How Impact Tourism Is Accelerating Change In This Remote Himalayan Village

Breswana is a typical Kashmiri Himalayan village situated in the Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir. The village is home to about 1700 people, the economy is mostly agrarian, and the village is an 8 km uphill climb from the nearest motorable road. The village was relatively unknown to the outside world until as recently as 2009.

So, what changed? In 2009, Sabbah Haji decided to move back to Breswana, her ancestral village in order to start a school that provided high-quality education, and that opened up the world to the kids in this high altitude remote community. What started with 30 students inside a room in the family  home has now expanded into the Haji Public School, with over 450 students from 20 surrounding villages and a successful volunteer programme. It is a school that uses experiential methods to impart learning to these first-generation learners. The vibrant and fun-filled assembly every morning is filled with songs, facts and news from all over the world. The school practices inclusiveness, questions patriarchy and empowers young girls and women. From Donald Trump to the abortion law in Ireland, it is no surprise to hear them discuss everything under the sun. In a predominantly Muslim village, this approach is about creating exposure and free-thinking, while respecting traditions and cultural heritage.

The school functions with the help of a steady stream of volunteers from across India. Three of these volunteers decided to create Sauramandala –  a social enterprise that works on livelihood projects in Breswana. This group works on projects related to energy access, enabling education and generating local employment.

Their first project has helped the school to completely go off the grid and on to solar power. In addition to this, they now have connected screens and reliable internet connectivity.

The school initially used to get less than 200 hours of intermittent power supply in a month, now they have electricity round the clock, with smart classrooms. This has been instrumental in helping the teachers engage students in the classrooms and make lessons more interesting.

The second Sauramandala project is an innovative approach to experiential impact tourism.

The idea of electrifying houses in the mountain villages every time a traveller passes through could be a game changer. An incredible solution where we use tourism as a tool for social change.

Their innovative approach to quantifying social impact created by each tour in the village is catalysing change. SauraMandala quantifies the impact created, based on three parameters — Energy Access, Education and Employment. Aligning with these goals, each trip enables employment for 4-8 households, contributes to the education of three children and electrifies one house.

Each group lives and interacts with a family in the village during their stay, in exchange for the food and hospitality that the villagers provide, the group pays for the electrification of the house. We believe this is a mutually symbiotic and a wholly enriching experience for both parties.

The tours are usually a week long and involve nature walks, culinary classes, living in traditional village huts, apple picking, camping, mountain biking. The experiences are diverse and could range from learning to make local cheese at Rahida’s home, to a crash course in making your own axe at the local blacksmith, or accompanying Altaf on his two-hour walk home from school to learn about the culture and ethnicity of the Gujjar community. They have a strict “take back your plastic trash” policy, and you can even offer to take back the plastic generated in the village and dispose it at the nearest town.

There are many underlying issues that are addressed by this model –

  • It makes it possible to move away from burning wood or kerosene which are a health and environmental hazard.
  • By creating employment locally, it gives an option that is now desirable to many of the locals. “Before the men in the village usually used to go to work as road construction labourers in harsh conditions due to unavailability of work at Breswana, this affected their health adversely. We had 18-20-year-olds with broken backs,” says Saleem Haji, who is the village head at Breswana. The villagers could now have the option of alternative sources of employment related to this tourism initiative.
  • Providing clean reliable energy also enables continuity of the education for the children, at their homes.

When questioned about scale, this is what Sauramandala had to say, “We hope to train local resources to be able to run the enterprise at the village level which lends itself to a more sustainable and long-term model. We will then explore replicating the model is in other locations.

While the team agrees that this is a slower and longer-term approach, the idea that they will be creating sustainable enterprises is what drives them forward.

Want to participate in one of their tours? You can write to them here


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