Episode #29. Read or Listen. Show notes (Edited)
Hi there, I’m Lalitha Krishnan and you’re listening to Season 4, Episode 29 of Heart of Conservation. I bring you stories from the wild that keep us all connected to our natural world.
It’s so easy to book a ticket and fly out to most destinations. But Imagine what it takes to make a place, especially a high-altitude desert in the Himalayas sitting at 11,980 ft viable for tourism. To be able to involve the community, to be constantly successful and get world recognition for it. I’m speaking to Ishita Khanna who manages to do just that. Ishita is a brave and humble hero in my books. One of the pioneers of responsible tourism in Spiti Ishita is better known as the co-founder of Spiti-Ecosphere, a multi-award* winning eco-tourism enterprise located in Kaza, in the Spiti & Lahaul district of Himachal Pradesh.
Having visited Spiti several times I am constantly drawn back. But obviously, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a go-to place. We all know revenge tourism is a thing right? But Is tourism taking a toll despite the best travel practices? That’s what I’m here to find out. Do check out the Spitiecosphere website for their diverse travel experiences. Now, let’s find out hows it’s done right.
Ishita welcome and Thank you so much Ishita for joining me on Heart of Conservation.
Ishita Khanna: It’s lovely to be here. Thank you, Lalitha for calling me
Lalitha Krishnan: Ishita, you have been in Spiti since2002 and the sea buckthorn of all things which is a superfood berry led you to Spiti the first time over 20 years ago and you’ve been there ever since. Tell us about that and how Ecosphere came to be.
Ishita Khanna: it’s been quite a journey. As you mentioned right now, I came in the year 2000 and I was working with the state government of Himachal Pradesh. At that point in time, I had come to assess one of their projects which is when I discovered this super berry-seabuckthorn. It had hardly been discovered then. There was very little research and work and I was really in awe. China had done lots of work on it and I felt India was losing out and there was so much that could be done as a livelihood source as well as…it’s got immense ecological as well as medical benefits. So that’s what really got me to Spiti and I started working here in 2002. That’s what started my whole journey to Spiti. I never really thought I’d be spending so many years here. But then, once you start living in a place, you start understanding the place, understanding the people, understanding the challenges that are faced there. One thing led to another and I’m still here 20 years hence.
Lalitha Krishnan: hard to imagine. It’s a long time but such a fruitful time. Ishita what was it like then and what has changed in terms of infrastructure and tourism?
Ishita Khanna: Spiti was a very, very remote valley when I first came here. In terms of road infrastructure, it was bare minimal. There were two access routes. One is via Simla and one is via Manali. The Shimla road was known as the world’s most dangerous route and the Manali to Spiti road is still perhaps the world’s worst road. It was very difficult to get into Spiti. It was easily a two to three-day journey from Delhi or Shimla just to get into Spiti. So as a result, because it was cut off in a remote part of Himachal, very few people knew about the existence of Spiti over 20 years ago. Now, of course, it’s on the tourist map and it’s on the radar of every traveller, every domestic traveller in India. But back then, very few people knew about Spiti when I first started working here. People thought it was a different country I was working in. Back then, there was no internet or hardly any phone connectivity. So yes, infrastructure was very limited so now, of course, 2o years hence a lot has changed. The Shimla road is a lot better so it’s slightly easy to come in and out. Slightly easier. Still takes quite a bit of time. And now, finally, we have internet in Spiti. Just came in 2021 almost 20 years hence. Working without the internet had been quite a challenge. So yes, a lot had changed. The tourism infrastructure has really developed in a large way. When I first came here, there was just one guest house in Kaza. Now there would be over 100 guest houses. And every house would be a homestay you know? So, a lot has changed since then.
Lalitha Krishnan: Do you see a difference in the type of tourists coming to Spiti? Especially post-pandemic?
Ishita Khanna: Yes, that’s something that has changed and I think anyone who is associated with tourism and is working in the tourism industry is now a bit baffled with the kind of tourists that are coming in. It has changed a lot, post-pandemic. Immediately after the 2nd wave, we had kind of like, revenge tourism coming in. People were kind of holed up in their houses for a long time so we had a lot of boy gangs coming in on a kind of revenge kind of a thing and of course, not the most culturally sensitive kind of tourists. Before COVID, we had very diverse kinds of tourists coming in. Now that has changed. So, we’re not getting the kind of tourists that we were getting earlier. So yes, we feel a huge change in the kind of traveller that comes in post-pandemic you know? The kind of diverse backpacker, the slow traveller that was there, both domestic and international pre covid has not picked up. It’s the packaged tourists. A foreign tourist is very very limited. They’re still wary of coming into India. It might pick up only in 2023. You know the quality backpackers, the European backpackers that come in, that haven’t picked up as yet. Even the domestic traveller..they’re more the really crunched up packages, fast-moving packages…eight days and six days.. and you cover the whole of Spiti kind of thing. So that’s the kind of traveller that’s coming in and unfortunately, not very culturally sensitive or really wanting to understand the place. It’s more about clicking selfies and posting on Instagram kind of.
Lalitha Krishnan: I think for international tourists, it’s also visas and the price of flight tickets has just escalated. Visas are not being issued. There is so much uncertainty for them to invest in a holiday where there’s no guarantee to even reach…now because things are just difficult.
Ishita Khanna: Yeah
What do you think tipped the scales for Ecosphere? What initiative or practice that you adopted made it such a success story?
Ishita Khanna: It’s been a journey and it’s been challenging over the years as well. You know we started as a typical NGO in terms of grants and donations coming in. Somewhere along the line, we realised that it’s not very sustainable. Especially when you’re working in a remote area like Spiti you know, to be dependent on an outside grant coming in? That’s when we started looking at a model of social enterprise. Where we can try and self-generate our income which would then go into projects that were a requirement and need in the area. Because, if you’re dependent on grants and donations coming in, then it’s often hard to find donations for things that are required on the ground. Everyone has certain specific areas that they want to support but that might not be a need or a requirement in Spiti.
So, that’s what led us to look at a social enterprise model which would then, you know, give us slight independence and sustainability. The first project that we worked on was the seabuckthorn and then we started looking at tourism. How could we ensure that the tourism coming into the valley could benefit the area and the local community you know? That it won’t go out and destroy the cultural heritage and the natural environment. So, we started looking at that and that’s when we developed homestays. Now of course the homestays have really picked up across Spiti and they are doing very well. And, they’ve become a direct source of income for the local community.
Usually, if you look at most tourist destinations, you’ll see guest houses coming up and it’s usually the richer person in the village who can afford that guest house. So you know, it just creates a larger divide between the people that have the money and the people that don’t. While for a homestay, you can just start a homestay, just a spare room is required. Rich or poor, anyone can people coming in and stay and hence, earn a livelihood from people coming and staying. That model really picked up and has spread across Spiti. Like I was mentioning earlier as well, in Kaza as well, every house is a homestay. In that sense at least the money is going directly to the local community- the residents of Spiti. And, when we started working on tourism, we were in touch with travellers to promote the homestays. A traveller of course wants to experience the homestay but not necessarily every day of their time in Spiti. So we developed entire programmes around these homestays and started marketing that so that people would get to know about homestays and start going to these homestays. In the process, that basically became our enterprise model as well where we started generating some amount of revenue through that which then helped us support other different projects that we were working on the ground in Spiti as well. So, that’s how our transition happened as well. And now, we’ve been working and operating like this for over15 years now and yes, it’s been working pretty well for us. Now the projects we feel are of relevance, we can support those and replicate those across Spiti.
Lalitha Krishnan: That’s really been a great journey. Even in Uttarkhand, almost every home has a homestay. If you drive down a road, there are homestays of all sizes… I too feel that it gives tourists a different cultural experience compared to a standard hotel. Regardless of the class of the hotel.
What are the challenges you face today that perhaps weren’t such a big deal before? How do you mitigate those?
Ishita Khanna: if you look specifically in terms of tourism, for instance, there are a lot of challenges now. I mean if you don’t look at Ecosphere-specific but you look at the region-specific, there are a lot of impacts that are having now on the area because Spiti suddenly opened up. It suddenly came on the radar of a lot of people so in the past 4-5 years we’ve had a huge influx of travellers coming in and of course with that, there is a huge amount of garbage generation that is happening in Spiti. And, the garbage dump which was a small tiny little thing has grown into a humungous garbage dumping area which is very sad to see. The other thing now which is becoming a challenge, especially in the urban centres which are the tourist hubs, is water. This year was really very bad in general for Spiti in terms of water. We didn’t have adequate snow so the crops practically failed in most of the villages of Spiti. To top that up, we have a huge influx of travellers coming into Kaza. As I said, we have 100 hotels now which are all very water-intensive hotels. So as a result, there is now no water in Kaza. In the supply line, there is hardly any water coming in. Every hotel has to buy water which comes in from the neighbouring villages. If you happen to have a vehicle you send the vehicle up along with a tank every day just to ferry in water. And some hotels have to do this four to five times a day just to bring water. So this is a huge rising challenge in Spti because even though the government has plans of tapping into the groundwater but the point is that even if they do that it will be a temporary solution to the water problem. Because, eventually, the groundwater will deplete because at the rate it’s being sucked out we will not be able to recharge it because we are not getting the kind of snow we used to get in earlier years.
Lalitha Krishnan: Most of the villages don’t have piped water. Right?
Ishita Khanna: yes, none of the villages has piped water. In Kaza as well it’s only the hotels that have a piped water supply coming in. Till now, the homes don’t have piped water. They still have like common spaces where you fill up your bucket or you fill up your can.
Lalitha Krishnan: I like what you do at Spiti Ecosphere in terms of encouraging people to bring refill bottles and you supply water. Is that still on?
Ishita Khanna: Yes, that is still on. We set up water refill points at some of the key destinations of Spiti as well. We’ve been offering free filtered water for donkeys of years, maybe 10-12 years now at Sol café – A taste of Spiti, in Kaza. We’ve had a lot of people coming in to refill the bottles, especially international travellers because they are more sensitive to these issues as opposed to domestic travellers even now. They do come regularly to fill up. We also set these (refill points) up at Key monastery, Dhankar monastery and up in Komic which are visited by travellers to try and encourage travellers to refill as much as they can. Then, in 2017 we set up a huge life-sized installation made of plastic bottles called ‘I love Spiti’ to try and raise awareness of this rising issue. It’s an ongoing challenge, it’s an ongoing issue and there are people now as well working on issues like these to try and sensitize the traveller about the impact that they have. But still, it’s a minuscule number of travellers who are actually conscious about their footprint. Most don’t really care about garbage or…
Lalitha Krishnan: But the very fact that you’re doing this…simple and generous idea… that you’re letting people refill, that itself should tell them something. They should see that one-time plastic bottles are not welcome in the desert at such high altitudes that too.
Ishita Khanna: It’s a kind of mindset, a kind of background.
Lalitha Krishnan: (You won the Sierra Club ‘Green Energy and Green Livelihoods Achievement Award’ in 2009 and the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2010 for Best in a mountain environment?) You explained how you went from being a donor-supported to a self-supporting organisation. Today as we speak, how many villages/lives are impacted by Ecosphere’s initiatives?
Ishita Khanna: we have been working on different initiatives in Spiti for the past 20 years and it’s been a gradual journey for us as well. We started with seabuckthorn and went to look at community-based tourism and responsible travel. From there we started looking at some of the other challenges in Spiti. For instance, it gets very cold here in the winter months. Temperatures dip to -30 C here and you have to burn a lot of wood to stay warm. So, we looked at how we could use the sun’s heat and solar passive techniques. So we adapted their winter room so that they could heat up using the sun’s heat. We also looked at solar electrification because there’s a lot of sunshine that we get here, even though it’s very cold. We looked at how we could use the sun’s warmth to grow vegetables so we developed local mud greenhouses. So, you know over the years, we’ve looked at various challenges and how we can solve them.
Another one of the problems we’ve been working on recently is to do with water and climate change. The groundwater is depleting, the springs are drying out so we worked on building artificial glaciers and contour trenches to trap as much of the surface runoff and the snowfall to try and absorb it into the groundwater so we can try and recharge these springs which are the lifeline of most of the villages of Spiti, especially the highland villages.
Water is a big challenge as I mentioned, especially drinking water in the winter months. you know, because of springs drying out, they are also now freezing up in the winter months with reduced flow. As a result, people have to walk more just to get drinking water. So we are trying to tap into springs which have a good flow—usually close to the river bed—and pump that water up to the village. Otherwise, it’s an arduous journey down for local communities in the thick of snow just to get a 20 L can up on their back.
Over the years, of living there you understand what the challenges are. Another one of our initiatives is to do health care.
We started working on oral health in Spiti and just recently we did an assessment in one of the schools. We were thinking of putting sealants onto the kids’ teeth to prevent caries/cavities from setting on to the permanent teeth. Unfortunately, that can only be done on caries-free teeth. We assessed a local school and out of 60 students, only two were cavity-free.
In young kids nowadays you can put what is called sealants onto the tooth so that it creates a layer around the tooth so that the child’s tooth does not develop a cavity but it can only be done on cavity-free teeth. We held a camp recently in a school and out of 60 kids, we assessed only two kids who didn’t have cavities or caries in their teeth.
So, oral health is bad so now across Spiti we’re holding a free dental camp and we’re going from village to village because it’s such an ignored area. People just ignore their oral health. They don’t brush their teeth. Brushing twice a day is unheard of. Brushing once a day is unheard of. People might brush their teeth once a month at times or not at all. So by the time they reach 40, their teeth have all fallen off, because, they don’t give any importance to it and it just decays and the tooth has to be taken out. People in their 40s now require dentures, unfortunately.
Lalitha Krishnan: I guess if we had to carry our water to brush our teeth every day and hike two miles for it we might be also as casual about our oral health.
Ishita Khanna: Right, we could associate with that but yes, over the years we’ve been working on a wide range of issues and initiatives. And Spiti has a population of about 15,000 people now spread across about you could say, 65 villages. Each one of our initiatives has impacted the population in one way or the other.
Lalitha Krishnan: Right. How can we as individuals be better tourists? There is no ideal.
Ishita Khanna: Ideal is a very difficult word. There is no ideal tourist or an ideal person. We are all on a journey. I think in general if a traveller can, to sum it up, be a responsible traveller – to be responsible about the way you travel, to be sensitive, I would say. Be conscious of the impact you leave on the place. How much are you taking out of the place, how much are you giving back, you know? To try and create a kind of balance with that I would think.
There are a lot of conscious travellers out there who really are mindful about how much garbage they generate when they go to an area, they try and minimize that. Even simple things like what we’ve been trying to do are encourage travellers to refill bottles. To try not to buy so much of plastic bottles. And if you do buy bottles and chip packets and things like that, be slightly more mindful as to how you throw it. A lot of us Indians unfortunately think that the entire roadside or the entire Himalayas or wherever we travel, we can dump our garbage anywhere. To be slightly more mindful as to where you dump it.
In Spiti, I tell people “Carry your garbage out with you.” It’s not always possible but “At least find a dustbin and dump it in that.”
Lalitha Krishnan: Right. What about tourists’ interaction with locals? Is there something that needs to be improved or are they good about being respectful of locals?
Ishita Khanna: I think that is also part and parcel of how one can travel slightly more mindfully. OK, there are different tourists around. Some people are interested in local culture, some people are not. Even if you’re not interested in local culture, you can at least not disrespect the local culture. So, at least try and be mindful of how much noise are you generating. Do not be rude to people from that area.
A lot of people of course would love to interact and hence people like that go to homestays and that’s a very enriching experience because you’re staying with the local family. They’re hosting you and people in Spiti are very, very hospitable. But not everyone wants that experience. I feel that even if you don’t want that experience, if you’re interested in local culture and things like that, please be respectful. Don’t be rude, don’t be loud.
Lalitha Krishnan: Do you think community and government inputs are required in initiating, low-impact tourism? We only have suggestions. Do you think we need more laws perhaps instead of just signs?
Ishita Khanna: Yes, I think, there are policies and laws in place but there’s very little implementation of it. Definitely, I feel these policies and laws could be enhanced. For instance, in places like Himachal, they have a common policy for homestays. It has to have a room with a common toilet with hot and cold water. But in a place like Spiti, that’s not contextual. If you’re going for a homestay, you’re staying in a local person’s house, they don’t have common toilets themselves. So, to expect them to provide an attached toilet which has running water? In the houses, they don’t have running water.
Traditionally in Spiti, they had dry composting toilets. You’re forcing them to convert to flush toilets when there’s not enough water for agriculture here. So definitely, policies like these definitely need to be looked at contextually. They need to be developed more contextually. Of course, there are signboards that you see all over the place but how many travellers really look at those signboards that are telling you to travel in a certain way? ‘Don’t’ throw your garbage. I mean, there need to be amenities that we provide, right? O.K. Yes. At one level, you do need to raise awareness, at another level you need to have facilities which are well maintained and that travellers can use regularly. Be it for dumping garbage, be it public utilities like toilets. Water refill points, you know? Places like Himachal should have these all over. Or even in the hills, it should be everywhere that it’s a norm that one refills a bottle as opposed to buying one. The thing is that for a traveller if they are given a choice, and with a lot of drilling into their heads, they would finally start using these facilities. But, these facilities aren’t there and they aren’t well maintained.
Lalitha Krishnan: Right. Ecosphere is part of several networks like the Green circuit. Could you mention some more groups Ecosphere is a part of and what you achieve by working together?
Ishita Khanna: Yes, many years ago we were part of the Green Circuit. The idea basically was, that it was travel enterprises similar to ours who were trying to do travel differently, in a more responsible, mindful manner. And, we felt that if we join hands, then we’d have strength in numbers. Otherwise, it’s like just one person working in one remote part like us in Spiti or another person working in some remote part in Nepal, another one in Kerala, another one in Orissa… So, we felt we could share our learnings and challenges and also try and join hands to try and market these various initiatives and trips that we had on a common platform.
Lalitha Krishnan: OK.
Ishita Khanna: So that was the idea which initially led to the formation of the Green Circuit but it’s been challenging in itself. Especially also during the Covid pandemic, to stay in touch or to have regular meetings and updates, and things like that. We haven’t been able to as such travel to the different areas or do it at the level we wanted to.
Lalitha Krishnan: Understandable.
Ishita Khanna: so definitely, these kinds of platforms are useful, are very useful but the pandemic has had its impact on anything related to travel or collaborations like these.
Lalitha Krishnan: True. Now I’m going to ask you a personal question but I sort of know the answer seeing how happy you are. How has living and working in Spiti changed your life after all these years?
Ishita Khanna: For me, it’s been a way of life you know? Because I came here when I was very young and I was never ever enamoured by city life and a regular 9-5 job. So, when I did get the opportunity to come and work in Spiti, for me, it was something I always wanted to do, in the hills. I think working here for so many years, it’s taught me a lot definitely. There have been a lot of challenges along the way, especially working in a place like Spiti, so far away with such limited infrastructure. For me, I think it’s made me into a much more patient, and humble person. For me now, going back to the city now…I even imagine life, living in a big city. So yes, this has become a way of life for me and it’s definitely changed me into becoming a better person. You don’t take things for granted which one often does in city life. Especially at least you take basic amenities for granted. Out here even those basic things are a luxury. It’s very common here not to have electricity here for days on end or water. So, you adapt and develop patience…
Lalitha Krishnan: What? Swiggy hasn’t reached Spiti as yet?
Ishita Khanna: No, no Swiggy! Internet just came here last year and that in itself has changed things drastically.
Lalitha Krishnan: I think you live a very simple but fulfilling life. Of course, it has its challenges. My last question to you and I think this is important. Could you share a term or a word or a concept that’s important to you and perhaps improves our understanding of what you do?
Ishita Khanna: It’s hard to put it all into one word or phrase.
Lalitha Krishnan: it could be either a word or a concept or even just what you believe.
Ishita Khanna: I feel as individuals, as humans, as travellers, we need to be mindful, basically. Mindful of our day-to-day actions that even encompasses when we travel. It all just boils down to trying to be a better person. That only comes from mindfulness. Being aware of the impact that we’re having on another individual, another community, the environment, this earth, on animals, you know? So, how can we reduce the impact and burden we have on the outside?
I think every individual has a choice that they can take. We have great power in our hands. We can change things very easily if we just tweak our lives by being slightly more mindful. I believe and hope that if more and more people become more mindful of their choices, the way they travel or how they speak to people and try and build more kindness and compassion, you know, automatically, the world would become a much better place.
Lalitha Krishnan: Right. I like the way you said, “tweak your life with a little mindfulness”. It makes it sound easier than it actually is.
Ishita Khanna: You know, like one small little thing every day. If one can do one small little thing. Change one small little thing; be slightly more mindful in your workplace or in how you brush your teeth. Turn the tap off while you brush your teeth. That itself is being mindful and not wasting water, right? If everyone starts doing small little things, it will have a huge impact. Look at our population. If everyone starts doing one tiny little thing, being mindful of their impact or being mindful of how they live, I think it will spiral into a huge impact.
Lalitha Krishnan: Absolutely. I was just teasing you but I like the words: tweak of mindfulness. Thank you so much Ishita. This was so good.
Ishita Khanna: Thank you Lalitha.
Lalitha Krishnan: Hey, I hope you enjoyed this episode of Heart of Conservation. The transcript for all episodes is available right here on this blog. Do check out the Spiti Ecosphere website, especially the list of awards they have won for ecotourism. In the meanwhile, be mindful. I’ll catch you next time. Bye.
Birdsong by hillside resident, the collared owlet.
Podcast cover artwork by Lalitha Krishnan
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