There is a proverb in Uttarakhand: The water of the mountains and the youth living in the mountains, never stay in mountains. This shows the sad state of Uttarakhand. Yet, ecotourism in this pint-sized village of Sarmoli bucks the trend.
Uttarakhand 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. Sarmoli is located in the Munsiyari region. This pint-sized village is set against the backdrop of snow-clad Panchachuli peaks.
The turnaround in this pint-sized village
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 pint-sized village of Sarmoli in 2018. The people in the Sarmoli village credit Malika Virdi, an avid mountaineer and a social activist, for the turnaround.
When women transformed this village through Maati Sangathan
In 2004, Virdi launched the Himalayan Ark Homestay programme in this pint-sized village. Solely run by women, the program encourages 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.
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 pint-sized village of Sarmoli 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.