Tourism Uptick Spells Trouble for Asia’s Cleanest Village, Mawlynnong

On October 2, 2014, the Swachh Bharat Mission or Clean India Mission was kickstarted by the government of India to make the nation cleaner and make citizens more aware of sanitation and hygiene. Over the last few years, this national mission has received unprecedented attention.

Against this backdrop, the victorious tale of Mawlynnong in India, commonly known as ‘Asia’s cleanest village’, is significant. With another October 2 having passed us by, the village of Mawlynnong needs attention for the maintenance of its tradition of cleanliness in the face of increasing tourism.

Mawlynnong is home to around 548 Khasi people who practice Christianity and is located in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya. This village’s distinction for its cleanliness was hailed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 during his radio interaction ‘Mann ki Baat’.

Similarly, it has also been recognised for the same by the coverage of BBC and History channel. It has received the silver award for being the best eco-tourism destination in India in 2022 by the Outlook Traveller Awards. The uniqueness of the village is that its cleanliness has been maintained by a self-regulatory mechanism of the community itself. Their practice of cleanliness can be traced back more than a hundred years.

Mawlynnong’s tradition of cleanliness

Mawlynnong’s tradition of cleanliness has a historical association with an epidemic of plague that crippled the village during the 1880s. Christian missionaries helped the villagers, and introduced cleanliness as a strict practice. After that devastating scare of a complete wipe-out, cleanliness became an integral part of the natives of Mawlynnong. Strict adherence to the practice of cleanliness over a century led to cleanliness becoming an integral part of their everyday beliefs, customs and rituals.

This habit of cleanliness is deeply-rooted in villagers since their childhood in both formal and informal ways. An elderly lady in the field shared, Cleanliness has been a way of life since my childhood. After coming back from school, I used to clean clothes for my family first and then only we could go to play. Similarly, my sisters mopped the house before their homework. This is a habit we have grown up with. It is customary for our children.”

In 2005, thei village got recognition in popular media when a representative from Discover India Magazine visited this village to capture the unexplored areas of Meghalaya. Following this visit and coverage, the practice of cleanliness in Mawlynnong got wider recognition on media platforms and gradually became the source of identity and pride for villagers. 

Cleanliness and tourism

The tag ‘Asia’s cleanest village’ was attributed to Mawlynnong in 2003. Since then, it has attracted tourists in large numbers, which has improved the economic status of Mawlynnong. Alongside the increasing tourism, the community has been proactive in implementing measures relating to cleanliness.

For instance, the village has strictly prohibited the single use of plastic items and has adhered to the practice of segregating waste into degradable and non-degradable waste.  The segregated degradable waste is often used as kitchen garden compost or is supplied to their piggery while the collected non-biodegradable waste is sent to send municipality of Meghalaya for recycling.  

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However, in recent years, the village has not remained completely untouched by the negative impact of increasing tourism. For example, bamboo baskets (local dustbins) are increasingly turning into dumping spots of plastic waste due to the insensitive approach of tourists. During peak seasons, the sight of cigarette butts, bottles, food containers and other types of rubbish littering the footpath and stream areas is becoming common, despite bamboo baskets placed in every corner of the village.

Although the village still maintains its surroundings by its own community-based mechanism, the excessive garbage and irresponsible behaviour of tourists is making maintenance of cleanliness challenging and really burdensome for villagers. A key informant in the field commented that he had never seen plastic in his childhood as he always used cloth bags. He added that tourists need to respect their traditions and understand that this village is their home.

Strengthening the tradition of cleanliness: the need for adequate measures

Amidst these challenges, the village strives to maintain its cleanliness with active community-based management. But for how long can these one-sided efforts keep this tradition of cleanliness strong? Are the big labels of recognition sufficient for its maintenance? Unfortunately, the government-led efforts, that have undoubtedly led to a worldwide recognition of Mawlynnong, remain restricted to tokenism. There need to be stringent measures to promote responsible tourism in Mawlynnong.

The impact of tourism on the host community often gets invisibilised in the coverage of popular media and the callous attitude of tourists gets the least attention from government initiatives. Awareness campaigns about sustainable and responsible tourism for tourists and hosts can sustain this century-old cleanliness tradition of Mawlynnong. With its proper implementation, the notion of eco-tourism can preserve the environment while accounting for the needs of natives in Mawlynnong. In line with this, UNWTO, on World Tourism Day 2022, emphasised the need to pause and rethink about tourism for the people and planet – as they are the real assets.

Jyoti Shukla is a senior research fellow in the Ambedkar School of Social Sciences, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University (BBAU), Lucknow.

Featured image: One of the roads in Mawlynnong gives a glimpse of cleanliness. Photo: Jyoti Shukla