Free flowing gush of sparkling blue water in the parched and arid landscape of Spiti, the high-altitude cold desert, tucked away in the far end corner of Himachal Pradesh, where only a few intrepid tourists used to visit until a few years ago, is now turning a unique hub of alternative and sustainable livelihood avenues for communities in this remote Himalayan region, that is just not help locals to responsibly use locally available resources to generate income, reduce costs and protect the environment, but is also turning tourists into travellers who come and stay with locals in their villages and carry back a thick slice of memories, enriched with its distinct art, culture and traditions.
Thanks to the single-minded grit and determination of a Dehradun born and brought up woman Ishita Khanna, whose love of mountains and desire to make lives of mountain people a bit better and sustainable, brought her here. She understood the link between livelihoods and conservation, “One cannot expect people to conserve their environment, unless their livelihoods are assured and local products can be gainfully marketed,” reasons Khanna, 39.
A product of Doon’s elite school; Whelham’s and a Delhi University graduate from its prestigious Miranda House, Khanna went to Tata Institute of Social Studies, Mumbai to accomplish post-graduation in Social Studies, has introduced a unique set of market-based incentives to promote eco-tourism opportunities environmental conservation in the region.
Her family has been a bedrock of support in pursuing her dreams—her elder sister, her parents and grandparents, everyone in the family. She and her elder sister were brought up like sons. My parents have always insisted that we have to stand on our feet and not be dependent on anyone. We were always brought up like that. And my grandmother who had served as a nurse with the British Army during the World War II and later came to India, “She was a source of inspiration for me while I grew up as she was a very adventurous person. She had these great stories about how she came into World War II and how she worked as a nurse in Shimla for a while and then in Calcutta.
Then she got married to her grandfather who was with the railways and was transferred to many places and everywhere they started a social project. While in Chennai, she and a friend of hers started a project for children’s’ health and education and is still functional in a place called Madlapalli.
In a nutshell, courage and social cause runs in her blood!
Her mother too always stood beside her as she insisted that she could do anything as long as it contained an element of adventure and she must complete both basic and advanced mountaineering courses that she did from Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi. “My mother took me out for treks and both have been instrumental in making me what I am today,” says Ishita.
After a frustrating stint with CAPART (Council of Rural Development and Advancement), at Chandigarh, the nodal agency of Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, where she had to fight rampant corruption in funding NGOs and the slow bureaucratic processes while with the Himachal Government in Shimla, although the young director was very progressive there. But, this work enabled her to visit Spiti and experience the raw beauty of Spiti and she was struck with it.
Upon leaving CAPART in 2002, she and her husband started Muse, an NGO, but disaster truck her when she lost her husband soon after in a freak accident in the area, but the lure of mountains and her commitment to protect environmental of India’s mountain and advance its culture continued unabated.
And, in order to realise their dream of ground, the team established Ecosphere in 2006 that is in fact, a combination of three non-governmental organisations—Muse, Spiti Trans-Himalayan Action Group (STAG) and Spiti Seabuckthorn Society (SSS).
began to look into various development and environmental issues in the mountains of Spiti. Then as was bowled over by Seabuckthorn, a wild berry rich in vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, grown abundantly in Spiti. She knew it was the link between income and conservation and must be marketed, on the same like Himachal oranges and apples are done. But, the bureaucracy again frustrated her, “The officials told me that they’ve carried out many tests on this berry and found this species totally useless,” she reveals.
But, a scientist. Dr. Virendra Singh of Palampur Agriculture University, was passionate about it, who was determined to use its nutritional and medicinal value as it is a rich source for vitamin C and essential fatty acids. With a stroke of luck, the organisation managed to get some financial support to set up a demonstration Seabuckthorn unit in 2002 and empowered the local community to harvest and pulp the berry, instead of destroying it, along with starting homestays in five villages, building solar passive winter rooms and building greenhouses to enable growing of green vegetables throughout the year. She won the much-coveted Ashoka Fellowship for her social entrepreneurship in Spiti, in 2008.
They explored the commercial viability of seabuckthorn– and then discovered other more sustainable areas of businesses. Efforts in areas such as eco-tourism ensured they survived to sustain their passion.
See, initially one if the main challenges was to get the people together to start working on it A lot of stuff had been done on seabuckthorn in the beginning and they tried to mobilize the community at that point in time and then it was sort of left midway.
initially, it was a challenge to convince the people about the economic viability of seabuckthorn as Himachal government officials had declared the berry useless and even the community wasn’t aware of its uses and it was difficult to get them on their side. So, first they discovered the ‘king’ of the Valley and approached him, “He was a very genuine and down to earth kind of a person who really wanted to do something for his place. He knew about seabuckthorn and wanted to do something with it and promised to support us completely. Then, we were funded by a German funding agency,” she tells.
The Spiti Valley is an unforgiving, arid region situated at about 10,000 to 17,000 feet above sea level where a misdirected winter vacation can land you with the rare experience of living inside the deep- freezer of a refrigerator at minus 30 degrees.
Heavy snowfall leaves the region separated from the rest of the country in a silent breakaway, without any insurgent efforts, for over half the year. The government has subsidized basic goods and services which are available for 50% of the price. The local communities have grown used to the subsidies and recent years have sometimes seen crops fail here. Ishita, through her organization Ecosphere, has worked towards improving environmental management in these villages. She has been on a mission, trying to make the local communities self-sufficient and less dependent on subsidies and government handouts.
She decided to chalk-out a holistic approach for realising her dream that was a combination of responsible travel, exploring Seabuckthorne products and marketing them at the national level, providing alternative sources of livelihoods by cultivating fruits and vegetables even in freezing winter months, promoting local handicrafts and providing clean energy by constructing solar passives homes.
Responsible tourism is in the core of her endeavour as snuggled in the Trans-Himalayan range are high altitude cold desert regions with barren landscape and sparkling blue river and fiercely cold winters with temperatures dipping below -30 degrees, is almost like a different planet where tourists and travellers love to come during the summer months, stretching from June to September, more so as it offers an insight into the culture, nature, history, ecology and legends of these valleys, while ensuring that visits to these pristine locales benefit their economy, conservation and development
She chose to make women the key stakeholders of this movement as she knew only women to knit tourism and ecology in a beautiful tapestry. Thus, were established home-stays that ensures conservation of the fragile ecology of the region alongside the equitable benefits between the rich and poor in the village. Ecosphere promotes a homestay programme that hosts travellers in five villages. It was a long road she has traded on since its start in 2002 when she tried to convince the villagers to turn their traditional homes into ‘traditional’ homestays, “Villagers were concerned over the very idea of constructing water based flush toilets in their homes given that water is a very precious resource in Spiti. However, our mandate was to stick to the traditional ways of life that were ecological conducive to the region,” she tells. Slowly, they saw the benefits of welcoming guests into their homes and today over 80 homestays operate in these villages. A village coordinator was appointed in every village to manage the process to ensure families host on a rotational basis, to ensure equity. Sadly, as the villagers started getting tourists and tasted the blood, “cooperation has led to competition”, says Ishita, except in Demul village.
Initially, when the villagers were ready to welcome guests in their homes. They chose to keep the rent at rock bottom, “But, then, they realized that doing so they will hardly make much money for all their investments and time and may attract the wrong kind of tourists, they agreed to increase the rentals,” tells Khanna.
Still many tourists found this rate: Rs. 600 in 2016 including stay and all meals, very rewarding, “We stayed here for two days in August 2016 and not just enjoyed the breathtakingly natural beauty of the area, but also natural warmth of the people here,” tells Gauri, from Pune who was with her family. Even foreigners love to be here, “I came as a tourist here, but became a traveller as I learnt about their way of life, art and craft and took part in the festivities here,” elucidates Phillip, who was here in September, 2015 from France.
“While tourism has its pros and cons, we are helping tourists with unique programmes and making them aware of responsible tourism, where they can work with the community to build solar-passive homes which retain heat inside the houses or green houses for growing vegetables. At the same time, the local community benefits with home stays. The home stays are conducted on a rotational basis so no one really competes with each other. Every house gets a chance to accommodate tourists,” explains Ishita.
Ecosphere has taken remarkable initiatives to ‘reduce, recycle and reuse’ products. To cut down the usage of bottled water, the tourists are provided with a water filter at the home stays. And, the waste materials like crushed mineral water bottles are being used in insulating solar passive homes in Spiti and waste tetra packs are recycled to make tissue paper.
Travellers are offered free drinking water from the Ecosphere shop at Kaza, the headquarters of Spiti. Tourists are sensitised about the delicate ecology and the need to preserve its rich heritage.
Ecosphere’s volunteers also offer glimpses of Tibetan Buddhism and culture and tourists enjoy staying in authentic homestays, mountain biking, treks and hikes, mountaineering expeditions and rafting. Many also indulge in birding, floral and wildlife expeditions in the region.
Exploring Seabuckthorn berry, popularly known as the ‘Wonder berry’, since it has a unique composition of vitamins, minerals, nutrients and essential fatty acids, and marketing them at the national level, alongside enabling locals to grow vegetables, even during the freezing winter months, is the second approach she took towards realising her dream.
Because of this unique initiative, the quality of lives of the 12,000 odd villagers in Spiti has improved a great deal as many families have begun cultivating seabuckthorn, selling it under the organic brand named called ‘Tsering’ (which means blessings for life), which is now available across India.
“Locals who were unaware of the potential of seabuckthorn were not growing it. We initiated a project to set up a processing unit to make juice, jam, tea and fruit drink concentrate. This project has increased income especially for women. We have been able to educate the community on the value of preserving this wonderful berry,’’ says Khanna.
People quickly adopt practices if it makes money for them. So, by marketing the seabuckthorn products, other cereals and pulses into useful and nutritional products, Ishita has been able to conserve Spiti’s scare and precious resources and made the villagers financially secure in the process. Also, the propagation of Seabuckthorn benefits this cold desert region ecologically, given its soil-binding and nitrogen-fixing nature.
Besides promoting the farming of seabuckthorn, Ishita has also trained people in technical aspects of food processing and linked the finished products through the right marketing channels. Ishita also promotes handicrafts and Thangkha paintings made by the locals.
That is her third initiative that is the promotion of Local handicrafts as the Himalayas are home to unique handicrafts like Thangkas (paintings on silken canvas), Zama (mud craft) and Lingzay (woven shawls with traditional motifs). Ecosphere has enabled local groups to preserve these traditional art forms, generate alternate sources of income and improve the quality and marketability of such products.
“By linking economics with conservation, we have been successful in preserving this plant. By promoting indigenous products, we ensure the conservation of Spiti’s diverse traditional crops and fruits, promote organic agriculture and enhance the livelihoods of the local population,” explains Ishita.
Another highly crucial feature of her endeavour is making Spiti homes energy efficient as due to the extreme winter climate, the residents of the Trans-Himalayan region burn a lot of coal, wood and dung to cook and keep warm in winters. However, using the abundant solar energy in the region, they can minimize fuel-wood consumption, and reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and health problems associated with excessive smoke. That’s the cold energy that keeps the Spiti homes warm during winters, as she has created solar-passive homes there!
Ecosphere’s green energy initiatives are also a set of finally inter-woven measures like establishing greenhouses so locals can access fresh vegetables round the year, generate additional income and improve their nutritional intake. Spiti today has energy-efficient homes that operate on Solar Passive techniques, which reduce fuel consumption by 60%, help to mitigate global warming, keep the inner air smokeless, reduce cold-related illnesses, and enable income generation via indoor activities like handicrafts and households grow vegetable even during winters. These homes have renewable energy options like Solar Geysers, Solar Passive Baths, Cookers and Lanterns, to reduce fuel-wood consumption and carbon emissions, enabling local homes and homestays to be more eco-friendly and improved hygiene levels.
And, locals are basking under the sun of ease and fame. Fourteen years ago, Sonam was one of the many unemployed youths in Spiti who did odd jobs for a living as he hardly knew the importance of Spiti’s rich flora or fauna, especially about seabuckthorn. Today, he like many other youths, is adept in extracting its juice and sell its pulp to buyers, “It is naturally drought-resistant and is a magic recipe for good health which tourist just love to drink,” says a smiling Sonum, 24, holding glasses of fresh Seabuckthorn juice.
And, a deep sense of observation along with, gave her a foundation to work in this god forbidden place as she observed that even this seemingly barren place is blessed with rich natural resources, the villagers were unaware. And, she went on to combine the ecology with economy so that this magical land could retain all its beauty, but can also provide sustainable livelihood opportunities to the locals and she started Ecosphere with a group of friends started Ecosphere. And, besides indirect livelihoods to about 12,000 people of the region, it also provides direct jobs as out of its 12 employees, only two including Ishita are outsiders.
“The idea of setting up Ecosphere was to promote eco-tourism, help the struggling local community with better income generation avenues and preserve the environment with renewable sources of energy and cut down on carbon footprint. Conservation happens best when their livelihoods are directly linked to it,” says Ishita.
Fifteen years ago, Spiti was not in any of the tourism itineraries. But now many tourists from India and abroad are discovering its pristine beauty.
Indeed, in the last 16 years, Ecosphere has transformed the lives of community in many ways.
Besides running responsible eco-tourism where travellers stay in people’s homes and enjoy the unique culture and tradition of the Valley, Ecosphere helps convert existing winter rooms into energy saving rooms to cut down carbon emissions and greenhouses which provide vegetables to families throughout the year. Her renewable energy innovations address Spiti’s harsh climate and infrastructure challenges.
This has indeed created wonders in this cold desert where temperature dips to minus 30 degrees during winters and the region remains cut-off from rest of the country for six months, enabling people to grow vegetables as due to the adverse weather conditions, they could not grow the vegetables in the villages. Procuring vegetables from town which was 8-10 hours’ drive was one of the biggest problems for villagers. This made it expensive and also increased the carbon footprint.
Ecosphere’s initiative to set up greenhouses has been a path breaking initiative. Ecosphere has set up 100 green houses for the villagers and the monasteries, where people actively grow vegetables for the community.
Renewable energy projects have been another big success. Ecosphere has built 500 solar-passive houses. Ishita and her team’s relentless efforts have seen a drastic reduction in the usage of wood, which in turn reduced black carbon emissions.
“Ecosphere continues to work on economic empowerment with the sale of organic products, conservation of the environment and introduction of several environment-friendly products like solar lights, geysers, cutting down fuel consumption. The best part about the venture is that all the profits are ploughed back into supporting the people and sustaining the environment-friendly measures,” points out Ishita.
Life in Spiti is challenging but the simple life here is one of Ishita’s most prized possessions. There have been several unforgettable experiences for Ishita living in the remote villages.
Once she was stuck in a village due to floods and had to walk 50 kilometers to reach a safe destination. She was also held up in a village, cut off from the rest of the world for two weeks, when there was heavy snowfall.
For someone who loves adventure, these incidents only reaffirmed her capability and commitment to work more vigorously.
“Happiness and peace are the biggest gifts Spiti has given me. Money is important. It is the means to an end but not the end itself. Money can’t buy you everything. I would find it difficult to adjust in a city. I find life here more exciting and endearing,” says Ishita.
City life is too commercial and complicated, says Ishita. Consumerism and advertisements regularly bombard people creating new needs whereas life in villages is truly fulfilling without any of those products.
Life in Spiti also fulfils her spiritual quest as although, she doesn’t follow any organised religion, she regards herself as a spiritual person. “Yoga and meditation form a part of my daily life. Self-evolution and changing oneself for the better (to be the essence) in spiritual growth. There are numerous inequalities in this world and the more visible are of economic wealth as although money is important, but not everything, one’s self-realisation and quest is and the need is to bridge differences, strengthen equality and value contentment, she says.
Spiti has also taught her how to value the precious resources, love nature and live in harmony. A group of nuns for whom Ecosphere installed a solar panel for lighting, told her that they remember Ecosphere in their prayers every evening, which is one of the biggest compliments, says Ishita as she has been exploring renewable energy options and solar passive homes and has been smart with communicating her ideas to the locals as it has set up 100 green houses for the villagers and the monasteries, where people actively grow vegetables and solar-passive rooms are constructed under the second programme and both are interlinked. “Ecosphere has also built 500 solar-passive rooms, where the winter room is made energy efficient enabling it to absorb the suns heat better and with insulation this heat gets trapped inside the room.,” tells Khanna.
She tells people how they can economically benefit from these new options whenever she has struggled to make them see reason. One of the interesting features of her work has been the way she has managed to connect with a host of diverse people – the locals, their issues and also the tourists and others who form an important part of her business and social clientele.
Villagers living in these solar-passive homes are growing vegetables, a rare commodity in Spiti, even in harsh winter months when the outside temperature dips to minus 30 degrees, but inside it remains warm enough for the vegetables so grow, “I grow cabbage, lettuce and spinach that I sell in local market and to the restaurants here,” tells Dorje Chhering, Kwang village.
Not just people’s homes, but also nunneries have such greenhouses like Pangmo and Morang nunnery where they actively grow vegetables for the between 30 to 40 nuns.
In fact, there are about 100 such greenhouses in homes and monasteries where vegetables are being grown as an added source of income for them, besides being a potent source of nutrition.
At an altitude of 12,000 to 15000 feet above sea level, Spiti in Himachal Pradesh is one of the most beautiful places in the world but too harsh a life even the basic facilities. for people living there as temperatures ranging from -30 degrees in winter to above 30 degrees in summer, the dusty and dry weather conditions make life tough and rigid for its people. Frequent power cuts which stretch across days together, bad roads and poor infrastructure are other issues that badly affect people. Little wonder, “Living in Spiti is an unforgettable experience”, says Khanna.
And, she, dedicated to the cold desert tucked away in the uterus of high Himalayas, is determined to make this harsh life of people a bit easy, by ensuring an enduring source of livelihood for them along with conserving its pristine environment and ecology. Arranging enough drinking water for the people is her next initiative as for nearly six months during winter, Spiti turns into a cold desert and is cut off from the rest of the world, gets no water, “In fact even during summer in 2016, we have severe water shortage, tells Andgui of Demul village.
To sustain its initiative, Ecosphere targets the gen-next as it goes on combining traditional Buddhist systems of healing and health with modern science and pursue Environment education in Spiti schools by targeting the young kids in schools to make environment education a fun subject plus make them aware of the web of life- what happens if there is a disturbance in this web of life, the significance and the role of each. It also get the kids to take up small projects in schools like garbage management or documenting the local flora and fauna, etc.
Ecosphere got inspired by the epoch-making work of Sonam Wangchuk in Ladakh, so it is working on it and hopes to solve it soon, “We have experimented by building an artificial glacier in 2016, and fortunately in the winter there was a lot of snow so the problem of water will be slightly less acute this year.” she reveals. A solar pumping water station is the next big project in the pipeline. This would need an investment of around Rs 500,000. “People have to walk long distances to get drinking water. With a solar water station, we plan to reduce the burden on people,” says Ishita.
Already, tourists are offered free drinking water from the Ecosphere run Sol Café and Taste of Spiti (restaurant cum guesthouse) and a solar pumping water station is the next big project in the pipeline. “We have to walk long distances to get drinking water after this solar water station, we won’t have to,” hopes a nun of Pangmo village.
Ecosphere’s solar passive rooms cut down fuelwood consumption by up to 60% thereby also reducing a lot of carbon emissions.
Fifteen years ago, Spiti was not in any of the tourism itineraries. But now many tourists from India and abroad are discovering its pristine beauty and locals are having a durable source of livelihoods besides conserving its nature, ecology and tradition. And, the world is paying attention to her by recognising her efforts as she Ishita was the MTV Youth Icon of the year for her work in 2008 along with Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Award 2008, CNN IBN Real Heroes Award followed in 2010, The Sierra Club ‘Green Energy and Green Livelihoods Achievement Award’ and The Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, both in the year 2009, Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award 2010.
And, she remains firmly standing on a firm ground and quotes, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
Very Gandhian thought indeed: First change thyself, before thinking of changing the world!