Land of Lepchas: Sikkim 34 th Shodhyatra

SY 1In One of the first Indian state to declare itself as organic, finding  clean mountains and stone pathways is not surprising. In fact there were more dustbins in the mountainous tracks near Lum village than in the plains. The result is that one does find plastic wastes near the settlements, scattered as they are. A child  Lyangsung, from Gnon Sangdong  suggested during an on the spot idea competition that a machine be developed to reuse waste plastic and make slippers for the poor people. There couldn’t be a better example of compassion and creativity blended so well. He did not know about 3D printers which we propose to gift to that community to make his idea come true. Lepcha tribe has an extraordinary repertoire of creativity in cuisine, craft, culture and architecture, besides, very rich biodiversity based knowledge system. One requires a permit to enter their region so that the cultural integrity of the community is not violated. In every village, Shodhyatris   found aesthetically designed bamboo stalls where dishes made of millets, yams and others tubers and fruits were displayed. The bamboo cups were an irresistible purchase besides of course local wines made of plums, cinnamon, pineapple, ginger and some local herbs having medicinal and nutraceutical properties. Recognising the ill-effects of drinking, Pema  Tsheling, a local community leader and few other sarpanches of adjoining villages had banned the sale of commercial liquor with a fine of ten thousand rupees for any violation. Let us hope that this becomes a regional norm.

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The arduous route used  by Shodhyatris, as many community members mentioned had not been used for the  last fifty years. Going from three thousand to six thousandfeet high and then coming down was indeed very strenuous. The cardamom crop had suffered a great deal of loss in the last few years because of disease infestation but the orange crop was extremely productive and tasteful. However, as is wont in most tribal areas, there was practically zero in situ value addition. Several innovators walking with us shared their experience and demonstrated their ideas for triggering experimentation and innovation in this domain. Dharambir’s Food Processing Machine, a cycle based hoe, a fruit nipper were very popular. SRISTI and National Innovation Foundation (NIF) plan to follow up the Shodhyatra with some entrepreneurial initiatives in each of the fifty eight villages/watts of Dzongu district. One of the unusual fabric we came across was made of the fibre of stinging nettle. Only two families knew how to make it locally though Uttrakhand has more buoyant tradition still.

SY 7There were many plants which were potential source of herbal pesticide. A farmer in Songyang village had made an innovative herbal pesticide solution combing six different plants. Mr. S. C. Gupta, Additional Chief Secretary and the Forest Secretary Dr. Thomas Chandy  felt that this could be one area of immediate collaboration between Sikkim government and SRISTI lab/NIF. It is not very surprising that till ecological balance is achieved controlling pest attack, organic crops need sustainable pest management  as these are preferred by even the pests, sweet as they are. While a small incidence of pest can serve as a stamp of the authenticity of organic claims, not many consumers of organic produce in the cities realize that. Whenever you come across a blemish free round red tomato or fruit, you can be sure that it has been sprayed with chemical pesticides. With the introduction of in situ value addition and sustainable packaging, Sikkim can attract those consumers who would like to pay not only for the purity of products but also the pristine environment in which they grow and develop. If we want our mountains to be green, water to be clean and landscapes of love and care to flourish then we have to vote with our purchasing power. How else we will incentivise local youth to return to the roots and manage these landscapes. The concept of stay home is picking up where interested visitors can stay with a family, enjoy local food, hospitality, nourishment of uncultivated vegetables and yams. I hope that more and more entrepreneurs will engage with local communities to add value to local biodiversity and trigger, a consumer supported ecological agriculture and food economy in the Himalayan region. Completely native forest with practically no plantation is available in few regions of the country and Sikkim is one of them. We also hope that if you decide to visit Sikkim, you will bring your trash back, so that the beauty of pathways and natural diversity is preserved for future generation.

Special incentives are needed to urgently promote more investment in hostels for girls, higher number of scholarships (Sikkim already provides a very generous support for school and higher education to bright students), fab and design labs, community workshops,  innovation and entrepreneurship funds in every school and Panchayats and special on line and off line platform for linking innovation, investment and social and economic enterprise.

34 th Shodhyatra in north Sikkim: education, culture and diversity 

SY 17If you want to charge mobile phone in an interior village of Lepcha tribals in North sikkim, with cloudy weather and uncertain electricity supply, what will you do? In Shagyong, we met a young boy Mayal Lepcha.  He came out with a brilliant idea of fitting a small generator in the water tap so that when water flows through it, one can charge mobile phone.  Many more ideas were discovered through idea contest in every village we have visited so far. We had received similar idea from Bihar once but Mayal had no clue  about it, he had never seen it. But that did not prevent him to  imagine a new solution for a persistent local problem i.e., irregular power supply.   SRISTI gave him a small amount to make such a device.  His confidence went up and the other children who came with him to Gor village where we stayed last night also got inspired.

As a part of 34th Shodhyathra in Dzongu region of north Sikkim from Jan 28 – Feb 3, we have heard about  concerns and questions that school children have raised while looking forward to faster economic growth in future.

SY 6When we started from Dikchu and stayed at Lum village, the children presented a very happy cultural performance.  We were deeply impressed by the culinary and biological diversity as well as the knowledge richness of the children.  They had gone around the village talking to the elders and documenting diverse uses of various plants and their parts. But they were also anxious as to whether anything would come out of sharing this knowledge.  Never before had any value been added to their knowledge and thus they did not know if things would change because of the Shodhyatra by Honey Bee Network volunteers.    Notwithstanding the fact that this region inhabited by Lepcha tribe is protected and requires inner permit to go, we could see so many aspirations in the eyes of the children.  The Sikkim state government provides fellowship to the children to study in different parts of the country to rise in their life.  But the Headmaster of the local school appreciated the brilliance but regretted that not many came back to serve their region.  It seems that majority of the functionaries and teachers are from other regions of the state.

SY17In many schools, the number of girls is about one third or less, exceptions apart. There were three reasons that could be responsible. Despite 200 – 300 students in different schools, there were only five toilets for girls and some of them may be out of order at any time. A very few schools have residential facilities for girls and the transportation facilities are of course woefully inadequate.  We did see tremendous efforts are being made in building pathways for children to go to schools.  The local SDM, Mr. Dorjee has been staying with us in the villages and walking along. In none of the 33 Shodhyatras before such a thing has ever happened.  It shows tremendous responsiveness of the administration and their interest in learning together through Shodhyatra.  Mr. P.D.Roy, Member of Parliament and a distinguished alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad has organized our meeting with the state administration on 3rd Feb. Today at sangiong village, the head of district panchayat, Ms  Anguli Lepcha  attended the meeting and showed a very interesting museum of Lepcha tribal artefacts in the school building.

If we want educational development in the region without which no sustainable development can take place, then we must provide much better facilities in the schools.  We should create audio-visual libraries of educational content and have a fabrication lab in every school so that the children can learn to design and develop solutions not only for local but also for regional and global markets.  We should not follow an incremental approach.  In high schools, we should provide phytochemistry lab and start a special two-year programme of biotechnology technician with sufficient skills to develop herbal products.  We came across plants for reducing blood pressure, healing wounds, curing urinary troubles, curing diarrhoea, curing diabetes, dissolving blood clots, etc.  Our goal should be that no raw material goes out of the region without value addition.  We have to bring about a biodiversity based revolution so that this region is as economically developed as people across the border.  National Innovation Foundation has decided to engage with the local communities and unleash a grassroots entrepreneurship programme with local youth soon after the Shodhyatra.  One of the Presidential awardees, Dharamvir showed his food processing machine and the villagers didn’t want him to take it back.  There is a huge potential demand for knowledge and innovation based enterprises.   We are looking forward to learn a lot more in the coming days when we walk through different villages to conclude the walk in Lingzya and Tingvong villages.  We are deeply inspired by the cleanliness of the mountains where dustbins are placed at every few hundred meters.  We wish the Indian cities will also have similar facilities.

SY 11The tea in a bamboo cup tastes so good that we hope someday, there will be no plastic cup in the country and north eastern region will provide millions of bamboo cups all over the country and unleash its entrepreneurial potential. To begin with, may be the Prime Minister should start offering tea in bamboo cups to his guests. These could be gifted too to the special guests.

Almost all households in Sikkim have been provided toilets but in schools the situation is different. Senior officers from dirty cities of India could visit Sikkim, Mizoram and such regions in North east to see what can be done on cleanliness front. Children need counselling centres, and online tuitions helpline and face to face reactions periodically. Sikkim can teach a few lessons about how ICDS  program caters to the needs of tintype tots. Songian village has decided not to allow hard liquor brought From outside. Local herbal nutrition drinks are allowed of course. This is first such attempt in Sikkim.

More lessons from this exciting Shodhyatra in next column. Till then absorb the energy of pristine biodiversity, nature, cleanliness, charming children, vibrant traditional knowledge systems, and innovative ideas from North Sikkim.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place