Photo story by Sourabha Rao
There is the sentient forest with all its visible and elusive beings. There is all the resonance one is filled with, of non-human intelligences and awarenesses as one ventures into the verdant depths of it. There is an awakening that makes one realise how we are only a part of this glorious web of life although we tend to believe we dominate it. There is humility in this, then there is joy.
And then there is plastic.
The largest tiger reserve of India, Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR), is home to great biodiversity and complex ecosystems. It is also, on the other hand, popular for religious tourism. While Sri Bhramaramba Mallikarjuna Swamy temple in Srisailam is a major pilgrimage attraction, devotees also frequent shrines at Hatakeswaram, Palathara, and Panchtara.
The part of the core area through which pilgrims travel faces littering – liquor bottles, plastics such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles, MLP (multi-layer polythene) covers, LDP (low-density polyethylene) bags and so on. An estimated number of 130 lakh pilgrims visit the Srisailam shrine each year, with crowds swelling to 3-5 lakhs each day in the festival seasons of Ugadi Utsavam, Shivratri Brahmotsavam and Karthika Masam.
While tourists need to be more responsible and aware, there are manifold unpleasant consequences that make the garbage issue a larger threat than it seems, which need to be addressed urgently:
- Disrespect to our religious sites
- Attracts wild animals towards roads, sometimes leading to accidents.
- Unnecessary human-wildlife conflict.
- Possibility of communicable diseases spreading to wild animals.
- Possibility of bio-accumulation and subsequent biomagnification of plastic chemicals in the body of wild animals due to unexpected consumption of plastics.
- Change in the behaviour of wild animals.
- Affects the growth of flora in the reserve.
The forest officers taking care of the tiger reserve have started the initiative, ‘Mana Srisailam – Clean and Green Srisailam’, to conserve the ecosystem. The problem of plastics is seen as an opportunity to employ people from the local community, the Chenchu tribals, as ‘plastic pickers’. Several groups of plastic pickers are allotted certain areas for efficient picking, and they are provided with all the necessary safety equipment.
The picked plastic is neither burnt nor disposed of unscientifically. Instead, a new standardisation has been innovated for collection, segregation and disposal or recycling. The segregated plastics, done in a specific area, are subjected to baling. They are then transported to authorised recycling industries for reuse. On the other hand, the capacity-building of locals is achieved by helping them make eco-friendly paper and cloth bags.
This is a triple-win situation, as getting rid of plastic means protection of the invaluable ecosystem, creation of employment opportunities for the local Chenchus, as well as avoidance of unnecessary man-animal conflict.
Fact alert: So far, over 350 kgs of plastic waste has been transported to recycling plants.
It is one thing to keep reiterating the globally persisting plastic problem in our conversations, but it is another thing that deserves the recognition that the forest officers in NSTR have found a practical solution with the dream of making the reserve a plastic-free one.
The onus is also on each one of us to do our bit by avoiding the use of plastic in the first place when we are in forests, or at least, to ensure we responsibly dispose of the waste we create. Traveling to or through forests is not the only way to show that we care for the environment, the planet. There is so much more we can do. NSTR, to this extent, has set a benchmark in its own right.
This article was originally published in Planet Outlook.