This Himachal Village Has Found a Toxic Alternative to Kerosene

The widespread use of plastic packaging and the lack of garbage disposal systems is blighting remote mountain villages in Himachal Pradesh, turning the picturesque and once pristine areas, into giant rubbish dumps. Villagers (like we found in Malana) are trying to get rid of the plastic by burning it, causing more environmental damage and a further risk to health.

Nearly three thousand metres above sea level lies the village of Malana. Situated in the state of Himachal Pradesh, it was once a tiny, isolated spot tucked between steep mountains of the Kullu Valley.

The locals live in hand-built wooden houses, and relied on food that was able to grow in the harsh mountain conditions. Hauling rice and wheat from the nearest depot took as many as four days.

Now, just an hour-long trek from the nearest road, the small community has been introduced to the world of plastic packaged products, and there is garbage everywhere.

Despite a ban on plastics here, the drains in the village are overflowing with empty soda bottles and crisp packets, which eventually litter the mountainside and enters nearby streams and sources of fresh water.

Now each evening, the pure mountain air is filled with an acrid smell of burning plastic, as shop owners and other households collect and burn trash around their houses.

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The Only Way Out?

Gobind Thakur, Butcher & Shop Owner, Malana villageWe can’t worry about the pollution it causes. That is not our concern. We just have to burn it. Otherwise, all we can do it pack it in bags and throw it down the mountainside. Even then, it is going to be problematic as the area will be full of trash bags.

Locals Pioneer Clean up

Indra Devi is president of a local women's group, which is pioneering a clean up. Devi remembers a time when Malana wasn't swamped with plastic.

Indra Devi, President of a local women’s group in Malana villageEarlier, there was no plastic, no paper here,” she says. “Ever since plastic came to this area, everything from vegetables to grocery, is packed in plastic. Even yogurt is sold in plastic.

Devi has led clean up rallies through the village, but says it is not easy to clean up Malana.

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The Root Cause?

Easier transportation of goods has led to a surge in the number of shops inside the village, and higher incomes from cannabis cultivation have left the villagers with urban consumption habits. Devi says: “We have been trying to teach them, but they curse at us. When we tell them not to throw trash outside their homes, they tell us it is not our business. Everyone scolds us.” But the problem is not limited to Malana. 

‘Waste Warriors’ Step In

Since 2012, waste management activists called Waste Warriors have been going door-to-door to collect people's trash.

With operations spread over three towns in the foothills of the Himalayas, the group has collected and sorted more than 630 tonnes of garbage in the last year alone.

Minakshi Pandey, a programme manager for Waste Warriors, says most people in rural India don't know the impact of inhaling plastic fumes or other harmful effects of plastic trash.

Minakshi Pandey, Programme Manager for Waste Warriors We would go into houses where people would tell us that they don’t have any plastic waste. We were like, ‘but everything comes in plastic, even if you buy one egg, you get it in a plastic bag.’ To that they reply, ‘you know what, we don’t get kerosene nowadays, so we use it to burn our fuel.’ And when you tell them about the harmful effects of burning plastic, I just say, ‘do you see that tree? I think you should just hang a rope and die from it because you’re going to suffer and die anyways.’ 

Politicians Skirt The Issue

Local politicians in these mountain states blame the markets in cities like New Delhi for the plastic problem. Like most mountainous states of North India, plastic is banned in Himachal Pradesh.

Maheshwar Singh, MLA & Leader, Himachal Lokhit PartyThese things come from Delhi and other markets, like Amritsar. And if those people are packing them in plastic bags, the plastic reaches these places.

Wither Corporate Social Responsibility?

Pandey blames manufacturers who use plastics too liberally and the government for not having a waste collection system in place.

It shouldn’t just be a Waste Warrior or a Government of India problem. It should be the problem of the person manufacturing it and putting it out there. They have an excellent network. Surely, that network can also take it out.

Pandey says Waste Warriors want to create a system of waste collection and recycling, that is finally taken over by local communities and governments, but she's also urging major corporations to take responsibility for collecting the plastic packaging they use.

Video Editor: Ashutosh Bharadwaj