Waste proliferation in Ladakh is recognised as a problem only recently. The origin of the waste problem goes back to a series of developments in Ladakh that began in the 1970s. These include (i) the establishment of a military base of the Indian army; (ii) the advent of tourism and subsequent construction of hotels, restaurants, and shops; (iii) the arrival of waves of migrant labourers to work on the construction projects, and (iv) an all-encompassing, inevitable change in the lifestyle and culture of the local community.
The waste problem in Ladakh has several facets. First, the amount of waste generated is very high for the size of the local population, and the composition of the waste is such that it holds little value for locals. Certain products, like plastic bottles, glass bottles, metal cans, old clothes, and paperboard, are reused by locals, but the bulk of waste is handed over to the municipality, or burnt, dumped, littered, thrown in streams.
Second, municipal waste management exists only in the two cities of Leh and Kargil, where too, they are in a nascent stage. The amount of waste collected by the municipality in the two cities is much lower than actual amounts generated. Out of the waste collected, few materials are sent outside Ladakh for recycling or reusing. Facilities for locally processing the waste are yet to emerge.
Third, waste management is considered the job and responsibility of the municipal authorities. Residents contribute in managing waste in small measures, but on the whole, the cleanliness of the cities is on the shoulders of waste workers. The municipal authorities, on their part, try out different ways of managing waste but have not yet taken two crucial steps – educating the local community on waste and involving them in managing waste.
Fourth, the villages do not have any waste management system. They rely on makeshift arrangements, such as throwing in a common pit, or burning in a designated site.
Fifth, the general perception in the local community is that waste is something to get rid of, and waste has created havoc in Ladakh because of being mismanaged. Neither of these is true. One, waste is a resource. Two, it has created havoc because of being generated in extreme quantities.
To sum up, the waste problem has resulted from our carelessness towards the natural environment.