Please tell us about yourself
Growing up, while sitting in a classroom at Wellham’s Girls school, Ishita would often dream about adventure at her doorstep. The sheer thrill of climbing mountains, the cool air of the meadows and the rolling hills outside the city of Dehradun where she lived meant much more to her than most others the same age.
Ishita was born and raised in Dehradun. From an early age, her mother would encourage her to be independent and discover the outdoors. She would set out to trek in the mountains – savouring the many joys of the journey alongside a gradual sensitization towards nature’s fragile resources that coexisted delicately alongside various forms of life.
“My various treks in the Himalayas brought in a great reverence for the mountains,” recalls Ishita vividly. Not inclined towards a conventional career, Ishita fondly remembers how the family backed her in her efforts to pursue her passion without burdening her with academic pressures. She came to Mumbai for a master’s in social work at TISS, a program that exposed her to various development and conservation needs and issues.
The professional program lent her a better understanding of the various social dynamics and development issues and thus gave her wider career options. However, Ishita chose to work close to her place of passion – in the mountains. She joined an organization and began to work on projects with the Himachal government.
A couple of years went by, and she was getting impatient with the ways of government functioning and this apathy finally got to her. One day, she walked out and along with two of her friends plunged into an independent venture, one that Ishita remembers came out of a shared passion for the mountains.
The team began to look into various development and environmental issues in the mountains of Spiti. They explored the commercial viability of seabuckthorn – a berry found in these parts – and then discovered other more sustainable areas of businesses. Efforts in areas such as eco-tourism ensured they survived to sustain their passion.
The Spiti Valley is an unforgiving, arid region situated at about 10,000 to 17,000 feet above sea level where a misdirected winter vacation can land you with the rare experience of living inside the deep- freezer of a refrigerator at minus 30 degrees.
Heavy snowfall leaves the region separated from the rest of the country in a silent breakaway, without any insurgent efforts, for over half the year. The government has subsidized basic goods and services which are available for 50% of the price. The local communities have grown used to the subsidies and recent years have sometimes seen crops fail here. Ishita, through her organization Ecosphere, has worked towards improving environmental management in these villages. She has been on a mission, trying to make the local communities self sufficient and less dependent on subsidies and government handouts.
Ecosphere has been collaborating with other organizations in the region. Ishita has made substantial efforts to grow crops through greenhouses, introduced responsible travel for tourists and persuaded the locals to understand the perils of neglecting the environment.
Ishita has been exploring renewable energy options and solar passive homes and has been smart with communicating her ideas to the locals. She tells people how they can economically benefit from these new options whenever she has struggled to make them see reason. One of the interesting features of her work has been the way she has managed to connect with a host of diverse people – the locals, their issues and also the tourists and others who form an important part of her business and social clientele.
In 2008 Ishita was the MTV Youth Icon of the year for her work. At 29, Ishita has achieved what many people aspire to in their lifetime. A matured head on firm shoulders has also meant an unwavering commitment towards her passion. Ishita has not only worked successfully in these difficult areas, but she has connected with her passion, sustained her interests and converted it to benefit a region that had been lost in the wilderness.
When Ishita spoke to 6bridges, we were curious to know how she had sustained her yen for what she does. Despite the physical and economic hazards in her line of work, Ishita has indeed been one of those professionals who have been able to grow, live and sustain their passionate interests over the years.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Ishita: I grew up in Dehradun and studied at Wellhams Girls School. I wasn’t much for studies as such and was usually a backbencher at school. I can say that academics was something I wasn’t really interested in and most of my teachers and parents were worried as to what this girl would do when she grows up. I used to like going outside – do the outdoors and trekking – like going to the mountains and stuff.
That was where my interests began basically for the mountains and for the environment. My treks in the mountains brought me close to the natural environment there. Since the only subject that got me interested initially was geography; I wanted to know more about the environment and nature.
I wasn’t like one of those students who know knew in class VIII what they were going to do when they grew up – like become a doctor or an engineer etc.. That’s how it began – I was more of an outdoor kind of a person – a prefect for the adventure club, and I had done my adventure basic and advanced courses at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering.
I also did a Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, which is now called the International Award for Youth. I found that that was really good because apart from academics it helped you excel in other fields – you had to work on the skills, work on some amount of community service, you had to play some sort of a sport which you were good at, you had to have some expeditions which you had done. It had a holistic focus, unlike the usual focus on academic alone like most schools have.
That really helped me try and excel in the particular things I was interested in. Anyway that was how my schooling happened. Late, I graduated with a bachelor’s in geography, like I said that was the only subject that interested me in school, and I wanted to more get into environmental planning side. In the interim, I got through TISS. That was a course that interested me and I felt that there could be a linkage between looking at rural livelihood and how one could link it up to the conservation of the environment. So I specialized in the field called Urban and Rural community development at TISS.
6bridges: When and how did it occur to you that you might work in the mountains some day?
Ishita: Well it was something I always wanted to do. I grew up in Dehradun which is close to the mountains. I always loved trekking and being in the mountains. I always wanted to be there – in the mountains.
6bridges: Ecosphere grew from the work initiated by Muse, an organization founded individuals with a passion for the mountains and the environment. It now collaborates with Muse. Tell us how it was formed?
Ishita: I started Muse in 2002. Before that I was working with the government at Simla and we tried to push it with the government to try and work on this plant called seabuckthorn which is a berry that grows there. But you know how the government works, which is at their own pace. There had been some research done on seabuckthorn and there was one scientist working there who declared the seabuckthorn to be a species that could not be commercialized.
In China there had been a lot of work on the commercialization of seabuckthorn, and then the Indian government picked up on that and wondered if they could do something with the seabuckthorn that grew here. That’s when the scientist got up and said that it was the wrong species to be commercialized.
But the same year in which we discovered about this plant we got to know that an industrialist in Ladakh had started the lehberry juice with the plant. He had used the berry to make juice out of it and it took some time to get it out into the market. So, it was the right species because he was commercially exploiting it as well. We tried to push the case with the government but nothing really took of. So, a group of us decided that why don’t we do it ourselves. All three of us were greatly passionate about traveling and being in the mountains and stuff. There was this friend of ours in Australia who also wanted come back and do something in the mountains. So we called him and the three of us started this. It was a result of a mix of our common interests and the experience we had with the government that led to our starting this journey.
6bridges:So you moved from TISS and worked with the Himachal government for sometime. Tell us about that.
Ishita: I worked with this agency called KAPAAT, where I got a campus placement after TISS. I worked with them for about 2 years. In the organization I was based in their eastern centre in Chandigarh and from there I went and worked with the Himachal government, with whom they had a tie- up. So I went to work with the Himachal rural development department through them. Then something got going and there was a huge project funded for Himachal government. It was the first foreign funded project for rural development. It was basically on linking women’s livelihood to environment conservation: so it was environment conservation through women’s groups.
I was made in charge of the implementation of that but then it was so frustrating because for one year, they didn’t release any funds, and it just remained in the files. So, after a point in time, you wonder what you are going to talk to the communities about – that we must do this activity but I don’t know why the government is taking so long to release these funds. So that was really frustrating. And that’s why we didn’t see a point in continuing in this field with the government. That’s how we started our thing!
6bridges: How difficult was the decision to move to Spiti? Were there any moments, conversations or events that acted as a trigger? Was it too difficult a choice at that time?
Ishita: We were all young and passionate at that point of time and you don’t really plan too much when you are young and passionate about things. You jump into it and know everything will fall into place, and you don’t think too much. I did it then, but if I had done it now I would have thought about it and made a business plan etc and would have never gone down to doing it. So, it kind of… what the hell lets just do it!
6bridges: How did people around react to your decision of starting a non-profit in a remote area?
Ishita: Most people were a bit shocked why we wanted to go there. Especially, since it was a far flung area with such limited access. I think that was a worry like ‘whats wrong with you…have you guys lost it completely!’ But then all of us were so independent that we didn’t think much of what our families had to say to us. We just wanted to go ahead and do it.
6bridges: What were the initial challenges when you started– you faced setbacks including Parikshit at an early stage. How did you cope with the initial challenges at that time?
Ishita: See, initially one if the main challenges was to get the people together to start working on it A lot of stuff had been done on seabuckthorn in the beginning and they tried to mobilize the community at that point in time and then it was sort of left midway.
It was a challenge to get the community on our side. It was simple in that sense because when we first went to Spiti and asked whom should we speak to in the community out there, they said there was a ‘No-No’ out there who was the king of Spiti. So the first thing we did when we went to Spiti was meet with him and discuss the ideas. He was a very genuine and down to earth kind of a person who really wanted to do something for his place as well. He had known about seabuckthorn and wanted to do something on it. He said that he would support us completely. So we got his support right from the start, because we didn’t have any money with us at that time. We were lucky to get a project funded by a German funding agency.
We got it by chance since we happened to be there at the right time and place. They had to get rid of their money and they found us and said okay, which is a rare happening! But we didn’t have any money to pay them for the berries that they were harvesting. We got a small amount from them and just had enough money to set up the processing facilities for this.
So we had to sell the pulp. The idea was to pulp the berries and sell it to the berry person. So once you got the money from him, you were able to pay the communities. It was quite a laughing matter and everyone was making fun of us that we were working with women in five villages and not getting paid for the work we were doing. People wondered if we had lost it completely! But we said we trust the No- No and so we’ll do this. So that was a major challenge at that time.
The other thing was that none of us had any background in food processing, and so we had to learn from scratch. Things like how do you make the pulp, preserve it, transport it and prevent it from going bad. Seabuckthorn is a berry on which not much research has gone into it. It has got lots of medicinal benefits but it also has a short shelf life. The berry once harvested has to be pulped in four hours flat. These were some of the challenges in terms of technical aspects.
6bridges: How long did this period of challenges last?
Ishita: There have been challenges all along. We don’t really have the background for the kind of stuff we are doing. Right now, we are working on climate change issues and renewable energy. So we are constantly grappling with newer issues and things which are not really in our fields of specialization. So either you overcome the challenges through partnerships with people who do have knowledge of that or you figure out ways to try and teach yourself.
6bridges: You start with a certain plan and objective and over time that evolves and develops. How has the idea evolved in your case. You started with seabuckthorn and now you are doing a lot more for that area.
Ishita: Initially when we started working in Spiti we thought we will work for one or two years and once we are successful we’ll do something else. But once you are there you always come up with other issues that you feel should be addressed. So initially when we started working on seabuckthorn, it was just about this particular berry and nothing else. In 2004 there were these group of people who came in from Snow Leopard conservancy who came looking for partners in tourism and snow leopard conservation.
They found out that we were working in Spiti and were keen to partner with us. We were also interested and were keen to look at some of the tourism issues in the valley. During my masters, I had done a dissertation on the impact of tourism on the ecological, social and cultural environment of an area. That was something we were looking at. Tourism was building up in the area but no revenue was actually staying within Spiti. All that was left about was garbage and the regular consequences of tourism. So we wanted to look at how the locals could benefit from tourism more.
We did a survey with the travelers as well and one of the feedback we gathered from them was that they weren’t really getting an insight into the local culture – something which they really wanted to. They wanted to stay with the locals and see how they live and what they do. That’s when we started working on homestays and also began working on tourism related things – like how livelihood could be benefited and how could we link various conservation issues to tourism.
Our objective from the start has been that if you are able to link economics to conservation, that’s the only way people will start showing interest in it. That’s the reason also we started with seabuckthorn, not because it has some great medicinal value and hence economic potential, but more so because it is very good for the ecology of the area and it binds the soil and fixes nitrogen. So for a cold desert it’s a really good plant to have, especially along the river beds where a huge amount of soil erosion that happens there.
6bridges: Women have been generally constituted the workforce in these parts. After you started encouraging local entrepreneurship here, did you manage to get the men onboard?
Ishita: If you see, in most of the hill areas, women do most of the work. Right from the start we were looking to channelise more funds and generate more incomes. The men would have never even come forward to doing this. That’s because it a very difficult plant to harvest.
It’s very thorny and you have to go to the fields early in the morning to harvest it. It’s a very tedious process actually to harvest it. In fact, one of the huge groups in Spiti came forward and said they wanted to do it because there seemed to be a good amount of money in it. They tried for a few days and then they gave up. It was hard for them. But the women are persevering and they continued. Also, because they don’t have too many sources of alternate income for themselves. It caused a lot of issues in the families.
That’s because in the 2-3 weeks seabuckthorn season, they would go off early in the mornings to harvest the berry and there would be no one to look after the family. The husband would have to get up and look after the family in the morning and run the risk of people saying, “Oh God our women are not here, what are you people doing?” Women in Spiti are on the whole are outgoing and quite vocal.
6bridges: So did you manage to change the gender demographics of entrepreneurship in the area?
Ishita: I won’t say it had a huge impact. I would think that women in Spiti are fairly liberated. That didn’t affect that part as such.
6bridges: When you started out, social entrepreneurship was not a common occurrence in India. Besides, you were planning to work in at a place that was poorly connected and had its own challenges. Were you apprehensive at any time?
Ishita: It slowly started to grow like a social entrepreneurship model. We started off like a typical NGO – you receive funds and then you work with what you got. After sometime it got really frustrating working like that. You go to the funding agencies with a begging bowl asking for money so that we can slog ourselves to work in Spiti. There are not many benefits you get out of it but the attitude you get from them is something you wouldn’t want to take, and also they have their own agendas all the time that we’ll only fund this and we’ll only fund that etc.
We said that doesn’t fit into the context of Spiti at all. Also we wondered how long could we carry on like this. We talk about sustainability but what about the sustainability of the organization. If you want to continue working on the projects and provide greenhouses and solar passive houses to the people, you can’t to do that if you cannot sustain yourself. That’s why slowly transitioned from an NGO model to a social entrepreneurship one.
Also, the other thing we realized over a period was that though in the initial stages we got the local communities to do the marketing, we felt later that after a point in time, they couldn’t do that. That’s because they didn’t have any idea of market dynamics at the international level or even the dynamics in the urban centres. Therefore, they were never going to be able to reach that level. They were already occupied with the stuff they were doing for their own livelihood. So to expect them to market it would have been a bit hard. Not that it’s not possible, but it’s very hard. That’s when we felt we could help them with the marketing side of it.
6bridges: And you tried talking to the hotels and tourist agents earlier but they resisted the home stay models as it impacted their own revenue models. Is that when you had to go out and market yourself?
Ishita: Yeah, it was by default that we got into the marketing the tourism stuff and now its reached a level where travelers come to us and say that we want everything. We tell them, “Ok we will organize everything for you.” So it has moved into tourism since there is a market demand for that and so slowly it has transitioned into that as we felt that the communities couldn’t really do these things.
6bridges: So is your revenue model woven around seabuckthorn, marketing local products like handicrafts etc and ecotourism?
Ishita: See, the main revenue comes from tourism. The seabuckthorn has been a real challenge, that’s the first project we started on and yet it’s not been sustainable on its own. There has been huge politics in the seabuckthorn market. There was a lot of politics involved. Sometime back Chinese pulp started coming in, and the seabuckthorn market has been very unstable. We had to transition from just selling pulp to the lehberry person because he started getting pulp from China. Then we had to transition into making our own products and then we were struggling to get our products into the market. So, I mean it’s has been quite a struggle for us to get this seabuckthorn thing completely sustainable. It’s not very easy since people are not aware of seabuckthorn, its very sour and has a very short shelf life. We’ve had huge issues with seabuckthorn actually. The enterprise is right now supported largely by ecotourism.
6bridges: What should professionals keep in mind before taking the plunge into social entrepreneurship? What is the right kind of experience needed to work in this area?
Ishita: I would tell you from my experience that if we had given it a deep thought, we might have never landed up doing it. I would go against the normal thing of planning and thinking far too deeply. I believe a lot of it depends on the passion quotient. If you have the passion for doing something, you will make it work it hook or by crook.
Like if you’re going to think if I will get money or not, is my business plan breaking in 3-5 years or how am I going to sustain it etc…I mean we guys didn’t work on salaries for about two years, so maybe our model isn’t maybe the most appropriate one to go by. It was just that we wanted to do this, were passionate about it and so we landed up doing this! Whether other people would do this or whether this model is replicable – there are big question marks over those things.
6bridges: How have your experiences and interactions with the people in and around Spiti had an influence on how you look at life and the world?
Ishita: Spiti has very harsh conditions. So living there reminds you how limited our resources are, and how consumptive our urban lifestyles are. We just take everything so much for granted. These are all non- renewable resources like water etc. I have seen the way these people live and realized how hard life here in Spiti is. Like how hard it is to get water or get that one crop.
You realize how life is significantly dependent upon the environment or how delicate the ecological balance is. For instance if the snowfall doesn’t happen at the right time, it’s a drought year for them. Sitting in urban centers it doesn’t affect us since in those places everything is provided for, and so we don’t think of these things. So these are some of the things that I was influenced by.
6bridges: What are the challenges you have faced in trying to overturn conventional practices about self reliance and sustainability? How much of a mental change towards sustainability have you achieved?
Ishita: At the end of the day, its dictated by economics. Nobody really understands environment. They say, “Isme hamara kya faida hai.” So its simple – if they are to profit from it, they will do it, otherwise they won’t. There is a notion that communities look at long-term sustainability. I haven’t seen that very evidently. Instead, they look at immediate benefits and how much of it they are reaping from work. Its like, “If I am getting a lakh to do this, I will do it. If I am not getting a lakh to do this, to hell with it then.” Societies have become so materialistic over the years that economics is now the most crucial thing.
If they don’t see economic incentive or savings in what they are doing, there is no way people will do it. The only reason that the solar passive houses we promote, have been successful is because it cuts down the expenses and enables the people here to save money. Not that they care about the amount of carbon that is being emitted into the air. We tried showing them the correlation about the black carbon that gets released and then returns to settle on the glaciers and serves to deplete them (the glaciers) further. It did have an effect on them, and they have digested that cycle and sort of understood it. But still, they believe that such a cycle would take very long and they look at the immediate needs more. So, they look at immediate gains and losses more.
6bridges: Your mom encouraged you to trek outdoors at an early age and you spent some time with your grandmother who was a British nurse in World War II. How has your family been an influence?
Ishita: My family has been really supportive. We are two sisters, I have an elder sister, and therefore we have been brought up like sons in the family. My parents have always insisted that we have to stand on our feet and not be dependent on anyone. We were always brought up like that. And my grandmother did have a very large impact on me since she was there during all the formative years. We grew up with her basically. She was a very adventurous person, so I think I got a lot of inspiration from her. She had these great stories about how she came into World War II and how she worked as a nurse in Simla for sometime and then in Calcutta.
Then she got married to my grandfather. He was with the railways and they kept getting transferred to various places. Everywhere they went, they started a social project. My grandmother was posted in Chennai for a long time, where she and a friend of hers started a project which is still functional in a place called Madlapalli. The project is to do with health and children’s education and things like that.
I think I grew up with all these stories and so they were an inspiration to me.
6bridges: Do you want to replicate the model at Spiti elsewhere in the country where it might be useful, including the eco-tourism model?
Ishita: Our main focus has always been Spiti and maybe the neighboring areas around it. We have already started working in places like Lahaul and Kinnaur and we have partners in Ladakh doing similar things. Though this model can be replicated elsewhere, I would not like to be a physical part of such a project elsewhere. Instead I would be happy to partner other organizations, help with our inputs so that they learn and apply it in their areas. I don’t think I will physically locate myself elsewhere to create a similar model.
6bridges: At a young age, you have managed to achieve a lot of things. More importantly, you have managed to succeed in putting your passion into practice. Talking to you, What is the big dream that you dream of?
Ishita: Big dreams? No big dreams! Basically, I’d like to stabilize what I am doing right now. Right now me and my colleagues handle activities like marketing etc. We would like to hand over the ground level Spiti related activities to the local team. We are also looking at how we can expand and plan other initiatives in this area itself – which could include things like work on renewable energy, climate change and stuff. We are looking at ways how we can earn. We are also looking at WWF and the impact assessment of tourism in the area.
For past few years it has been increasing to quite an extent, and the negative impact is becoming more visible now. How we can look at the policy for Spiti which is an ecologically fragile area, and then look at policy implications for the government through that. So the issues we are looking at are Spiti-specific and the ecosphere and how it can address some of the negative impact of tourism in this area – like climate change and stuff.
So in terms of big dreams, there are no big dreams really! It is basically to see how we can enhance our initiatives focused on Spiti and maybe the neighbouring parts.
6bridges: So, do you spend a lot of time in Spiti, or how is it?
Ishita: I am mostly there in Spiti in the summer months April/May to October/November. Then I come down the hills since it gets very cold in Spiti. It goes down to about minus 30 degrees and there isn’t much you can do there. So, in that period, I am based in Delhi, Dehradun or travel around a lot the other time.
6bridges: What is that thing that has given you the most satisfaction in your work with Muse and Ecosphere?
Ishita: Personally, I feel there is a long way to go and there is a lot to be done really. Every day there are things that provide you a lot of satisfaction. Everyday there are things that provide you a lot of satisfaction. There are so many challenges – like the one on seabuckthorn. Overcoming a particular challenge is again a big satisfaction, and when you simplify it so that the local community can do it – that is also a big satisfaction. So there is no specific thing but all these things that we have being doing that have given me satisfaction. Overall, it includes activities that have an impact on the environment and help the local community through increasing their income or reducing expenses.
6bridges: How do you plan to make the local community to participate more? How do you plan to hand over the reins of activities to the local community?
Ishita: Right now our team consists of mostly locals. Its been a gradual transition where we have been trying to hand over operations to them. We have reached a stage where 50-60% of the work is handled by them at the local levels. So, though we have been wanting to hand over for a long time, we realized that it’s a much more gradual process than what we thought it would be.
Their capacities have been really low, and over the years their capacities have built up and now we get shocked at how fast they are at picking up things. But yeah, you have to give it a lot of time and effort.
6bridges: How can somebody who wishes to help Ecosphere and its cause make a contribution?
Ishita: There are various ways in which people can get involved. One of the ways is if you want to volunteer with us and if you have specific skill sets, then you can email us and we can see how we can use those skill sets.
6bridges: What specific skill sets are those?
Ishita: Like for instance, we need help in marketing. We need help in planning and business development and in putting simple things like posters or helping us in developing a guide books for Spiti like a green guide or green ratings and things like that which we are working on. So, it’s a wide array of things that one can work on. And we require volunteers for these things. The other way someone can help is – if you have a lot of money that you can donate.
The thing is that people generally do not like to donate their money because they aren’t sure how it is going to be spent. So, there is something called volunteer travel. You can travel here and work on the project if you want to, or you can donate money for the project. Volunteer travel is something we found to be very meaningful. You come to these areas as a traveler, work on a project and also contribute money towards it.
We have these volunteers who come and develop green houses. We are now linking it up with the tourism industry. We have got really good responses – not from the Indian market but from the UK market where volunteer travel is a big thing. They want to come and travel, but they also volunteer to do something meaningful. They come and work on a greenhouse project with us for 2 weeks, raise the money and work with the local communities to develop a greenhouse.
At the end of the day, they go back really satisfied that they have helped build a green house for the local community which is going to help them grow vegetables even during the winters when it is minus 20 degrees. No green vegetables grow in Spiti otherwise, and everything has to be brought in from Manali.
So there are added benefits of working on a project like this which we found to be much more meaningful – for them as well as for us too. But not everyone wants to do that since some people may not have the time. So there are different options for different people. We also say that you can simply come and travel as well since all the revenue we generate goes back to the development projects or conservation projects that we work on. So indirectly, a traveler helps contribute to the development projects by traveling with us rather than with a tour operator who just pockets all the money and takes it out of the local economy in any case.
6bridges: So, have you faced competition in that sense, from the local tour
Ishita: There are very few local tour operators in Spiti. I can count 2 such tour operators as such who usually they have tie-ups with tour operators in Manali and Delhi who send them the tourists, and who are the regular tour operators. Initially we found that the tour operators were not interested in any of the products like home stays or any of the other things. Now in Europe, responsible travel has become such a buzzword that clients now want to travel responsibly, which is also a problem since every other tour operator now claims he runs a responsible trip, which they don’t. Responsible also means you are paying fair wages.
According to us, responsible travel means much more. The problem now is of everyone claiming to be responsible. I think that’s something that always will happen in any industry whenever anything becomes a buzzword, everyone tries to follow and get onto the bandwagon. But that is something I guess we will have to deal with. Tourism is more of a word-of mouth kind of a thing. You can come here, travel, go back and suggest it to more people.
6bridges: Thanks Ishita, we think you are doing inspiring work that will motivate others to follow or contribute through volunteer travel and in other ways. We must also congratulate you on a very impressive website. The map depicted on the website has specific details and brings out your love for geography, we reckon!
Ishita: Well, thanks for the compliment and I guess people now know where Spiti is and that will help the cause of the region.