Just an hour’s hike from the checkpoint that announces your entry to the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary sanctuary in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, Dallar village appears like an arcadian dream. Rustic stone houses with rugged slate roofs peep through the thick foliage of oak, pine and rhododendron forests. The houses are staggered along a slope that gently undulates into a thickly forested ridge. There’s just one problem. Most of the houses are empty.
A decade back, Dallar had more than 120 people. Now, there are 32. In 1988, when Binsar was declared a sanctuary, the five villages inside Binsar lost their right to use timber from the forest and tap resin from the pine trees. Soon after that, the villagers began migrating from the area in droves in search of a livelihood, leaving most villages deserted except for the older residents.
Trailblazer: Village Ways trained Hem Joshi to be a forest guide.
In 2006, a travel company called Village Ways introduced a rural tourism effort covering the five villages—Dallar, Satri, Gonap, Risal and Kathdara—inside the Binsar sanctuary, in an effort to arrest the migration, and maybe even slowly reverse it.
The Village Ways concept is simple: Tourists come on bespoke hiking tours inside the Binsar sanctuary, with a trained villager acting as a forest guide, and stay at least one night in one of the villages. More often than not, the hiking tour covers all five villages, with at least one night’s stay in each. But this is not a homestay project—instead, each village has a guesthouse that can accommodate up to six people, and the revenue generated from the visitors’ stay is shared equally by the families in the village. The guesthouses charge Village Ways Rs 800 per tourist per day, inclusive of all meals. Guides and porters, who are also hired from the villages, are paid separate salaries by Village Ways. In turn, Village Ways charges its guests according to the package it provides them, which can include all transport and airport transfers, etc. A 10-day Delhi-to-Delhi trip, with stays in all five villages, costs Rs 41,850 for a single guest, inclusive of all costs. In 2010-11, the combined income for the five villages from Village Ways initiative was Rs 5.58 lakh. The 12 guides on their roster made around Rs 2.25 lakh.
“Before Village Ways came here, we had no work at all,” says Kasturbanand Bhatt, a 28-year-old resident of Dallar who works with Village Ways as a hiking guide. “If it wasn’t for them, every young man would have gone from the village.” Bhagwati Bhatt, 54, who is a cook at the Dallar guesthouse, says that three families, including her own, have come back to the villages since Village Ways started operations. “It will be difficult to get a lot of people back because they left a long time ago,” Bhatt says, “but at least those who are still here won’t be compelled to leave.”
It all started from a mountain hotel with a storied history, called Khali Estate, just metres from the entry point of Binsar sanctuary. The sprawling chalet, once the centre of the freedom movement in the region, and then a favourite holiday home for the Nehru family, passed down to a local family who turned it into a resort. In 1999, a British tourist came to stay on the estate and trek in the area. Himanshu Pande, 36, whose family owns the estate, organized the treks for him. The tourist was Keith Virgo, an award-winning rural development consultant, and he came back with friends who were also into rural development. Soon Himanshu, his wife Manisha and father Mathura, and Virgo were discussing ways to implement development projects in the area.
“We used to walk in the villages, and there was a feeling that the sanctuary areas were highly neglected,” says Manisha, 33, one of the founder-directors of Village Ways. “We thought of building co-operatives, but finally focused on community-based tourism because we had experience in the industry.” In 2004, the founding members began holding talks with the villagers and conducting research—they came up with a well-structured plan. “There were lots of initial doubts from the villagers,” says Mathura, 65, “but our whole model was based on transparency, on involving the villagers at every stage. They thought we will take their land— we told them, ‘No, you will own everything we build here.’” The nine founders of Village Ways pooled in their own money to fund the construction of the guesthouses—Rs 18 lakh was distributed among the five villages, 40% as a grant and 60% as a 10-year loan. Village Ways provided separate grants for all the utensils, linen, furniture and the solar panels that provide hot water and electricity in the guesthouses. Committees were formed in each village, and made owners of the guesthouses. Village Ways arranged for hospitality, hygiene and cooking training for the villagers. A few selected people, including two women, were given extensive training as forest guides. This entailed flora and fauna training, first-aid and spoken English classes. “We are like a split between an NGO (non-governmental organization) and a tour operator,” says Manisha.
In 2006, Village Ways became operational in Binsar.
Bhatt, who used to work as a casual labourer hopping from city to city to make ends meet before he came back to Dallar to join Village Ways, says that in 2010, his village earned Rs 1.24 lakh from the project. Says Bhatt: “Rs 90,000 was distributed among the eight families in the village, and the rest was used to pay for the land rent, loan repayment, etc.”
The village communities are involved at every level. The villagers provide organic farm produce for the guests and are paid market rates by the committee. Hem Joshi, our sprightly 23-year-old guide, who showered us with a wealth of entertaining information about the flora of Binsar, using Latin names and local names of trees and plants with equal felicity, says he makes Rs 40,000 on an average every year.
“If it wasn’t for this,” he says with a smile, “I would have been a daily labourer.”
Village Ways: www.villageways.com