Excerpts from personal interview with Dr. Ishey Namgyal, President, Municipal Committee Leh (MCL), conducted on 2 September 2020, Leh.
1. Background of Municipal Committee Leh (MCL) When and how did the present MCL form?
Many political developments have taken place in Ladakh in the last 2 years. Prior to 2018, no elections were held for the municipal body either in Leh or Kargil district. The elected municipal body in Leh District came into being for the first time only in November 2018. In 2019, Ladakh was granted Divisional status. With that, the elected municipal body became a separate entity having a director of its own. Otherwise earlier the municipal body of Ladakh came under the director of the municipal body of Kashmir. In August 2019, Ladakh was granted Union Territory status. Soon after that Urban Local Bodies (ULB) were formed in Ladakh. So the present Municipal Committee Leh (MCL) is 21-22 months old only. Then by March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. So the MCL has not had a smooth flow. We are in a transition period and it will take the next 4-5 years [to get on track] because the rules [for the functioning of MCL] are yet to be formed. We have requested the Governor to formulate our own UT Municipal Act. As of now we are following the Jammu and Kashmir Municipal Act 2000. In that way, we are still working with the [legislative] resources that we had earlier as a district.
What is the role of MCL?
The role of the elected [municipal] body is more to do with policy- and decision-making now. Earlier it was strictly to do with administrative matters. Now we are independent in many things. For instance, we can raise our own resources although the scope of that is limited in Ladakh. And for the resources we raise, we do not have to take permission from anybody for incurring expenditure. We have to only pass a resolution in the elected body with a two-third majority. That is the way we function now. And so there are many advantages of having an elected body.
Is Municipal Committee different from Municipal Corporation and Municipal Council?
As per the 2011 census, the population of Leh town was about 32,000. So by now the population must be nearing 40,000. And the area of Leh town is nearly 19-20 km sq. As per the Jammu and Kashmir Municipal Act 2000 [which we are following currently], if the population of a town exceeds 20,000 but is less than 50,000, the municipal body is entitled for 17 ward members. But the Leh municipal body has only 13 ward members.
So we have requested the Governor to form a three-tier structure in UT Ladakh. First tier would be the Municipal Corporation for the largest cities such as exists in Srinagar and Jammu. Second tier would be the Municipal Council for the towns whose population is more than 1 lakh as exists in Baramulla and Kathua. Third tier would be the Municipal Committee for the small towns. What the UT government of Kashmir has done is upgraded many of the Municipal Committees to Municipal Councils. Some places which have lesser population than Leh, for instance Kulgam and Kishtwar, have also been upgraded to Municipal Committees. What are the first steps taken by MCL for developing Leh?
As of now, we do not have a Masterplan in Leh. So after our coming [to office] we requested the Governor that we must go for a Masterplan for Leh. So the Masterplan is in progress. Experts have been called to Leh for this purpose. Once we have a Masterplan then all will happen by the law.
Second is that in collaboration with the local NGO, Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG), we are drawing up a Vision 2030 for Leh. For that we have made a committee consisting of council representatives from the official and the elected municipal body. The committee is headed by Mr. C. Phunstok, Vice Chancellor of Ladakh University. So currently we are in the stage of consultation. We are inviting suggestions. Based on the consultations we will develop Vision 2030 for Leh which would be integrated in the Masterplan for Leh.
Third is that Leh and Kargil cities are being brought under the Smart City Project [of the central government]. So that will also be integrated with the Masterplan and Vision 2030 for Leh.
2. Origin of the problem of waste in Leh When did waste emerge as a problem in Leh?
Until 1980, Leh was a zero waste generating village. We never had kitchen waste because we used to have different kinds of livestock [to which we fed the kitchen waste]. Since there was no tourism, there was no plastic bottle, no plastic packaging. Between 80s and 90s, after Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani conceived the idea of Sindu Darshan in Ladakh, the amount of waste drastically increased. Sindu Darshan found a place in the Incredible India [tourism promotional advertisement] and that attracted domestic tourists in large numbers. Earlier we used to have 20,000 – 30,000 foreign tourists. Against that, last year we had above 3 lac domestic tourists. With the coming of domestic tourists, there was an increase in waste in terms of plastic and everything else.
How did the Bomb Guard turn into a dumpsite?
Initially, we didn’t realise that we would have so much of a problem [of waste] so we [just] selected a place [i.e. Bomb Guard] and started dumping the waste there. But as time passed, we realised the gravity of the problem. So it is only after 1990 that the problem of waste grew. Now we are trying to reverse that. The modern people say Recycle-Reuse-Reduce but that is inbuilt in our culture. Now we are going back to our ancestors.
3. Plans for managing waste in Leh
What is the future of the Bomb Guard dumpsite?
Now we are tackling waste on two fronts. First, whatever has been dumped in Bomb Guard, we want to clean that. We have already installed a plant called 'Black Hole' which is basically an incinerator. Earlier we had an incinerator but we ran into some mechanical problems with it so we got another one from a company in Bangalore. The idea is that you put everything there and burn it at 800 centigrade and only ash will come out. Before burning of course we have to segregate in terms of metal and other things. A few days back we had a discussion in which somebody suggested that instead of digging up all those waste and burning it, what if we can find a way to level the waste and cover it with soil. So that is in our mind. Wherever required, we will use the incinerator but where not required, we will level the land. And we will get an architect to develop the area into a park. Now the sewage system is under construction in Agling. The issue is the water which will be generated after the treatment of sewage will have to go into River Indus but that is not allowed by NGT (1). So what we are thinking of doing is to pump that water back to Bomb Guard and use it to develop the park there. This is just an idea. Anyway, within 1-2 years Bomb Guard will be absolutely clear of waste and develop into a park. The money is there. The only thing is to see if we are able to sustainably lift that water back [from Agling sewage system to Bomb Guard], and for that, we have to see the elevation.
The lower portion of Bomb Guard is already distributed among the residents of Leh. The new Bus Stand is coming up there. The Taxi Stand is also coming up there. The Mazda Stand is gone there. This year there is a provision of 10 crore rupees under Prime Minister Development Package so that 10 crores will go to the development of Bomb Guard area.
What about the slaughterhouse hidden inside Bomb Guard dumpsite?
It is not strictly legal but it is known to everybody that there is a slaughterhouse [inside Bomb Guard]. We [the municipality] and the administration were looking for a [proper] site for the slaughterhouse. The one we have now in Bomb Guard is not hygienic. The dogs are all over. My veterinary doctor refused to stamp that meat for the reason that it is not meeting the standard. So what to do? It is going on like that. In this Prime Minister Development Package, we have proposed 3.5 crore for coming up with modern abattoir. For that, the requirement is water. PHE (Public Health Engineering) department will be supplying it. Modern slaughterhouse [i.e. abattoir] leaves no waste: the blood goes in blood mill, the leftover is turned into manure. So once the abattoir comes up, there will be no problem [of slaughterhouse waste and unhygienic meat].
The issue here is that nobody wants to have an abattoir in their locality, more so the Buddhists. We wanted to take the abattoir to the other side of River Indus i.e. in Stok village. There was objection from the village [so we could not make the abattoir there]. If somebody finds us out [that we slaughter in such an unhygienic place], they can sue us in court. The meat is [really] not fit for human consumption. As per the direction of Leh session court, we hurriedly put some CGI (Corrugated Galvanised Iron) sheet. After the animal is slaughtered, the dogs come and lick all over, the blood and everything, and they take that meat to the market. We need not worry because of the climatic condition [of Ladakh] otherwise it will be a huge human health hazard. In winter, the slaughterhouse closes after December and we don’t find meat until the road opens again in the summer months. So nature is with us!
What is the function of the new Solid Waste Management Plant at Skampari?
The second part of managing waste [the first part being reclaiming Bomb Guard dumpsite] is the Skampari Solid Waste Management Plant managed by a company called 3R (2). The plant is under trial run for 1-1/2 years. We have to only supply the waste, rest of the things like getting workers to sort out the waste and dispose off the waste is their responsibility. The plant has integrated things, for instance, a shredding machine and a baling machine. During the trial period, the waste belongs to the 3R company. We have put our workers there to learn [how to segregate waste and process the different kinds of waste]. But we have shortage of labour force and winter season has its special challenges [for running the plant]. Actually where we went wrong was that, first of all, we should have studied the waste for 2 months to know what type of waste is generated. Based on that we should have procured the machines. We did not study the waste and so we spent the major part of the money in procuring a processing machine for wet waste [i.e. food waste]. But the wet waste [that is collected in Leh city by municipality trucks] constitutes 5% [only]. [But anyhow] adding machines [for processing dry waste] is no big deal for us. Because we did not generate waste until the 80s so all this is new for us. Many people, even well-educated people, do not know everything can be recycled, only 5% goes to the landfill.
Is Waste Education integrated in your Waste Management Masterplan?
Waste Education is another challenge. With the help of LEDeG (Ladakh Ecological Development Group), we will be educating the people ward-wise for source segregation. That is high on priority. Unless you send the waste segregated, it becomes very difficult to process. GB Panth University has also committed to support [for educating the people on waste segregation at source]. [There is also Waste Education in some schools.] Some schools have prohibited junk food and chewing gums. Druk Padma Karpo school only permits cooked food to be brought for lunch - no packaged food.
How do you intend to reduce waste generated from tourism?
There are three categories of tourists: foreign tourists who can be divided into East Asian and Western tourists - tourists from Japan, for instance, are highly aware while European tourists are also good but not good as the Japanese - then come the Indian tourists, particularly North Indian - they are likely to eat and throw.
Hotels and tourism sector also provide things quite lavishly such as tissue paper, bottle water, packed lunch on treks. There is no regulation on treks [especially]. But now we have associated with ALTO who are quite active. Last month they collected waste and educated the people. So there is a start at least [for reducing waste generated through tourism].
For the sewage of hotels, what they have done is used soak pits. In the soak pit, the grey water seeps through eventually contaminating underground water. Until yesterday we were not worried about underground water [but now the situation is critical]. In Leh, 90% of the water is from the underground: 30% from government public tubewell; 30% from private tubewell; 30% leafing from Indus. Indus water also is not from the river but tubewell. Only 10% of the water is from the surface [i.e. rivers, springs etc.]. With the setting up of [so many] hotels, the underground water is getting contaminated [with their sewage]. In a few places, there were a few positive reports of E Coli. Nitrogen is already present [in the underground water]. Now we have put a strict restriction on hotels - they will have to construct septic tanks which will not [allow dirty water to] seep and then we will also charge the hotels. Now we have also requested all the hotels not to use plastic bottles. If you go to a hotel, they will have glass bottles. So we are trying to reduce the use of plastic.
Are you concerned about the share of waste generated by the Army?
There is a huge generation of waste from the army - three times more than the [local] population. I received a call from station headquarter asking me what they should do with their sludge - where they can dump it. I told them to dump it in their cantonment. I mean we do not have the expertise, we ourselves are new to this ‘waste thing’ so we all are 'hit and trial' people [at the moment]. Once we ourselves are confident in handling [waste and sludge] then we can say to the army that initially we will do [waste and sewage management] with the Third Infantry Division, not the whole corps. We can [have an MoU] at the Brigadier level. As of now our sanitary workers only know broom, collecting waste, and throwing in Bomb Guard, whether it is a dead animal, whether it is organic or inorganic [waste]. This is how things are working, this is the mindset. Now we are talking about segregation and generating money and looking at it [i.e. waste management] from the business perspective. In that we are not fully confident ourselves. So that is why we are having trainings with LEDeG.
Have you considered having waste drop-off points instead door-to-door collection?
Yes, we got this suggestion. Now the problem is that in some of the places in Leh, we have less generation of waste. In those places, we have enough land to set up that kind of things [i.e. waste drop-off points]. But where we generate maximum waste i.e. in and around Leh, there we don’t find space [to set up drop-off points].
I have seen in Zanskar, one foreign gentleman has built a Kaccha (mud/makeshift) house with one window for biodegradable waste and one window for non-degradable waste. You throw through the window. Animal will not find access to the waste neither the wind so the waste remains there. From the other side of the house you have a gate. The vehicle comes every 3 days and takes out the waste. That is a good thing but in Leh it is difficult to find space [for making a similar public waste segregation facility]. That [i.e. drop-off point] is in a way good because if the vehicle is not there on time or somebody comes at an irregular time, he or she can put the waste in that place and we can collect it later. Will have to study more on this now.
Are there any laws regulating disposal of Construction and Demolition waste? As of now, no. Under the guidelines what people are supposed to do is if they demolish their building, they have to report to the municipality so that municipality vehicle can come and collect the waste. Thereafter, it will be our [i.e.municipality's] responsibility to dispose the waste and charge them for that. It is in the guideline - pay as you throw, per cubic metre. We have not implemented this but we will be doing it. There are many things in the books but enforcement takes time. We have our problems. The main problem is shortage of manpower. We also have shortage of vehicles. [Most of the vehicles are engaged in collecting household waste.]
We had a meeting with AOC (Air Officer Commanding) regarding waste. AOC complained that our people come with their waste in the car at night and wherever they see empty space, quietly dump their waste there. Along the boundary wall of the airport, there is a narrow pit [which is where] they [mostly] dump the [construction/demolition] waste. Now it has reached a stage where [the pit has filled up so much that] a person can climb the wall and go [inside the airport premises]. This has become a security risk. So this issue was raised by AOC. Thereafter, we thought of disposing construction waste by implementing what is in the book.
1. 'National Green Tribunal Act 2010', Ministry of Law and Justice, available online at https://greentribunal.gov.in/sites/default/files/act_rules/National_Green_Tribunal_Act,_2010.pdf.
2. To know more about 3R Waste Management company, go to http://www.3rmanagement.in/.