How Sarmoli became a poster child of ecotourism in Uttarakhand

By Archana SinghonMar. 09, 2023in Environment and Ecology
Three generations of women of a family that run a homestay in Sarmoli village. Photo by Archana Singh.
  • Migration is one of the biggest challenges faced by the Uttarakhand government. It is estimated that over three million people have left their homes since the formation of the state.
  • Though homestay programmes in some ways have helped villagers find work near their homes and check migration, what sets Sarmoli village apart is that all the homestays here are community-led and operated by women.
  • From creating livelihood opportunities to solving social and environmental problems, the women-led cooperative has brought about a sea of change in the village along with additional income.
  • The local women of Sarmoli state that the programme has changed their lives by giving them a voice in family issues and a chance for their daughters to study rather than get married early.

पहाड़ का पानी और पहाड़ की जवानी पहाड़ में नहीं रुकती ” (the water of the mountains and the youth living in the mountains, never stay in mountains). This local proverb heartbreakingly reflects the sad state of the northern state of Uttarakhand that was formed in 2000 to ensure hill-centric development, but saw several young people migrate out as the lack of livelihood opportunities took a toll on the people. It is estimated that around 3.2 million people have left their homes since the formation of the state. However, Sarmoli, a pint-sized village in the Munsiyari region, set against the backdrop of snow-clad Panchachuli peaks has defied the trend.

The lack of basic infrastructure, better education, health facilities and employment, led people to move to urban areas — the result: ghost villages, with zero to less than 100 inhabitants. In 2018, there were 1,700 ghost villages with nearly 1,000 villages having less than 100 people. To tackle these challenges, the Uttarakhand government formed the Rural Development and Migration Commission in 2017 to study various aspects of rural migration and related socio-economic issues.

The commission team surveying Pithoragarh was left bewildered when they reached Sarmoli in 2018. The people in the Sarmoli village credit Malika Virdi, an avid mountaineer and a social activist, for the turnaround.

In 2004, Virdi launched the Himalayan Ark Homestay programme. Solely run by the women, the programme encouraged guests to see the region from the eyes of the locals, and in return, they were treated like guests, not clients. During their stay, they are treated to the local delicacies like bhang ki chutney (hemp seed dip), madua ke roti (local barley bread), pahadi rajma (local kidney beans) and many more.

A homestay at Sarmoli village. Photo by Archana Singh.

Sometimes the guests join their hosts in fields, kitchen and other village works. They also explore food trails and expeditions, try their hand at knitting and weaving, go bird watching and attend local festivals. Some 20 families benefit by hosting guests, and equal or more families benefit by becoming guides for the guests. Some of the women from the Sarmoli village, who have excellent knowledge about the flora and fauna of the region, have also become guides and naturalists.

One such woman is 37-year-old Bina Natiwal, who is a cultural and environmental guide. She first underwent a training programme to understand the visitors’ needs and gain expert knowledge. Today, she conducts village walks, birding tours and mountain treks unravelling the secrets of the region to the guests. Munsiyari is a biodiversity-rich region, and experts estimate that there are over 300 bird species, making it a paradise for birders.

Ark Homestay Programme set many benchmarks in community-run programmes. Virdi shared how their organisation works, “Ark Homestay Programme is entirely run by women, 95 percent of the earnings go to the villagers, two percent is spent on conservation of natural resources such as forests, lakes and rivers and the rest on the training and day-to-day working of the participants.”

Under the Himalayan Ark programme, the villagers have developed a mix of itineraries for their guests – ranging from treks in the alpine region (2,438 metres to 3,780 metres altitude) to leisurely walks around the chestnut trees.

Malika Virdi and her team during a meeting. Photo by Archana Singh.

Irma Sutyal, part of the Ark Homestay programme, told Mongabay-India that she hosts guests from across the world who usually stay for 10-15 days.

“Our homestay experience gives visitors a chance to slow down and understand our region’s rich culture, nature and heritage. Usually, the American and European guests stay with us for 10-15 days. During that time they become a part of our family and we both learn a lot from each other,” said Sutyal.

Sarmoli’s turnaround took years

Sarmoli’s journey from a migration-prone village to where it is today took years. It was the consistent efforts of Virdi and the women of the village that brought the change.

When she made Sarmoli her home in 1992, Vardi stressed that the village had its share of social evils such as alcoholism, domestic violence and poverty but she realised that these issues wouldn’t go away by mere talking. The realisation was followed by the birth of Maati Sangathan, a women’s collective, which was formed by Virdi and a group of women in 1994 when they came together to protest against rampant alcoholism that used to lead to severe domestic violence cases.

“In 1992, when I arrived in Sarmoli, nobody would talk about violence. However, things changed when we started meeting regularly and formed Maati Sangathan – autonomous women collective. Murmurs became loud voices, and finally, they broke their complicity of silence. Today the narrative has changed completely. Not only do they air their grievances and seek solidarity, but they are now key decision-makers in family and social matters,” she said.

Virdi said that Maati has now become a place for the women of the village to form a “dukh-sukh ka rishta” (relationship of sorrow and joy) where they meet, talk, and share their joys and sorrows.

Malika Virdi is the founder of Himalayan Ark Homestays. Photo by Archana Singh.

Her journey, however, has not been easy. While setting up the collective, Virdi knew that creating awareness among women for their rights was just the start of a long journey. She gathered that village women wouldn’t be allowed to step out of their homes and participate in the collective process unless there were efforts to provide livelihood support. And, thus she started creating opportunities by which women could earn. And she didn’t have to look too far to spot opportunities.

“Traditionally in Sarmoli and other villages of Munsiyari tehsil, men would migrate to Tibet for trade, and in their absence, the women would weave and knit. Handicraft items such as carpets, rugs, blankets, and sweaters would be handmade in every household and later sold at a premium in Tibet. But this trade ended after the war with China in the 1960s. Despite the Tibet market for hand-woven products vanishing, the women didn’t stop knitting and weaving,” shared Virdi.

She worked with the women to revive the traditional skill of knitting and weaving by providing marketing support to their products and training them to create unique and contemporary designs. Virdi also encouraged the local women to use the local flora and fauna elements in their designs, making their products stand out from the rest. The collective organised regular workshops to upskill the women and scale up their production. Soon, the sales increased – from local villages to across India and finally abroad as well.

Kamla Pandey, a 48-year old resident of Sarmoli village, was one of the collective’s founding members. She told Mongabay-India that their organisation provides direct employment to 60-70 families through their women collective.

She explained that under the Khaadya Ann Suraksha (food safety) scheme, they buy the local produce from the farmers at their asking price and sell it to interested buyers. Around 95 percent of the money goes to the farmers themselves, and only 5 percent is kept to cover the expenses for packaging, storage and sales. “We also organise Mahila Haat (women market) every fortnight where women would come and sell their produce from the fields, homemade snacks and woollen products,” Pandey said.

Pandey who lives with her two children and husband told Mongabay-India that due to changes ushered in by Maati Sangathan the alcohol-induced violence reduced drastically in the village and “many houses were saved from breaking up.”

In the last two and a half decades Maati Sangathan has directly or indirectly touched thousands of lives across the Gori river valley, and beyond in the district of Pithoragarh. Before the pandemic, the families were earning up to Rs. 375,000 (Rs. 3.75 lakh) per annum from hosting guests at their homestays.

Traditional woollen products made by local women. Photo by Archana Singh.

Bina Natiwal, a culture and birding guide, said, earlier the women were not even confident to tell someone their name, but today they host people from around the world. “We used to live in a male-dominated society with no rights or voice. Today, we not only earn for the family but our opinion matters too. Unlike before, girl education is given more importance than marriage,” she said.

The initiative led to awareness about environmental issues

The coming together of women not only helped in addressing the social and economic issues of the village but also played a pivotal role in the sustainable development of the region that is highly vulnerable to climate change.

The core of this women-led enterprise was designed around village forest commons (known as Van Panchayats). At the time of its formation, nature-based community-centred tourism that could provide livelihood without harming nature was non-existent. Virdi and her team incentivised conservation efforts of the Himalayan ecosystem and included the restoration of high altitude lakes, forests and communities as a part of their programme.

Officials note that the initiative has become a case study on how to do ecotourism right. Following the success of the model, the Uttarakhand government sent teams from different parts of the state to learn and emulate their success.

Amit Lohani, who is the district tourism development officer, Pithoragarh, told Mongabay-India how the state government has learnt from Sarmoli’s homestay programme and uses that knowledge to help more people become a part of this ecotourism drive.

A view of the Sarmoli village, Munsiyari in Uttarakhand. Photo by Archana Singh.

“We are promoting and supporting homestays in Munsiyari, Dharma valley and Choukouri. Under the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Homestay Scheme, we help locals get hassle-free loans from the banks with 33 percent subsidy and 50 percent interest wave-off. Besides investing in the region’s infrastructure development, we run training programmes for the locals, teaching them soft skills and ecotourism best practices required to run homestays,” he said.

Lohani stated that they give locals a platform to “promote their homestays on our website and teach them how to grow organic food, generate zero plastic waste, and conserve natural resources, among many other things.”

First published by Mongabay on 21 June 2021.

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