Feature story

Hills with a view

An ecotourism project in a remote corner of Uttarakhand has delivered an income source, and confidence as well, to its all-women crew

Suman Devi is busy milking her buffalo and she has an audience of four children watching her in rapt attention. It’s a routine chore for Ms Devi, a 42-year-old native of Jadipani, a picturesque village that nestles in the mountainous Tehri Garwhal district of Uttarakhand. For the kids, part of a group of tourists, it’s a vignette of the pastoral life, on offer for those seeking unusual travel experiences.

Ms Devi is part of an ecotourism project in Uttarakhand that is providing livelihood opportunities and augmenting the incomes of about 100 households. Backed by Himmotthan, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts, this is a women-centred project and participant families earn between 2,000-10,000 a month by providing homestays and other hospitality services to visitors. “It has been a life changer for my family,” says 38-year-old Guddu Devi, also from Jadipani.

The state’s Himalayan setting is an advantage for these women. Famous for its snow-capped mountains and rolling meadows, lakes, forests and pilgrim centres, Uttarakhand has for long drawn tourists and travellers from India and around the world. Their numbers have jumped in recent times — from 19.45 million in 2006 to 31.78 million in 2016 — and this despite shortfalls in infrastructure and amenities for tourists.

Students from Mussoorie International School make seedballs in Chopdiyal village in Tehri Garhwal district during a ‘rural immersion’ camp

The sector’s potential to grow further is not in doubt either, especially since the Uttarakhand government sees tourism as an important source of jobs for locals and also as a way to stem migration from the hills. Jadipani, where the project is based, has shown how this can happen and the difference it can make to communities.

An attraction now

The first-time feel of the initiative is evident. Jadipani was never considered an attraction for tourists. Situated at an altitude of over 2,000mt and with a population of some 1,200 people, the village rarely figured in tourist itineraries. But changes in tourist preferences and travel trends — fuelled by the never-ending search for unusual destinations, experiential holidays and the like — have put relatively undiscovered places like Jadipani on the map.

The ecotourism venture was off the beaten track for Himmotthan, which has been involved with a series of social development programmes in Uttarakhand, most prominently in water and sanitation. That has not stymied the effort at Jadipani, which is essentially about cementing a sustainable livelihood pathway for local women and their families.

Student visitors participate in a best-out-of-waste workshop in Jadipani village

To begin with, Himmotthan enlisted the support of some 700 women members who are part of its HimVikas Federation, a collective of self-help groups (SHGs), to put the necessary infrastructure in place. These women are the face and the force behind the rural tourism initiative.

Recruiting the locals was easy but training them to become hospitality service providers has been an uphill task. Low education levels and a tradition-bound society had confined the women of Jadipani to a life of domesticity. The idea of managing tourists was alien to them.

“The women SHG members were apprehensive initially,” says Mridula Tangirala, head, tourism, Tata Trusts. “To bolster their confidence, Himmotthan organised workshops where the women were educated on various aspects of handling tourists and volunteers and the soft skills they would require.”

Alongside the training programme, a collaborative resource identification and mapping exercise was carried out to identify tourism themes, plug infrastructure gaps and formulate operating procedures. In the finalised package were themes such as nature trails, local arts and crafts, heritage and cultural traditions, agriculture and animal husbandry.

Women self-help group members demonstrate how to use a tiller to schoolchildren in Chopdiyal village

Finding their feet

It has been a good beginning,” says Shaila Devi, a 37-year-old from Jadipani about the project that has put her village on the tourism map. She is confident the project will grow further and generate more income, a belief shared by the other women striving to make the ecotourism initiative a success.

Setting up a tourism project in the hills of Jadipani and making it a viable proposition seemed improbable in the beginning, and the failure of similar initiatives in the past added to the doubts. “There were people here who had individually started homestays but they didn’t do well,” says 42-year-old Suman Devi. “We knew we would have a better chance if we worked as a group.”

The women had to overcome plenty of doubts before setting out. “The project would mean investing time and effort and we wondered how we would manage this along with our daily chores,” says Ms Shaila Devi. “We were also not clear about how we were going to look after the tourist groups. We had never done anything of this sort in our lives.”

Training workshops helped in allaying the fears of the soon-to-be tourism entrepreneurs. Proof that the project could find its feet came when the first group, a batch of students, came to Jadipani. “Despite language barriers, the children were keen to listen to our stories and experiences,” says Bashu Devi, 49. “They were fascinated by life in the hills.”

Running the project and dealing with tourists has increased the confidence as well of the rural women in the ecotourism initiative. “We have learned how to interact with city dwellers on an equal footing,” says Sasi Devi, 43.

“The Jadipani tourism model is based on experiential tourism,” adds Ms Tangirala. “The objective was to provide deep, meaningful and vibrant tourist experiences by offering visitors the chance to get immersive experiences about the place and its people.”

Sustainability is crucial and this has been worked in by the dividing of risks and the sharing of profits. All members contribute: some provide boarding for the tourists, some cook meals and some — like Ms Suman with her buffalo — are responsible for the slice-of-life scenes that make up the ‘experiential engagements’ piece.

Women and their stories

For many of the women in the project, telling their story is an opportunity in itself. Bashu Devi, a 49-year-old disinclined to hold back, is one among them. She regales tourists with her village folklore and fables of mountain gods and ghosts. And Ms Bashu’s tales have many takers.

The rural tourism initiative received its first big break in November 2018 when a team of 70 students from the Mussoorie-based Woodstock School, among the oldest residential schools in Asia, trudged up the hills for a six-day study tour. The enthralled students got to try their hands at tilling the fields, collecting fodder and tending cattle, with jungle trips and learning about local flora and fauna also on the menu.

Students from Woodstock are regular visitors now, as are children from other schools in Mussoorie, and from Dehradun and even Delhi. Group tours such as these are the mainstay of the Jadipani initiative, which has attracted more than 200 tourists thus far and netted revenues in excess of 1.5 million.

The amount may appear meagre but the project has opened up a new vista for once-remote Jadipani, which promises to attract a greater number of guests as it finds its way into more tourist itineraries. “Ecotourism has opened a new revenue stream for rural households in Uttarakhand and the Jadipani tourism model also supports other initiatives run by the Federation,” says Anil Ramola, the manager of HimVikas Federation.

A self-help group from Jadipani