The Road Less Travelled: A Brief Guide To Volunteer Tourism In India

Volunteer tourism is all about contributing to the society in impactful ways. With travel getting back on track, we look into how this trend is shaping up in India, and where you can volunteer across the country

We all know just how big of a contributor tourism is to any economy. It not only brings in a significant source of income for locals but helps push for their empowerment, gets them better infrastructure, and uplifts their social status. Now, add this to socially marginalised communities and you get an idea of how impactful tourism can be.   

With volunteer tourism or voluntourism, you have the advantage of experiencing a destination, embracing the local culture, and giving back to communities as well. While the concept certainly isn’t new, it has gained momentum over the years, especially with students taking a gap year or a few months off to volunteer, or those looking to add eco-tourism or sustainable travel to their itineraries.  

India is, in fact, a growing market for voluntourism. Volunteers, largely coming from abroad, typically help with activities like teaching children, enabling women empowerment, working with farmer collectives, and helping in the conservation of wildlife and the environment. Destinations like Ladakh, Spiti Valley, the Sundarbans, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, renowned for their natural beauty, are also fragile ecosystems and usually get a large share of volunteer efforts. Then, you have rural destinations which require efforts to improve access to healthcare and education.    

According to the 2022 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, a flagship publication of the United Nations Volunteer programme (UNV), the monthly volunteer rate defined as the share of working-age people 15 years or older who volunteer in a month, amounts to almost 15 per cent or 862 million people. The report highlights that most volunteer work continues to be arranged informally between individuals, with 14.3 per cent of the global population participating, while 6.5 per cent of working-age people worldwide engage in formal volunteering via an organisation or association. A significant percentage of people carry out multiple types of volunteer work, the report says.   

While the pandemic changed travel for a lot of us, it also impacted volunteer tourism efforts around the world and in India as well. Now, with people looking to engage in more meaningful travel experiences, be it slow travel or simply engaging more with communities rather than just exploring a destination, there has been a slow uptick in demand for voluntourism.   

In case you are looking to add some volunteer work to your CV or simply wish to give back to society in your own way, here is a list of organisations that accept volunteer efforts

ECOSPHERE, SPITI VALLEY

This social enterprise works closely with local communities in the Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, to help create sustainable livelihoods that are linked to nature and culture conservation. They offer two types of volunteer programs. Travel to Volunteer is a short-term program that lets you explore the exceptional beauty of Spiti Valley and connect with the locals, all while working on initiatives and projects that can match your skill sets. You can choose from programs like ‘greening the desert’, which allows you to help build greenhouses so local families can grow their vegetables throughout the year, ‘backpacking with a purpose’ as you trek through villages and make a difference in the lives of the locals, and also explore life as an insider. Longer-term volunteer programs give you the opportunity to stay with a host family in Spiti as you help out on their farms, teach at a nunnery, or even help run a cafe in the mountains. These long-term programs can be offered at a subsidised cost.

LHA CHARITABLE TRUST, DHARAMSHALA

This non-profit organisation works at the grassroots level and is one of the largest Tibetan social work institutes in the country. It helps Tibetan refugees and those from the Himalayan region. You can opt for a variety of volunteer programs, like language classes, environmental research, helping design traditional handicrafts, etc. Most of the programs for which they engage volunteers are international language classes like English, French, German, etc. For short-term volunteering, they have the maximum number of volunteers participating in English conversation classes for which they accept drop-in volunteers as well.

17000 FT FOUNDATION, LADAKH

If you’re up for a rugged adventure, this organisation helps connect committed travellers to remote villages across Ladakh where you can contribute, even while on vacation. Some of the problems plaguing the region here are a lack of infrastructure, a shortage of teachers, and limited exposure to the outside world. The organisation offers 10-day, 16-day, and one-month programs for individual volunteers and long-term, structured programs for school and corporate groups. Choose from art, science, and reading workshops, infrastructure projects, and helping kids hone unique skill sets, all while you explore the sights and sounds of this rugged destination.

TRAVEL4CHANGE

This social enterprise offers a combination of volunteer programs and immersive travel packages that help communities in need across villages and cities in destinations like Jaipur, Agra, Bhopal, Ujjain, Punjab, Deoghar, and others. You can volunteer for women empowerment programs that provide health and menstrual hygiene awareness, counselling sessions, or offer your creative skill sets. Other options include teaching basic subjects to children at school, structuring art, music, and theatre programs, and even helping out at health camps organised for poor communities that have restricted access to medical care.

AUROVILLE, PUDUCHERRY

Founded in 1968, Auroville is an international cultural township offering practices and solutions that are inspired by a radical change of consciousness. Volunteers are encouraged to take up projects among the many units available, where you can choose from options like farming and permaculture to more contemporary pursuits such as social media management, making films and editing, and even working at the Auro Orchard, a 44-acre farm producing organic vegetables, fruits, eggs, etc.   

SAHYADRI NISARGA MITRA, CHIPLUN

Focused on wildlife and environment conservation, especially related to endangered species like pangolins, turtles, and certain species of birds, this NGO focuses its efforts in the Konkan region. Individuals from diverse educational backgrounds are encouraged to come and volunteer with a minimum duration of at least one week. Volunteers can participate in field studies in the coastal region of Maharashtra and the Sahyadri Mountains. Currently, they are also looking at volunteers for their plastic recycling and waste management initiatives.

Feature image credit: Ecosphere, Spiti

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