On International Mountain Day, we talk to mountaineering groups who are not just scaling new heights but also helping the environment and local inhabitants
Edmund Hillary had said, “When you go to the mountains, you see them and you admire them. In a sense, they give you a challenge, and you try to express that challenge by climbing them.” This implies that mountains are not just those majestic and colossal natural resources, but are an ecosystem in themselves which constantly challenges, inspires and surprises you.
In the past few years, the urge to connect with nature and oneself has led to more and more people taking up mountaineering and trekking. However, some of the mountaineers have a deeper relationship with the mountains. Their motto is not just simply to push the boundaries and get an adrenaline rush but to climb mountains to bring about a change.
BETTER BUSINESS FOR LOCALS
With the number of trekkers constantly growing, the need for basic facilities and food has also increased. The areas which are famous for trekking and mountaineering are inhabited by economically and educationally backward tribals. “They are the only source who can promise food, water and accommodation to trekkers going to such hilly places and the only source of income for tribals is trekkers. Hence, we worked closely with the tribal people and trained them how to serve the food better and do a better business so that they can generate maximum income while serving the trekkers,” says Onkar Oak who has been helping tribals across Maharashtra since last 15 years. Besides, promoting and helping the tribals, Oak and his group, along with the help of other organisations, have been involved in fort conservation.
There is no fixed territory for this group, it generally focusses on the Sahyadri Mountain region in Maharashtra. “We visit all the forts in this region, help the rural people conserve the forts so that they attract more visitors and villagers can provide them better food and accommodation facility. We teach the villagers how to speak, serve food and interact with the customers,” Oak adds.
In the past 15 years, there has been a few positive changes in the lives of tribals. “Earlier, the area was completely backward and there was no source of income except farming but with tourism flourishing in recent years, the tribal people are much more involved in hospitality and providing basic facilities to trekkers,” says Oak.
Prema Iyer, Rajan Deshmukh, Meena Rumde, Naresh Shingrupe, Amita Chavan, Nana Patade and Ashok Gaikwad came together and started trekking in the Sahyadris during the weekends, and later came to be known as Saad Mountaineers. Iyer, founder member and secretary of Saad Mountaineers, believes that we, as humans, have responsibility to take care of the mountains and the life thriving on them.
Saad family is also largely involved in the social activities like conducting blood donation camps, tree plantation drives in the Sahyadri range, cleaning of forts and visiting tribal villages in remote Maharashtra (Melghat near Akola, Jawahar-Mokhada Shahapur), and distributing useful items like utensils, clothes, ration/ food items, medicines, etc for the families.
Says Iyer, “We have been organising these activities for the last 15 years. We do the coordination, and gather members, friends and doctors, and collect all the items from different areas in Mumbai, and personally distribute the same among villagers. With the help of the Gram Panchayat or the local social worker, we try to identify schools and academically good students and sponsor their education.”
Iyer and her team members have also been conducting medical camps and giving advice to women and children about basic cleanliness and personal hygiene. The group conducts surveys to check the health of the aged and expectant mothers periodically during the weekends.
Talking about her vision, Iyer says that her dream is to adopt a village in the tribal area where children have to walk around 15-20 km everyday to go to school. “There’s no transport facility, so even if they have to visit a doctor, they have to walk a distance of at least 15 km. I am planning to buy a small place in one of the villages and impart free education to the kids,” adds Iyer.
Despite her continuous efforts, the challenges are many. However, the gratification of bringing a positive change in people living around the mountain area is what drives her.
Says Iyer, “This is a very tedious job as these social activities are done post office hours. But it is not impossible. Besides, you get immense pleasure and happiness when you see the contentment on the people’s faces. Their gratitude speaks through their eyes and that is the ultimate reward for us. If we can make a small difference in a few people’s lives, this trouble is worth taking and we will continue to contribute in our own way.”
Mountaineering and trekking group Durgasakha tries to make a difference in the lives of people living in Shahapur, a tribal area in Thane. The native people and their children cut off from city life and modernisation are in dire need of upliftment. Thane-based Durgasakha is constantly working towards the betterment of the children from this region by providing them books, stationery, cycles, computers and so on.
“To make the items available to these children, we heavily bank on crowdfunding. The teachers who teach them in the schools located in the village, reach out to us with their needs such as blackboards, computers, books, etc and we try to arrange the same through events and generate funds from people who are present at the events,” says Makarand Ketkar who is an integral part of Durgasakha. He, along with his friends and the mountaineering group, has been working for the tribal people of Shahapur for the last seven years.
Despite his relentless efforts, the results are not too drastic, but there is hope that things will change for the better eventually. Ketkar says, “Nothing has changed much except that the students have become more hopeful. Since the area is very far, the problem of transport and commute still remains a major challenge. The geographical and territorial conditions haven’t changed much, but it is great to see how people living in the city are willing to come and support them.” Due to lack of schools and colleges for higher studies in the area, the group helps teenagers with scholarships, training, and grooming so that the youngsters can pursue their dreams.
Ketker urges that those living in urban areas become more sensitive to those living in and around the hills and find time to meet and know their problems. “Be a mountaineer and not just a tourist. Try to help them so that they too can have a better lifestyle and their children can get a good education and a better future,” he adds.