As per UNICEF, the pandemic and lockdowns have led to the closure of more than 15 lakh schools in India and impacted more than 25 crore children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. However, for a developing country like ours, the pandemic was just an added blow as more than 60 lakh boys and girls were out of school even before the pandemic. Efforts are being made by individuals and organisations to bridge this gap, especially post covid. Recently, Abhishek Shukla, the founder of Shuruaat — Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki, opened a school for underprivileged children in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, named Shuruaat Play School. The children studying here are given quality education … and a lot more … for just Re 1/day. Why Re 1? Because that’s how much one tends to give to children who beg at traffic signals. The tagline of the campaign is quite apt – ek rupaiye bhiksha, ya ek rupaiye me shiksha … how would you rather spend your Re 1? By giving it as alms to a child or towards his/her daily school fees?
“When we started a few months back, many children would not even take bath or brush their teeth before coming to school. They did not know the importance of hygiene. It wasn’t their fault. They came from extremely poor pockets of the city. We would bathe them, and dress them up in clean uniforms,” said Abhishek Shukla, 31, who opened Shuruaat Play School in April this year in his hometown in Prayagraj (earlier Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh.
“The main purpose of the school is to teach these children moral values, apart from the regular subjects. They come from extremely underprivileged and poor backgrounds. Their parents are daily wage earners and make a living by driving autos or by picking and sorting garbage. Some are unemployed and most consume alcohol. These children go through a lot mentally and emotionally. We have identified some of them and encouraged them to join the school,” he added.
Around 90% of the children studying in the school are first-generation schoolgoers. For now, owing to the space crunch, Shukla and his team of volunteers have identified 50 children who desperately needed help. Some 30-40 are still waiting and thousands are yet to be identified.
“It’s a play school, so technically we should have given admission to 3-5-year-old children. However, because of their background, these children were never admitted to any school, and most are in the age group of 6-8 years. In fact, there are 2-3 girls studying in upper Kindergarten (UKG), who are 11-12 years old. It’s the first time in their life that they are going to school. Some children are orphans and the parents of some can’t even afford to pay the fees of Rs 30/month. However, we have allowed them to continue,” said Shukla.
The obvious question that came to my mind was why anyone would expect children from underprivileged backgrounds to pay Rs 30/month when there are many Anganwadi centres and government schools that are teaching children for free.
“The reason is, when parents pay fees, even if it’s as nominal as Re 1/day, both parents and children start taking school seriously. Besides, paying for their children’s education instills a sense of pride and self-respect in the parents. Also, when we take fees, our responsibility and accountability automatically go up,” said Shukla.
He added: “The reason why children drop out from government schools is that they don’t have to pay any fees and hence there is no obligation for parents to send their children to school or children to go to the school daily. The children don’t get any help or motivation from home as their parents don’t understand the importance of education. Gradually, they lose interest and drop out. These are the children we see begging at railway stations or traffic signals. They do odd jobs, or worse, start doing drugs, or end up in juvenile homes.”
High school dropout rate is indeed an issue. Data speaks volumes. As per the findings of the National Family Health Survey-5 conducted in 2019-21, the most common reason reported for children dropping out of school is a lack of interest in studies. This was the main reason found for children abandoning their education in previous rounds of the survey as well.
The key is to keep the children interested and invested. For this reason, Shukla and the six volunteer teachers working at the school have adopted innovative methods of teaching. The regular pattern of textbooks, classwork, and homework does not appeal to these children, so the teachers try to educate them through games, pictures, and paintings.
And what will happen to these children once they pass out of the play school? Shukla has cracked this. It’s not the first time he is dealing with underprivileged children and trying to integrate them into the mainstream education system.
It all started in 2016. Shukla was preparing to be a civil servant. One day, he was waiting at a traffic signal. A little girl came begging. She was carrying her baby brother in her arms. She told Shukla that her mother had passed away, her father was an alcoholic, and it was her responsibility to raise her brother. Shukla did not buy her story and went along with her to the slum where she lived. What he saw there changed his life. There were so many children who were miles away from any form of education. He decided to put his dream on hold and educate as many children as possible.
A few volunteers joined him and together they started teaching children in slums, on railway platforms, in parks, and on the streets. Many children were addicted to drugs or would beg and were violent. It wasn’t easy, but the team persisted. Gradually, they started enroling these children in government and government-aided schools. It was a huge motivation when some of these children started performing well. The team continued to work even during the 2020 lockdown. Recently, class 10th and 12th board exam results were announced and some of these children, especially girls, from extremely poor backgrounds have cleared their boards with flying colours.
Shuruaat Play School was conceptualised because teaching children in open spaces is difficult. The plan is to open many more such “Re 1” school.
“We need help. Right now, we have managed to collect funds through public fund-raising. People trust us, they have seen our work and hence they have contributed. But this is not going to be sustainable in the long run. The rent of the building where I run the school is Rs 22,000/per month. I am not even able to pay the sweeper Rs 1,500 from the fees that I collect. We are in the process of figuring out a sustainable financial model for our school, but for now, if people could donate to our fundraiser, that would be great,” said Shukla.
What keeps Shukla going despite the hardships and roadblocks can be gauged from the incident that he narrated.
“There is a lady named Rita Vishwakarma. She works as a house help. A few years back, we helped her two children get admission to a government school. A class 10 pass out, she got married very early and had to kill her desire of becoming a schoolteacher. She joined our school and for one-two years concentrated on brushing her knowledge. Later, she joined as a schoolteacher. When we were starting the play school and scrambling for funds, she pleasantly surprised us by donating Rs 20,000. She had been saving a little from her earnings for 5-6 years so that she could buy a computer for her son. She did not think twice before donating that entire amount to our play school because she believes in our cause. It is this goodwill that keeps me motivated and I am sure I will continue to get help,” said Shukla.
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International Mountain Day is celebrated on December 11 to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development, and to build alliances that will bring positive change to mountain people and the environment around the world. In India, mountain tourism thrives in the Himalayan region. However, the pandemic has created a crisis of livelihoods for mountain communities. Aptly, the theme of this year’s Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism. The Good Story Project ‘visits’ the northern states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the Union Territory of Ladakh that border the mighty Himalayas to understand how the pandemic has affected communities living here and how difficult revival of mountain tourism is going to be.
The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) is spread across 13 states and Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Assam and West Bengal. It stretches across 2,500 km and nearly 50 million people reside in this region. The IHR extends from the Indus River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east. With its towering snowy peaks, majestic landscapes, pilgrimage destinations, rich biodiversity, and cultural heritage, the IHR has been, for decades, attracting tourists from India and across the world.
Tourism provides financial and employment opportunities for people residing in these mountain regions, and it brings revenues and profits for state governments. In the past few years, tourism in the IHR has got impacted due to natural calamities or safety and security reasons, however, the prolonged pandemic has dealt a massive blow. Unfortunately, it’s the local people and communities living in these mountain regions – most depend on the inflow of tourists for survival – have suffered the most.
While two lockdowns in two years brought tourism in the Himalayan region to a complete standstill, sporadic episodes of revival were followed by dampeners. The latest one that has shaken the tourism industry is the new variant of the virus – Omicron – that is threatening to ground airlines, and it may lead to people putting their travel plans on hold for now. In such a scenario, revival in tourism is going to be an uphill task.
Keeping the many challenges in mind, the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism. The United Nations Environment Program and United Nations World Tourism Organization define sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.
The Good Story Project speaks to various stakeholders living in the mountains of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These destinations are popular among a range of tourists … adventure-seekers, pilgrims, families, solo travellers, and those who often run to the mountains for the much-desired peace of mind. However, the communities here have been facing a unique set of challenges. The pandemic has just added to their woes.
Ladakh: A ticking time bomb
Ladakh is a cold desert in India, which lies in the Great Himalayas. It has the mighty Karakoram range in the north, and, in the south, it is bound by the Zanskar mountains. Several rivers flow through Ladakh, which form deep valleys and gorges and many glaciers are found in the region. Life here is harsh, but historically, Ladakh has always been a self-sustained region. People grew their own food and there were enough resources for people to sustain themselves.
This was until Ladakh was opened to tourism in 1974.
As per the Tourism Ministry data, while 16,449 tourists visited Ladakh in 1994, it saw an inflow of about 2.79 lakh tourists in 2019. The rise in the number of tourists has pumped in money in job scarce Ladakh, but it has also had a detrimental effect on natural resources.
“Today, Ladakh is literally sitting on a ticking time bomb. The rapid growth in unregulated tourism over the years has put tremendous pressure on natural resources. In the early nineties, there were only around 80 hotels and guest houses here. Today, there are more than 1,000 registered and unregistered hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast (B&B) set-ups just in Leh (town),” said Vilayat Ali, who runs a sustainable tourism company called Pristine Ladakh.
He added: “Almost all hotels are pumping out water through bore machines for their daily use. Some big hotels pump out additional water for their swimming pools. The glaciers which are the main source of recharge for the groundwater are depleting at a very fast rate. The Khardong glacier – the main source of stream water for the Leh town — has almost vanished. The level of water in the Indus Rivers too has gone down to more than 50% in the last decade. The day is not far when there won’t be any groundwater left.”
Depletion of natural resources is not the only problem. Every summer, Leh generates more than 60 tons of garbage. “Earlier, as there was no waste management system in Ladakh, it was dumped in an open area abandoned by the Indian Army called ‘Bombguard’. The garbage was burnt every night and every morning one could see a thick fume of smoke in and around Leh. Today, even though Leh has a solid waste management plant, the unwanted garbage still gets burnt at Bombguard. Both, tourists are locals are to be blamed for waste generation,” said Ali.
From primarily being an agricultural economy, Ladakh’s economy is now heavily dependent on tourism. Many of Ladakh’s residents, especially the young, draw their income from these activities. As a result of the shift to tourism, locals are gradually giving up farming – their traditional source of livelihood.
“Before pandemic, everyone was making money. The tourism business was lucrative, so everyone jumped into it. Some opened hotels, some drove taxis, and some became guides; practically everyone switched to tourism. Gradually tourists became our primary source of income. The pandemic hit us hard. Suddenly there was nothing to fall back on. The only good part about the pandemic was that there was no pollution,” said Tashi Tsange, owner of Tukchu Homestay in Leh.
The homestay and hotel owners are keeping their fingers crossed for next summer and soon Ladakh, like earlier, will be full of tourists. So, what is the solution?
“Tourism should be encouraged as long as it’s sustainable, benefits the local communities, and does not harm the environment. The present-day Ladakh does not meet any of these criteria. Unregulated tourism has made Ladakhis rich, but it has done irreparable damage. Ladakh needs to regulate tourism. Bhutan has done it. We need to direct tourists to other less explored destinations so that locals living there can benefit too. Lastly, homestays should be promoted, prominence should be given to organically grown fruits and vegetables, and we need to find eco-friendly alternatives for plastic,” said Ali.
Uttarakhand: Needed desperately … a concrete plan to sustain tourism
Most of the northern parts of Uttarakhand are part of the Greater Himalayan ranges and are covered by the high Himalayan peaks and glaciers. Eighty-six per cent of states’ geographical area is mountains, and there are several famous peaks in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of the state – like, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Bhagirathi, Neelkanth, Gaumukh etc – that are preferred by tourists.
However, the four most economically lucrative peaks are Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri and the holy pilgrimage to these four mountains is known as the Char Dham Yatra. The yatra provides employment opportunities to lakhs of people living in these mountain regions, and also tour operators and yatra organisers spread across the country. It also forms an economic ecosystem that benefits the shrines, the areas around these shrines and generates significant revenue for the state.
Picture this. In 2019, the Kedarnath Yatra broke all the previous records and generated a revenue of Rs 400 crore. The other three destinations – Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – too earn revenues to the tunes of several crores every year. Those who benefit from the inflow of pilgrims are porters, palki and pony service operators, owners of hotels, lodges, dharamshalas, dhabas and small restaurants, guides, tour operators, temple committees, self-help groups that sell pahadi food, prasad and other products and private helicopter services.
In 2019, nearly 38 lakh pilgrims visited the shrines. In 2020, the yatra was put on hold and in 2021, the route was open only for two months after which the Uttarakhand government postponed the pilgrimage till further orders. “The locals were really happy when the yatra started. They were, to some extent, able to mitigate the losses incurred last year. However, looking at the inflow of tourists, the state government postponed it. Though we have started getting enquiries for next year, the past two years have been tough for the locals who were dependent on the Char Dham Yatra to make money,” said Suryaprakash Kothari, who is associated with the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN).
While the official loss numbers have not been released, one can only imagine how badly those dependent on the yatra must have suffered. There are people who wait for the yatra to begin every year as it helps them make enough money for the rest of the year.
“The unfortunate fact is, it’s always the poor who suffer. No one saw the pandemic coming, and no one could have imagined that the Char Dham Yatra, a mode of survival for many, would get cancelled for two consecutive years. Only those who were in a position to quickly innovate their business models or could find other avenues to earn money did not struggle during the lockdown and thereafter. However, say, a dhaba owner or a tea stall owner, the poorest of poor, who did not have any other option, are still struggling, and will continue to struggle,” said Umesh Pandey, a travel expert, who is associated with the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN).
In July this year, to compensate for the economic loss due to cancellation of the Char Dham Yatra for the second consecutive year, the state announced a relief package worth around Rs 200 crore, set to benefit over 1.63 lakh people in the state.
“How will this one-time payment help? And the government has not taken into account people who are not registered. The pandemic is not the first, and it’s not going to be the last disaster that is going to impact people living in the mountain areas. Disasters related to climate change are already on the rise. If we talk about sustainable mountain tourism, then the primary task is to find permanent solutions to at least some of the problems faced by people living in the mountains who are associated with the travel and tourism industry so that an unprecedented event like a pandemic does not empty their bank accounts. The government has talked about sustainable mountain tourism but has never shared what concrete steps it plans to take,” said Pandey.
Himachal Pradesh: Reaching out to shepherds, artisans
“Total nuksaan ho gaya. Business hi thapp ho gaya (We suffered massive losses. Our business went bust),” said Sukhbir Singh, who runs a manufacturing unit and a store in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. Singh, like many others in the state, is a part of the small-scale industries that manufacture and sell the world-acclaimed Pashmina shawls.
Pashmina refers to animal-hair fibre forming the downy undercoat of a domesticated variety of goat called the Changthangi goat. These goats used for pashmina shed their winter coat every spring. One goat sheds approximately 80–170 grams of the fibre. These goats provide the wool for Kashmir’s famous Pashmina shawls that commands huge demand worldwide.
If you visit the northeren region of Himachal Pradesh; in particular the cold desert mountains of Spiti and a few remote villages in the mountain regions of Lahaul and Chamba districts, you will come across many nomadic shepherd tribes who herd sheep and goats and move from one place to the other. The pashmina wool used in manufacturing units in the state also comes from these shepherds.
However, since the 2020 pandemic, the entire end-to-end chain of Pashmina manufacturers and sellers has got affected. “Our artisans who used to weave Pashmina shawls are mostly from Nepal and other remote villages of Himachal. They went back to their native places just ahead of the 2020 lockdown and have not returned since then. In the absence of these artisans, manufacturing of handmade shawls came to a standstill and because of fewer tourists, the business has got affected,” said Singh.
The Pashmina shawls manufactured in Himachal are also exported. “Our business is not entirely dependent on the incoming tourists. Usually, the machine-manufactured shawls are exported and the ones that are weaved by local artisans are sold in the domestic market. However, the lockdowns affected both the business avenues and we are staring at huge losses,” said Gurcharan Singh, a manufacturer of Pashmina shawls, who has his manufacturing unit in the Bashing village on the Kullu-Manali highway.
He added: “Every manufacturing unit has 30-35 artisans and not all owners could afford to give salaries during the pandemic. In the organized and unorganized sector, nearly 12,000 artisans are working in the state and the government has not given the artisans or manufacturers any compensation.”
In a welcome move, the Himachal Pradesh government announced in June 2020 that from 2021 fiscal, it will provide 638 goats of the Changthangi and Chegu breeds to families in the Pashmina producing snow-bound areas in Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts and Pangi in Chamba district under the National Livestock Mission. Under the mission, 29 units, each comprising 10 does and one buck of both Changthangi and Chegu species will be provided.
Each unit will cost Rs 70,000. Ninety per cent cost will be borne by the Central government, while the state and the beneficiary will share the remaining cost in equal proportion. The hill state records about 1,000 kg Pashmina wool production annually at present and aims to double it in next five years.
“This won’t solve all our problems, but it’s a good move. Presently, we are importing Pashmina wool from Kashmir, which is costly. This way we can buy wool from Himachal, save that cost and manufacture more Pashmina products, or pay our artisans more,” said Singh.
One of the aspects of sustainable mountain tourism is that it is a way to preserve and promote local art, crafts and high-value products. The state government’s planned move to boost Pashmina wool production in the state will help people in the mountain regions of Himachal who are into Pashmina business, including the shepherds who fall under below the poverty line (BPL) category.
“When tourism started booming, local people, irrespective of what their original professions were, switched to the tourism industry. I know for a fact that many Pashmina artisans switched to tourism because they were not earning enough. It’s a good sign that the government is now also thinking about the forgotten lot, like the shepherds or Pashmina artisans. This is also one way of sustaining mountain tourism,” said Jitendra Bharadwaj, who is associated with the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC).
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