Mr. Akshay Shah: Bettering Our Future From the Hillside

“I’m very passionate about my mountains,” says Mr. Akshay Shah, director of the Hanifl Centre for Outdoor Education and Environmental Study. When you speak with him, that passion, and how it has manifested in his actions, is unquestionably evident. From environmentalist projects with NGO Lok Chetna Manch to advocacy for wilderness medicine and first aid training as a certified Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician, everything Mr. Akshay does is emphasised by a profound respect for the earth that we have been entrusted with.

Mr. Akshay’s interest in the natural world dates back to his childhood, where he grew up surrounded by the mountains in Nainital, Uttarakhand, a region not unlike Mussoorie. However, the start of it all was when he went out on his first extended hike to Pindari Glacier with mentor DC Kala, former news editor of the Hindustan Times and the first biographer of Jim Corbett. “I just fell in love with it,” says Mr. Akshay, with a broad grin spreading across his face as he recounts his awe for the Himalayas and experiences traversing its paths. It’s that love which prompted him to start reading about the subject, leading him to conservation work.

After many requests from a climbing buddy, Mr. Akshay joined the Hanifl Center full-time in 2015. He had a connection with the institution since 2009, leading hikes and extended trips, and was drawn to Hanifl’s unique mission, unparalleled in the rest of the Indian subcontinent. Mr. Akshay’s involvement has only developed the prestige and wonder seeping out of the walls of Hanifl, apparent as soon as you walk through the doors of the environmentally friendly building. Along with hosting study-abroad programs for universities, teaching holistic outdoor leadership courses, and developing experiential learning hikes and extended trips for Woodstock School, Hanifl boasts a partnership with Aerie Backcountry Medicine, a US-based organisation providing wilderness medicine and first aid training. When wilderness medicine courses are ongoing, Mr. Akshay can be found teaching from 8:30 AM to 7:00 PM, instructing on patient assessment, injury and illness prevention, and emergency management to a class of eager students taking meticulous notes. “We work long hours, but every day I want to be here,” he says, demonstrating an earnest dedication. “I feel that I should share with others what I have learned over the years.”

Pictured above: Mr. Akshay Shah teaching a Wilderness Medicine course at the Hanifl Centre

As “pioneers” of wilderness medicine training in India, Mr. Akshay and the rest of Hanifl have introduced a field that was otherwise nonexistent in the country just a few years ago. The term “wilderness” is defined as an area more than one hour away from definitive medical care, such as hospitals and clinics. While the original intent of wilderness medicine was to provide care during outdoor expeditions, Mr. Akshay sees the tremendous impact that it could have in the rural and urban areas of India, as most meet the definition of wilderness from a medical perspective. “Everyone should have these life skills,” is his belief regarding wilderness medicine in India, and those at Hanifl are working tirelessly to fulfil this goal. So far, they have taught more than 100 courses in India, with a staunch commitment to Woodstock’s principle of service. With the Hanifl Centre’s internationally accredited Wilderness First Aid, Wilderness Advanced First Aid, and Wilderness First Responder courses, which sets them apart within all of South Asia, they also “enable others to do service,” setting a precedent for Woodstock School and the global community.

It is this global community that is often at the forefront of his mind, as many of Mr. Akshay’s comprehensive perspectives on wilderness medicine, healthcare, and conservation have been influenced by his dual experiences in India and the West, primarily the United States. Having worked in both contexts, Mr. Akshay considers health services in a nuanced manner; rather than the sole belief that India should be emulating the West, he considers how “the West can also definitely learn from India,” in terms of effective management when resources are scarce. Simultaneously, he acknowledges the potential for growth in India, in terms of “putting systems in place” to improve the efficiency and quality of medical care offered, “especially in rural areas.”

When it comes to conservation, and our frequent eagerness to compare sustainability in India to the West, Mr. Akshay also implements this method of thought. “It’s not like the Western world was born like that,” he says, “the change just happened much earlier.” Now, it’s our responsibility to bring about that change in India, with “capacity building that starts at the grassroots level.” For young people interested in sustainable action, Mr. Akshay’s past work is a source of inspiration; he might mention in passing, with a humility that comes as second nature, that he is director of Lok Chetna Manch, an NGO in Uttarakhand with the mission of uplifting peoples from the hill regions and building a culture of sustainability. One of his primary projects involved the implementation of solid waste management recently discussed at a CFI event. Furthermore, he has extensively worked to conserve endemic varieties of plants, reinstate traditional, sustainable methods of engaging with surrounding forests, and rejuvenate catchment areas of water bodies. 

Principles of sustainability are so central to Woodstock, to the degree that “treading lightly” is one of the fundamental guiding principles of our school. Yet, the need for a growth mindset in how we approach environmental matters is still ubiquitous; we must continue to recognize how we can improve. Mr. Akshay encourages all of us to ask ourselves daily, “Do we really tread lightly?” When it comes to issues such as littering, creating garbage, and the usage of resources, it’s necessary to consider our actions “mindfully” in order to move forward and create change. “It’s just a matter of igniting that care,” says Mr. Akshay, who, after decades of advocacy and action remains hopeful as ever about bringing about change in society. 

To a “great extent,” Mr. Akshay’s principles and philosophies of perseverance and working at the grassroots level have been influenced by Gandhi, inspiring a sincere perspective that has percolated his contributions to NOLS India, Lok Chetna Manch, and, of course, the Hanifl Centre. For Mr. Akshay, with a vast skill set in everything from medicine to conservation, future actions have always been driven by a desire to invest time in projects that “strike a chord” with his own personal “ethos and ethics.” Through the four pillars of outdoor education, leadership, wilderness medicine, and environmental education, Mr. Akshay and the Hanifl Centre team are building that future of sustainability, service, and education right now.

Asha is Editor-in-Chief.

Edited by Aryaman.

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