Bomb Guard, city's largest dumpsite, Leh-Ladakh.
Waste proliferation in Ladakh has come to be recognised as a serious problem only in recent years. The origin of the waste problem, however, goes back to the series of developments that began in Ladakh in the 1970s. These include: (i) establishment of a military base for the Indian army; (ii) advent of tourism and subsequent construction of hotels, restaurants, and shops; (iii) arrival of waves of migrant workers to work on the construction projects, and (iv) an all-encompassing, inevitable change in the lifestyle and culture of the local communities.
The waste problem in Ladakh has several facets. First, the amounts of waste generated are very high compared to the size of the population, and the composition of the waste is such it holds little value for locals. Some locals find reuse for certain products like plastic bottles, glass bottles, metal cans, old clothes, and paperboards, but the bulk of the waste is burnt, littered, dumped in empty spaces, or thrown in streams.
Second, the municipal waste management system exists only in the two cities of Ladakh, Leh and Kargil, where too, they are in a nascent stage. The amounts of waste collected by the municipality in these cities is much lower than the actual amounts generated. From the collected waste, only few materials are sent (outside Ladakh) for recycling or repurposing. Facilities and mechanisms for reusing waste materials locally have yet to come up. Also, the villages are not connected to the municipal waste management system - they deal with their waste by themselves.
Third, residents consider waste management as the job and responsibility of the local authorities. Many residents do contribute in small measures towards managing waste but, on the whole, waste management is left on the shoulders of municipal waste workers. The local authorities, on their part, keep trying out different solutions in waste management, but have not yet taken two most important steps, which are spreading education and awareness on waste, and involving residents in managing their own waste. As a result, the local authorities have missed out on capitalising on the local community.
Fourth, the average perception in the local community is that waste is something to get rid of. Furthermore, many seem to think that waste has created havoc in Ladakh because it is not managed properly. Both of these perceptions are incorrect. Waste is actually nothing but products and materials that have reached the post-consumer stage, but which can be used as raw materials for new products. And improper management of waste is not the cause of the waste problem, rather the irresponsible consumption and discarding habits of consumers is.
Tomatoes discarded in the open in Skampari valley, Leh-Ladakh.
To summarise, waste gets generated from the beginning to the finish of a product’s life - from extraction and manufacturing, packaging and distribution, and finally, to consumption and disposal. Therefore, waste production is inevitable. However, the waste problem is caused because of our perceptions, attitudes and behaviors towards waste, and generally, towards the environment.