Interview: Sheeba Sen, Founder Alaap

A group of motley volunteers just a day away from establishing the first native forest
Sheeba Sen, founder and leader of Alaap.

Sheeba Sen is the founder and managing head (leader) of Alaap. An environmental organisation based out of the Himalayas’, Alaap is a social enterprise working towards afforestation and eco leadership initiatives. Alaap is presently focused on rejuvenating the native forests of the Kumaon.

Alaap was born out of Sheeba’s sheer love for trees, forests and the mountains. When Sheeba speaks of her journey, it is with a deep sense of conviction and love that radiates from within. Prior to founding Alaap, Sheeba had been working with Aarohi, a rural development organisation in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas.

“My journey in the mountains started six years ago in 2012. I had visited the village Satoli in rural Kumaon with my husband and it turned out to be life changing. It became clear to me that it was here that I wanted to live and work for the rest of my life. And ever since then, I’ve never questioned my path.

It felt like my place in this world was finally revealed.

I think one of the pivotal moments, for me, in this journey of mine has been the decision to leave Aarohi, to start something new which in itself was a difficult decision for me to make. Aarohi had provided me with a perfect platform to start my life in Kumaon and it served this purpose pretty well. With a network of an established organisation, I got the opportunity to learn about the many issues faced by the region and the network of other organisations working on the ground. However, with an established organisation also came an established system which sometimes leaves little room for questioning and innovation. There was a growing urge within me, to question the status quo and attempt at addressing the age old developmental issues in the state of Uttarakhand, with a fresh approach. This made it essential for me to take a leap of faith and venture into the unknown.

Along this path there were many ups and downs, as expected. I experienced a lot of churning and anxiety of whether I will be able to serve, offer and create real solutions for the people of Kumaon on my own – without the comfort and backing of a 25 year old organization. In the months after leaving Aarohi, I travelled to many villages in the region and re-learnt the hardships faced by an average mountain family. I also learnt how the interaction of government bodies, development organisations and local communities played out.

What Alaap is!

Riding through all the anxieties and self doubts, in my first year after leaving Aarohi, I reached out to the forests in Kumaon – often to reflect on my thoughts, my confusions on the way ahead and to also heal myself – as it is a lonely path. It was during this period that my fondness for trees transformed into an utter love for forests. And this transformation gave me the clarity, the courage and the excitement to attempt at addressing the complex forestry challenges in the Himalayas. By dedicating my life towards this mission, I would be healed through my deep bond with the very forests, I want to protect and create more.

I was aware that my passion lies with the forests of this region, which I had quite simply come to love in the years I had been living here.

It became clear to me that Alaap would be the medium through which I would work towards bringing the lost native forests back in the Himalayas. With this intent the journey unfolded gradually and continues. In just under two years, we’ve grown to a team of 6 members and are working with the district governments in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand on bringing back the native forests. We’ve made the transition from an individual quest to an organization’s mission.

We say creating a native forest is different from planting just saplings for a forest needs diversity, strengthening of relationships between various organisms and an understanding of the forest that surrounds us.

I envision Alaap to be seen as an authentic, reliable organization that delivers real impact. For everyone who experiences Alaap, either as a worker or as another stakeholder, I wish for their interactions and time with Alaap to be poignant enough to contribute positively to their self growth. As for myself, I wish to experience deep meaning, deep love and deep joy through my work with Alaap and the people of Uttarakhand.

I consider this journey as an opportunity to understand myself better. And that is gratifying. I feel privileged.

But since the beginning I have been grappling with anxieties of whether I can deliver what I’ve taken on? Do I have it in me to walk a path which is going to be a long and treacherous one, and keep dealing with the testing times and yet not give up? I even at times feel confused – the problem Alaap has taken on is immense – to bring back the native forests of the Himalayas. This vast landscape is covered with non native pine forests and I dream one day these forests will turn into our original authentic forests – wild and native. I dream of this landscape and its people transformed.

I’m just a tiny particle, Can I hold things together? I feel very vulnerable.

First mushroom of the native forest. Mushrooms are a sign of good microbial activity on the ground – an indication to effective growth

The stakes are so high, the scale so vast and I am only a tiny speck. The enormity of the task dwarfs me and makes me nervous. Self doubt also comes in. The only way I wriggle out of these moments is to focus on the NOW and do right by that. I do not carry the burden of the future but only the responsibility and accountability of the now. And that liberates me. I also think about inspiring people like Gandhi, Mandela who walked on their uncertain paths and ultimately derived strength from ‘within’. I reach out to this bottomless pit ‘within’ me too. Being a mother also helps. I do right by my child TODAY and never think about the future – in the same way as my work. That helps!”

 

All photos and video courtesy Alaap.


Sheeba Sen


 

3 Comments

  1. Very admirable. Makes one go silent for a while admiring. But what do i admire! Locating the ‘defining moment’! Being decisive? Taking the first physical step and stepping out! ‘Entering’ a society, with a mission, but without a put’up! Navigating the ‘ mundane and the sublime’! Seems like a budding exemplary person with ‘organisational wisdom and executive courage’! Hearty wishes for continued impactful work!

  2. More strength to your elbows. Moving from pine to local species has many possibilities to help the locals, environment, that part of the himalayas and the planet will be richer by your efforts. Stay blessed.

  3. ‘…focus on the Now ‘is an extremely important aspect of success in any venture. The Creator will stand by you to ensure that these mountains return to the way He created them.

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