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How women are guiding change in Munsiari

Tourism helped the women of this Uttarakhand region earn a living. The pandemic has forced them to look deeper, at farming practices and ecology

Pushpa Sumtiyal, a home-stay owner with the Munsiari-based community tourism organisation Himalayan Ark. (Trilok Singh Rana)

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I don’t mind the household work—cooking, cleaning, raising kids. But my soul is made for walking in these mountains,” says Pushpa Sumtiyal, gazing at the snow-capped mountains that stretch out before us. A pair of binoculars dangle from her shoulder; her mud-spattered sports shoes contrast with her salwar-kameez. A backpack slung over her back, she walks uphill, on the ridges of Thamari Kund in the Munsiari district of Uttarakhand, with the ease of one who has grown up in these mountains, while I huff and puff along.

Just a couple of hours earlier, the two of us had hitched a ride to the starting point of our hike. Soon we were walking amid old teak forests. Scarlet red rhododendrons breathed life into the landscape. The air smelt like spring. From the edge of the ridge, we could spot tiny villages deep in the valley below, framed by the five snow-clad Panchachuli peaks.

On a quiet hill, we stopped to rest. Sumtiyal whipped out a steel kettle from her backpack and began gathering twigs to start a fire. By the time the kettle was hissing, we were deep in conversation about our shared love for the outdoors. As clouds began to descend on the white peaks, I couldn’t help but marvel at the rarity of hiking with a female high-altitude guide in rural India.

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This was in the pre-pandemic era, for Sumtiyal’s journey began in 2004, when she became a home-stay owner with the Munsiari-based community tourism organisation Himalayan Ark. Malika Virdi, its founder-director, tells me that in outdoor workshops on high-altitude safety, snowcraft and rock climbing, Sumtiyal, now 37, was the one with the “most passion, fitness and willingness to push herself”. Eventually, she enrolled in Mussoorie’s Hanifl Centre for a 15-day trek leader course.

The daughter of a bakriwal (shepherd), Sumtiyal confesses that if she had been a boy, she would have wandered the alpine trails of the Gori Valley with her father and his herd of sheep. “Back then, only men had access to an income,” says Sumtiyal. But as part of a group of home-stay owners and guides, she began earning an independent living walking the mountains she loves.

When I reconnect with her during the pandemic, she tells me covid-19 and the tourism shutdown sent her into panic mode. She feared she wouldn’t be able to pay for her son’s college or repay the loan for her home-stay. But Himalayan Ark’s network of home-stay owners and guides recalibrated quickly to focus on their agrarian economy and digital upskilling. “If I was navigating it alone, I don’t know what I would have done,” she confesses.

Malika Virdi, founder-director of Himalayan Ark.
Malika Virdi, founder-director of Himalayan Ark. (E Theophilus)

It has forced them to reassess the impact of tourism on mountain ecology and focus on setting up vegetable and forest nurseries for other sources of income. Today, as tourists begin to return, they are in the midst of a tourism carrying capacity study.

How it began

It was the compelling beauty of these mountains that first drew mountaineer and women’s rights advocate Malika Virdi to Sarmoli, a remote, picturesque village in Munsiari tehsil, close to the India-Nepal-Tibet trijunction in the Greater Himalayan region’s Gori Valley. That was 1992, long before tags such as #workfromthemountains.

“I wanted to live closer to the land and build a long-term connection with the people,” recalls Virdi, who had helped raise awareness about dowry deaths through campaigns and street plays in Delhi in the 1980s and spent four years working on women’s health and food security in rural Rajasthan. She wanted a base where she could become “part of the social fabric”. In the early 1990s, hers became one of the earliest voices from the Munsiari region to speak up against domestic violence—inspiring many others, and joining forces with the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch in the mid-1990s and the women’s collective Maati Sangathan by 2000.

By 2003, Virdi had been elected sarpanch of the Sarmoli Jainti Van Panchayat, focused on sustainable management of the forest commons in Uttarakhand. She was quick to realise that desperate dependence on the forest didn’t lend itself to conservation.

“That’s when the idea of establishing community-owned home-stays came about. We weren’t approaching it from the tourism perspective, but with the goal of linking conservation with livelihoods,” Virdi has been telling me. By 2019, Himalayan Ark, set up in 2004, had brought together 20 women-led home-stays, in the villages of Sarmoli, Shakhadhura and Nanasim, as well as 25 guides trained in birding, culture, farming, natural history and high-altitude trekking. Just over half of them were women.

Indeed, in all my travels, I can count on my fingers the number of times I have hiked with a female guide.

In most mountain villages, women are expected to fulfil the roles of daughters, wives and mothers. They seldom, if ever, hold the land rights to their homes, regardless of their economic or physical contribution to the household.

Himalayan Ark, though, tried consciously to link the identity of each homestay to the family member who toils behind the scenes—the woman. As this source of income gained strength, men began assisting their wives in home-stay operations, charging 1,000-1,500 per room, typically from spring to autumn. Earlier, says Virdi, “the only options were daily wage labour and wool crafts”.

Sumtiyal recalls “feeling nervous about having outsiders in her house” and “being vulnerable to their expectations”. But the additional income changed their lives. Indeed, several studies have documented the impact of financial freedom for rural women—it has a positive impact on the education of their children, and, consequently, creates more economic opportunities for the younger generation.

The Striated Laughingthrush.
The Striated Laughingthrush. (Trilok Singh Rana)

“When I first began hosting travellers, I was very apprehensive about how they would feel about our food, culture and way of life,” Sumtiyal says. “I worried whether they would like my humble house and guest room. How would I communicate with guests from other countries? But over time I met good people, made many friends and learnt how to deal with those who don’t appreciate what we have to offer.”

Since the inception of community-based tourism in her village—a voluntary fee of 5% goes towards community development, 2% to the van panchayat (conservation) and 3% to a fund that offers interest-free loans for community members to upgrade home-stays—she has pushed boundaries once considered impossible for a Bhotiya woman. Every summer, she would compete with men during the “Khaliya Challenge”, a gruelling marathon to the alpine meadow of Khaliya Top, with an altitude gain of 8,000ft over 20km. She has done overnight treks—breaking the rules of what’s considered acceptable for a married woman and mother in these parts. For Virdi, the indirect benefit of conservation-focused tourism is even more crucial than the financial benefits it brings. “It has instilled a sense of pride in our natural and cultural heritage,” she says.

Rich heritage

That cultural heritage is what first drew me to Sarmoli in the summer of 2016. Every year, the local community would come together for the week-long Himal Kalasutra festival. The days were filled with birdwatching trips, meditative yoga, digital workshops and sports like ultimate frisbee. This would culminate in the more traditional Mesar Mela, featuring folk music and dance, local food and crafts, and an afternoon of revelry. None of the festivities was driven by tourism, though travellers were welcome to join.

I was lucky enough to witness the excitement leading up to Himal Kalasutra in that year, sitting in on village meetings under the majestic deodar tree in the centre of Sarmoli. I joined half the village in tadasana as the Panchachuli peaks watched over us. With binoculars and bird books, we traversed the trails in search of endemic and migratory birds. In addition to traditional Kumaoni fare, we cooked pasta in a handi over an open fire, with wild oregano gathered from the forest.

As a travel writer, my mind was full of stories I could share with the outside world about these villages in Munsiari. But then it struck me that they could reach out on Instagram. Thus began @VoicesofMunsiari, the first and only Instagram channel in India run entirely by a village community. It started with a handful of young Sarmoli residents, a couple of shared smartphones and a basic Instagram tutorial. The goal was to enable rural storytellers to share their stories directly.

Their enthusiasm inspired me to crowd-source 10 smartphones through my travel blog. In 2017, a professional photography and Instagram workshop became part of the Himal Kalasutra line-up. Besides young adults, the majority of participants were local women, eager to share virtually the culture, natural beauty, bird and butterfly life of their backyard. The sense of pride and confidence instilled by hosting travellers from across the country, and the world, slowly began to trickle on to Instagram—and continues to do so today, with 7,500-plus followers eager to keep up with life in the mountain community.

No longer did the youth have to migrate to cities in search of jobs and the urban life. “Distress migration is a rarity in Sarmoli now,” says Virdi, who believes young people shouldn’t have to leave their village in desperation. When visitors choose to stay in community-owned home-stays, they send a social signal that rural life—with its intimacy with nature, low environmental footprint and food security—is an aspirational way of life.

The life trajectory of young girls who grow up in mountain villages even more remote and economically distressed than Sarmoli typically involves early marriage, children, and menial jobs considered “suitable for women”. But just a few months before the pandemic, in late 2019, a handful of young women, aged 18-23, from remote villages in the Gori Valley signed up to join Himalayan Ark’s alpine guide training camp, hoping to earn a livelihood through tourism, like their counterparts in Sarmoli.

Covid-19 and the future

In March 2020, however, covid-19 shook up the world—and Munsiari’s gentle rhythm. Those associated with tourism lost their livelihoods overnight. Some of its residents returned from the cities. Home-stay owners and guides found themselves without an income—but not without their collective strength. “When you live in the mountains, you agree to the fragility of life,” Virdi told me in a Zoom call in 2021, citing the many natural disasters Uttarakhand faces every monsoon. The pandemic offered an opportunity to invest in things that had been on the back burner.

Many in the community were drawn again to agriculture and Himal Prakriti, a trust set up by Virdi in conjunction with Himalayan Ark, supported the building of hoop houses (similar to greenhouses but made with locally available GI pipes), along with vegetable and forest nurseries managed by women, to enable long-term food security.

Pasta being cooked in a ‘handi’.
Pasta being cooked in a ‘handi’. (Shivya Nath)

“In retrospect,” says Virdi, “the pandemic came as a reminder that tourism was only a subset of Munsiari’s rural life.” Beautiful though travel can be through its shared friendships and empowerment, the slowdown made its negative externalities feel starker. In the chaotic Munsiari bazaar, for instance, typically bustling with locals and tourists and shops selling food and wares in single-use plastic, waste generation fell to an all-time low. Shops only sold essentials and people only bought essentials, with many more consuming home-grown produce. This has prompted Himalayan Ark to undertake a tourism carrying capacity study—currently in progress—to assess the threshold beyond which tourism becomes a burden on local resources.

As tourism slowly begins to return, home-stay owners and guides in the villages of Munsiari tehsil are hopeful about their tourism-linked incomes bouncing back too. In a recent WhatsApp call, Sumtiyal tells me she “sorely misses guiding people along the forest and mountain trails, building friendships that often last beyond their trip”.

As a community, though, they are also acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead: the uncertainty of the pandemic, unregulated mass tourism infringing on their natural resources, and the impact of climate change. Interdependence has long been a way of life in agrarian mountain societies, and it will be more important than ever in the foreseeable future. In Virdi’s words, “When you are together in a storm, you weather it much better than when you are alone.”

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FORGING A NEW TRAIL

Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company, Ladakh: Thinlas Chorol became the first Ladakhi woman to train as a trekking guide in 2003 and has led several treks across the Himalaya. To bring more mountain women into the outdoor adventure space, she set up the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company (LWTC) in 2009, the first travel organisation in Ladakh owned and run by local women.

Open Eyes Project, Delhi: The Open Eyes Project, founded by social entrepreneur Anna Alaman in 2011, tries to create opportunities for women from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds. Exploring old neighbourhoods and cultural treasures with female guides and drivers is a great way to uncover the Capital’s layers.

Preserve Alleppey Society, Kerala: In 2000, the Lion’s Ladies Club of Alleppey started this society to manage the town’s heritage. They have 15 trained guides, offer meals in local homes, and organise cooking classes. Funds generated through tourism have been channelled into cleaning drives, garbage collection systems, women’s self-help groups, training courses for female guides and restoration of old buildings.

Astrostays, Ladakh: Astrostays, founded by Sonal Asgotraa in 2019, has home-stays in remote villages that offer the rare luxury of a clear night sky. Female local guides, equipped with telescopes and the knowledge of stars, constellations and the Milky Way, promise to take urban travellers into a magical universe spared the ill-effects of air and light pollution.

Shivya Nath runs the award-winning travel blog The Shooting Star and is the author of a travel memoir. She advocates purpose-driven travel, consults tourism businesses on their environmental and social impact goals, and can be found on Instagram / Twitter @shivya.

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