healing himalayas

Saviour of the mountains: How Pradeep Sangwan is ‘healing’ the Himalayas

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Pradeep Sangwan talks about his journey, the challenges he has faced, and the motivation behind this quest.
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Picture this. You have trekked for hours to reach atop a hill that you dreamed of scaling for years. Once you arrive at the top, you are on cloud nine and you throw your fist in the air to celebrate the moment. But the celebration turns into exasperation when you find the picturesque landscape littered with heaps of garbage? It not only leaves you with a bitter taste in the mouth but also makes you wonder about its disastrous environmental consequences. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Mountain litter takes much longer to decompose at high altitudes. It takes up to 500 years for a soda can, 300 years for a plastic bottle and 5 years just for a chewing gum or cigarette butt!”

Mountains attract about 15-20 percent of global tourism, as per Mountain Partnership, a United Nations voluntary alliance. Although the revenue generated from tourism provides opportunities for the local communities, it also causes a littering problem. According to a report by Swachh India, “Nearly 304 metric tonnes of solid waste is generated in the state daily, of which 51 metric tonnes is generated in the state capital of Shimla alone.” Thankfully, some individuals have taken it upon themselves to tackle this crisis. One such individual is Pradeep Sangwan, the founder of Healing Himalayas, a foundation that is dedicated to preserving the environment and its natural ecology for its inhabitants. So far, Healing Himalayas has helped clean “800 tonnes of waste on the hills,” says Sangwan.

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Sangwan talks about his journey, the challenges he’s faced, and the motivation behind this quest.

You have dedicated your life to keep the Himalayas clean. Tell us about your journey. What inspired you to start this initiative?

It was expected of me to join the armed forces like my father since I was a military kid. But life had other plans for me. It all started when I went for a trek with my friend from Chandra Tal to Suraj Tal (in Spiti), and we had to trek 70 km. We covered half of the distance on the first day, but we couldn’t find a single living soul around us for 25 km, except three shepherds at three different locations. We stayed with them for the next three days, and I learned a lot about their sustainable as well as eco-friendly lifestyle, which made me realise how crucial it was to share it with the world.

I set out with jute bags to return with the discarded waste on the hills. The waste materials majorly consisted of plastic because tourists who come here to enjoy their vacation often bring along with them plastic food containers, water bottles, and loud music. It all leaves the place in tatters. A one-man show that started on a small level soon paved way for a huge initiative supported by the villagers. This led to the start of Healing Himalayas.

The task you have undertaken is not easy. Can you tell us about the challenges you have faced and how you dealt with them?

We need to change a lot of mindsets. Within Himachal (Pradesh) itself, in places like Parvati Valley, Kasol, the mindset is completely different as compared to the rest of the state. I find it very difficult to connect with them. We also have to deal with bureaucracy, as we need to structure ourselves in a way so that we can align with their policies if at all we need their help. If we can manage on our own, it’s absolutely wonderful for us. But we need to work with each other and push forward together to create a sustainable way of doing things. We need to recognise those who are doing the work, analyse them and eventually, form some sort of union so we can push forward together. This is the difficult part.

We are a group of people who firmly believe in educating others through ground action. We just try to change the mindset at the grassroots level, and at the same time, provide them alternatives in terms of infrastructure. So, these are the kinds of problems that I generally face.

How do you find volunteers for your campaigns?

There is no strategy as such. Social media is our biggest tool. We try and create that sense of pride when you become part of our campaigns. Another thing that I believe encourages others to join us is the value exchange. When volunteers go back to their respective places, they tell their friends and families about the experiences and how they felt. I think that’s one of the reasons why we get so many volunteers.

Initially, I was a bit reluctant to use social media but eventually, I had to, just to get volunteers. I thought people will think that I am boasting about my work. But I realised that you need to showcase your work, get featured somewhere so that people can read about what you do and get motivated to support you. This made me focus on the positive side of social media. Also, we have very consistent about our cleaning drives. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we did a drive every weekend—that too on the track routes. That made an impact. People knew that we are serious about our work and we are here to stay.

How do you motivate yourself to keep going when you see streets littered despite all your efforts?

It’s not like we don’t get bored or tired from our work. There is a threshold and when you reach that point, you don’t feel like doing anything. But we have barely scratched the surface as of now. I understand that the problem is too big to handle and I am under no illusion of that. But I am dedicated to the cause 24×7 and that’s how I think about it. I believe in taking small steps and have not set a huge target for myself. The idea is to keep going and not take the pressure. If you think your work is starting to become a burden, then take a break.

Can you tell us how the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions have impacted your work?

Yes, it has slowed down our work. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the donations we were receiving went in a different direction. What we were supposed to do this year, we will have to do it next year. Solid waste is not on the priority list for many as no one is losing their livelihood because of it. But we need to consider this because it is a huge cause of concern. It will create a big problem in the future and impact tourism. Think about it, who wants to visit a dirty place?

What advice do you have for tourists?

Rather than tourists, I would like to address the local communities. Make your location more destination-centric rather than tourist-centric. You need to create SOPs (standard operating procedures). Tell them, ‘this is our place and you need to follow these rules.’ But for that to happen, local communities need to educate themselves first. They should be clear about their capacity in terms of tourists. That way, I think tourism communities in Leh and Ladakh are very good. They create strong SOPs and everything is defined. They don’t allow anyone to pollute their community. Similar systems should be adopted by communities here as well. Meanwhile, tourists can read about the travelling habits that can bring their journey to the greener side. But unfortunately, no one thinks so deeply or does so much research. But if we start talking about it, then change might happen.

  • Pradeep Sangwan is an avid trekker, environmentalist, and the founder of the Healing Himalayas Foundation. Pradeep has taken on the monumental challenge of cleaning up the trash from the picturesque Himalayas. An alumnus of Rashtriya Military School, Ajmer, he has successfully established a circular economy in the remote Himalayan region and is looking to replicate the model to create a ripple effect.

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