‘Welcome to Mawlynnong (God’s own Garden) Cleanest Village in Asia’ declares a signboard near the gates of the village in Meghalaya.
Dubbed as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’, Mawlynnong is a perfect example of what a self-sustaining community can do for itself. From working together to keep the village clean to helping visitors, this village of 500-odd people should be the model for prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans for a Swachh Bharat. Unfortunately, not all is well in this garden.
Back in 2003, the village, located around 90 kilometres from the state capital Shillong and near the Bangladesh border, was ‘declared’ as the cleanest village in Asia. And from the first time one enters the village, it is easy to see why.
Spotless cemented pathways lined with dustbins made from bamboo, there isn’t any sight of garbage to be seen anywhere. Walking around the village, one can see that this cleanliness is not a gimmick as the homes of the Khasi people who live here also abide by this practice. In fact, the reason that the village remains so spotless is because the entire community comes together every evening and morning to clean it up after and before opening its gates to tourists.
It is unclear as to what led to this collective habit of keeping the village clean but most people speculate that an outbreak of cholera some hundred years back is what could have led people to imbibe such cleanliness practices.
Just to be clear though, the village wasn’t accorded its moniker by any world body or international organization. It was, in fact, first referred to as the cleanest village in Asia in an article that appeared in a travel magazine. Since then, the floodgates opened and tourists began pouring in to the village. With the flow of visitors there are other issues that have come up.
Henry Kharymbhah, who was on information duty the day we visited, informed that sometimes visitors litter the place but that they do not impose a penalty on them.
“Instead we pick up their litter in front of them to make them realise their mistake,” he said.
Kharymbhah and the villagers are proud of what they have achieved. He said that there are toilets in each of the 90 homes in the village, all of which were built from their own funds.
“Now we impose a fee of Rs 50 if someone is caught defecating in the open,” he said.
Clearly the village has benefitted from its fame. Apart from the old houses, there are at least 9 home stays that service visitors and many more are under-construction. However, the dorbar shnong (village council) which monitors the village’s day-to-day operations has been facing other issues.
While the village has been able to sustain itself thanks to the flow of tourists and the business they bring, maintaining the village’s USP costs money. Although bamboo garbage bins can be produced in the village itself, the metal frames that hold them need to be made elsewhere and that costs money. Additionally, villagers like B Khongtiang who was busy making a fishnet for himself and who regularly helps out in the village also need to be paid.
Kharymbhah said that the village council has sought help but so far the Meghalaya government has not extended any financial aid.
He said that the village is able to bear the expenses thanks to money coming in from the tourists but they still need help.
“It’s not that we don’t want aid. We just haven’t been given any,” he said.
The Meghalaya government however denies such claims.
An official from the state tourism department, P Tariang, said that there are already four projects in place and two more planned for implementation in Mawlynnong.
“In fact, Mawlynnong is the only place that is getting maximum benefits as of now,” he said.