How is 'Sustainable Travel' helping children in India's Samthar Valley?

Sustainable Travel India - Samthar - Awake and Shine school classroom.jpg

In the Samthar Valley of West Bengal, sustainable travel is directly benefitting local communities through investments in infrastructure, environmental projects and educating local children at the inspired Awake and Shine School.

In many developing nations, a substantial part of tourism revolves around the country’s natural beauty and architectural heritage and as the volume of visitors multiplies, sustainability is a rising concern.

Ideally sustainable tourism involves the well-being of the local communities, protection and management of cultural and natural assets, limiting the environmental impact of tourism, controlling tourist activity levels and reaping economic benefits from tourism.

A perfect example is Bhutan’s policy towards tourism which is a cautious one and works on the concept of ‘high-value, low volume’ tourism that keeps a control on the quality and quantity of tourists coming into the country.

However the scale of things in India are far greater and hence several hotels have themselves shouldered the responsibility to work on a sustainable tourism model rather than waiting for the government to come up with such a policy.

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One such initiative is the lovely Samthar Farm House, located in the scenic and tranquil Samthar Valley, 45 kms from Kalimpong in West Bengal. It is surrounded by mountain streams, terraced cultivation and forests. The inhabitants are a blend of various ethnic groups – Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepali.

The views of the great ranges are panoramic and the atmosphere is serene. To showcase the Samthar Valley, homestays have been set up with philanthropic assistance, the premium offering being Samthar Farm House, personally hosted by Gen. Singh. Homestays are an excellent way to travel responsibly in India as one can be certain that a local family and community is benefitting from tourism, as the income for the accommodation goes directly to the hosts.

However, Gen. Jimmy Singh, as he his fondly called, realized that a further challenge to local sustainability was to find funds for infrastructure development and for maintaining local assets in a good condition.

Small-time farmers and land holders cannot get viable loans from anyone. The obvious conclusion is that funds should come through an integrated village tourism model, interlocking income generation from tourism with local community empowerment.

  • Sustainable Travel India - Samthar - Awake and Shine school.jpg

To add to that he also realised the main hurdle in finding gainful employment for village youth was lack of suitable education at the primary level and proficiency in spoken English. That’s how Awake & Shine School came into existence with a single nursery class of 15 children in 2007. He wanted to provide quality education alongside personality building. Now there are 146 children across the Primary School age range.

General Singh’s vision for the school is to develop the personality of rural children and to empower them through ability to communicate in English. They learn self-confidence, the spirit of adventure, manners and hygiene, consciousness of the environment and pride in their work here. All of these things are designed to prepare the children for gainful employment as adults.

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Awake and Shine school also empowers local adults through employment. They are trained and employed by the school in various departments, whether it is the kitchen, administrative areas or teaching. This has increased their earning capacity and improved their quality of life.

In addition, the organization has been involved in various rural development projects such as rain water harvesting, solar energy and medical clinics.

During your stay at Samthar, you can certainly visit these initiatives and even get involved with some of them. Your host can take you on walks around local hamlets and villages to introduce you to local families and to get an insight into their lives.

You can even help with local village tasks such as traditional ploughing, caring for cattle and milking, collecting firewood and maybe building a bamboo frame house.

You can also visit the Rise and Shine school and see for yourself how much the local children are benefitting from the fruits of sustainable tourism. Gen. Jimmy Singh rightfully terms it a movement that he has started!

Images courtesy of Samthar Farm House.

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Posted by: Harsha Ogale

Posted on: 28th December 2016

Read more: Posts about Asia

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