MORE THAN eight years after it became the first town in Sikkim, and arguably India, to completely ban packaged drinking water bottles, Lachen is set to introduce bamboo bottles as an alternative.
Located 129 km from Gangtok, at a height of 2,750 metres, the Himalayan town’s snow-capped hills, aquamarine lakes, red pandas and a rhododendron trek draw nearly one lakh tourists annually. It was the plastic bottles left behind by them that prompted Lachen to introduce the ban. The initiative was entirely community driven, with its barely 2,500 inhabitants of mostly Lachengpa community lending support.
The bamboo water bottles have been ordered from Assam through Sikkim Rajya Sabha MP Hishey Lachungpa. Sikkim was the first state in the country to take steps against the use of plastic, bringing in restrictive measures as far back as 1998. In 2016, it banned the use of packaged drinking water in government offices as well as at all government events. Traditionally, Lachen had been a town of apple growers. Over the years, this waned as more and more young people either opted for government jobs or picked up other professions like driving or trade. Then tourism boomed, and the town saw 30 hotels come up over the past 10-15 years. The main organisations behind the packaged water ban are the Lachen Tourism Development Committee (LTDC), comprising locals, and the Dzumsa, which is like a local panchayat found only in this part of North Sikkim. The Dzumsa is headed by village heads called Pipon.
“We started a cleanliness drive in 2006. For that we looked at waste seriously. The mounds of garbage that Lachen had, especially due to the number of tourists, would be left in informal dumping grounds. We did not have a system of recycling. In 2011, as plastic waste overwhelmed Lachen, we took the decision to ban packaged drinking water altogether. In 2018, we followed this up by banning plastic carry bags,” Lachen’s Pipon Gyatso Lachenpa says. After them, he adds, two other towns, Lachung and Chungthang, banned packaged drinking water.
Gyatso says they reached out to the World Wide Fund for Nature and it helped Lachen through the plastic ban. Two monitoring committees help implement the crackdown by carrying out random checks of tourist vehicles entering Lachen to make sure no one brings in packaged water.
The Dzumsa has given each homestay, hotel and commercial outlet in the area water filters. Water is provided to the guests in steel or alumunium bottles. “The water provided is from Sikkim’s rivers and springs, which are much healthier. We had the water in the area tested in labs,” says Gyatso.
About the bamboo bottles, he says they have requisitioned a thousand of them. “We would have introduced them already but, because of the delay, we will now launch them at our Lachen Losar festival later this year. Of course 1,000 bottles is nothing, but it’s a start.”
Says Chewang Lachenpa, 36, a former LTDC member, “We were in charge of preserving both our culural heritage and our natural surroundings. When we first started, we didn’t know how to manage waste and found that most of it was being dumped in our rivers and forests, and that 60 per cent of it was packaged drinking water. Now, if we find visiting tourists carrying these plastic bottles, the driver accompanying them, usually a local, is fined. It is Rs 500 for a first offence, Rs 1,000 for a second and Rs 2,000 for a third. The fine can go up further for repeat offenders.”
He adds that they are now struggling with waste like wafer and biscuit packets. “If we ban these items, it will really hurt our economy. Plastic carry bags are not that much of a problem really since most residents in any case carry cloth bags or cane baskets.”
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