Pradeep Sangwan who hails from the Haryana state of India, does not belong to a mountaineering background and yet he is doing a fabulous job of keeping the awe-inspiring Himalayas beautiful. He has done his schooling from the military school of ‘Ajmer’ in Rajasthan. Out of the 5 military schools, this one is one of the most disciplined and strict schools in the country. After this Sangwan completed his graduation from the Punjab University, in Chandigarh. He has also tried his hands at event management’ for a year in Mumbai.
This was the time during his college days when the mountains of Himachal Pradesh were calling him. He started trekking, and after his college, he shifted to one of the most beautiful hill stations in the country, Manali which was his dream as he has a love for trekking. The passion for trekking was reaching a peak for the ‘Himalayan Healer’. He says that the Bollywood movies have played a significant role in his love for trekking. But many people have taken the message in the wrong way. Movies promote travelling, they do not promote generating waste in the mountains. Nature should always be respected, and mountains are a part of it.
In an exclusive interview with ‘Cocktail Zindagi’, Pradeep Sangwan speaks candidly and takes us on a beautiful journey!
Cocktail Zindagi: Until now you have cleaned more than 4,00,000 kgs of waste, how did you make it possible? Where has been the waste disposed of, and where do you keep it?
Pradeep Sangwan: Trekking is loved by everyone but I was identifying the crowd who will be ready to trek with a purpose. I found those like-minded people and for three years every Sunday, we do a cleaning drive. This is how we have collected so much waste or else it would not have been possible. Lots of garbage was removed out of the small places and now we have started with Shimla city.
We even got support from the FM Channels of the city, did interviews over there. I got lots of support for this, CNBC published us, The Better India published us. Bollywood actor ‘Varun Dhawan’ was here for a photo shoot last year and he also mentioned ‘Healing Himalayas’ saying that they are doing a great job. The actor posted a video due to which we got more volunteers. More hard work has led to building up of trust in us.
We cleaned up the toughest terrain of the country, ‘Shrikhand Mahadev’.
Cocktail Zindagi: Tell us something about Healing Himalayas.
Pradeep Sangwan: The organization ‘Healing Himalayas’ was registered on April 11th, 2016, but before registration, I was working since 2015. Working in an organized way has helped us out a lot. Seeing our consistency in the work more people started joining us. There are also times when we have to say no to the volunteers when the number reaches above 25.
Cocktail Zindagi: What has led you to start ‘Healing Himalayas’?
Pradeep Sangwan: I had left my house since 2009 and I’m living in Himachal Pradesh since then. Mountains are my home and they’ve supported me. Trekking was meditation for me. But when I started seeing the waste in the holiest parts of the Himalayas and the rivers getting dirtied and people partying in the hills when it is now allowed I decided to do something about it.
Many rivers are also originating from the Himalayas, I have seen what is the state of the rivers in areas like Delhi and Gurgaon. When the rivers are polluted from the source while flowing downwards the toxicity only increases. Mountains are the largest source of the fresh water, if they are polluted we are set for doomsday. I feel the whole ecosystem is getting destroyed and seeing that I was getting more and more frustrated. I come from a middle-class family and it was courage back then which led to the start of ‘Healing Himalayas’. I was very scared when I started then because I had committed myself and being from an army school I stood on it, as I have been taught this way.
Cocktail Zindagi: Were there any challenges which you faced?
Pradeep Sangwan: During the first year there were lots of hardships due to lack of funds. In the second year, I had a car, I sold it and managed the fund out of it. The third year was the year when I started getting support from multinational companies, that’s when things got into place.
Cocktail Zindagi: What is the mission of ‘Healing Himalayas’?
Pradeep Sangwan: When I had started there was only one mission of motivating people and changing their mindset. I started organizing cleaning drives, initially, people of the small cities in the state were very reluctant to participate. Slowly and gradually they started joining me. My plan was to change their mindset through the cleaning drives which I started then. People take the mountains for granted and we are simply making them understand to not to.
Cocktail Zindagi: How do you dispose of the waste?
Pradeep Sangwan: There is only one plant in the whole state in Shimla, where waste to energy is produced. Electricity is produced out of the waste. By next year there will also be a plant in Manali. The main target is remote areas – Lahaul and Spiti are the biggest districts of the state. Population wise it is very less and the tourism over there will be increasing in the upcoming years. There is a construction of a channel directly from ‘Lahaul to Manali’ which will only take 30 minutes, as of now it takes around 4 to 5 hours. The tourism over there is bound to increase when the channel is constructed. There is no waste disposal plant over there and in other remote areas like this. We work on small-scale solutions on how to dispose of waste. There is a technique of converting the waste into fuel, and then sell it to the industries. This is also a sustainable method and it will also generate income. The waste can also be used into road conversion. But these plants are costly, and I will be needing funding for it, which is my next idea.
The plastic which was recyclable has been recycled. We even provide the plastic bottles to the rag pickers so that they are able to generate some income out of it. Since the start, we segregate the waste and keep. We separate the plastic bottles and single used plastic. The work is done through teamwork one picks up the plastic and the one picks up the bottles.
Cocktail Zindagi: Were people who came for trekking interested in the clean-up drive?
Pradeep Sangwan: Yes, the condition was that if you participate in the cleaning drive then only you come to trek with us. The crowd filtered and come with us automatically with the work we were doing. Social media has been of great help due to which only those kind of people come who want to volunteer, do the work. Their interest lies in protecting nature and the mountains. The difficult part is that you have to be fit because along with trekking you also have to carry the waste.
Cocktail Zindagi: What is the most toxic material in the waste?
Pradeep Sangwan: It is single-use plastic, like wrappers, tetra packs and plastic bottles. The waste generated on the camping routes is more because people sleep and eat over there.
Cocktail Zindagi: What are the factors leading to more waste?
Pradeep Sangwan: At places like ‘Kheerganga’ where have kept a cleaning drive for a month, for three years, still things are the same because it is a famous trek route for the youngsters. But slowly the change is seen as the people who are with others in a company trek, they provide jute bags to everyone, for the waste. They get the garbage back. Where there are individual trekkers going, the generation of garbage is also more then. Pilgrimages are the highest contributors to the garbage because maximum people come for pilgrimages. People doing the pooja path, they leave their plastic there every time. We are moving towards changing the mindset of the people that in the name of religion if you keep the place clean then God is going to be happy.
Cocktail Zindagi: How does the waste harm the mountains?
Pradeep Sangwan: When the waste is thrown in the rivers, with the stream it is going to come down it will not stay up. Animals are being disturbed as they consume the waste which is left on the mountains. When the garbage is burned, majorly plastic, since they think it is the easiest way to dispose of, cancer cases are shooting up. When the waste is landfilled, the water won’t find its place to reach the trees.
Cocktail Zindagi: Tell us something about the expedition and the summits which you have scaled through the ‘Healing Himalayas’?
Pradeep Sangwan: Initially we use to work in the ‘Kullu’ district which is nearby Manali. We have conducted many treks in the ‘Kheerganga’ area of the state where there are maximum numbers of irresponsible trekkers who don’t trek keeping in mind that they are destroying the atmosphere of the place. This year we explored a new place which is called the ‘Churdhaar’ trek where there is an abode of Lord Shiva. There is a lake in the Mandi region of the state, which is called Parashar Rishi lake, there is also lots of waste filling up over there. We will start cleaning there from 9th November to 11th.
We will also be starting in the ‘Bir Billing’ area of the state. We have also started working on the ‘Hampta pass’ trek route. We have worked in the ‘Chandra Taal’ lake area. The local community over there is highly educated in terms of waste and garbage generation. We work around Shimla because there is only one waste disposal plant in the state, in Shimla. That is the reason we do not work far from Shimla because after collecting the waste we cannot be putting it into another place. That is not a solution.
Local communities have been supportive and they are doing a wonderful job, in a mature way. They are a very big support to us. They do not have all the facilities to dispose of the waste. People are getting to know the value of the ‘Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan’.
Cocktail Zindagi: What has kept you motivated all these years?
Pradeep Sangwan: There have been ups and downs when the people are motivated by the work I do. It is a good factor for me. Environmentalist and celebrities support our work, the more the result is positive the more we do it. The support I have got is above my expectations, there are like-minded warriors who are just waiting for something like this to happen. Randeep Hooda, the Bollywood actor believes a lot in our work.
Cocktail Zindagi: The concept of travelling has been boosted due to the movies, do you think that due to this, garbage and waste is increasing?
Pradeep Sangwan: Whenever a movie starts there always comes a disclaimer ‘smoking is injurious to health’, this also happens during the alcohol consumption in the movies. Just like this if someone is shooting movies in the mountains, during travelling and trekking, a disclaimer should be added for not littering in the mountains.
Cocktail Zindagi: Who else has supported you from the film fraternity?
Pradeep Sangwan: Many people from the film industry come to Manali for shooting. Two months ago I had spoken to the artist ‘Kumud Mishra’ for the shooting of ‘De De Pyaar De’. He has said that he will put forth the idea for this kind of a disclaimer. They were doing a plastic-free shooting. The even gave us a message when we interviewed them.
Cocktail Zindagi: What was the message that they gave?
Pradeep Sangwan: The message was that, that when we are shooting our team is absolutely plastic free. When you are going to a place for shooting that does not mean that you go, and exploit that place. The garbage that you are carrying, you can also carry it back with you. That is basic civic sense.
Cocktail Zindagi: What was one of the most challenging times for you during this initiative?
Pradeep Sangwan: There was a financial crisis so bad that during the trek I did not even have money to eat. I was not even able to provide food to my friends many times who have joined me in this. On empty stomach also we have done the work we have not stopped even for a bit. My family also did not support me the way I wanted them to. It is a big factor emotionally when your parents support you. Sometimes I’ve also felt that I could have done a better job. But this was all in the initial stages after seeing my work people have come to support us and my family is also supporting me now.
Cocktail Zindagi: What was the turning point in getting your family’s support?
Pradeep Sangwan: When our work came in the newspaper, my parents’ neighbours saw it, they went to my house and showed them to my family. That was the turning point. My parents live in Haryana, an ex-MLA of where my parents currently reside, he came to our house to congratulate my father. My father discussed it with many people that what his son was doing. Haryana is a state where many orthodox people reside. More and more people got to know about it.
Cocktail Zindagi: Until now Healing Himalayas has done how many tours?
Pradeep Sangwan: We have done more than 90 cleaning drives until today. I exactly don’t remember how many tours we have done but approximately we have covered more than 350 kms.
Cocktail Zindagi: Tell us something about your team.
Pradeep Sangwan: For the first one and a half years I did not have a team. Last year I got a few of my friends, who said that they want to be a part of my team and they are looking after the Shimla area. There is a team member whose name is Dr. Sandeep Negi, he is working with us part-time. Every Sunday he is there to organize cleaning drives. There is another friend of mine whose name is Priya Thakur, she is working with us since last year. She works majorly on the marketing front of the Healing Himalayas.
Cocktail Zindagi: Where do you see Healing Himalayas five years down the line?
Pradeep Sangwan: We are going to change a lot of things in Himachal Pradesh. The waste disposal mechanism, small-scale solutions in around 5 to 10 villages. We will be continuing our ground action in the meantime.
Cocktail Zindagi: How do you plan to spread awareness about the issue?
Pradeep Sangwan: The biggest tool for us to make people aware is social media. There are many organizations in the state but ‘Healing Himalayas’ is the only organization which is into cleaning the waste. 40% of the population in the country who does not even know about the problem we are facing or about the carbon footprint we are leaving behind. We are trying to get into their heads through our cleaning drives.
Eating non-vegetarian food increases your carbon footprint. Each and every person living in the country is somewhere responsible for their carbon footprint for example, even in a city people do drive which pollutes the environment, so what you can do to reduce it is to plant a tree and take care of that tree. This thing needs awareness, ‘each one teach one’. Know how much your actions are affecting the environment.
We have to change our habits, use minimum plastic which is the largest source of waste. We don’t need a plastic straw to drink any beverages. We don’t need to use plastic bottles, we can carry a steel bottle and fill, and drink. The Himalayas are very fragile mountains and they are in the initial stage of their growth. Just like humans the mountains also need lots of care. I want people to be responsible for their waste.