May East: Do-it-yourself ideas take root in the fertile minds of India's hill peoples

Darjeeling has long been considered the Queen of the Hills, with its backdrop of majestic snowcapped mountains, dense forests and clean rivers feeding into lush valleys. For ­centuries its landlocked nature has supported a slow pace of growth, providing locals and visitors with some respite from the heat, humidity and stresses of the Indian plains.

This wonderful setting was the backdrop for a recent sustainable development goals (SDG) training event involving Gaia Education, the Darjeeling Goodwill Centre, the Himalayan Institute of Goodwill and Living and T’Classic Darjeeling Ltd.

More than 35 local institutions, ­represented by educators, environmentalists, urban planners, social entrepreneurs, feminists and tea growers, met to discuss the local relevance of the SDGs to one of the most beautiful hill stations in the world.

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This was a crucial gathering – although Darjeeling is nestled in the scenic foothills of the spectacular mountain Kanchenjunga, it is faced with serious environmental challenges such as water scarcity, poor urban sewage and sanitation ­services.

In a region with plentiful mountain streams and rivers, hotels are refuelled every day by water trucks, while local people carry water with hand carts over the narrow slopes and overcrowded roads. Leakage, deforestation, the drying up of ‘jhoras’ (small rivers), a faulty distribution network, and high population growth, have resulted in water ­scarcity in Darjeeling.

It was no surprise that the group prioritised #SDG6 – clean water and sanitation – as one of the three top SDGs to be delivered between now and 2030, with potential activities such as rooftop rainwater harvesting and awareness raising activities to promote responsible consumption (#SDG12) amongst its growing population.

With the influx of tourism and lack of integrated planning policies and conservation measures, the group also prioritised #SDG11 – sustainable cities and ­communities – as a potential catalyst for the changes needed in the context of rapid unplanned urbanisation and its impact on infrastructure, mobility, waste management, noise and air pollution.

The training will support ­communities to develop a long term vision, define the next achievable steps and travel the path of change. Local activists have begun to identify policies and resources that will help deliver an integrated SDG plan, based on local input from people of the hills.

We leave Darjeeling and continue our journey towards Sikkim, a landlocked state in Eastern India. It is one of the smallest states in India, but one of the richest in natural resources, especially forests and water. ­Chalamthang, the location of our next training event, is a special village – the self-declared cleanest organic village in Sikkim.

Located 42km from the capital, Gangtok, Chalamthang is surrounded by forests and farmlands. Its name means Orange Valley, referring to a time when oranges grew in this humid Himalayan subtropical micro-climate.

The area’s economy is characterised by agriculture. Since 2003, Sikkim has declared itself the first fully organic state in India. Since then, 6,000 farmers have been trained to avoid using chemical ­pesticides and fertilisers. In April, Sikkim banned the import of vegetables from other states to support local farmers and cut food-miles. With a population of just over 1000 people, Chalamthang has been growing its community-led home stay operations, providing a traditional village experience to visitors interested in reaching less-popular travel destinations in India.

Attendees at the SDG training event reflected the multi-ethnicity, multilingual and multicultural nature of the state. Government officials, educators, self-help groups, local media, young entrepreneurs, and representatives from tourism and agricultural sectors gathered in the community hall, for a transformative learning experience.

Participants defined #SDG4 – quality ­education – as a key goal for present and future generations. An integrated education for sustainable development curriculum will be adopted in the near future, incorporating new agro-ecology trends combined with traditional values. A re-evaluation of the role of teachers and educators, from ‘deliverers of knowledge’ to facilitators and supporters of the learning process is expected.

Responsible production and consumption – #SDG12 – was also identified as key to their vision of being the cleanest village in Sikkim. In the near future, plastic bottles will be banned and replaced by bottles made of locally harvested bamboo and old clothes will be recycled for bags and rugs. The vision is of a reforested and solar-powered Chalamthang by 2030.

This exercise highlighted how public engagement lies at the heart of the SDGs. Despite being a global agenda, the implementation of the SDGs implies locally adaptable, resource conserving policies, activities and products, carefully tailored to the biocultural uniqueness of each location. In Chalamthang there is now stronger connection between local and global aspirations. We need more Chalamthangs in the world!

May East, chief executive, Gaia ­Education.