2013 Hillary Medalist

August 12, 2013: Professor of economics, and conservationist, and mountaineer Dr. Harshwanti Bisht has been selected to receive the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal. According to Dr. Beau Beza, Program Director in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the award is presented “for remarkable service in the conservation of culture and nature in mountainous regions. The medal both recognizes Sir Edmund Hillary’s own service on behalf of mountain people and their environment and also encourages the continuing emulation of his example.”

In 1981 Harshwanti Bisht, Rekha Sharma and Chandra Prabha Aitwal were the first three women to summit the main peak of Nanda Devi (7,816m). Bisht was also a member of the Indian expedition to Mt. Everest, in 1984. However, as Beza points out, the Hillary Medal is awarded for philanthropic achievements, not for sports achievements:

For 25 years, since 1989, Dr. Bisht has labored to improve conditions in the Gangotri area of Uttarakhand, at the headwaters of the Ganges in northern India. Her Save Gangotri project has planted tens of thousands of saplings, organized eco-awareness campaigns, propagated endangered medicinal herbs, and introduced ecotourism standards to an area that had been ravaged by climate change and unregulated pilgrimage.

Dr. Bisht, like other mountaineers, shifted her focus from recreation to conservation and sustainable high altitude tourism development as a direct result of the work of Sir Edmund Hillary:

When I was in Khumbu with the 1984 Indian Everest Expedition, I saw the great effect of Sir Edmund Hillary’s work to conserve the natural environment and to bring economic opportunities to the Sherpa communities. So that inspired me to work in Gangotri, which is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites but faces many great challenges, both in protecting the environment and in serving the needs of the various stakeholders.

Bisht has had remarkable success in restoring the birch forests around Gau Mukh (Cow Snout), the terminal area of Gangotri Glacier, ravaged by the double-whammy of unmanaged pilgrimage and mass-market tourism as well as climatic change. As the forests take hold, they have an increasingly significant impact in increasing humidity and lowering local temperatures. According to Kumar Mainali, president of Mountain Legacy and editor of Himalayan Journal of Sciences, this labor-intensive approach is an extremely positive development:

Dr. Bisht’s great contribution needs to be seen in the context of the Chipko Andolan, the movement of village women who used place their bodies in the path of large-scale commercial timber operations in an effort to empower, or recover the power, of local forest managers. That grassroots movement inspired similar actions around India, and had a significant impact in slowing the rate of deforestation. Dr. Bisht’s plantations are located in Uttarkashi district, adjacent to Chamoli, epicenter of the Chipko movement. Like the Chipko heroes, Dr. Bisht is showing that the action of a committed woman can make a difference against forces that seem irresistible. In this case, Dr. Bisht and her colleagues are reforesting the ancient birch stands alongside Gangotri glacier, creating a slightly cooler microclimate that Dr. Bisht hopes will slow the glacier’s recession. Like all new grassroots efforts, it sounds quixotic, but it is not. If we don’t pitch in and help, our loss will be incalculable.


Forever in love with mountains

Seema Sharma
Tribune News Service
Dehradun, January 14

An interaction with Principle of the National Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) of Uttarkashi LP Sharma by a mere chance changed the course of life of Dr Harshwanti Bisht, who is now serving as the Principle of Government Degree College at Doiwala. She stays in Dehradun.

She went on to scale the Nanda Devi peak (7816 mt) and received prestigious Arjuna Award in 1984 for her expedition. She established a nursery for birch leaves (Bhojpatra) at Chirvasa in 1991 and replenished the denuded jungles of Bhojwasa with 12,000 new plantations.

She is resolute, rugged and compassionate like mountains.

Being the fourth child among seven of an army officer, she was never differentiated on the basis of gender or any other bias.

She began her career as a lecturer, took up a mountaineering course during vacation and also pursued PhD in Tourism in the Garhwal Himalayas, all side by side.

Her mountaineering stint began with easy Black Peak. Encouraged by the first success, she cleared the test for Nanda Devi by scaling Gangotri-1 (6,672 mt) and ascended Nanda Devi (7,816 mt) in 1981, a feat which has never been repeated by any other woman. [more]

Harshwanti Bisht awarded CII Annual Green Award

Garhwal Post, Sunday, 07.03.2010


DEHRADUN, 6 Mar: Dr Harshwanti Bisht, Arjuna Awardee in mountaineering, and an environmentalist, was awarded the CII Annual Green Award by the Confederation of Indian Industry, here, today. Governor Margaret Alva handed over the award to her at the CII Uttarakhand Annual Session 2009-10 on ‘Robust Inclusive Green Growth’, which was held at a local hotel here.

In her address, the Governor said that not only Uttarakhand, but the entire country could be proud of Harshwanti Bisht. Expressing her concern at the reducing forest cover and receding glaciers, she maintained that in Uttarakhand, most of the people depended on forests and their denudation was dangerous not only for the livelihood of the people, but also the environment.

The Governor also expressed concern at the decreasing sex ratio in the state. She pointed out that with development taking place, foeticide, too, was on the increase. “Science should not be used to kill the girl child,” she asserted. She also lamented the migration taking place in the hill areas. She advocated reviving the economy of the hill areas and laid emphasis on reversing the drain of young people from the hills. This would be possible only if development was taken to the remotest part.

Speaking about the proposed 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament, the Governor said the status of women was changing gradually. She recalled that it all began with introduction of the Panchayati Raj Bill in 1991. “Today, we have about 12 lakh women representatives in local bodies.” She described it as the changing face of rural women. She said that it took almost 25 years to realise the vision seen by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Expressing her satisfaction that the Reservation Bill was supported by not only the Congress, but also the main opposition party in the Lok Sabha, the BJP and the Left, the Governor said, “I wish I were there to vote for the Bill.”

Alva said that judicious and controlled exploitation of natural sources would ensure development. She maintained that development ought to take place in consonance with nature’s sustainability. She said that the industrialists could play a crucial role in the development of the state through judicious use of natural resources present in the state in the direction of sensible tourism.

The Governor described both trees and women as important factors in maintaining the social and ecological balance, adding, “Both trees and girls should be safeguarded.”
Bisht, who has been awarded for her contribution towards environment conservation, said that the award would further encourage her to do more. She pointed out that not much was being done for preservation of nature. She observed that where hydro power projects were being promoted, it had become necessary, equally, to protect the ecological system. She also laid emphasis on preservation of the glaciers and Himalayan ecology.

Also present on the dais were Rakesh Oberai, Chairman, CII Uttarakhand State Council, Lovelena, Mody, Past Chairman, Rajiv Berry, Vice Chairman and Charu Mathur, Regional Director.

Later in the day, a “Session on Industrial Development in Uttarakhand: Vision 2020”, also took place.

Mountaineer on mission green

Anmol Jain
Tribune News Service, November 16, 2008

For most mountaineers, mountains are only meant to be conquered but for Dr. Harshvanti Bisht, a mountaineer and a recipient of the Arjuna award, mountains are also meant to be revered, loved, cared and protected.

To her goes the credit of undertaking the first successful Bhojpatra plantation in the Indian Himalayas for eco-restoration of the Gangotri-Gaumukh region.

Her transformation from a mountaineer to a conservationist began in the year 1989 when she conducted a study to assess the impacts of tourism and pilgrimage on the ecology of the region.

Speaking to The Tribune, Harshvanti said that she was appalled by the extent of environmental degradation in the area at that time.

At a height of 12,500, Harshvanti find Bhojpatra (Betula utilis) is the ideal species for plantation at this altitude.
In 1993, Harshvanti established a nursery at Chirbasa, at a height of 11,700 feet.
In 1996, 2.5 hectare land was taken up and 2,500 saplings were planted at Bhojbasa while in the second phase over 10,000 saplings were planted on an area of 5.5 hectares.

“The accumulation of huge amounts of garbage, mushrooming of dhabas for pilgrims and large-scale deforestation were threatening this highly fragile ecosystem,” said the ace mountaineer who is also a reader of Economics at a college in Uttarkashi.

And while fellow mountaineers were busy conquering newer heights, Harshvanti, a member of the 1984 Everest expedition, was chalking out strategies to address the ecological problems in the Gangotri-Gaumukh area.

Subsequently, with the help of Rattan Singh, a fellow mountaineer, she organised several environmental awareness campaigns and garbage collection expeditions in the area and at the same time decided to take up afforestation activities.

However, while the thought of planting trees at a height of 12,500 feet seemed preposterous to most people, Harshvanti had the gritty determination of a true mountaineer. She soon found out that Bhojpatra (Betula utilis) is the ideal species for plantation at this altitude.

In 1993, after getting permission from the forest department, Harshvanti established a nursery at Chirbasa, at a height of 11,700 feet.

Later, she got permission from the department for afforestation on a 12 hectare area at Bhojbasa, inside the Gangotri National Park.

“Although funding was a problem initially but some local NGOs came forward to support our initiative,” Harshvanti said.

In 1996, 2.5 hectare land was taken up and 2,500 saplings were planted at Bhojbasa while in the second phase (1997-2000) over 10,000 saplings were planted on an area of 5.5 hectares.

Most notably, at each plantation site post plantation activities like manuring, gap plantations have been taken.

“We take care of each site for a ten year period so that the plants are properly established,” Harshvanti said. Barbed wire fencing has also been constructed to protect the plantations.

According to Bisht, rugged topography and extremely cold climatic conditions made the work more difficult and the progress slow.

She says that cold dry alpine desert conditions severely hamper the survival and growth of the plants.

Harshvanti laments that, “the growth rate of the plants has been only 6 to 8 inches per annum with a survival rate of 60-65 percent”.

However, this has been an uphill task. Apart from grappling with forces of nature, Harshvanti has also been battling with the oppressive tactics of forest officials.

“In 2004, Rattan Singh and myself were falsely implicated in a criminal case and later in 2006 eviction notices were issued to us,” Harshvanti complained.

“I have found this task much more challenging than climbing any mountain peak,” she said. But in spite of all odds, her hard work has reaped rich dividends.

“Saplings planted in 1996 have grown to a height of around four to five feet,” an elated Harshvanti informed.

Meanwhile, she has not only been cleared of all charges levied by the forest department but also granted permission to continue plantation work till 2011.

“This is the first successful plantation of Bhojpatra in the Indian Himalayas,” beams Harshvanti. Hopefully, the mountaineer will continue on her green mission since she still has a huge mountain to climb.

[Original Article]

PBS NOW visits Dr. Bisht

David’s Journal from India: Day 4

To Gangotri, A Hair-Raising Drive

The accommodations are getting steadily more environmentally sustainable as we move north. In the river side city of Uttarkashi, gone is the air conditioning or any chance of hot water. “Enjoy your carbon-neutral shower?” Conrad says with a smile the next morning. Before breakfast we drive over to meet Dr. Harshvanti Bisht, an economist whose avocation is doing something about one of the other assaults on our glacier, beyond global warming. She runs a program to replant trees along the glacier’s perimeter. (Many trees near the glacier had been chopped down for firewood and without trees there is soil erosion which is another insult to an already sick glacier). We wait a few minutes while Dr. Bisht finishes her day puja, prayers, a ritual that includes holding an urn of Ganges water over her head and pouring it into a potted plant. Her serious mountaineering backpack is ready on the back porch for her trip to the glacier late in the day. It’s a 90 mile torturous road and then, for Dr. Bisht, a hike starting from 10,000 feet to the tree sanctuary she has built alongside the Gangotri glacier. [more]

Kanwar mela: Alert in Uttarakhand

PTI, Aug 8, 2007, 04.18pm IST

DEHRA DUN: Uttarakhand police has been put on high alert following a series of clashes between locals and Kanwarias at many places in the state with environmentalists calling for a ban on pilgrims’ movements at Gangotri.

The incidents have taken place at Mussoorie, Rishikesh, Haridwar and other parts of the state where Kanwarias are either clashing with the locals or having skirmishes with police.

An army of more than 3000 police personnel has been deployed at several sensitive areas of the state as nearly 40 lakh Kanwarias have visited Uttarakhand so far, DIG (Garhwal) Ashok Kumar said.

Kumar said the police was having a tough time in dealing with the annual Kanwar mela that attracts nearly 70 lakh Kanwarias, devotees of Lord Shiva.

Meanwhile, social activists and several seers have joined hands in calling for a check on the movement of Kanwarias in Gangotri area in Uttarakashi district which is considered to be highly eco-fragile due to its rich biodiversity.

Environmentalists have called for a complete ban on the collection of Bhojpatra, a unique tree having tremendous medicinal qualities which is on the verge of extinction, at Gangotri forests due to its massive uprooting mainly by thousands of Kanwarias.

“Bhojpatra of Gangotri has vanished absolutely. Bhojvasa, a place at Gangotri area, has been devoid of Bhojpatra forests,” says Harshwanti Bisht, an environmentalist, who is working on Bhojpatra.

[Original Article]

Bhojpatra on the verge of extinction

D H News Service, Dehra Dun:
Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Bhojpatra, a unique tree having tremendous medicinal qualities, is on the verge of extinction at Gangotri forests in Uttarakhand thanks to its massive uprooting.

Compounding the problem, thousands of Kanwarias, pouring into Gangotri to collect Ganga water are also wrecking heavy damage to the Bhojpatra forests.

Environmentalists are now calling for a complete ban on the collection of Bhojpatra also known as Himalayan birch from Gangotri where its trees are vanishing fast.

Save Bhojpatra

“Bhojpatra of Gangotri has vanished absolutely. Bhojbhasa, a place at Gangotri area, has been devoid of Bhojpatra forests and live juniper bushes have been charred for collecting fuel,” says Harshwanti Bisht, an environmentalist, who has launched “save Bhojpatra” campaign.

Scientists at the Forest Research Institute (FRI) here say that Bhojpatara is used for various ailments like asthama and hysteria. The papery layer of Birch bark is considered to be a highly astringent agent. By virtue of such quality its external use is recommended as styptic (to stop bleeding) and to stop any purulent discharge. Hence it is used more often to clean the wounds.

Ayurveda also uses Birch in many formulations for obesity and other disorders of lipid metabolism. It has been described to be effective herb for treatment of obesity, scientists said.

As the Kanwar mela reaches its peak in Uttarakhand, attempts are being made to stop Kanwarias, who are devotees of Lord Shiva, from proceeding towards Bhojvasa. Shanthi Thakur, a woman activist along with several seers of Gangotri have been staging dharna on the Uttarkashi-Gangotri highway.

“We are asking the administration to stop these Kanwarias from destroying the precious Bhojpatra forests at Gangotri,” Thakur said.

Bist with the help of locals has launched a project to save Bhojpatra. A 5.5 hectares of area at Bhojbasa, 14 km from Gangotri has been fenced with angle iron poles and barbed wire. Fresh saplings of Bhojpatra have also been planed at Bhojvasa, Bist said.

[Original Article]