Ishita Khanna
Ashoka Fellow since 2008   |   India

Ishita Khanna

Ishita Khanna is building a green economy in the remote villages of India’s high Himalayas. In response to the region’s growing environmental degradation and threatened cultural preservation, Ishita…
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This description of Ishita Khanna's work was prepared when Ishita Khanna was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Ishita Khanna is building a green economy in the remote villages of India’s high Himalayas. In response to the region’s growing environmental degradation and threatened cultural preservation, Ishita has developed a collection of new income-generating and ecotourism opportunities designed to improve environmental management and promote the pursuit of more sustainable livelihoods. These efforts have merged the region’s most marginalized communities with the market-based economy and created an incentive to conserve the region’s dwindling resources. The local community thus retains primary ownership over their natural resource base, further reducing their dependency on government subsidies and hand-outs.

The New Idea

Ishita has introduced a unique set of market-based incentives to improve environmental management in the isolated villages of India’s high Himalayas, instilling a new sense of pride to communities long mired in dependency. By developing a range of products and marketing outlets for the region’s fast disappearing indigenous plants, she is both reviving sustainable farming practices and restoring local ownership to a region which has for years relied almost wholly on heavy government hand-outs. This signifies a major shift from previous development schemes in the region: Whereas such attempts have relied on cash crops and devastating resource extraction, Ishita uses the growing demand for eco-friendly products to create what she calls “seabuckthorn entrepreneurs”. These local groups are trained to cultivate and produce native crops, including seabuckthorn, the region’s declining “Wonder Berry,” as well as traditional handicrafts and other eco-friendly enterprises. The first movement of its kind in the Indian subcontinent, Ishita’s organization, Spitiecosphere, has given rise to significant collaborations with other organizations in the state of Himachal and elsewhere along the Trans-Himalayan belt of India. As these inaccessible regions have historically remained outside the purview of targeted and informed government and non-governmental support, Ishita aims to create a development model that can be implemented across the entire Himalayan range. She is in the process of developing a consistent and replicable brand for seabuckthorn products, which, due to her efforts, are now produced in other ecologically similar states across India. Most importantly, she is paving the way for the region’s most isolated communities to retake control of their resources, proving that better environmental management can be a profound source of economic growth.

The Problem

The high altitude areas of the Himalayas stretch across twelve different states and provinces in India. Home to more than 5,000 glaciers from which the Indus, Ganges and other prominent rivers originate, the region provides water, timber, and other essential resources for the rest of the country. Despite such importance, however, population growth and economic isolation, together with the increasingly volatile effects of global climate change, have wreaked considerable damage on India's fragile mountain ecosystems. Landslides have become larger and more frequent; water flows in traditional irrigation systems have fallen; and yields of major crops have not kept pace with the gains typically achieved in the plains, with the result that the rates of poverty, unemployment, and migration, have all increased.

The Spiti Valley, where Ishita launched her efforts, is an arid region situated between 10 to 17,000 feet above sea level. Temperatures in the winter plummet to minus 30 degrees Celsius, and heavy snowfall leaves the region cut off from the mainland for almost six months a year. Thanks to its extraordinary geographic isolation, the high Himalayas have yet to experience the emerging economic connectivity seen elsewhere in India. In response to the region’s worsening economic conditions, the government simply subsidizes basic goods and services. Food grains, wood, fuel, and electricity, are provided at less than 50 percent their market value, and the government even subsidizes agriculture and horticulture items.

Increasingly reliant on such government handouts, many communities have abandoned indigenous crops and farming techniques for cash crops promoted through government seed banks. However, because such plants are rarely suited to the region’s harsh local conditions, such promotions have largely proved disastrous. In Himachal Pradesh, for example, the state government funded the introduction of green peas and other cash crops, despite the fact that Spiti is a severely drought-prone region, dependent on the snowmelt for its only source of moisture. While these conditions are ideal for native barley and the black pea, the green pea is highly water-intensive, prone to drought and pest attacks. Not surprisingly, recent years have seen frequent crop failures.

Yet the problems do not end there: The prolonged use of pesticides for cash crops has converted large portions of the Spiti valley into inorganic belts. Aggravated pressure on the area’s grazing pastures has further damaged the biodiversity of the region, which has in turn curtailed the community’s ability to rear livestock and produce the fuel, meat, wool, and manure it needs to survive. Worse, as the population multiplies, the government has found it increasingly difficult to sustain the current level of subsidies, further fuelling a recent rise in unemployment in Spiti.

Perhaps most importantly, these changes threaten to erode centuries of accumulated local knowledge and expertise, which have long governed mountain communities’ uses of natural resources. In a recent survey in Garhwal Himalaya, local women were able to identify 145 species of plants that had been destroyed by commercial logging and limestone mining in the area; by comparison, national foresters could identify only twenty-five.

Such challenges are hardly unique to India alone. The isolated belt of the Himalayas extends into parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan, and is home to a total of 150 million people. Indeed, the need for a new approach that maintains the peoples’ control over local resources has rarely been greater.

The Strategy

Ishita began by first identifying potential sources of economic growth already at home in the region. She selected the seabuckthorn berry and the black pea, two indigenous crops uniquely equipped to the local conditions, which could generate revenue all the year-long. Seabuckthorn, popularly known as the “Wonder Berry”, is a hardy, deciduous shrub bearing yellow-orange berries, which are a rich source for vitamin C and essential fatty acids. It is naturally drought-resistant, and both enhances soil fertility and prevents erosion, making it an ideal plant for mixed farming. Having been used for centuries in Asia and Europe for its nutritional and medicinal value, the plant faced indiscriminate extraction for purposes of fencing and fuel, due largely to a decline in local knowledge and traditional horticulture.

Seeing it as a unique local alternative to government-backed cash crops, Ishita launched an employment program for local community members, training groups to manage and harvest the crop as seabuckthorn entrepreneurs. She quickly mobilized more than half of the villages in Spiti to take part in her initiative, providing each with the tools they needed to conserve, commercialize, and enhance existing supplies. Because women do most of agricultural work in India’s traditional mountain communities, the Spitiecosphere initiative formed female producer groups in select villages, comprising one woman per family on the basis of equitable benefit sharing. Today, men who had shown no interest in the first two years, have come forward for the harvest and processing periods, creating new opportunities for hundreds of unemployed youths and families in Spiti. Thanks to her efforts, production has increased from 2.5 tons in 2002 to 17 tons in 2006, and prices remain at a record high.

Ishita has created an impressive product line that features more than ten incarnations of the berry, ranging from seabuckthorn tea to squash, concentrate, jam, sauce, and instant powder. Moreover, whereas farmers formerly retained only a small fraction of the profits and suppliers merely of the raw materials, Ishita has built a functioning economy of scope, training the groups in technical production and effective marketing techniques. She has set up four seabuckthorn processing plants, and offers technical training to farmers and harvesters to enable them to become production managers. She finally links them with regional and national distribution networks, and as a result, her products now sell at a premium at high-end stores like Fab India, a nationwide cooperative. As a result, women in the region have adopted the role of custodians of their natural resource base, by both protecting existing seabuckthorn plants and spreading them along the riverbeds, which in turn, has had a marked impact on reducing erosion.

Ishita similarly promotes production of the black pea, a drought-resistant plant that also serves as a prime source of fodder for cattle, and barley. While barley has long been grown almost exclusively for consumption, Ishita is capitalizing on the growing demand for healthy, alternative foods, marketing it as a breakfast cereal and ingredient for low-fat snacks. She is exploring opportunities to set up local packaging units for these products, in order to once again eliminate the role of middle-men in the supply and distribution chain.

Ishita has further discovered the enormous untapped potential of the region’s medicinal herbs and plants. She found the last surviving Amchis (local doctors) and works with them to identify rare species of flora and fauna. With the Amchis’ approval, Ishita then promotes these indigenous products as health supplements and teaches consumers about those that can be used to treat common ailments. In addition, Ishita is training local youth in emergency relief and first-aid, to ensure that such knowledge is passed on to the next generation.

Believing that a community’s health and environmental needs go hand in hand, Ishita has established several greenhouses. Spiti’s cold, desert-like conditions are not suitable for green vegetable cultivation, meaning that when transportation ceases during the winter, local inhabitants must survive without vegetables. However, as part of her efforts to secure a green future for Spiti, Ishita is helping set up low-cost greenhouses to grow green leafy vegetables year-round.

In another effort to conserve natural resources while ensuring cultural preservation, Ishita has launched a carefully managed ecotourism enterprise, with activities that include home-stays, trekking, mountain biking, safaris, white water rafting and innovative Legend Trails. By training local youth as nature guides, she has enabled more than fifty households in five villages to benefit from Spitiecosphere’s community-based tourism package. A portion of the proceeds from the program are then returned to other conservation efforts in the community through a conservation fund.

Her efforts, moreover, do not end there. Spitiecosphere is also looking into promoting renewable energy options. On average, one family uses up to twenty quintals of wood or coal for fuel in the winter, at a cost of approximately Rs 8,000 (US$164). Apart from heavily contributing to carbon emissions, the government-subsidized fuel thus bears a huge economic burden for low-income families. To reduce this pressure, Ishita is designing new homes and remodeling existing ones to be solar passive, enabling reduced usage of fuel wood in the winters. And in another effort to resolve the human-wildlife conflict, Ishita has created an innovative fund in which the community agrees to contribute 10 percent of its income to support a Livestock Insurance Scheme. As a result, the last several years have seen a drastic decline in the killing of rare species of wildlife.

Spiti has unique and diverse handicrafts ranging from wool, metal work, to clay. To preserve this rich tradition of handicrafts as well as to create an additional source of income for women, women self-help groups have been formed to take care of quality upgradation, skill enhancement, economic analysis, and marketing of various handicrafts.

Spitiecosphere’s diverse assortment of activities is inherently well suited for adoption across the Himalayan belt, where similar geo-climatic and socioeconomic conditions are common. Work on seabuckthorn has been successfully replicated in Lahaul and Ladakh, while the concept of home-stays in eco-tourism has also been adapted in other parts of the Himalayas. Indeed, in an effort to promote greater commercialization of local products, Ishita got the state government to agree to finance the infrastructure needed to process seabuckthorn. Once entirely dependent on outside support, the Spiti valley is well on its way to achieving a self-sufficient and sustainable economy, built upon its enormous natural wealth and the creative entrepreneurial talents of its inhabitants.

The Person

Born in Dehradun, the capital of the state of Uttaranchal, Ishita spent considerable time in the Himalayas as a child. Her spirited grandmother, a British nurse during World War II, who later came to India and maintained a commitment to various community-based programs, had a profound impact on her development, as did her mother, who insisted she could do anything as long as it contained an element of adventure. Indeed, it was she who insisted that Ishita complete both basic and advanced mountaineering courses from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. These early treks led her to recognize humankind’s precarious vulnerability in the face of the rugged mountains, and just as importantly, its dependence on the mountains for basic survival.

Having conducted a research dissertation at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai and subsequent fieldwork in Gangotri, Ishita came to recognize the disastrous effects of so-called development initiatives on India’s fragile ecosystems and indigenous cultures. Soon after completing her coursework, she joined India’s frontline rural development organization CAPART, where she worked closely with the indigenous communities living in the remote rural areas of Himachal Pradesh.

Upon leaving CAPART in 2002, she and her husband launched the organization, Muse. Tragically, she lost her husband soon after in an accident in the area, yet her commitment to environmental protection and India’s mountain communities remained unabated. Using Muse as a foundation for her subsequent work, Ishita founded “Spitiecosphere” in 2006, taking on a broader gamut of ideas and activities. Ishita now lives and works in the region between the months of March and October, conducting her policy and advocacy work in New Delhi from November to February when the snows cut off Spiti.

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