Sikkim (India) : The Forgotten Himalayan State

Sikkim Photo - sikkim

(Source of the Image : The Teesta River)

Sikkim is more than just any other tourist place. Its home to the mighty Khangchendonga and is one of the last bastions of scarce flora and fauna and Buddhist literature. There are about 200 monasteries in Sikkim . The Rumtek monastery and the Pemayangtse monastery are among the best known ( see link for details .Sikkim’s low density of population, salubrious weather and ample water supply make it the perfect place for man to discover nature in its true splendor. However the urban sprawl, relatively primitive garbage disposal techniques coupled with the menace of plastic in various shapes (bottles, packaging etc) brought in by tourists and growing consumerism is harming this very fragile nature centric state.

My week-long visit in 2010 gave me an opportunity to experience the beauty of the place but also made me realize that the general apathy of the tourist population coupled with lack of some basic control measures could lead to a lot of irreparable damage in the long run .Sikkim was in the news last year because of the massive earthquake that inflicted considerable damage especially in the Northern part of the state. The economy of the state is mainly dependent on tourism, agri and allied agri activities,forestry, power and mining( for details see appended link .Sikkim is the largest producer of cardamom and is home to nearly 450 exotic species of orchids.

The mighty Teesta river presides majestically over Sikkim and originates from the Cholamu lake where it is hardly a stream. Its difficult to imagine that this innocuous looking stream can transform into a thundering mighty river less than a hundred kilometers downstream.Rangeet is the major tributary of the Teesta . Both the Teesta and Rangeet have been ‘dammed’ extensively. Infact immediately after the earthquake, some newspapers ( see appended link) listed that the dams may have led to circumstances that caused the earthquake.

The state has the distinction of having one of the lowest crime rates in the country ( see link for a fact sheet about sikkim:

Some of the problem areas ( as observed by me incourse of my 2010 trip) and suggested solutions have been listed below. These have been made by keeping  the following in mind:

  • Ease of Implementation
  • Partnering with  the Corporate sector, seeking their participation and making them aware of their Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Low cost alternatives to an existing problem
  • Easy monitoring and follow-up.

Observation #1: Plastic wrappers, bottles,packaging material etc trapped all over the foliage particularly in and around Gangtok. Infact even the municipal sweepers cleaning the streets tend to push the garbage into the sidewalks and the foliage lining the walkways adding to the debris.The government has made it compulsory for all vehicles to carry garbage bags to avoid littering but inadequate dustbins alongside roads even in the capital Gangtok means that the waste ultimately makes its way into the mountainside.

 Suggested Solution # 1: Corporates (MNC’s and Indian Companies)can be approached with a suggested plan wherein they are asked to “adopt or sponsor” parts of Gangtok as well as other landmarks such as the Pemayangtse Monastery which is badly in need for restoration. . A single company or a group of companies (not exceeding two companies per area) can be asked to sponsor sections of the city. The reason for capping the number of sponsor companies to two is because Sikkim is a small state plus accountability between companies can be monitored and controlled more effectively if there are two companies. Most corporates today have a financial budget allocated towards costs incurred (rather investments made) in the area of corporate social responsibility or CSR initiatives as they are commonly referred to. The corpus thus collected can be utilized towards the following areas:

  • Creating employment for locals in the area of proper garbage management
  • Placing dustbins all along the walking tracks ( with the sponsor companies logo and brief message about keeping Sikkim Garbage Free) at strategic locations such as the Main Bazaar, area leading up to the Cottage Industries, Vajra Theatre, Taxi Stand, Lall Bazaar etc. These areas typically experience high footfall especially during the tourist season. Hence this will serve the dual purpose of advertising (for the sponsor companies) as well as help in improving the garbage situation.
  • The dustbins places should be marked and separate bins should be placed for bottles, cans etc and others for food waste. This can be done by color coding them in an attractive manner. The separation of garbage will help the ultimate process of garbage disposal. This is also explained in a little more detail subsequently.
  • Creating flower beds and seasonal flower cultivation in the high traffic areas. The sponsors name along with the message of keeping Sikkim clean can be highlighted. Not only will the flowers beautify the landscape but will also go a long way in promoting the name of the sponsor company.
  • Creating smart uniforms for workers involved in the maintenance of these areas. The main idea is to give these workers a sense of dignity and motivate them
  • Holding competitions to judge and award the best maintained areas. This will build a sense of recognition and also instill some competitive spirit
  • For areas of historic interest and significance the funds can be utilized for restoration and revitalization of the architecture.(E.g.: Pemayangtse Monastery or any other such landmark)
  • All through the entire process the main theme which should be ingrained must the need to care for Sikkim and keep it clean and beautiful. The idea is to create and promote “Brand Sikkim” such that its unique attributes are highlighted and the message deeply ingrained for one and all to see and absorb so that it becomes a way of life.
  • Taxis and Private tourist cars too can be roped into this effort by allowing them to tie-up with a corporate entity and use the vehicle as a medium of advertising. The messages with a catchy bylines (Eg: Lets keep Sikkim clean OR Sikkim is ours lets keep it beautiful…) It’s a common practice abroad and in some of the large metros such as Mumbai/Delhi to use taxi cabs as a medium of advertising. The sponsorship aspect keeps them motivated since they get money for promoting a valid cause.
  • It’s very important that any funds thus collected from corporate or sponsors be managed by independent and qualified individuals. This will ensure transparency and avoid any misappropriations. The representatives on the board managing the funds, the budget and the activities can be a judicious mix of individuals who are educated and have demonstrated leadership and the necessary vision in their chosen fields. The accounts and details of expenses should be made available for viewing and can be published in the media so as to let the public know the “report card” of the activities.

Observation #2: Currently most of the tourist population in Sikkim is Indian, with the bulk being from West Bengal. While having Indian tourists is good, Sikkim can position itself in a way that it caters to the foreign tourist crowd interested in Sikkim for the right reasons – nature or study of Buddhist architecture etc. Basically the idea should be to become a favored tourist destination like Goa, Rajasthan have become but avoiding judiciously some of the drawbacks/mistakes that have been made there. The idea should be that the much needed foreign exchange can come in without the excessive social costs paid

Suggested Solution #2:

  •  Sikkim Tourism department can pay  prominent search engines such as Google, Yahoo etc to redirect a potential tourist to the official website of the state tourism department. As of now, that is not happening.
  • To make the whole experience as stress free, it is suggested that a taxi booking counter be set-up at the Bagdogra airport. Currently there is no formal prepaid taxi cab service and generally this leads to a lot of haggling and fleecing of the tourists (especially the elderly and the foreign tourists). There should be signs placed inside the Bagdogra airport directing traffic to a counter where a cab can be booked for various destinations in Sikkim at a pre determined price. The car number and details can be logged using a simple excel spread sheet in a laptop. This will also add to the safety since a vehicle can be traced if required. This counter can be managed by the department of tourism and can become a revenue generating entity if a fee is charged from the Private car operators for ferrying passengers to Sikkim. The fee structure can be levied based upon the number of passengers and the type of car ( eg: Basic, Sedan, Luxury, Tourist bus etc)
  • Because Sikkim has a difficult terrain it might be useful to advertise through road signs or billboards, the emergency helpline numbers in case of an accident or emergency. As of now this information is not frequently seen along the roadside and since most of the travel in Sikkim happens by road, it’s important that this be done.
  •  Sikkim has a very rich reservoir of Buddhist and Tibetan anthology. This can be used to promote and an annual event can be built around this so as to attract local and foreign crowd. There is a renewed interest overseas in Buddhism and the fact that a lot of Hollywood stars have opted for Buddhism, its practices such as chanting, meditation etc have helped make it very popular. This interest can be packaged and converted into a possible opportunity.  For e.g.: Gujarat every year launches a very aggressive ad campaign around the Nov-Jan timeframe since that is the peak NR season and the whole emphasis to  try and create a recall and place in the mind of the NRI population and to use the unique selling proposition of a state that is traditional in values and modern in approach.
  • Some of the icons of Sikkimese culture and heritage can be used to promote both the cause of ecotourism and the message for preserving its fragile ecology.

Observation #3: The daily garbage collection and disposal mechanism being used currently are quite archaic and need to be improved. So is the situation with the taxi cabs which form the most popular mode of transport within the State. Sites such as Tsango Lake, Nathula etc need to be kept free of an overload of tourists which tend to clog up the narrow and steep roads as well as litter the surroundings.

 Suggested Solution # 3:

  • Residents need to be told to segregate the garbage and handover food waste separately from the other waste (plastic bottles, cans, packing and tin and metal items). My observation of this process in Gangtok was that the garbage collector manually tries to segregate the combined garbage that he receives. This process therefore breaks down as one/two people manning the garbage truck are not adequate to sort and segregate the entire locality/cities garbage. Moreover instead of regular open trucks that are being employed currently, it would be good if the administration invests some money in acquiring special closed garbage disposal trucks which have compartments to place the different types of garbage .Hence the “biodegradable hazards” such as plastic can be separated at the time of collection itself and disposed of accordingly. The state can consider imposing a surcharge or a fee/tax on bottled water since these bottles comprise the biggest menace. This fee can be ploughed back to improve on the infrastructure used for garbage disposal. As the quantum of population increases (especially in the peak summer months) and over time, having antiquated dumping grounds outside city limits may not be enough. Over time these dumps will become breeding grounds for toxic wastes which might find their way into the Teesta and spread through Sikkim. The idea should be to systematically decompose and end the tenure for garbage that is synthetic and can damage the environment. The state can collaborate with academia in getting inputs in the area of waste management and rope in large waste management companies.
  • Clean and well managed rest areas may be a sort of a solution to this problem. These rest areas can have toilets and facility for drinking water and light refreshments. These can be provided at a reasonable charge and can be set-up en-route some major tourist routes. This will help contain garbage and littering in some shape or form.
  • Tourist vehicles should be made to undergo a compulsory pollution check every quarter to ensure that the emission levels are within acceptable limits. A random inspection can be done by the traffic police and defaulters fined. Mufflers and exhausts that are faulty and are pollution facilitators can also be fined. There are a fairly large number of tax cabs that ply without any attention to these things.
  • One of my observations was that the narrow roads leading up to Nathu La via Tsango Lake was overcrowded with large SUV’s (sports utility vehicles) trying to maneuver in a two lane road. Perhaps there is already a system in place which tracks the number of passes issued per day. However it seemed like there was more vehicles and less road space thereby causing a nightmare for tourists who were trying to walk on the slippery roads trying to reach their cars as big vehicles jostled with each other and tried to steer clear of pedestrians. The police personnel also get overwhelmed by the cars as the ratio is not adequate to control a huge onslaught of incoming traffic. It would be advisable if there is some sort of automated system which tracks the number of vehicles cleared per day and cuts-off after a desired number has been reached especially for areas of high altitudes.
  • Another way to raise a corpus is to study the number of large SUV’s being purchased and the respective car vendors (For e.g.: Mahindra &Mahindra, TATA etc). These companies should be asked to contribute a percentage of their sales in Sikkim-into a fund. The car companies should also be asked to come and hold free car clinics wherein the existing cars plying on the roads are checked. The diagnostic report can become the document which can give the selling company important data about the issues that affect cars. For the state, an abridged form of this data can shed light on the state of the vehicles, areas of neglect and improvement. This data can also be shared with the RTO for better monitoring and deciding upon pollution control and safety control guidelines.

Conclusion: Sikkim’s beauty is breathtaking and the states culture, traditions and people are truly wonderful. It’s imperative that a long term view be taken rather than a myopic one of letting unplanned tourism activity, growing urbanization slowly destroy its heritage and fragile ecology.  A long term vision will help this paradise be enjoyed by the future generations and remain a beacon of rich culture and traditions.

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