Reversing the march from the hills
A project that attempts to create entrepreneurs in the Himalayas is stemming the flow of locals to big cities, writes Anjuli Bhargava
A project that attempts to create entrepreneurs in the Himalayas is stemming the flow of locals to big cities, writes ANJULI BHARGAVA
It was in September 2017 that Anjali Nabiyal made her big move. The 24-year-old shifted base from her home in Delhi to Peora in Kumaon. Born, raised and educated in Delhi, Nabiyal relocated to work on a project that is seeking to create a new genre of entrepreneurs in the region — an area where few opportunities exist.
Nabiyal, who had completed a one-year India Fellows Programme for Social Leadership in August 2017, was clear she wanted a career in the social sector. She wanted to do something more meaningful than “selling soap and toothpaste” and was only happy to give up the trappings of city life that she found tiresome. Here in Kumaon, she doesn’t have to worry about pollution or traffic. The food that she eats every day is grown in the vicinity and farm-fresh. She has none of the luxuries of life that city living offers, but, she says, she doesn’t miss them.
It isn’t that the region is entirely new to Nabiyal. Her own community comes from Dharchula in Uttarakhand, but Delhi is where her home has been since birth. Her parents — initially a bit taken aback — have come to accept her choice. Peora, where she lived initially in a local house, was in an isolated but stunning spot; recently she has moved to Sitla, which has a growing and thriving community, making her social life quite active.
After finishing his studies, Ravi Teja Dhavala applied for the India fellowship and went to work for a full year on a holistic child development plan in Chhattisgarh, among Naxalaffected children. During his fellowship Ravi noticed that many of the fellows wanted to work in urban area, but few were willing to go to rural areas. His own village — 200 kilometres from Visakhapatnam — came to his mind. So little has changed in his village in the last 20 years. If people like him continued to shun the rural landscape, what hope there was for improvement and change. That decided the job that Ravi accepted post his fellowship. He went to work in the Kumaon hills on the livelihoods project under Nabiyal. He has 14 entrepreneurs to monitor and hand-hold today.
Abhiskha Das moved from Guwahati to Peora to join the Udhyam livelihood project in the Kumaon hills. Armed with a master’s in social work and livelihoods from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, Das worked for a project in Dehradun’s Uttarakhand before deciding on the move that took her further into the remote parts of the state. Now, she has joined Nabiyal’s team and has her own set of entrepreneurs that she is responsible for.
Nabiyal, Dhaval and Das represent something of a reverse migration to the Himalayas from the urban jungles that India’s cities have slowly become. Youngsters from the hills typically head out of their local environments to the nearest big city for higher education and to find jobs. In this case, the reverse is happening.
Udhyam is just one of the projects representing this change, but it is clear more and more youngsters are looking at meaningful assignments and want to contribute to India’s development in a manner not seen before. Unlike the past when parents would have frowned upon such “madness”, today parents seem more in line with their children’s thinking. Nabiyal, Dhavala and Das say that their parents accept their choices and their only real worry is safety. The hills being so much safer than the cities —especially for women — there are no serious objections they raise. Unlike some years ago, there’s quite a thriving community of people for them to socialise with. Every few months, they meet new people who have settled around them, working either with the NGOs in the area or doing interesting work of their own that doesn’t require them to be in the cities anymore.
Launched in 2017, the main objective of Udhyam is to stem the flow of youth from the region into the plains and to assist and encourage them to set up businesses and enterprises of their own, where they can employ others while earning a living. The Udhyam project was launched by Himjoli founder Pankaj Wadhwa who noticed many worrying trends in the decade he spent working in Kumaon. The number of educated youth in the hills was rising, agriculture when practised was mostly for subsistence, many came back disillusioned from the plains and there were no industries or companies that operated near their homes that could hire them. What then does a young, educated person do? They were just sitting idle and unhappy.
That’s when he decided to launch the project and Nabiyal was the first hire to work with potential entrepreneurs. The basic idea was to allow the youth to follow their heart and set up businesses they were passionate about. In some cases, the entrepreneur was already running something small but wanted to expand and was strapped for cash.
The Udhyam team reached out to 255 villages in Almora and Nainital district through a mix of posters, community radio, meetings with the panchayats, advertisements in local papers, among others. The first eight entrepreneurs were selected and funds were lent to each by Wadhwa through his personal savings. Right from running a data and internet centre to growing rosemary or producing organic ghee, the range of businesses were varied. Jeevan Singh who ran adventure camps in the region has been able to start a second unit of his company. Lalita Bisht who had returned disappointed after working in Delhi took a loan to open a beauty parlour near Almora, next to her tailoring shop.
In 2018, the project was expanded and another 40 entrepreneurs were added to the first cohort. Satin Credit Care, a Gurgaon-headquartered micro finance company, has now been roped in to help finance the loans. In many cases, the ideas are brand new and in some the entrepreneur is already running a small enterprise but lacks funds, support and confidence to expand.
E&Y has been supporting the project as well. A senior partner of the firm has been on the interview panel and has worked with Satin Credit Care on the financial agreement for the loans, besides conducting financial training for the entrepreneurs. A team from E&Y also works closely with entrepreneurs to finalise their financial plan.
But funding is among the easier aspects of the job, the harder part is identifying suitable candidates and working through their ideas with them. All candidates are chosen through a detailed selection process that includes regular house visits. The Udhyam team organises basic accounting courses for them, helps them concretise their plans and overcome the hurdles of setting up a new enterprise. In many cases, the team is able to help the locals identify technologies they are unaware of.
There have already been a few learnings for the team from the first cohort. Contrary to what many believed, the youngsters are sincere and many have returned a portion of their loans within a year (one has fully repaid his loan). By monitoring the entrepreneurial ventures closely, the team has been able to ensure that funds lent are not misused or frittered away.
They have also realised that mentors need to be close and accessible. Initially, Wadhwa had roped in 10 mentors based in Delhi and Mumbai for each entrepreneur but later realised that out of sight was usually out of mind. Now, there are four mentors — all based in the Kumaon hills and far more hands-on. In addition to the Udhyam team members, the mentors can advise, guide and often smoothen the road for the entrepreneurs.
Over the next five years, the total number of entrepreneurs Udhyam is hoping to create is 350-400, in turn creating around 1,200 jobs where none existed. Which means 1,600odd youngsters will not leave their villages in search of opportunities. Once the model is fully proven, Wadhwa hopes that many more Udhyams will spring up. It is the only way he sees going forward.
The basic idea was to allow people to follow their heart and set up businesses theywere passionate about