“Long time ago, this was a huge valley where yak herders grazed their animals. One day, an old woman appeared in the dream of one of the herders and told them to leave since a lake would come up. His fellow herders didn’t believe his dream,” Sangay Lama Sherpa narrates the folk tale about the genesis of Tsomgo Lake in Sikkim.
“He alone went away from the place. That evening, a giant lake was formed suddenly. The herders and their yaks drowned in the lake,” he says. Tsomgo Lake, also known as Changu, the lake is located at an altitude of 12,406 feet, and is one of the biggest tourism draws in the Eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim, receiving around 3 lakh tourists annually.
Sherpa lives in Thegu, which, along with Changu and Chipsu, forms the troika of villages in the vicinity of Changu Lake. The 37-year-old is involved in the conservation of the lake in his role as the office secretary of the Tsomgo Pokhri Sanrakshan Samiti (TPSS), the Tsomgo Lake Conservation Committee, since its inception more than a decade ago.
“We have been listening to the folklore since our childhood. Our village elders said that it is our duty to protect the lake and keep it clean. Else, calamity might befall the villagers like it did with those yak herders in the story. This is something every villager believes and they are fully committed to keeping the lake clean,” says Sherpa.
As the high altitude and harsh climate in the region make agriculture mostly unsuitable for the terrain, the local populace, mainly comprising of communities like Sherpas, Lepchas and Bhutias, almost entirely depend on the eco-tourism potential of the Tsomgo Lake for their livelihood. While tourism has generated revenue for the locals, it also contaminated Tsomgo Lake and its biodiversity-rich surrounding areas.
In 2008, with an aim to protect the lake from deteriorating, the TPSS was formed based on guidelines by the Department of Forest, Government of Sikkim, with support from organisations like WWF-India. Since then, TPSS has been the custodian of the lake.
Tsomgo Lake is situated in the East Sikkim district on the Gangtok-Nathu La Highway and is a part of the ancient southern Silk Route, a trade route connecting India with China. In the Bhutia language, Tso means ‘lake’ while Mgo means ‘head’ literally meaning the source of the lake.
The oval-shaped glacial lake, surrounded by steep mountains is covered with snow during winter. Apart from its breathtaking beauty, another reason the lake is so popular among tourists is its convenient location. It lies around 40 km from Sikkim’s capital Gangtok.
Around 16 kms from the lake is another popular tourist destination Nathu La pass, one of the three open trading border posts between India and China. Sherpa says, “This area is spopular among tourists because they can visit Changu Lake, Baba ki Mandir (a shrine built in the memory of Indian soldier Harbhajan Singh martyred near Nathu La in 1968) and Nathu La and return to Gangtok the same day.”
The birth of Pokhri Sanrakshan Samiti
However, this convenience and popularity have brought along an influx of tourists which has had a detrimental effect on the lake. On August 11, 2006, the forest department of Forest came up with a gazetted notification laying down the guidelines for lake conservation.
After the notification, TPSS was the first lake conservation committee to be formed and notified by the forest department of Sikkim.
Soon after, WWF-India came on board to provide technical support and help TPSS in framing and designing the work plan. Laktsheden, Landscape Co-ordinator, Khangchendzonga Landscape, WWF-India says, “In 2007, when we did a recce, we found kitchen wastes from the periphery of the lake was going directly in the lake. Apart from that, there was open defecation and garbage around the lake.”
The PSS has representatives from various domains as executive members. “As per the guidelines, we collect Rs 10 from every tourist as lake conservation fee. The fees are credited with the revolving fund account of TPSS. 50% of it is transferred to the State Environment Agency and the rest of it is used for the conservation of Tsomgo lake,” says Rinzing Doma, the incumbent president of TPSS.
When TPSS was being formed, Sherpa was looking for a job. “I was offered the position of office secretary. As I was interested in conservation of the lake, I accepted the offer.” His main role is to be the bridge between the government and the community, oversee awareness programmes, maintain accounts and co-ordinate with other stakeholders.
The transformation of Changu
When high altitude wetlands like Tsomgo get polluted, it contaminates the very source of water for Sikkim. Usha Lachungpa, retired principal chief research officer (wildlife) of Sikkim and an expert on the high altitude wetlands and biodiversity of Sikkim, explains, “High altitude wetlands are the water bank for the entire river system in Sikkim. These wetlands are the main storehouse of water and if they get polluted, the entire water source becomes contaminated.”
In Changu, while there are no lodging facilities for tourists as permanent structures are not allowed in the area, there is a shopping complex near the lake which caters to the tourists. The main demand here is for fast food outlets, the main source of pollution.
“The shopping complex was located above the wetland with its trash directly flowing into the lake. So we shifted the complex to a location 100 m below Changu Lake which stopped the disposal of sewage in the lake from these shops. Now, we also provide garbage bags to tourists so that they don’t throw trash on the road,” says Sherpa.
“We also stopped the sale of cup noodles which was the most littered item in the area. We then distributed water filters at the shops to cut down the use of packaged drinking water. TPSS organises awareness during occasions like World Environment Day and World Water Day. As some pollution was caused by the defecation of yaks which ride tourists around the lake, we discussed the issue with the yak riders’ association. Now they have hired two people to clean up yak’s poop throughout the day,” he adds.
Chamba Sherpa, a shopkeeper who also doubles up as a pokhri rakshak (lake guard) for TPSS, says, “We clean the surroundings of the lake twice daily. The trash is then taken to the recovery center. There, it is segregated recovering the recyclable materials like PET bottles, TetraPak cartons, metals, etc. and sent for recycling through scrap dealers.”
Even though TPSS has the power to collect fine from tourists caught littering as per the guidelines, Sherpa says that they never do. “We try to create awareness among the tourists rather than collect fines. Nowadays, tourists are also much more aware than before though, among so many tourists, you always get the odd unruly bunch,” he adds.
While going to Changu from Gangtok, one has to cross the Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary first. Kyongnosla and Changu share the same catchment area and the place is known for its unique biodiversity. Kyongnosla is home to both red panda and blood pheasant – the state animal and state bird of Sikkim respectively. Animals like Tibetan fox, Himalayan black bear, serow, musk deer, Himalayan goral, etc. are also found there. Changu lake is also famous for its population of ruddy shelducks, also known as Brahminy ducks.
Regarding the biodiversity of the area, Lachungpa says, “Changu Lake is the stopover site for many migratory birds along with resident birds. The plant diversity is also very rich.” She however warns that the wildlife of the area is facing a grave threat in the form of free-ranging feral dogs.
Meanwhile, the cycle of tourism and conservation continues at Changu, with the TPSS as the custodian of the lake. Their efforts of more than a decade have also been recognised by the Sikkim government who awarded them the ‘Best Clean Tourist Spot Award’ for Changu in 2013. In 2019, TPSS got the award for ‘Best Clean India Campaign’ from the Tourism Department, Government of Sikkim.
Summing up the work of TPSS, their former member-secretary Karma Bhutia says, “The forest department has to monitor the work of TPSS and provide guidance if required. But overall, the functioning of TPSS has been very smooth and is a perfect example of the success of a community-driven model.”
Nabarun Guha is a freelance journalist based in Assam. Views are personal.
This was originally published in Mongabay India.