She gave up city life to transform lives at 10,000 feet high
Ishita Khanna’s remarkable efforts towards promoting green economy and ecotourism in the spartan Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh is nothing short of magic.
Located at an altitude of at least 10,000 feet above the sea level, the Spiti Valley is as daunting as it is stunning. It snows half the year here — but this region with poor connectivity and harsh life conditions has become not just a model study for sustainable development but an ecotourism hotspot also.
Leading the path of the Spiti success story is Ishita Khanna and Ecosphere, the social initiative she helped co-found. Identifying the rich environmental and economic potential of these Himalayan highlands and the compelling need to sustain it, Ishita began working here around 2002.
What makes the project Spiti Ecosphere distinct is their association with far flung villages of Lahaul and Spiti to create alternative and sustainable modes of employment for native communities. It began with the conservation and promotion of seabuckthorn or the ‘Wonder Berry’ – a region-specific medicinal fruit rich in nutrients – that somehow had remained unfamiliar to the locals. With required training and mobilisation, its growth potential was soon realized with many families taking to berry cultivation in no time.
The impetus of economic empowerment and ownership of their resources has resulted in the strategy being replicated on other crops with local women leading the workforce. And in order to make up for the lack of conventional resources, the team has successfully been working with green houses. This means the community stays self-reliant with its own food supply during winters when the area is cut off from the rest of the world.
The entrepreneurship drive isn’t limited to farming. Ishita and her team are also involved in promotion of art, handicrafts and tourism. Given the limited infrastructure and function period, Ecosphere is making the most the time when this Himalayan wonder is open to outside world. Tourists, in batches, are hosted into the homestay program run by locals on a rotational basis. Travellers, on the other hand, aren’t just introduced to this isolated idyll but learn about ecological conservation during a bunch of activities like trekking, river rafting and safaris.
Ecosphere’s solar-passive housing project has done remarkably well with at least 500 houses benefitting from it along with several monastaries and nunneries. A cheap, viable and renewable source of energy, the solar technology has reduced the threat of climatic degradation by a substantial measure.
If everything that Ishita Khanna has worked on in Spiti in all these years sounds incredible, this Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai) alumna is now in the process of building a solar water station. A mammoth project that it is, it will significantly reduce the burden of procuring potable water from faraway sources.
Regarded as one of India’s prominent social entrepreneurs, Ishita Khanna has been working extensively on natural resource management. Prior to founding Ecosphere, this Dehradun girl had worked with rural development organization CAPART. She is also an Ashoka Fellow.