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 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 are very high for the size of the local population, and the composition of the waste is such, it holds little value for locals. Certain products, like plastic bottles, glass bottles, metal cans, old clothes, and paperboards, are reused by the local people, but the bulk of the waste is burnt, littered, dumped or thrown in streams.
Second, municipal waste management exists only in the two cities of Ladakh – Leh and Kargil, where too, they are in a nascent stage. The villages are not connected to the municipal waste management system. The amount of waste collected by the municipality in the two cities is much lower than the actual amounts generated. And out of the collected waste, very few materials are sent (outside Ladakh) for reusing or recycling. Facilities for reusing the waste materials locally are yet to emerge.
Third, waste management is considered as the job and responsibility of the municipal authorities. Residents do contribute in small measures in managing waste, but on the whole, the cleanliness of the city is left to municipal waste workers. The municipal authorities, on their part, keep trying out different ways of managing waste, but have not yet taken two very important steps, which are, educating the local community on waste and involving them in managing waste.
Fourth, the average perception in the local community is that waste is something to get rid of, and what's more, many seem to think that waste has created havoc in Ladakh because it is not managed correctly. Neither of this is true. Waste is a resource – many, if not most, waste materials can be put to use again. And the reason waste has created havoc in Ladakh is because it is being generated in uncontrollable quantities which cannot possibly be managed. The waste problem has been caused due to our indifference to the natural environment.