Showcased a unique blend of diverse issues, ranging from promoting literature in English, Hindi and Urdu, with several book launches of renowned authors as well as newcomers, to featuring an eclectic mix of participants from youth, activists, politicians, bureaucrats, academicians and military professionals, who spoke on a range of subjects centred around mountain issues and its people and military issues.

Young talent

For young Pooja Shah, hailing from Guniyal, a small village in Mussoorie district, the event provided a platform to voice her concerns over environmental issues such as depleting forest cover and felling of trees. The 16-year-old, along with a group of friends from her village, addressed their concerns through a series of drawings exhibited at the festival. The girls also wrote stories which they had heard from their elders and presented these in book form which they had themselves prepared and illustrated.

The exhibition was organised by Amanat, a venture started in 2006 in the foothills of Mussoorie for the uplift of under-privileged girl children. Its founder, Sunny Singh, passed away a few years later, but his legacy continues and today there are 40 girls, who have access to the world of knowledge.

Until four years back, Pooja did not have a proper education. “Earlier, I could not speak in English but today I am conversant in the language and I have learnt how to use a computer,” says the Class X student. “We are encouraged to read, write and speak in English.”

A major focus of the programme, apart from inculcating the reading habit, is on singing, dramatics, art and craft. Pooja is an avid reader and her tale, Two Sisters, shows her budding mastery as a story teller. “As the title suggests, my story is about two sisters ~ Sukhi and Dukhi. Sukhi marries a rich man and exploits her sister, who has married into a poor household. Dukhi works tirelessly as her sister’s domestic servant with no pay and when the festival of Diwali comes, she goes home empty-handed. Her children encourage her by saying they will cut bamboo from the forest to make baskets which they will then sell.”

In the forest they encounter a monkey sitting on a tree. The monkey is actually the God Hanuman, who asks Dhukhi why she is crying. When she narrates her woes, Hanuman gives her a gold coin and tells her to go back home. Their home is transformed into a huge bungalow filled with luxuries.

Meanwhile, Sukhi, wondering why her sister has not reported for work, goes to check on her and is shocked to see the bungalow. When she learns how Dukhi got it, the greedy woman rushes to the forest in search of the monkey god, dressed in tatters and hoping to get the same treasures. But Hanuman sees through her and punishes her by giving her the same fate her sister had earlier.

“My mother told me this and many other stories while she would cook dinner for me and my siblings,” recollects Pooja. “At Amanat, I have been able to develop my storytelling abilities and to grow as a person.”

Similarly, Komal Kumari, 17, studying in Class XII at the Government Inter-College in the village, fondly remembers Sunny, saying he started this trust for girls like her in difficult circumstances. “I have been involved in the trust for the past three years. Prior to that, I had no knowledge of English or how to use a computer. It is very important to know both and by mastering the two, I feel better equipped to handle challenges,” she states. Komal’s story book entitled The Kind King was also featured at the exhibition.

For girls like Mansi Singh, 18, it was at Amanat that she discovered her love and passion for painting. Explaining her artwork, several of which were on display, she points to a favourite which shows a young lad trying to discourage a group of men from felling a tree in the forest. “This was my first painting and it was inspired by the message that we must conserve our environment by saving trees,” says Mansi.

RS Tolia Forum

The second edition of VOW saw the return of this forum, which is a tribute to activist bureaucrat R S Tolia, who was former Chief Secretary and Chief Information Commissioner of Uttarakhand and a visionary, who had a deep understanding of the mountain issues and launched various innovative projects in the state.

At a session dubbed “The drivers of change in Uttarakhand”, speakers underlined the importance of non-timber forest produce (NTFP) such as industrial hemp, Himalayan nettle and lantana and their potential for generating employment in the state.

STS Lephca of the RST Forum, which was first launched in 2017 as an integral feature of the VOW festival, described NTFPs as being at the cutting edge of poverty and relating directly to the poorest of the poor, the disadvantaged and landless. According to him, there are about 95 species of NTFPs found in Uttarakhand.

“More than two billion people globally depend on them and in India, at least 100 million forest communities depend on NTFPs. More than 75 per cent of women in mountain areas depend on them. Off-farm products from NTFPs will increasingly become the major source of rural employment and income,” he observed adding that NTFPs cut across rural poverty alleviation, health and the environment.

GS Pande, Chief Conservator of Forests, Eco-Tourism, Publicity and Extension, Uttarakhand Forest Department, said eco-tourism activities should get special privileges from the government like soft loans, grants, tax exceptions, subsidies and single window sanction for electricity, water and sanitation approvals.

He stressed that the basic theme of eco-tourism lies in the fact that a visitor coming from outside to a place should observe and appreciate the natural, social and cultural heritage of the area. “While doing so, visitors should be exclusively assisted by the local communities living in and around the area. They must leave a zero carbon footprint behind them and in exchange, the local communities must get appropriate remunerations for their services like lodging, boarding, guiding and educating,” he said.

The policy aims at bringing support to the local communities in the initial phases but gradually taking the task to a self-propelled mode where the whole management of the destination is fully controlled and regulated by those communities, Pande added.

Philately exhibition

According to Sanjeev Chopra, a senior IAS officer and the curator and driving force behind VOW, the festival celebrates all creative expressions. One such unique event was the philately exhibition. “I am not aware of festivals showcasing philately. In this day and age of Instagram, we may have lost touch with stamps,” he observed. “But stamps really helped global integration for over 150 years. There’s a charm in the world of stamps.”

The Philately exhibition, entitled Icy Continent and Indian Expeditions, celebrated the heroic era of the early expeditions to Antarctica (1897-1958) and traced the history and remarkable achievements of Indian scientific expeditions to Antarctica from 1981 onwards.

Seen through the lens

Another attraction was the photography exhibition, which immortalised the beauty of Himalayan landscapes, its culture and flora and fauna. The breath-taking photographs were curated by Avinash Chandra Joshi, an avid lensman, who has won several awards at the national level for his photography skills, and Bhumesh Bharati.

“This exhibition allowed talented photographers to present their work on a large scale. Photographs are not clicked but made in the mind, especially nature photography which calls for a lot of patience,” says Joshi, whose work was also displayed.

Other highlights of the festival were sessions like India’s Wars since Independence, with a special tribute to General Zorawar Bakshi, and China: Living with the Dragon: Sino-Indian Relations. Among the books discussed were renowned journalist Bachi Karkaria’sIn Hot Blood, based on the famous KM Nanavati case.