When Sonam Dorje was a child, Leh was still village.
“ Every home had access to a stream for water and there were rules on how to protect it. Then the place grew, it became a mess. Small was nice,’’ he said.
In the cold desert, water is precious commodity. Unable to accept the contamination of streams through laundry, Dorje started Dzomsa over a decade ago. That was the name he gave his shop – it meant `meeting point’ in Ladakhi. Dzomsa accepted clothes for washing, washed away from streams and the used water was not returned to streams but spread out in the desert.
Laundry at Dzomsa was a simple idea implemented without studying business prospects. Most homes and hotels around were already tied to traditional laundries in a land beginning to risk environment. However foreign tourists, hailing as they did from economies that had seen the many sides of urbanization and industrialization, responded.
It was the summer of 2010. We chatted at a second floor cafe, snow capped peaks visible in the distance. Bespectacled and with scarf to his neck, Dorje looked a poet or artist; even traveller. The last thing he seemed was a businessman. He used to be a photographer. “ I am not obsessed with tradition. I am concerned about the survival of society. More than other places, Ladakh’s is a society made by human beings. Elsewhere nature is so much that you can perhaps have the luxury of abusing it. Here, you can’t,’’ the post graduate in Economics said. Dzomsa was the name Dorje originally used for his photo exhibitions.
After laundry, Dzomsa entered into local products including food. Like most Ladakhis, Dorje was himself a farmer owning apricot trees and barley fields. But he progressively outsourced farm produce to near 60 per cent of raw material intake. All the processing to jams, juices and packaged products was done by Dzomsa.
His final product line was the simplest idea of all – drinking water.
Clean water is a problem everywhere. In the plains, they assure quality by bottling and selling it. In high altitude Ladakh that cannot be recommended for disposing plastic is a bigger headache than finding water. Plastic is synonymous with tourist spots in India; it arrives with people and accumulates behind when they leave. Ladakh’s main industry is tourism. The knife edge it walks balancing people and plastic can be imagined. Dorje’s contribution through Dzomsa was utterly simple. He began offering boiled water at his shop. When you run out of drinking water, don’t go and buy bottled water; head for Dzomsa instead for refill.
According to Dorje, starting Dzomsa was a lonely experience. “ Some people asked – are you going to start a caste of launderers in Ladakh? People ridiculed again when we got into drinking water,’’ he said. Dorje’s original idea was to progressively convert Dzomsa into a co-operative and hand it over to the people. But those who joined and acquired people skills would leave for a government job. “ A government job is like getting enlightenment,’’ he said laughing. It was a tendency being discussed that June at the well known Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) as well. Its founder Sonam Wangchuk is Dorje’s brother. In Ladakh, entrepreneurship was considered unethical. “ One of the challenges therefore is to bring respectability to entrepreneurship,’’ Wangchuk said on the sidelines of a workshop at SECMOL exploring job opportunities for Ladakhi youth.
When I met him, Dorje owned Dzomsa with no funding from any other source. He never tried bank loans. “ Somehow I wanted this whole experience to be organic. There is a bit of romanticism in it. I don’t recommend it for others!’’ he said. Besides the shops’ three main services it also did a unique recycling and disposal role. Dzomsa stores – Leh had three then – had a bin for people to drop off used batteries. They were collected, wrapped in plastic and buried out in the desert so that the contaminants didn’t leak into glacial streams. Paper waste went into compost heaps. Glass jars were thoroughly washed and reused. In Leh, where every tourist operator complains of inadequate civic infrastructure, this would seem a small, private municipal service. Yet as far as I could see, there was neither recognition nor support from government for Dzomsa although the idea made eminent sense anywhere.
Problem is – ideas can be ahead of the times and the market. On an average 200-300 people walked into its shops daily during tourist season for Dzomsa’s services. Most came for water. Foreign clients dominated. Unfortunately for 90 per cent of Indian tourists, the growing component in Ladakh’s tourism inflow, these outlets were yet to make sense. They walked past the store ignoring the wisdom within. On the other hand, scaling up wasn’t a Dzomsa priority. He may be too much of a romantic to be ambitious businessman but Dorje knew the hazards of stretching enterprise. “ We have been extremely careful about the quality of our products,’’ he said.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper in August 2010.)