Pushkin Phartiyal

Ashoka Fellow
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Pushkin Phartiyal's work was prepared when Pushkin Phartiyal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.


Pushkin Phartiyal works on rural livelihood and sustainable management of natural resources in the Indian Himalayas. By using elements of traditional institutions, such as Panchayats, for the management of natural resources alongside new technology, Pushkin is bringing together stakeholders to address the critical issues of livelihood, conservation, and global warming in the Himalayas.

The New Idea

Pushkin is building a green economy in the Himalayas. In response to increasing environmental degradation, due to a burgeoning population, he has developed a collection of opportunities designed to promote sustainable livelihood through efficient management of the resources and the environment. These efforts have connected the marginalized mountain communities with the market economy and created an incentive to not only conserve the region’s dwindling resources but also to sustain the regeneration process of forests and water resources. The local communities thus retain primary ownership over their natural resource base while reducing the drudgery of day-to-day living.

To address the issue of livelihood, Pushkin avails of market forces as the primary drivers to move the government and the local communities to embrace sustainable agriculture and use of forest resources, while ensuring adequate carbon sequestration in the region. Based on the premise that the management of natural resources becomes more efficient when it is linked to economic activities of the local communities, he has been able to bring about effective local environmental governance while introducing an integrated approach on the management of natural resources through agriculture and horticulture.

The Problem

Nearly 230 million people reside in the Indian Himalayas. They are heavily dependent upon its natural resource base for their subsistence and livelihoods. Another 325 million people live near the forests that are also economically dependent on its products to varying degrees. The low altitude Himalayas stretch across twelve states and provinces of India in addition to the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. Home to over 9,000 glaciers, the Himalayas form a unique reservoir, storing 12,000 cubic kilometres of fresh water from where over a dozen prominent rivers originate and flow year-round through mainland India, besides providing a multitude of ecosystem services such as water, timber, biomass, and fodder for the basic livelihoods of the communities that inhabit the region.

In the Uttarakhand state, forests occupy 65 percent of the geography and only 14 percent of land is available for agricultural activities. As a result, the dependence of the local communities on forest resources for their daily need of biomass, fodder, and fuel-wood are adversely affecting the equilibrium. The communities are pushed to the brink of extreme poverty. Shrinking agriculture and state-protected forests leave them with no other alternative but to migrate to city centers in search of livelihood. While the men migrate in search of better jobs, the women are forced to work longer hours collecting fodder and biomass for their daily sustenance. As a result, traditional social structures are adversely affected by the new dynamics in these communities.

The decrease in agricultural production has led to the increasing import of essential commodities at higher prices. In remote areas, where there is limited or no access to roads, farmers are less interested in growing produce as the cost of transporting it to the market is higher than the amount its sale will bring for the farmer. Due to the lack of support and restrictions imposed by the state on accessing the forests, the traditional right of the rural communities over their natural resources, especially forest produce, has been curtailed. Thus, conservation efforts by the local communities have weakened.

Population growth and economic isolation coupled with the impact of global climate change have weakened this fragile mountain ecosystem and have resulted in increasing poverty, unemployment, and migration rates. The government’s investment in conservation is largely restricted to the activities being undertaken by the forest departments while valuation of the services of the poor in managing the forest resources is often neglected.

The larger problem is even more alarming—the great rivers that flow from the melting glaciers are drying up and carrying less volume of water as compared to previous decades. Erratic rainfall patterns confuse the downstream farmers while sudden rains trigger flash floods costing the communities and the state exchequers billions of rupees.

The government has not been able to come up with holistic solutions due to a lack of understanding and political will. Further contributing to the problem is the lack of healthy diplomatic relations among the seven countries that are natural custodians of the Himalayas. India, despite being the second largest potential actor, has unreservedly failed to create livelihoods for the 230 million inhabitants by building a sustainable economy.

The Strategy

Pushkin realized that issues facing local Himalayan communities must be linked to a larger global problem. He introduced incentives for managing community forests which, in turn, triggered continued carbon sequestrations to fight climate change. He also convinced the government about the urgency of considering long-term ecosystem health and its role in enabling human habitation and allied economic activity. To help the decision makers, he assigned economic values to the ecosystem services based on the cost of replacement with anthropogenic alternatives. Pushkin is prompting interdisciplinary shifts in how decision makers, through policy changes, enable communities to manage the environment while depending on it for their livelihood. The Government of India has allocated 10 million Indian Rupees for the ecosystem services to state authorities.

Through ecosystem services such as fodder, firewood, biomass, medicinal herbs, and aromatic plants, Pushkin has managed to prove that forests begin to regenerate even before their next exploitation. Interventions such as gravity-assisted material ropeways for transporting agricultural produce between hills and roads, the use of green fertilizers, efficient water harvesting in the mountains and community forest management have created a new rural economy that generates tangible profits while exhibiting benefits hitherto intangible for the communities. For example, the communities can avoid deforestation for construction of roads—each kilometer of road warrants clearing 5 hectares of forests that reduces carbon sequestration by 3 to 4 tons per hectare per annum. The ropeways need only 1/50th of land and use the excess energy generated in the local hydropower projects that otherwise would go waste. The communities are taught to take care of the ropeways. Information such as weather forecasts, pricing, and communication through mobile phones has improved time management and mental security. All these interventions have begun to transform the lives of the communities in terms of economic status, nutrition, health, and education of their children.

When Pushkin joined the Central Himalayan Environment Association (CHEA) in 2003, he began by strengthening the 1,200 Van Panchayats (Village Forestry). Over the next four years he covered all 12,089 Van Panchayats in the state of Uttarakhand. He mobilised the mountain communities to work on agricultural and horticultural activities in conjunction with ecosystem services assisted by carbon neutral technologies. He introduced the Indian honey bees for faster pollination which in the past was replaced by a more honey producing exotic variety that failed to pollinate essential crops. It has since created a unique system of livelihood and conservation that offers a resource base to local communities.

The management of the forest is handed over through the Van Panchayats to the communities where Pushkin has ensured women’s maximum participation. The communities started undertaking activities on mountain agriculture and horticulture through several technology interventions, such as gravity-assisted material ropeways to provide access for the hill farmers to the market, low cost irrigation systems, underwater storage through roof water harvesting, zero-energy cool chambers, and organic composting from biomass. Once he tested success in seventy-four village clusters that benefited over 4,000 families, Pushkin replicated it through CHEA’s institutional mechanisms.

Pushkin visualized an emerging opportunity to extend and diversify the scope of rural livelihoods through intensive agriculture and horticulture by linking it to the environmental movement around global warming. He introduced affordable technologies that reduce drudgery for women and men, improve access to the market, and increase production through better returns, while linking most of these activities with natural resource management.

Pushkin introduced ecosystem services to the communities as the next logical step. Thus, local capacity building replaced expensive carbon consultants who came only for measuring the increase or decrease of carbon sequestration. He trained the villagers to use modern gadgets and methods of measuring carbon sequestration, thereby making them major stakeholders in the local environmental governance and management of sustainable ecosystem service. Communities began to benefit from a multitude of resources and processes which are supplied by the natural ecosystem. Pushkin popularizes these ecosystem services, such as clean drinking water, decomposition of waste, green manure, nutrient cycles, and crop pollination.

Pushkin started by identifying tangible economic incentives; he moved the government to recognize the economic gains by providing ecosystem services to downstream areas at an affordable cost. He lobbied the government to recognize the value of ecosystem services to be reflected in national accounting systems, particularly while transferring money from the center to states. Receiving payment for maintaining standing forests will be a great advancement in the area of conservation. Presentation of statistical data made economic sense to the government; for example, the estimated total value of forest ecosystem services flowing from Uttarakhand is about US$2.4 billion per annum.

To make “Community Carbon Forestry” more relevant to conservation and climate change, and to take the campaign to a global level, Pushkin formed “Global Community Carbon Forestry Alliance.” Essentially carbon sequestration by community managed forests warrants local communities not only to measure carbon sequestration but to also take complete ownership of conservation and re-growth.

Pushkin has partnered with the University of Twente of Netherlands and a couple of community forestry institutions in developing countries to push his global agenda. So far he has replicated his idea in the mountain regions of Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan. Pushkin is focusing on strengthening his two initiatives, “Global Community Carbon Forestry Alliance” and the “Indian Himalayan Initiative” to address the policy issues pertaining to rural livelihoods and management of natural resources, especially the fragile Himalayas as a cross country issue warranting the immediate attention of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar, India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

The Person

Pushkin grew up in the Himalayas, spending most of his childhood years in the forests. As a National Cadet Corps cadet he created a rowing club at university and was awarded the Governor’s Gold Medal for being the Best Cadet of Uttar Pradesh. He also took part in the National Service Scheme (a program under the Department of Youth Affairs and Sports that aims to inculcate a social welfare mindset among college students). As an avid organizer of young people, Pushkin spent lot of his time in the mountains addressing issues such as youth leadership and the roles that they can play in conserving the environment. He was elected Joint Secretary and President of the Student Union at Kumaun University.

After attaining his Ph.D. in pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history of India, where he compared certain traditional practices of the mountain communities with local governance and community participation, Pushkin worked as a journalist for the Press Trust of India. His travel to remote parts of the Himalayas exposed him to the dearth of livelihood opportunities and the environmental degradation. Pushkin started applying his thoughts to these problems and discussed them with other like-minded people to come up with a holistic solution. After a series of path-breaking articles on environmental degradation and the economic plight of the mountain communities, Pushkin initiated reporting to cater to development needs. In 1996 he joined the Centre for Development Studies under the aegis of the state Academy of Administration, Nainital to conduct research on livelihood conservation. Through this work, Pushkin established a Mountain Development Cell (MDC) that brought thinking minds together. As the birth of the new state called Uttarakhand became imminent, the MDC came up with policy level solutions on livelihood and conservation.

As soon as Uttarakhand was officially declared a state (in 2000), Pushkin, along with MDC members, presented the policy frameworks to the new government. This entailed action on livelihood, forestry, and the environment. In the meantime, CHEA had conducted insightful research on the Himalayan region. In 2003 Pushkin joined CHEA by invitation, to create new solutions for the development of the region. He soon began to lead its livelihood and sustainable development programs and created and implemented ideas on training the village communities, restoring the Van Panchayats, while actively involving the state with his work. Here Pushkin introduced the concept of community carbon forestry with ecosystem services. In 2008 Pushkin took over CHEA as Executive Director.