The annual ‘yatra’ (pilgrimage) to the Manimahesh lake in Chamba district, which began in the second week of August will come to an end on Tuesday, leaving a trail of garbage that has raised fresh concerns over the area’s fragile ecology. The number of pilgrims is rising by the year, with over 200,000 having visited the lake this year, posing a serious threat to the environment.
“The 13 km stretch from Hadsar to Manimahesh is a fragile habitat marked by alpine floral diversity where rare herbal plants with healing properties used in traditional medicine are found,” said TK Roy, an ecologist. “What’s more worrying is that the ‘yatra’ coincides with the season in August and September when some rare herbs bloom,” he added.
Roy was part of a team that conducted a two-day random survey of the area with active the support of the Bharmour divisional forest office. During the survey about 80 species of herbal medicinal plants were recorded among them being Angelica glauca, Meconopsis aculata, Aster himalaicus, Podophyllum hexandrum, Dactylorhiza hetagirea, Viola pilosa and Valeriana jatamansi. “Valuable medicinal plants will disappear soon from the pristine Manimahesh valley if the state government doesn’t take any steps on environmental conservation. Herbs with immense medicinal value like Pleurospermum candolii, locally known as ‘baandi,’ and Saussurea gossipiphora, known by residents as ‘hem kamal’, are being plucked and openly sold to the pilgrims,” said Roy.
Commercial activities during the pilgrimage have emerged as another potential threat to the area’s fragile ecology. Apart from the community meals arranged by religious and social organizations, scores of makeshift ‘dhabas’ (roadside eateries) have come up along the 13 kilometer route. “Every day thousands of pilgrims trek through valley and stay overnight, accumulating a high volume of nonbiodegradable garbage including polythene and plastic packets and bottles,” said Roy. “Without proper disposal facilities the garbage is either dumped in the open or burnt in pits, which adds to the pollution. The government should impose a complete ban on the sale of food packed in polythene and plastic packets during the ‘yatra’,” he added.
Besides, people defecating in the open is another major problem, leading to pollution of local streams in the Bharmour valley, which is also a major source of drinking water.