Shillong: Shillong is a favourite destination for Bengali tourists for more than one reason. It is the place whose beauty had once mesmerised Rabindranath Tagore, who immortalised Shillong in his novel Shesher Kobita. But that was early 20th century.
Shillong in this 21st century has lost much of its sheen, thanks to the unplanned urbanisation which has irreparably scarred the hills. The beautiful Shillong that attracts tourists from Bengal in hordes has an ugly face behind its façade of serene natural beauty that is always promoted for tourism.
Plastic pollution in Shillong city and on its outskirt, like a festering wound has only spread over the years. Local residents’ habit of disposing of garbage into streams has not only reduced the water bodies to mere drains but has also affected the Umiam lake, or Barapani as the tourists know it.
Reckless tourism has added to the woes with tourist sites bearing the brunt of rowdy behaviour of visitors.
The Umshyrpi stream flows by Brookside Bungalow, where Tagore had stayed in 1919. The poet was captivated by the beauty of the brooklet, which flows through the city and empties into the Umiam, and the rows of pine trees along the stream. The bard would have been heart-broken had he witnessed the beloved stream’s degradation. Once a source of fresh water, the Umshyrpi is now muddy and carries the burden of plastic waste. Heaps of garbage and floating bottles and wrappers are common.
Another important stream, the Wahumkhrah that flows through Polo locality has also been affected.
Both the streams flow into the Umiam and during rains, all the plastic waste also goes into the lake. While the Umiam looks picturesque from the demarcated viewpoint for tourists, a tour of the not-so-visible parts reveals the dirty truth. The lake near Mawdun village is an eyesore. The water near the banks has a thick layer of garbage.
Boy Kharkongor, a villager, said he and other residents of Mawdun collect the waste and sell it. The villagers, most of whom are farmers, earn extra money from rag-picking. In fact, shanties have come up on the bank of the lake where the part-time rag-pickers live.
“Our families stay in the village where we practice farming. We are also growing ginger organically in this small plot (he shows a plot of land near the lake). I have been picking plastic waste for the last 10 years,” he said.
A tourist caught littering at the viewpoint, when asked why he was throwing the empty packet of potato chips on the road, said anonymously that there was no garbage bin nearby. He was among the many tourists who litter the site and don’t even regret it. “Even locals are throwing bottles and other waste. If they have no regard for their land why should we bother,” was the reply from another tourist.
Dumping of waste has not only affected the beauty of Shillong but has threatened the Umiam dam that produces hydro-electricity. The dam, which was built in 1965, was supposed to have a life span of a century. But accumulating garbage and heavy siltation have reduced its life span. A study by Meghalaya Electricity Corporation Limited (MeECL) shows the dam will last till 2024 only.
Recently, members of the Committee on Environment, Meghalaya Legislative Assembly, visited the Umiam lake and were taken aback by the huge amount of garbage floating on the water. “Though most of the garbage has settled at the bottom of the lake, the quantity of garbage that was seen floating in water is abnormally huge,” the committee said in its report.
“The management of the lake is undertaken by MeECL. Water quality is being monitored by the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board; the lake catchment is managed by the Forest Department, and the urban watershed is a neglected orphan. Apart from electricity, Umiam lake also provides a range of ecological, economic and cultural services. The reservoir was created through huge public expenditure and the onus to save it lies with the people. The committee will consider the matter seriously,” the report added.
The chairman of the green panel, SK Sunn, said the members would meet soon and chalk out a plan of action to clean the lake along with other stakeholders. A time frame will also be fixed.
Sunn also appealed to the citizens to stop dumping garbage and plastic waste into the streams. When asked whether the committee was contemplating penalty for reckless residents, it was informed that a provision is already there in the civic bylaws but that is applicable only in municipal areas. “Beyond these areas, the dorbar shnong (traditional body at local level) can take a decision. However, the dorbar shnong in several localities are spreading awareness on proper disposal of waste,” said a government official.
Flash floods have already become common in the city and an UN report points to further aggravation of the flood situation.
In the past too, plans to clean up the streams were made but with no result. So the question remains whether this time the plan will be executed and how efficiently and how fast.
It will be a daunting task to clean the mess that Shillong is in right now. And further delay will only lead to a disastrous end to this popular tourist destination.