The Green Trails Fellowship came to me at a time in my life when I was looking to experience life in the mountains. I did not want to go there as a tourist or even a trekker, for that matter. I wanted to live as a local and do something that leaves an impact.
I applied for the fellowship for this reason. I was surprised and grateful when my application to work as a Green Trails Fellow was accepted. Since I didn’t have a background in Environmental Studies, I thought my chances of getting into the Fellowship were slim.
But here I am, four months later, writing this reflection, and feeling overwhelmed at the experience I had. It was an experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me at every corner. The learnings I gained were invaluable.
I’d like to share some of them in this reflection. Let me tell you some stories from my Fellowship.
The growing consumerism of mountain villages
More and more packaged items have found their way into the mountains. This is the biggest problem I was working with. In the village I was working in, Raithal, I found that the demand for this came from kids. Being highly influenced by the market and their peers, I noticed that kids would snack on a lot of packaged items.
The scale of this problem was huge. Each of the 250 households in Raithal had about 2-3 kids. This was quite a number!
Their parents or grandparents had never dealt with such packaged products. They were unable to guide the children about how to dispose this waste properly. This is why these children resorted to either littering or burning their waste.
Indiahikes’ Green Trails initiative specifically works on creating awareness programs in schools. In my workshop series with the school, I worked with 60 children. I focused my lessons on understanding the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste, the ill effects of plastic pollution and littering, segregation and how this connects to them. Just starting the conversation around waste, and what they can do with it, is in itself a big achievement.
I wanted to make sure that my lessons were not a series of lectures where I speak and they listen. I wanted them to internalize what was being said to them. For this, I asked the students who understood the concepts and ideas that we discussed, to present it to their classmates in English.
I also urged them to use an open body language. This was because I noticed that most of them spoke with their hands folded in front of them defensively. After 8 sessions with them, there was a difference in understanding. I felt not only their understanding but also their confidence. I felt extremely gratified with this work.
Being a nudge for change
During the initial survey in the village, we observed that the villagers were aware of the problem of waste in the mountains. But were not quite sure what to do about it.
In mountain villages, there is no infrastructure to deal with the waste generated. There is hardly any means to transport the waste to lowlands that do have the infrastructure to deal with waste. However, the biggest culprit of the problem of waste was and still remains to be the social unwillingness to change. This means that decades of waste just sat there on the mountains, piling up or getting burnt.
This is why we introduced the concept of upcycling to the Mahila Mandal. They came on board for the eco pillow project. The idea was to make 15 pillows and sell them to our Dayara Bugyal trekkers. We decided on a set number as this was going to be a pilot project.
However, the women who had agreed to come for the workshops did not come. To take two hours for the workshop, out of their daily routines of household work and tending to farmland, was something they thought they could not do. I realized that they did not see the long term importance of learning skills apart from farming activities.
There were just two women — Pulma Ji and Soni Bhabhi — who still wanted to go forward with the project.
This setback did not deter me, but it certainly deterred them. I decided to be their cheerleader — that person who gave them a little nudge whenever they needed some motivation. The project was a huge success thanks to the effort put in by these two women.
Pulma Ji provided a room in her house to do all the work. She also provided scissors, some old cloth, and a sewing machine. She also got her grandchildren and husband on board for this project. They delivered the product within 5 days.
These pillows were sold in just two batches of the Dayara Bugyal trek!
With this success, the women saw how easy it was to manage their time and focus on a project that goes beyond what they do on a day to day basis. It helped that earning money added a lot of value to the process.
Their success also inspired other women to get on board for a future upcycling project. The project helped me see value in perseverance, especially when there are setbacks. It also helped me understand business communication — understanding how to set up a formal structure of the buyer, mediator, and seller
Personal vs Professional Conduct
As a Green Trails Fellow, I was living among Indiahikes Trek Leaders and Staff. I ate with them, washed clothes with them, did chores with them. They were witnesses to my idiosyncrasies, and me to theirs. In this kind of intensely intimate atmosphere, I found that it was very easy for personal and professional lines to blur.
How can I be friendly and yet be professional? How do I ensure that professional feedback isn’t taken personally? This was my biggest challenge.
When I started out, I wanted to be approachable and make good friends with the staff. Soon, I found that this made it very difficult to communicate the seriousness or timeliness of issues. An issue could be dismissed with friendly banter, or “chalo, ho jayega.”
This approach was severely tested when I was handed over the responsibility of Green Trails trek operations at Raithal. My job was to try and come up with systems that would help us run our basecamp operations smoothly, train the staff on various aspects of environmental consciousness, set up a segregation unit and washing area at the base camp. Then I was to ensure this was followed by everyone.
There were a lot of times where it became difficult to make the Trek Leaders and our staff understand the gravity of segregating at source and logging our waste. It took persistent effort and energy from me to let them understand that our close relationship did not mean that we could take professional liberties. There were times that I came across as rude in trying to impress upon them the seriousness of the work.
Then I focused my attention on trying to make them understand the need for protocols rather than calling them out. Calling them out put them on the defensive. Constant and clear communication, I realized, was the key. I realized professionalism comes in with accountability you are able to sustain. It is essential, in working relationships, not lose focus on the fact that we are all here to take the work forward.
The Value of Persistence
Getting government officials involved in the work we do was also an important aspect of our trek operations. Every region has a RO (Range Officer), DFO (District Forest Officer), DM (District Magistrate).
We have been running the Dayara Bugyal trek for many years. Yet, we never got an acknowledgment from the forest officials in the work we do. This became one of my primary objectives under trek operations.
When I joined, I prepared a report of the Green Trails work we had done for the past year at Raithal and went to meet the DFO of Uttarkashi. The DFO was very appreciative of the work and was also keen to work on some of the solutions that we presented to them for waste management in Uttarkashi District. However, when it came to giving us an acknowledgment letter, he wasn’t too keen. So next time, I met the Range officer with local staff. He listened to our point of view, but we failed to get an acknowledgment letter again.
It was only when my time in Raithal was about to come to an end that we made headway with this situation. I decided to meet the District Magistrate to talk about the work we do. He was of really good help! He gave us a few suggestions to work on in Raithal and I told him about the ongoing Upcycling project & school project in Raithal.
However, the final acknowledgment had to come from the DFO. This time, I left no stone unturned. I prepared a detailed closing report of our trek operations and talked to a few people who knew the region well, jotted down points I wanted to focus on. I waited for a good 3 hours to get 10-15 minutes of his time.
With this report, he was quite happy and convinced about the work we do. He finally decided to go ahead and write an acknowledgment letter for the work we had been doing throughout the season. I couldn’t be happier! It was the perfect ending to my time in Raithal.
Although a very small thing, it meant a lot to us. Dealing with bureaucracy is something that can only be done if you are persistent. After so many meetings, I could see a new relationship being established which definitely opens up the scope for doing many things in that area.
Choosing Projects That You Can Do Justice To
In the last month of my fellowship, I went to the Valley of Flowers base camp, Govind Ghat. Given that Valley of Flowers is already popular among trekkers, pilgrims and tourists alike, the scale of the waste problem is huge.
The instructions we were working under was to take forward the work of the previous GT Fellow, Ashish. He was working to ensure a collaboration between Indiahikes and other stakeholders in the Valley of Flowers region to keep it clean. The idea he was floating was to use the eco-bag model in the valley.
After taking stock of the situation, I realized that taking forward Ashish’s work was something that could not be done within a month. It was a mammoth task and it required someone who would stay longer in the region to ensure that the collaboration would happen and the work is taken forward.
I decided to do a project that we could do justice to. We decided to work on something that would measure the impact of different kinds of communication mediums used to reach out to our audience. We worked on upcycled banners that spoke against littering and consumption of food, packaged in plastic on the trail from Govind Ghat to Ghangaria.
The biggest takeaway from this process was to understand your limitations, communicate them and take up work that you can do justice to. It was all part of working in a team.
The Entire Experience
If there is one thing I am taking away with me, apart from the Green Trails Spirit, it is the values I ended up learning over the course of my fellowship: perseverance, patience, professionalism and the importance of a team.
I am grateful to have gained a family here at Indiahikes — whether it is the villages in the mountains or the local staff. These memories I have with them is something that I will keep for the rest of my life. I can say that now I am so much more environmentally conscious, a better communicator, and a better person.
As told to Aswati Anand.