Anywhere else in the civilised world, this is a punishable crime, damaging invaluable fragile, geological formations. But this is the Manali-Rohtang Pass.
So when you have the sky hanging a picture-post card blue, the snow a blemishless white, Coke and Pepsi can plaster their ads on rocks millions of years old. Travel up the 56-km stretch and begin counting.
WHAT ROCK? WHAT PAINT? Pepsi: Deepak Jolly, V-P (Communications), first passed the buck to ‘‘bottlers” saying this is a ‘‘franchisee-owned territory.’’ When asked if the corporate office has no control over the franchisee, he said: ‘‘If there’s any painting on an unauthorised spot, we’ll raise it with the franchisee.’’ Coca Cola: Marketing Manager Aseem Mathur: ‘‘We are exteremely environment-conscious, we don’t paint rocks at all. This slip-up seems to have happened at a local level and we are not even aware of it. We will ensure this never happens again.’’ MBD Books Proprietor Ashok Malhotra: ‘‘The Jallandhar office must have got it done after getting permission.’’ Balwant Sharma, GM, Jallandhar, said: ‘‘I don’t know whether permission is needed. There is no pollution caused.’’
From the two-house cluster village of Kothi to the Rallah waterfalls to the Beas Kund, where the river is still a Nallah (stream), ads have been plastered on the entire mountainside—on an average, there are four to five ads painted on the rocks for every 1 km.
The brand names featured include Coke and Pepsi, Malhotra Book Depot, a Delhi-publishing house which specialises in guidebooks for schools and colleges, even the occasional roadside auto-repair shop. The damage is extensive.
‘‘These mountain facades have a huge ecosystem. There is moss that grows on these rocks, then there are innumerable species of microrganisms. All that is completely destroyed when the rock surface is painted,’’ says Ashok Sahni, a professor in the Geology Department, Panjab University, Chandigarh.
‘‘It is an environmental issue that needs immediate attention. The Himalayas are the highest mountain chain in the world and citizens have the right to access nature without this kind kind of pollution. The rock surface here has geological evidence dating back to 45 million years.’’
Can the damage be reversed? On paper, yes; in reality; a virtual impossibility. Says Sahni: ‘‘It becomes a very expensive proposition trying to wash off the paint with gallons and gallons of thinner and then too completely cleaning it and restoring the original surface is impossible.’’
Who’s in charge? Says Manali SDM Vinod Kumar: ‘‘There’s no specific law to stop them, we have no instructions.’’ Land in the entire Kullu district, if it’s not privately owned, belongs to the state’s Forest department and the department is empowered by the Indian Forest Act 1927 and Forest Conservation Act 1980.
‘‘The administration has all kinds of executive powers to stop this. For the entire Manali sub-division, we have 11 forest guards and four deputy rangers. Painting of the mountainside is done by night. It’s impossible to check the entire stretch of over 25,000 hectares,’’ says Rajeev Sharma, Forest Range Officer Manali.
Rajiv Bindal, chairman of the Himachal Pradesh Environment Protection and Pollution Control Board, says: ‘‘We have never received any complaint on this. It is a new problem for us. First thing on Monday, the board will try and get a report on this and then we will look for a way to stop it.’’