Lachung is an incredibly picturesque mountain village in the northeastern state of Sikkim bordering Tibet. Perched at an altitude of 8,610 feet, this village is surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks, waterfalls, streams and apple orchards.
And the local community is going to great lengths to keep the pristine environs intact!
Lachung has become a favoured spot for tourists from all over the country and abroad. The locals, who have been witnessing a rise in employment opportunities were happy. But, only up until they saw how much plastic pollution, especially of the single-use variety, was being left behind.
For the villagers, who share a deeply personal relationship with nature, this state of affairs was not at all acceptable. And something had to be done.
In 2016, the people of Lachung got together to pass a law banning the use of single-use plastics. “It is a ban on single-use plastic specifically. We have already accomplished 100 per cent freedom from single-use plastic water bottles. The Lachung Dzomsa (a traditional administrative institution of the villages of Lachen and Lachung in North Sikkim) passed the law in 2016,” says Thupden Lachung, a resident of the village, speaking to The Better India (TBI).
“Tourists are informed about the no plastic rule at a check post which is 25 km away from our village. We have a place where they can dispose off the bottle in a bin. However, once they enter the village, the Dzomsa conducts a surprise check and our young drivers help us in this process,” he adds.
And if a disposable plastic bottle is found on their person, then they are fined Rs 5,000. “The fine came into exist last year when we noticed that some visitors were not taking the Dzomsa-approved law seriously. The Dzomsa was left with no other option but to impose this fine on users. For first time offenders, we simply inform them about our rules. If the person is caught a second time we fine Rs 5000,” says Thupden.
Locals go to great lengths to ensure this law is enforced strictly. It’s not your local authorities, but ordinary shopkeepers, cab drivers, guides and guest house owners, who ensure that nothing polluting enters their village. How did the village mobilise its people?
“We introduced a religious aspect to it. Our religion basically tells us not to harm others. Employing single-use plastic is directly or indirectly harming other animals. When we throw it in water, the fish are harmed. When we throw it in our jungles, other animals are harmed. When we bury them, the insects underground are harmed,” he says.
Ananya Tiwari, a tourist who visited Lachung earlier this year on a family holiday tells TBI, “Lachung is so incredibly beautiful. But a couple of minutes later, as you drive on, you will look around and realise why it looks the way it does. It’s extremely clean. There are hardly any plastic bottles strewn on roads – there are very few, probably the work of some annoying tourists.”
There is a sign board put up by local authorities informing tourists about the ban, but enforcement is completely in the hands of locals. It’s a rule that no one can flout, particularly the use of plastic bottles. If one is brought by mistake, you may choose to drink the water and dump the bottle in a bin, or transfer water into one of the reusable water bottles available at almost every shop.
“The locals go to great lengths to ensure that it stays that way. Before you enter Lachung, the locals will tell you to discard any plastic bottles you have. They make sure you carry nothing that can possibly dirty Lachung,” adds Ananya.
Speaking to the BBC last month, Thupden Lachungpa, said, “Banning single-use plastic bottles or plastic material was not just an option. If we want to change, we had to change right from our household. Instead of plastic bottles, we use bamboo bottles. You can carry water in this bottle. When we have guests, we offer them sweets, toffees from this [non-plastic] container. For shopping, we take baskets made out of bamboo.”
What happens to the excessive plastic bottles that make their way through the cracks? Throwing them away is never an option, and locals reuse them as flower pots. They are also planning to make a house out of the bottle and plastic wrappers.
“We have achieved an accomplishment in banning single use plastic. But wanted to go ahead with it in a holistic manner. We wanted to ban all types of plastic and to do so we need help from all around the world. Everyone should come together to fight this battle. I think our coming generations deserve a clean environment. And I strongly believe that Lachung will serve as an example to other places, other people and motivate them to do without plastic,” he adds.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)