#4 January 2008

Siliguri – Giant village and lively Do-it-yourself-Shop

In most of the travel guide books West Bengal’s second largest city is only mentioned in a few lines. Mostly the recommendations are about how to arrive and how to proceed as fast as possible. And in fact Siliguri is mainly of interest as a transition point – at least for leisure travellers.

Street in SiliguriAfter the British had found a most welcome summer retreat in Darjeeling the settlement on the foothills of the East Himalaya gained importance. It was here where the travellers from Kolkata arrived and from here they continued their journey to the “Queen of Hill Stations”. Hill Cart Road, till now one of the lifelines of the city, derives its name from the bullock- and horse carts, that started from here towards the mountains. Later tracks were laid up the mountains with a huge effort, hence the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways were born. But the colonial masters did not only bring the railways. To break the Chinese tea monopoly huge areas around Siliguri were planted with tea. From the forest areas that were cut down for this purpose sufficient supply was generated for a third economic sector – timber. Thus Siliguri owes its growth three T’s: Trains, Tea and Timber.

Until today the prospect of a good business deal attracts people from near and far. In the meantime timber cutting was subordinated to nature conservation and the tea industry regrets better days – many estates had to close down. The Siliguri Railway Station is of minor importance since a new junction was opened in nearby Jalpaiguri district. Today the city’s undamped economic growth is mainly due to its location. Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh are just a few kilometers away. The supply of the entire Northeast of India with seven federal states is running through a small corridor, the “funnel of Siliguri”. And thus might be the reason why one in Siliguri feels like being in a huge Do-it-yourself shop.

For the majority of the travellers that arrive in great numbers by train at the New Jalpaiguri railway station or by flight on the nearby Bagdogra airport the many shops are only a backdrop on their way to the mountains or the plains of the Dooars. Beds, bathroom equipment, construction materials and drilling machines are not of importance as souvenirs, but of great interest for the continuously growing population of the Himalaya villages. According to the latest official statistics, almost 500,000 inhabitants try to get a piece of the economic cake. And besides the facts that Siliguri is attractively located and a much better choice for the bicycle lovers than Calcutta it was this dynamic that made us move here two months back.

The garbage issue

A daily newspaper, one bottle of milk, baby diapers, shampoo… the aminities of modern live generate not only entertainment, information, health and hygiene but a unloved side product: Waste. The waste is well stored in a dust bin until it is full. But what then? The caretaker of our housing complex sends us to the neighbor plot. “Simply through it over there”, that’s his advise. Unbelieving we consult a neighbor in search of a more sophisticated disposal. “Throwing it in this neighbor plot is not a good idea”, she admits. Her maid carries the garbage some dozen metres away from the house where she dumps it to a vacant construction site.

Insecure about this solution we ask a friend. He explains that the municipality collects the garbage even seperated into biodegredable and other waste. And for paper, glass, metal and other materials recycling units are existing. But in the outskirts with new housing complexes coming up day by day the collection was perhaps not yet organised.

For the private households thus a proper disposal is a matter of time. In daily life on the other hand the problem is omnipresent. A cup of tea is a welcome break during the marketing. But after finishing the drink the question arises where to dispose the pot. It has to be noted that tea, if not in glasses or porcelain cups is given in earthen cups or increasingly in plastic cups. After use those are simply thrown onto the street. Early morning this garbage is collected and brought to the dumping ground. If such disposal system is not available the waste will be burned onsite. Until then it is a feeding point for cows, dogs and birds that feed themselves on leftovers.

Cow eating plasticA dog’s snout stuck in a jar is a funny sight. A cow that expires due to a belly fully stuffed with plastic bags is less funny. On the other hand what would happen to the thousands of homeless animals if the garbage was not disposed on the street. And not only city animals would suffer; wild animals as well. Vultures are globally amongst the most critically endangered species. For the population of this rare bird that found a home on Siliguris dump yard the introduction of waste separation was a big change of their habitat.

About such kind of problems the people in the rural areas of the East Himalaya smile benignly. Central waste disposal is an urban achievement, in the villages this is a rare sight. Mostly the waste is burned. Or it lands up near the streets from where the rain carries it to the mountain streams and disposes it left and right of the riverbeds on its way down the hills. In the young mountains of the Himalaya landslides are fostered by layers of plastic on the ground. Klaus, an expert on waste management consequently is a welcome helper. He has developed an incinerator to burn the waste. His system is cost-effective and locally applicable. It is less harmful to the environment and the health and last not least it is feasible without much effort.

“In the past most of the goods came from the plains in jute or paper bags. Plastic packaging is a rather new phenomenon”, a member of the local administration recalls. The new packaging materials were disposed by the local people in the same style like the old ones. Whatever did not qualify for any re-use was deposited or burned. That plastic needs a long time to rot and doesn’t burn fully they were taught by time only. Till now the villagers face the disposal problem with some helplessness. Sometimes small enterprises take the intiative to separate the recyclable goods and sell them to recycling units in the cities in the plains. But transportation is costly and the business is not very lucrative. Nevertheless, such initiative doesn’t solve the problem with the non-recyclable garbage.

Müllofen in ActionAlmost one hundred villagers have joined to see the demonstration of the incinerator. Klaus‘ first lesson is: Not everything can be burned. And not everything should be burned. Recyclable goods are to valuable to burn. Bio-degredable waste, hard plastic, soft plastic, glass, paper, batteries – proper separation is essential. Kitchen leftovers are potential compost, glass and PET-bottles should be carried to the recycling units in the plains. Only when the flame of the incinerator burned soft plastic and cloth almost completely most of the people understand the significance of separation. And after Klaus‘ explanation that the ash qualifies as fertilizer the scepticism fully vanishes. On the following day the villagers try their hand themselves on the burning process. Klaus stands aside and provides support only when required. After two days the village ambience has already changed. Lots of plastic have been burned, the local people are highly motivated. “Now everything depends on their own initiative”, Klaus states. “Technical support can come from outside but the responsibility is with the villagers.”

In the land of clouds – Red Pandas don’t eat Japanese trees

Red Panda in Darjeeling ZooAbout 2500 specimen of the Giant Panda’s little brother still exist, it is estimated. No one knows exactly. But it is sure that its habitat is shrinking. The mountain areas above an altitude of 1500 meters that are the favorable home to the red-brown mammal are under pressure mainly by humans. The cultural reasons for which the Panda´s fur is sought-after in China – the bridegroom wears it during the marriage ceremony – is not a reason for threat in India. Here it was mainly the forestry that caused it trouble. The introduction of exotic species of trees, mainly the fast growing Japanese Cedar cryptomeria japonica, has reduced the diversity of bamboo and mixed forest. Bamboo is a main feeding plant for the Red Panda that moreover feeds on fruits and berries.

The Darjeeling Zoo is one of the most successful breeding centers for the Red Panda worldwide. The Institute can boast several successful releases of the animal to the wild. But captive breeding is not a final solution to a sustainable future for the endangered species. Thus additional efforts are taken to improve the habitat of the animal. On the one hand the Japanese Cedars are step by step replaced by local species, e.g. in Neora Valley Nationalpark in Darjeeling. On the other hand there are intiatives to increase the Red Panda’s habitat and to connect the existing reserves. Only by doing this the danger of inbreeding can be minimized and genetical stability of the species can be safeguarded.

An active involvement of the local population is a must in this regard. Though tourism was a good option in the scenic areas where the mammal is found the Red Panda itself doesn’t qualify very well as an attraction. It shows nocturnal behaviour and consequently encounters in the wild are unlikely. But hopefully the appreciation of its habitat by the visitor is stimulating the local people to improve the habitat. And moreover, these visitors are satisfied with observing the animal in the Zoo.

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