Interview of National President, YHAI
Today, I have the privilege to talk to Sh. Mohammad Shafi Pandit , I.A.S. (Retd), (Former Chairman Public Service Commission J&K) & National President, YHAI. Mr. Pandit has been instrumental in many of the initiatives that YHAI has pursued so actively. Let’s hear his thoughts.
Sir, firstly, in your words, let us know what YHAI is all about? What would you say it means to you?
YHAI, taking after its first parent prototype, created by Richard Schirrmann, a German school teacher, known as the father of youth hostelling, aims to remove the generational gap between the young and old, and the urban and rural divide. In its enhanced role over the years, it seeks to promote, besides tourism, travel and adventurous spirit, a commitment towards better health and sanitation, preservation of heritage and environment; and above all, it fosters a spirit of peace and understanding.
In other words, it seeks to promote all the values and principles, necessary for good and reasonable citizenship by enabling our people, especially youth, to travel far and wide, at affordable prices, and providing an atmosphere of ‘home away from home’. This gives them a better understanding about social and development issues and creates tougher bonds.
In the words of Dr. S. Radhakrishanan, then Vice-President of India, when he was also holding charge of YHAI President-India,..’ the youth of the world, if they retain their youthful spirit, will be able to work for the new world order. I consider the Youth Hostel movement as an attempt to bring together the world and endow them with an international spirit’.
You have seen many changes in YHAI. What are the significant improvements over the years?
Youth Hostel Association of India has considerably evolved since its formative years in the late 40s. The concept of youth hostelling came to India in 1945, when the first youth hostel was formally opened at Taradevi, near Shimla. The foundation of YHAI was, however, laid in 1949 when a committee was setup in Mysore, which took a number of steps including organizing conferences in 1956 and another in 1959. This laid down a plan of action for the movement. There has been no looking back for YHAI ever since.
A number of improvements have taken place over the years, in terms of memberships, youth hostels and the number of programs and activities. The facilities available for trekkers have also improved over the years. The number of members increased from just 34 in 1950 to 25,000 in 2007 to 1 lac 77 thousand in 2019, which includes 1.50 lac life members. The number of youth hostels has also gone up in the last few years. We have added two new own hostels. The number of leased hostels has also gone up, but that number fluctuates, as some hostels have to be de-recognized due to non-adherence to YHAI guidelines.
The number of participants has also gone up, and in the last five years, almost doubled. In terms of the scope of activities covered under the concept of Youth Hostelling; a major change has taken place over the years, although the emphasis continues to be on adventure tourism, scope has now been widened considerably. YHAI now organizes programs on creating awareness on socially desirable initiatives like environment, heritage, transparency, yoga, art and culture.
Mr Pandit with other YHAI dignitaries – CCSCSB-DOPT & YHAI, 2nd Half Marathon 2020, 01st March, 2020.
What are some of the challenges that YHAI faces?
YHAI is indeed facing certain challenges. The first challenge is on account of competition from the private sector. At the start of YHAI, there were hardly any such operators, with the result that it could set its own standards and remain unchallenged. Over the years, the number of private operators has increased phenomenally. Although, healthy competition by itself is good, the private sector does not hesitate to resort to unfair means, wherever they find it expedient. However, because of the strong image over decades of its existence, private sector has not been able to create any substantial dent. Moreover, since YHAI caters to budget tourists and dedicated trekkers, by and large, our clientele is unaffected.
The second challenge is caused by recent changes from the state government and Government of India in response to environmental concerns. The challenge that YHAI is now facing is the multiplicity of authorities to be approached for seeking permission for various programs. In the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where we have most of its adventure activities, state government has increased the number of permissions and also made the procedure a little more complicated due to environmental and safety concerns. Although we are prepared to give all sorts of information that is necessary, the need exists for setting-up a single window under deputy commissioner concerned, for granting clearances.
Third challenge is on account of some recent trends seen in village communities to demand money for various things for allowing access through villages. Private sector can afford to comply with such demands, because they can pass on this cost to the trekker. But that is not possible in case of YHAI, due to budget limits of our young trekkers.
Next challenge is on account of social media. If even one participant is not satisfied, he or she can spread a negative message amongst others also. But we are countering that by having a well-provided for website and also operating Facebook page, where all sorts of queries are responded immediately.
What you think is the biggest strength of YHAI?
The biggest strength of YHAI is the experience it has gained in the last seven decades of carrying out treks and expeditions in some of the most difficult terrains and climatic conditions. Although the risk of personal safety of the trekkers cannot be completely eliminated, the number of untoward incidents is minimal and that too for reasons, beyond the control of the organization. The second strength, I would say is, the increasing number of volunteers who work out of sheer commitment for these activities and for the YHAI movement. The third strength is that the standards of care, comfort and safety are high, and conform to international standards. YHAI also gives the best quality of food and yet keeps its costs low.
Environmental concerns have raised their ugly head. What is your say on this matter? How does YHAI play its role as a concerned entity?
I wouldn’t agree with the wording of the question. The concerns on account of environment are not ugly; these are genuine concerns, for which, we all need to give due thought and care and caution.
All that we want in this regard is that the checks placed by the state and central government should be in tune with the technically desired standards. It should not be a case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Moreover, simplification of the institutional mechanism for granting clearances is required by devising single-window system at the level of the concerned deputy commissioner.
Regarding the second part of the question, YHAI from very early days has made special efforts regarding environmental protection. Starting from the first campaign, Keep Jolly-Boy island Clean, YHAI with the co-operation of the participants, has launched umpteen small and big campaigns. Most notable are Keep Rohtang Pass Clean, Keep Dal Lake clean, Keep Jaisalmer Clean, Keep Kerala beaches Clean.
We have laid out a protocol which ensures that the participants, as well as staff and volunteers conform to the requirements of keeping the environment clean. Firstly, each person concerned is sensitized with the requirements, to keep particularly the trail and the camp-sites clean. Very strict protocol is laid down in this regard. Sensitization sessions are also held at start of the program. Smoking, and use of alcohol and narcotics is strictly prohibited at the programs. YHAI also encourages and supports massive Tree plantation campaigns.
Today’s trekker is a well-travelled person; how does YHAI create a special experience for him?
YHAI designs programs for trekking and adventure in accordance with international standards. We have not so far, nor do we intend in the near future taking any decisions, to design special experience programs for a section of the trekkers. Our aim is to benefit the largest number of youth, who avail trekking and adventure facilities as per the laid down norms, within budget figures.
In the current Covid situation , how does one deal with the challenges that travelers face?
In the current Covid situation, although we have not undertaken any field programs this year, but in the near future, depending upon the status of the pandemic, we intend to restart our programs with some special provisions and facilities and reduced number of participants in each unit.
What is your vision for YHAI?
I wish to promote wanderlust through Youth Hostelling, in the search for happiness. For this purpose, I would like to increase the membership of YHAI through an extensive outreach program. I would also like to get a large section of the population of the youth committed to the principles of Youth hostelling, if not to the Youth Hostelling itself.
To conclude I would like to say that my vision for YHAI cannot be different from that which Richard Schirrmann had for the Youth Hostelling movement, which he has expressed in the following song written by him-
‘We want to roam around the world
To sing a human song
A song of friendship and of peace
Inspite of trouble and of war
So like a storm around the world
Our song calls for all our friends
White, black, and brown no difference
We build our home for all
Youth Hostels – Castles of men’s peace, of human trust and love
They will be strong and rich enough
To cure our frightened world
Grand peace and build so high; so strong
It will be built to last and live.
We want to roam around the world to sing a human song.’
YHAI Song by National President, YHAI
by Sonia Kuncalienker