Aloof from all the cacophony of the cities, nestled in the beautiful Garhwal Himalayas, lies Goat Village, colloquially known as Bakri Gaon. The name might sound a tad mismatching with other popular tourist destinations in Uttarakhand, but this village is undoubtedly a flag-bearer for sustainable tourism in India. Welcoming travellers on the Nag Tibba trek route, Bakri Gaon is a modern-day initiative to revive a dying culture and reverse a migrating community. Presently, the Bakri Gaon or Goat Village is slowly turning into a favourite vacation hotspot for new-age travellers.
No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank
Roopesh Rai, the curator of this series of sustainable villages shares the heartwrenching reality plaguing the Himalayan provinces at present. In a conversation with Efforts For Good, he narrates how his trauma of seeing heaps of dead bodies after the 2013 Uttarakhand floods led him to establish the first Goat Village.
The heaps of dead bodies in 2013 Uttarakhand floods
Roopesh, who was working with an international travel company in 2013, was sent to Uttarakhand a few months after the disastrous floods, to compile an on-ground report about the impact on tourism. “But that fateful tour turned out to be the most traumatic experience of my life. I saw scattered dead bodies, crumbled buildings and entire towns wiped out. At one place, I saw kerosene being thrown on a heap of around 500 unidentified dead bodies and that was their funeral. Most of these bodies were buried in deep snow over the winter and were excavated by the rescue forces in a mangled state only after the snow thawed in spring. Dogs were feasting on the dead for days. The stench of death and devastation was too overpowering for me,” Roopesh narrates his horrifying experience.
The memories of the month haunted Roopesh for years to come. Upon his return to city life, he sank into depression. “I started to feel that every single thing I am doing, like buying a small bottle of soft drink, is actually helping consumerism to grow beyond leaps and bounds – the reason why the Uttarakhand disaster happened,” recounts Roopesh.
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At such a juncture, Roopesh recalled a conversation he had with Col. Ajay Kothiyal during his stay in Guptkashi, Uttarakhand. Expressing admiration and respect for the celebrated Army officer, Roopesh shares, “We discussed the cause of such a massive disaster. I told him that the obvious reason was the gross environmental violation in the ecologically sensitive zone, thanks to pilgrimage and unbridled tourism. People are coming to Kedarnath for their honeymoon. Five-star luxury hotels are coming up in these pristine hills. How long can nature tolerate?”
The beautiful Goat Village (Photo: Nitish Waila)
During the conversation, Roopesh had cited the examples of Bhutan and Maldives, who have adopted sustainable tourism. This way, they are preserving natural resources as well as the heritage of their countries.
Roopesh advocated a similar tourism model for Uttarakhand and other Greater Himalayan states. The debate ended that night. Little did he know that it would have a far greater impact.
The ‘Ghost Village’ of Nag Tibba
“Fast forward nearly a year, I receive a call from the Colonel. Answering his invitation, I ended up in the obscure village of Nag Tibba, on the trek route to Yamunotri valley,” shares Roopesh.
It used to be a village where goats formed the backbone of the economy, to the extent of being used as barter currency. However, the devastating 2013 floods, accentuated by the beckoning of a glamorous urban life, led the localites to desert the area, one home after another. Roopesh discovered that there are around 1800 such ‘Ghost Villages’ in Uttarakhand, which have been abandoned by villagers who migrated to towns and cities.
The most interesting factor about the village happened to be the abundant flocks of goats. Even a few decades ago, the village thrived on localised farming and the goat products. For the youngsters, the other option to herding goats or farming was joining the army. However, as the fever of urbanisation spread, the villagers also failed to contain themselves in the limited economy of their village. Hence, migration.
The goats that stopped milking
Roopesh resolved to restore the area to its former glory, and reverse the emigration in turn. His first idea was to implement the model of European farm tourism by turning the village into a goat cheese farm. However, after all the legal paraphernalia had been taken care of, Roopesh and his team were in for a shock.
“There was no milk. Inbreeding has resulted in some genetic abnormality and the goats have stopped lactating,” he reveals.
He learnt that the animal research centre at Dehradun regularly arranges workshops for the villagers to help them manage their flocks better.
“We go to the workshops every month. They give us T-shirts. We get to visit the city. It’s a nice one-day outing for us. We don’t need to use their advice. Goat meat is enough for our livelihood,” the villagers told a stunned Roopesh, who realised his job was going to be tougher as he had to start with changing the mindset of the settlers.
During his survey, Roopesh had found out that the traditional stone cottages have survived through earthquakes and natural calamities while the concrete ones crumbled at the slightest disturbance. “Local masons backed out when we asked them to build the traditional stone cottages for starting tourist homestays. It was a hard time convincing them that their primitive lifestyle is way better and more alluring than the urban glamour,” he narrates.
Roopesh and his team of environmental crusaders, who term themselves as Green People, soon turned the ghost village of Nag Tibba into a unique eco-tourism hub, catering to the right kind of travellers, who prefer nature over the luxury of hotels, and local cuisine over five-course restaurant meals.
Integrating the villagers, Green People started unique programmes like ‘Bakri Swayamvar’ (weddings of goats) alongside ‘Pay What You Like’ or ‘Be My Volunteer Village Manager’ – all of which, he admits, attract an immense number of visitors every year. “In two years, there has been 40 times rise in footfall in Nag Tibba trek route, after our intervention. From 1200 persons to 47,000 per year, the huge increase has also reversed the trend of migration among the local communities,” Roopesh shares.
The volunteer initiatives
At present, Green People manages around 100 homestays, which are directly owned and operated by the local inhabitants. The second aspect of their work is ‘Bakri Chhap’ – an indigenous umbrella brand created to market the locally grown, organic and traditional grains, spices and greens. The villagers produce in their own plots, while Green People connects them to the urban market.
Aside from the commercial initiatives, Green People is a frontrunner in relief operations during any natural disasters in the state. They are also providing computer education to the village kids. Their collaborative project with Youth Foundation runs free of cost armed forces recruitment camps, which have successfully sent more than 7000 youths to the Indian Army.
All it took was one man’s determination to transform the tourism scenario in one of the most popular holiday destinations in India. While Roopesh plans to replicate his model in other adjacent villages of Garhwal, Efforts For Good hopes that his inspiring model of sustainable tourism will be adopted in other ecologically sensitive zones of India.
With the extension of the lockdown the crisis of migrant labourers and daily wagers has just grown bigger due to uncertainty and fear of future. In the migrant colonies, slums and for people in the villages hunger and desperation is building up day by day. This is high time we step up our efforts to support our people who are in dire need of food and hygiene essentials to survive the pandemic, Covid-19.
After the India-wide lockdown, a lot of jobless migrant workers are stuck in cities with hardly any resources while many started retreating back to their villages. With the loss of livelihoods, a large number of them are now struggling to support their families.
Goonj activated its pan India teams and a pan India network of partner organizations and volunteers in urban and rural India. This network, built over the last two decades, helps them learn from the ground, reach material quickly and review and adapt strategy periodically. Intensifying this network has helped Goonj reach and start work across 17produced states/UT in the last three weeks.
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Majority of the Covid-19 relief work by non profits right now is in the metros and cities but Goonj is the only non profit that is also simultaneously focusing on the people in the villages and the ones stuck on highways or somewhere.
Goonj is targeting daily wagers, migrants and other vulnerable groups, who even traditionally are left out like the disabled, sex workers, LGBTQ community.
“COVID-19 is a crisis, yes…But, it’s also an opportunity for us to build the society anew. Not ‘for’ the people…but, ‘with’ the people. And in the process, we will build ourselves too.” – Anshu Gupta, Founder-Director, Goonj.
Direct Monetary and Material Transfer
Wherever Goonj got the permission to open their centres for packing and disbursement of relief material kits, they are creating a kit consisting of 20-30 kgs material including dry rations, masks, sanitary pads and other hygiene material and reaching them to people, as per needs and as per regulations with all safety precautions. This kit will help a family survive for 30 days.
Information till 10th April 2020:
Distributed 15,100 ration kits reaching thousands of people
Reached 17,700 families
Supporting 12 community kitchen across India with 16,600kgs of ration
77,800 food packets provided to migrant laborers and daily wagers walking on the roads across the country.
Provided direct financial support to 32 organisations
In Goonj’s processing centers its trained team of women are making cloth face masks and cloth sanitary pads (MY-Pads), keeping all the precautions and with the permission and cooperation of the local authorities.
In this lock-down phase if you are facing any difficulty getting sanitary pads or you are running out of stock, here’s a detailed but very simple process of making Cloth Pads at home created by Goonj. “This is how we make Goonj MY Pads.” This is how our mothers and grandmothers turned their spare cloth into pads.
This disaster, unlike any other, is unprecedented in its scale and impact and that’s why we all must do our bit with Goonj to continue its relief work for millions of people in this still unfolding long-tailed disaster.