in the region, it is understandable for locals to cater to consumer demands. Therefore real help to the region can only come when the travel footfall is supported by rise in demand for the local products. Be open minded and try local produce and experience local delights as much as you can. Every money you spend on regional produce directly helps the farmers and small businesses there - more than any government aid ever will. Nothing beats the smile on the face of a happy dhaba owner in the hills when you ask him what local food can he serve you for lunch - trust me, that is the most filling meal you can have on your hikes or travels in the region!!

Understand that we are social ambassadors for the regions we have come from. Most people in the high regions of Uttarakhand will, more often than not, have very little knowledge of your culture and society. Therefore, try to make it an amiable social exchange, enriching the local population's knowledge about our country along your journeys.

3. It's not all about Social Media

As an avid user of one and one of the believers of powerful causes these social channels can inspire us to, I would conservatively cede that much of the charm has been lost in the flash of the camera. It was during my trip to Ladakh and Spiti a few years ago that I actually realized the massive work going on behind the scenes, not highlighted but astonishingly powerful nonetheless, to improve the lives of locals in these regions. Maybe it is not all that bad to step away from the Instagram posts every once in a while and travel in a meaningful way.

Our contributions on road can help shape the future of the region!! (c)Chiraag

Photo of I watched my home in Uttarakhand change over the years - but not for the best!! by Divas Bahuguna

Similar to what Spiti Ecosphere and 17000 ft have pioneered in the regions of Spiti and Ladakh respectively, there are a lot of similar initiatives running in Uttarakhand that provides you opportunity to become a Volun-tourist, and contribute to local society during your travels. From teaching young local children to participating in local construction and development projects, there are a lot of ways in which we can make our travels in the region so much more meaningful, away from the distractions of social media and internet. This link will help you find some of the good foundations you can approach to actively work with local Uttarakhand community.

4. Help the government's efforts towards nature preservation

Keeping aside the financial mismanagement and corruption at government establishments in the state, we cannot ignore the ground realities the officials have to work with. The forest staff is heavily understaffed and lacks required resources to effectively monitor and preserve the natural resources in Uttarakhand, for example. So to rely on them to help you immediately in case of adversity would be too optimistic, unfortunately. Therefore, help them help you enjoy the experiences you seek during your travels to the state.

With dry pine leaves providing fodder, it does not take much to turn Uttarakhand into a furnace!!

Photo of I watched my home in Uttarakhand change over the years - but not for the best!! by Divas Bahuguna

Help the forest officials by taking care of your own garbage during your camping trips, for example. A simple carelessness with a simmering cigarette can very easily wreak havoc on the entire ecosystem of the region, with forest fires a serious challenge in the region. Again, I trust you guys are intelligent enough to understand what I am trying to say. Other than tourism Uttarakhand has very few avenues to earn their revenues from. Therefore everyone, from authorities to locals alike, need our support to ensure this source of much needed income does not stop for the state - while preserving the real charm of ecosystem.

5. Take the initiative - make a difference

For anybody who believes change cannot happen with a single person's effort, we are descendants of a certain Sundar Lal Bahuguna, whose chipko movement mobilized the entire region and turned a simple vision into a social movement of such massive magnitude. The impact is still visible in the fact that Uttarakhand still retains around 50% forest cover, among the highest in the country!! So efforts coming from each one of us matter.

Social media is a powerful weapon most of us now have to help create movements - more so, start our own!! Instagram is filled with inspiring young travelers and photographers, who are doing pioneering work in spreading awareness about their regions and are helping travelers select eco-friendly travel strategies in the region. Haven't you heard of the official Instagram handle of the village of Sarmoli in Uttarakhand yet?

The villagers of this remote village in Uttarakhand have their own Instagram account, where they spread awareness about their culture and share the natural beauty of their region with the world!! Similarly, there are a lot of young trekkers and hikers on Instagram who regularly organize social volunteering hiking trips in the mountains.

Also, feel free to converse with any traveler you come across who do not share the ideals of responsible traveling and explain them your experiences and ideologies. Human networking is a very powerful medium, and the more people we engage with the more rapidly our messages will spread.

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I still want to feel the cool breeze blow across my face in the middle of summers in Dehradun, like it used to when we drove our scooty towards the curvy roads towards Mussoorie. The curvy roads are still there, but unfortunately the summers seem to be borrowed from the plains of Delhi now and so is the traffic in Mussoorie!! Soaring temperatures, more shopping malls than there are people to shop in them and garbage dumps on every corner - my home has changed a lot, but unfortunately not for good!!

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