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Jyotsna Sitling, 45, has done exemplary eco-restoration work in Uttarakhand, helped the Valley of Flowers National Park in Chamoli achieve World Heritage Site (WHS) status and set in motion a unique conservation movement that has helped save the ecologically fragile Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.

Jyotsna is the diminutive but proud recipient of this year’s prestigious Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar, the country’s highest environmental honour. An Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer from Kalimpong, West Bengal, Jyotsna, as the director of the Nanda Devi National Park (NDNP), in 2001 launched a vigorous conservation campaign to save the park from rampant environmental abuse.

Jyotsna’s assignment involved ridding the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve buffer zone of the mountain-high piles of plastic and non-biodegradable waste, which had been dumped by pilgrims over the last three decades on their way to Hemkund Sahib. She painstakingly evolved a community-based waste management programme with local help.

This was crucial to save the ecologically sensitive 19km buffer zone of the unique Valley of Flowers in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve that stretches along the trek route from Govindghat to Hemkund Sahib. But the highly irresponsible environmental behaviour of the annual traffic of 600,000 pilgrims on this route had wrecked its beautiful surroundings, resulting in the accumulation of tonnes of putrescent garbage (plastic bags, bottles, rain coats and sundry packets) and other non-degradable waste.

For starters, Jyotsna cobbled together an eco-development committee (EDC) comprising locals and hired garbage collectors, who worked for a monthly salary of Rs1,000 with an additional commission of Rs5 per garbage bag. After working tirelessly for 14 months, Jyotsna’s ragtag team collected whopping 44 tonnes of garbage in 14,000 gunny bags! Tonnes of mule dung were also collected, as about 500 mules make daily to-and-fro trips during the five-month pilgrimage season. “The collected garbage matched the surrounding mountains in their height!” laughs Jyotsna. The filth was then transported on horsebacks to Govindghat and then to Delhi for recycling.

Jyotsna’s greater challenge lay in convincing about 76 families to demolish their 400 shacks and morph them into 76 shops – one shop per family, for better management of the ecologically sensitive area. After much convincing, they agreed.

But, that wasn’t enough. What complicated matters was the fact that the buffer area shared by the two parks was a crucible for 47 villages. Both parks, administered by the state government under the wildlife wing of Uttarakhand’s Forest Department, had been subject to reckless mountaineering activity from 1939 onwards. Anticipating ecological doom, the Centre shut down Nanda Devi for all anthropogenic activities in 1983. Since the popular peaks scaled were mostly within the Park, the directive deprived the villagers of their income through mountaineering services. “The conflict of interest between the state’s conservation strategy and local livelihoods led to an estranged park management-public relationship for over 20 years,” explains Jyotsna.

To make matters worse, the Valley of Flowers National Park – 87.5 sqkm ensconced within the upper Himalayan ridges at a height of 3,200 to 6,675mt – had its own set of conservation concerns, a shame considering it is one of the world’s most scenic alpine valleys. Close to 520 species of flowering plants and rare avifauna like the Scaly-bellied woodpecker, Great Barbett, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Spotted Dove and the Blue Magpie can be found here.

“The task was Herculean,” remarks Jyotsna, “Especially since the area’s ecosystem was in tatters and motivation low amongst the locals.” Moreover, the work required synergy between multifarious agencies and involved sensitive livelihood and ecological issues. That was the main reason behind Jyotsna’s department advocating a participatory approach. They crafted “mini pockets” of 40 van (forest) panchayats and 60 mahila mandal dals (women’s group squads) to “make conservation a socially and economically self-alleviating experience for the locals”. The idea was to integrate livelihood and equity concerns in conservation practices for a long-term solution.

Training was imparted to the community to harness local resources and generate eco-tourism activities. Growing and preserving of medicinal plants, exotic condiments and traditional crops were listed as a priority. This stimulated the avenues connected with the hill economy, which helped prevent poaching and illegal uprooting of herbs from nearby forests. Communities were also encouraged to document and preserve their culture and folklore. Local youth were developed as a skilled human resource on local bio-diversity, folklore and culture promotion.

Years of hard work started to bear fruit when the region’s ecosystem, too, demonstrated signs of regeneration. Jyotsna’s department nominated the Valley of Flowers to the UN’s World Heritage list in 2002 by submitting a proposal to the World Heritage Centre. After the proposal was submitted, the UN evaluation team visited the Valley of Flowers National Park and Nanda Devi National Park in September 2004 to assess the conservation status, its management strategy and the community interface in the conservation of the two parks.

On July 14, 2005, Unesco informed Jyotsna of the conferring of World Heritage Status to the Valley of Flowers National Park. Apart from it being a global honour, it has helped Uttarakhand attract a lot more international tourists and global conservation funds.

Neeta Lal

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