Manoj Bhatt

Ashoka Fellow
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Fellow since 2009
This description of Manoj Bhatt's work was prepared when Manoj Bhatt was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


Manoj Bhatt is creating an income-generation based model of conservation which will generate supplementary cash income for rural families as well as revenue for community-based conservation projects. Manoj, through his organization, Research, Advocacy, and Communication in Himalayan Areas (RACHNA), is using tourism to assist in conservation and the greening of existing tourism infrastructure starting with his first initiative close to the source of the River Ganges.

The New Idea

RACHNA’s model integrates business, community, public policy, and government programs to provide incentives to local communities to protect the Himalayan ecology. It is trying to achieve lasting conservation of these important ecosystems in a way that generates jobs and income for local people. Manoj realized that without cash incentives, it is difficult to sustain and improve peoples’ interest in conservation. His idea, therefore, revolves around the concept of “consensual tourism”: Communities decide if they want to launch initiatives and how to use the profits. Venues are small and the impact of tourists is kept low. But despite being locally-scaled, this model is challenging the governments more aggressive, prescriptive, and less sensitive approach while also ensuring long-term viability.The first step toward ensuring local control is developing nature-based tourism enterprises owned and managed by local communities. Specifically, “Community Guest Houses” will be owned by a group of rural families interested in rural tourism. The structure of the enterprise is such that 60 percent of the profits will go back to the local people. The rural population will be trained in tourism-related activities which will lead to an enhancement of their skills. The guest houses can be used as a destination for tourists, a source of funding for the community, and a symbol of the culture of that community.Manoj realized that the natural next step toward conserving the local environment while generating income for the locals was to educate and engage the community on conservation plans and encourage tourists’ involvement in these plans. Ecotourism alone would not be enough if tourist visits were not used productively; instead, they could potentially destroy the region. Additionally, the arrival of tourists and the growth of the local industry could create more job opportunities for women. As the industry grows, women are playing the role of local supplier and raising and selling produce to local restaurants. RACHNA works to ensure that no child labor is used and helps restaurant owners to be business savvy and more environmentally friendly in their use of products. All these efforts together represent the plan Manoj has to use for the tourism industry and its employees and customers to become a force for protecting the Himalayas, one of the most important but fragile mountain ecosystems in the world.

The Problem

The ecology of the Himalayas is unique and has extensive and pervasive influence on the life of all the people living in the region. This fragile environment is greatly endangered. The deteriorating forest ecology negatively impacts the lives of the rural population in the region. In such a fragile state, even the gathering of firewood can have a severe impact. Though locals have been good at replanting trees in the area, the penchant has been for the fast growing but foreign chir pine, a tree with shallow roots that now, it has become clear, does little to protect the soil or mountain aquifers. The downward spiral of degradation of natural resources results in a lack of nutrients for agricultural fields, contributes to climate change that negatively impacts agriculture, reduces the viability of the local subsistence economy, increases migration of men to the cities for employment opportunities, and even begins to deteriorate the health of women due to the strenuous workload and lack of nutritious food. During the peak of its season, the numbers of tourists are greatest and so is their detrimental impact on the environment; at present, this booming industry follows no norms of responsibility. And during the winter, families that were less successful the summer before or whose luck has turned in autumn find it hard to get through the winter in their desolate towns.Another major problem has been unsustainable and jobless tourism growth in this part of the Himalayas. The pressure of unsustainable practices of development such as tourism, road construction without much planning and study, and unimaginative and unplanned tourism-based growth of small towns has made matters worse. The available government data shows that the number of visitors increased by 60 percent in the Garhwal region (2004 to 2006) and is continuing to grow every year. However, the number of jobs created in the past five years has barely crossed 4 percent; large numbers of youth remain unemployed in the area even though more tourists and, with them, money is flowing in.One reason that the rising number of tourists has not necessarily translated into more opportunities for all in the region has to do with where tourist activity takes place. The existing tourism sector is concentrated on the main motor roads leading to the headwaters of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and their main tributaries, a popular summertime tourist destination. The orientation toward the roads and the existing (though limited) infrastructure is so strong that most vegetables and produce come into the area from regions hundreds of miles away and by road as opposed to coming via footpath from local resident’s farms in the fertile hills nearby. So though facilities and services in the area need to be developed so that they follow the international standards of responsible tourism, so too do links to local producers.Without such opportunities for farmers and young people to work in this industry, many adult male members of the families are migrating to cities for better-paid employment. This has taken its toll on the women in the communities. Women have been forced to single-handedly take the workload of subsistence agriculture in addition to taking care of children and elderly family members. This situation has forced families to engage children, especially girls, in household work at the cost of their education and school attendance. As a result women and children are overburdened and malnourished. In addition, collection of wood fuel and animal fodder from the shrinking forests and fetching water from rapidly depleting water sources is becoming an increasingly time and labor intensive activity. As more natural resources are depleted, women are forced to walk further from their homes and into the fragile mountain ecosystems to collect firewood and animal fodder. In fact, the average time spent by women on these activities has increased by 60 percent in the last quarter of the century alone.

The Strategy

RACHNA’s model integrates business, community, and public policy and government programs to provide incentives for everyone to protect the Himalayan ecology. Manoj is trying to attain the lasting conservation of these important ecosystems in a way that generates jobs and income for local people. Without cash incentives it is difficult to sustain and increase peoples’ interest in conservation. Manoj therefore has envisioned, and is in the process of creating Community Guest Houses (CGH), which are owned and run by the Himalayan village communities. These guest houses will offer environmentally friendly and creative activities such as mountain trekking and village walks, bird watching, cultural events, local organic food, authentic yoga exercises, and environmental education in the villages of Garhwal Himalayas.

The CGH will be set up by Home in the Himalayas Private Limited, a joint venture of Gram Paryatan Prabandhan Samiti or GPPS (Hindi for: Village Tourism Management Committee) and RACHNA, with an average investment of around 40 percent by RACHNA and 60 percent as an interest-free loan to GPPS by IFMR Trust, a venture capital fund. The company will be responsible for marketing and sales, bookings, customer relations, monitoring, logistics, and expansion. Each guest house will create full-time jobs for at least five village youth, such as management, cooking, and trek-guiding. The guest house will also provide supplementary income for 10 to 12 marginal farmer families who will be the investors, suppliers of food grains, milk, and vegetables. The program will also generate regular revenue, 10 percent of the profit, for implementation of the community-based conservation work plan or supporting the conservation activities of the Van Panchayats (Sanskrit for Village Forest Councils) and effectively revitalizing these community bodies and turning them into well-funded agents of change.

RACHNA will not only “green” the current tourism infrastructure by providing locally grown produce and introducing environmentally conscious operational techniques, but each individual guest house will be built in a way that is not harmful to the environment and goes with the ecology of the Himalayas. Each guest house will resemble a traditional local house with earthquake safe bricks and construction technology, appropriate roof-top rain water harvesting structure, water efficient toilets, and proper waste treatment and disposal mechanisms. This will ensure that the guest houses will become models of sustainable rural tourism in the Himalayas.

Finally with RACHNA’s assistance, the CGH will engage some percentage of the visitors in conservation work. The idea is to instill in these visitors the sense that this is a “water tower” and that it needs to be protected. The drying up of this source would be a huge problem; millions of people are dependent on these rivers. Currently, climate change advocates are focused on glaciers as a source of water, but they fail to realize that only 50 percent of the world’s water is coming from the glaciers. The other half is from the forests and groundwater. RACHNA is working on making visitors a continuous part of the conservation project. RACHNA will also function as an information center to provide education to visitors, including urban youth on local culture and environment. It will be responsible for promoting organic agriculture and handicrafts, promoting and organizing cultural events, and managing a membership program for stakeholders to promote their active engagement in the environmental activities in the villages.

Construction of the first six CGH are currently underway in one valley near the source of the Ganges. Uphill from the major road and its hotels, restaurants, truck stops, and parking lots, these six villages chose the CGH model over a flashy government bid to put in a massive chairlift to carry tourists above the highest village and onto an untouched grassy area. Not only would just one or two well-connected men in the village benefit from this scheme, but Manoj helped everyone realize that the grassland that would be trampled when tourists disembark from the chairlift played a vital role in the local ecology and water cycle.

Another key component of Manoj’s work is to create jobs for women not just in tourism but also in implementing “conservation work plans.” This conservation work is community owned and managed, and implemented through the village forest councils in partnership with the government, hydropower projects as well as other citizen organizations. According to the plan, plant nurseries are being established as viable microenterprises, and women’s groups are being provided training in nursery raising, and through training provided by other local citizen organizations, are learning to generate demand for saplings in the region. At present, two nurseries have been set up and the target is to grow 30,000 plant saplings by next year. As the forest councils grow with revenue from the tourism projects and spread their knowledge about conservation, there will be increased demand for locally raised saplings to replace exotic trees like the chir pine that are ill-suited to locals’ needs. Financial incentives will also be provided to local women’s groups for planting of fodder and fuel wood trees in common lands such as catchment areas of the water springs and effective protection of the planted trees and the land. Furthermore, local communities are being trained in data gathering, compiling, and analysis of the status of the soil, forest and water resources as well as documentation of the traditional norms of conservation and past successes of the communities. A watershed conservation association will be formed in districts where the tradition of Van Panchayats does not exist, and a conservation fund will be put in place for this. As tourism grows, so too will a new professional class working to preserve and the protect the rivers and lands that are drawing them to the region in the first place.

As Manoj builds on the success of the nurseries, grows the networks of village forest councils, and supervises the completion of the first guest houses, he has been busy making the existing tourist industry more eco-friendly while also engaging much more of the labor force so that boys and men would not be forced to migrate. RACHNA is currently in the process of launching a program in partnership with Accion International (with the Dell Foundation) and has become a partner to all the “green businesses” in this region. One “makeover” that has been very successful involves the small roadside eating places called dhabas, which employ many enterprising rural children who then leave for Delhi and Bombay to work with “city restaurants.” These dhabas get their supplies from Uttar Pradesh since the local producers and the restaurants are not linked. With support from Accion International, Manoj’s idea is training the dhabas workers to be more business savvy in sourcing ingredients locally and creating green restaurants that are hygienic, do not employ children but do use local produce and filtered water.

The Person

Manoj was born in Uttarakhand, India. After finishing school he went to Garhwal University where he studied political science. After completing college he taught in the university for a little over three years and was a student activist in the movement for a separate Uttarakhand state. (Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh and became an independent state in November 2000). Manoj began his career in the development sector with Shri Bhubaneshwari Mahila Ashram (SBMA) where he worked on strengthening the Panchayati Raj system in the new state of Uttarakhand. While at SBMA, Manoj and the team started RACHNA which was independently established in 2004 with him leading the organization as Executive Director. In 2005 Manoj received the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Award. As part of the award he earned a full-time professional post-graduate degree from the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York, in environment and development.As an orator, writer, development consultant, and social entrepreneur, Manoj has been leading projects, social movements, public policy campaigns, and organizations for sustainable development in India. His work has been recognized by several national and international organizations. He represented the Central Himalayan NGOs in the Rio+5 Earth Summit organized by the UNGASS in 1997. He was awarded a one year fellowship from Future Generations to work and learn from world-class professionals leading community development and policy initiatives in India and the U.S. Manoj was also a two-year Fellow of the Rainer Arnhold Fellows Program of the Mulago Foundation and applied theories of sustainable change and their application and growth at different scales in the U.S., India, and Nepal.In 2007 Manoj received the Environment Protection through Incentives for Conservation (EPIC) Luce Foundation special fellowship award from Columbia Business School to write case studies on incentive- based conservation. Manoj’s academic and networking work during his studies was recognized by the university, which awarded him the Progressive Sustainability Award (2007). He has recently been selected as a Climate Change Leader by Leadership for Environment and Development, India. Manoj lives with his wife and two daughters in Dehradun.