Case for a fresh dialogue with the mountains

SUDHIRENDAR SHARMA

Girish Chandar Joshi comes across as a village Pradhan (elected head) who carries the wisdom of his ancestors in calling his village mahaan (the ultimate in greatness). And his repetitive attribution of greatness evokes as much admiration as intrigue. ‘It reminds not only me but also my fellow villagers that this is the goal we must collectively aspire for’, reflects Joshi. Nearly 350 inhabitants in 69 households in village Jajut in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, seem to be in agreement with him.

Located in the midst of vastly degraded slopes in this mountainous district, the village is a vibrant habitation and popularly known as ‘vaid village’ (healing village) for its rich diversity of herbs and experienced traditional healers. Even as he spells out the initiatives taken to minimize peoples’ sufferings, he is acutely aware of the region’s dilapidated dwellings and abandoned lands on account of large-scale migration. A majority of the leftover households in the village are below the poverty line. As a result, a majority of the villages in the hills are predominantly left with the three Ds – dalit (castes who cultivate for absentee landowners), dridra (the poorest of the poor) and devta (local deity). Had it not been for the belief in the local deity, the village could not have protected its 25 hectares of community forest.

Ever since the forest department withdrew the guard it had appointed to watch over the forest, the villagers have entrusted the control of the degraded forest back to the village deity for the next 10 years. It is now a sacred grove wherein community rights are restricted, but cattle can graze freely.

It isn’t as if the villagers are new to the task of protecting the forest, says Joshi. But these traditional custodians had been reduced to mere onlookers after the government appointed paid guards for the forest’s protection. Now that the responsibility has returned to the villagers, it will take a while for them to develop a feeling of collective ownership. Leave it to the locals, they know how to pull together locational disadvantages and convert them into opportunities under the divine patronage of their devta!

Joshi’s forthright view on the role of outside intervention clearly debunks the assumption that people in the Himalaya are locked in the poverty trap, and need a helping hand to get pulled out of it. Conversely, it is the turn of events in the past few decades that have made the hill communities fall into this trap. Historically, farmers in the hills had put in a tremendous amount of planning and labour into building and maintaining land and water resources from a sustainable point of view. Had that not been the case, there would not have been any habitation in these hostile terrains. People achieved sustainable lifestyles by strategically rotating diversity, both physical and biological, to counter environmental risks and uncertainties. Micro-climatic variations helped them harvest a variety of crops from small scattered fields at various altitudes – and at different times in the year. In ddition to crops, trees and other environmental resources played an important safety function against environmental stresses and exogenous shocks.

Further, it is interesting to note the manner in which rural communities in such hostile environments created local institutions, collectively managed and held on common property to ward off risks. Nowhere, however, did poor communities draw excessively upon environmental resources from the point of view of degrading them. Despite sustaining an eco-friendly lifestyle for several centuries, the people of the hills now find themselves in a poor state. An estimated 50 per cent of the 160 to 175 million inhabitants of the Himalaya live below the poverty line. And, they have been blamed for their present plight.

Consequently, plans to rejuvenate the system have come from outside because there is a widely believed thought that poor people are the cause for environmental degradation and vice versa. But such assumptions, which literally have become rules, have been contested from some thoughtful quarters. In a series of studies conducted by the World Bank in South East Asia and Africa, the authors found little evidence that poor rural communities had degraded their environments. In fact, the studies questioned the relative ability of the poor to cause environ-mental degradation given their low nutritional status and lack of capital equipment. Instead, they refer to other exogenous factors stemming from misguided development policies that led to environmental degradation. Many eco-historians do agree that indeed that is the case because there is no empirical evidence which demonstrates that environmental degradation must follow as a consequence to the existence of poverty in any region.

Another associated issue is related to population vis-à-vis poverty in the Himalaya. There doesn’t seem to be any direct correlation between population density and environmental degradation. On the basis of available evidence it is hard to establish a direct linkage between high population density and anthropogenic degra-dation. For some reasons, naturally occurring degradation is often taken to have been caused by anthropogenic factors while the reverse often seems to be true. In the Himalaya, for instance, only about 5 to 10 per cent of soil erosion is caused by human activities. Dynamic geological processes and erosive effects of intense rainfall contribute to the remainder. Not only soil erosion, these dynamic processes lead to other impacts, which are wrongly attributed to human population in the mountains.

Much before population rose to its present proportions, farmers in the hills had done extensive soil conservation work by cultivating terraces and conserving biodiversity – the current buzzword. There are no two opinions on the fact that terraces are a means of conserving soil. This alone explains the fact that erosion had not much to do with the population increase in the past in the Himalayas. Similarly, there are other so-called indicators of degradation, which are not directly related to anthropogenic factors.

The opening of the Himalaya in the early 19th century was the beginning of the systematic exploitation and degradation of the serene Himalayan landscape. People who had fled to the mountains in the wake of repeated invasions had housed themselves ingeniously in the mountains. But
the opening of the Himalaya saw this abode of sustainable and peaceful living shattered by mindless exploitation of resources on one hand and thoughtless transport of urban culture and developmental ideas on the other. Without time-series data on the comparative impact of indigenous and extraneous factors the issue will remain a subtext in mainstream discussions.

Interestingly, the process of exploitation during colonial rule has been systematically documented whereas not much is known about the impact of present-day developmental interventions. What was done by the colonial rulers in the guise of peoples’ interests is prevalent in the present too. While the colonialists made roads and railways networks to extract timber from the mountains, in the present the same network is being expanded and strengthened to increase tourism without regard for the carrying capacity of the mountain ecosystems. A growing consumptive class of people laps up such initiatives by the state.

Far from addressing the primary causes of mountain degradation, development planners have sought to address the symptoms rather than the primary cause. Technology was viewed as the panacea to all ills, discounting the fact that technology and technological processes in them-selves resulted in promoting environ-mental degradation. Whether it was road building, opening of the mines or building of hydroelectric power stations, the natural resource base has been at the receiving end. The degradation of this base by external factors directly affected the poor’s access to resources. Since the processes that led to technological intervention were at a distance from these powerless people, there was no way the poor of the hills could influence the social and political institutions that were the causative factors behind such adverse effects.

On the contrary, people remain victims of misguided public invest-ments. Tragically, the policy frame-work for the Himalayas has been dominated by essentially down-stream thinking. Planners sitting in the flood plains tried uniform technological options for the hills. It has neither worked in the past nor is it likely to work in future unless there is a serious effort to introspect on the impact of such technological interventions. There is every reason to believe that much of such an approach has a direct bearing on the Mountain Perspective that was proposed by the Kathmandu-based intergovernmental International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) some three decades ago which tagged the mountain regions as fragile, remote and marginal.

Ever since it was proposed, the Mountain Perspective has remained the leitmotif of most research/development on mountain issues in the region. One of the reasons for it (the mountain perspective) not to be contested had to do with the three features being ‘obvious’ in the mountain context. Since replacing these ‘three words’ by searching from the thesaurus would have not added any spice, the mountain fraternity did not see any reason in dabbling with it. As a consequence, the mountain perspective has hung around and for good reasons too! Without doubt, it has given a sense of purpose and legitimacy to those working for and on mountain issues at the grassroots, and on the tree trunk.

Ironically, the guiding mantras (fragility, marginality and remoteness) has helped generate widespread empathy for those engaged in ‘development’ of the mountain regions. Though not directly credited, the Mountain Perspective has been effective in providing financial back-stopping too. One would have imagined that with such a clear perspective on the mountains on offer, the ecology of the region and the economics of its people should have been better. Conversely, however, assessments made in the recent past indicate that fragility and marginality in the mountains have only worsened.

Despite the issue of remoteness having been addressed through communication penetration by both the software and hardware, the mountains remain a region of gross uncertainty. If the mountain per-spective was so well orchestrated, what might have gone wrong in putting the driving principles emanating from it into practice? Contrary to common belief, the Mountain Perspective is seriously flawed in the first place. Pitched around the physio-graphic features of the mountains, the narrative had hinged itself on the inherent debility of the region. Could anything built on a weak foundation end up being robust and durable?

At another level, the Mountain Perspective could only provide a constricted view of the mountains. Far from providing an open platform, the Mountain Perspective held a priori idea of the region. Neither could researchers view the mountains any different from what they were made to understand nor could policymakers stretch their imagination beyond the mountain perspective. The idea of ‘mountains’ had got caged within the predetermined boundaries! That the mountains are nature’s repository of the best and the beautiful; that its treacherous slopes have riches to sustain humanity for several millennia; and that its peaks are global store houses of life-saving liquid has been subsumed within the overhyped discourse on debility of the region.

The political economy of development unleashed on account of the unquestioned Mountain Perspective led to the perpetuation of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ syndrome. No wonder, most mountain people continue to consider themselves grossly underdeveloped. Built upon the locational inadequacies, the Mountain Perspective had literally ignored the spiritual and cultural threads crisscrossing the peaks and the valleys. That the communities ‘belonged’ to the mountains and sought to create a living relationship with them was clearly ignored in favour of the shortcomings that got highlighted in development discourses. The self-esteem of mountain people got a severe beating and continues to be so.

If the foregoing narration is any indication, it is time ‘the mountain perspective’ is rewritten because it has proved its irrelevance. The self-deprecating features ‘fragile, remote and marginal’ need to give way to positive expressions viz., rich, robust and exquisite. Had the mountain perspective been crafted around such positive expressions, the approach to development would have definitely been different. It would have allowed people in the mountains to play to their strengths and set the agenda for their own ‘development’.

It is common knowledge that mountain regions in the country have been subjected to ‘development’ that rarely conforms to its geological and ecological exclusivity. To bring the mountain habitats at par with the human development indices of the downstream populace, the influx
of systems and technologies from the plains has been unprecedented. Infrastructure, roads, and communications have addressed ‘marginality’ and ‘remoteness’ but at a high cost to mountain ‘fragility’. Could not the adverse impact of development in the mountains be foreseen?

Mountain research, earlier known as orology, has been part of the institutional research agenda in some 36 research institutions and 24 universities spread across 12 mountain states in the country. Though con-ducted in public interest, mountain research remains largely accountable to its institutional mandate. No wonder, the mountain regions have become graveyards of failed institutions. Further, none of these institutions have been held accountable to the disasters in the mountains.

Need it be said that mountain research in its present form has failed to live up to the promise of addressing genuine mountain concerns. A significant aspect of the problem has been that the ‘mountain research’ agenda is set outside of the mountains, mostly by resource-rich academic decision-making policy structures in the capital cities. Unless the mountain universities and research institutions develop a ‘mountain curriculum’ and ‘mountain research agenda’ specific to their catchments, the situation is unlikely to transform.

The trouble is that mountain research is not yet a well defined subject like geology, botany or oceanography, and therefore there isn’t trained manpower available on the subject. Though ‘montology’ has been acknowledged as a branch of science to study mountains, it hasn’t yet been nurtured as a new discipline. It was during the International Year of the Mountains in 2002 that ‘montology’ was added as a new term to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Like academic degrees in other subjects, developing montology as a subject of scientific inquiry can help create a cadre of experts who could be held accountable for the issues of the mountain and the concerns of its people. A montologist would definitely be in a better position to provide authoritative response to the mountain issues. Not only will a montologist have greater empathy for the mountains but would fill the much needed gap in getting a better understanding of the mountains.

 

The failure of the government to issue a ‘white paper’ on the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster, partly for lack of political will, can also be attributed to the absence of experts who have a comprehensive understanding of the genesis of the disaster of such a scale and magnitude. Given the fact that climate change will have greater impact on the mountains, it is high time that montology is developed as a subject for understanding future exigencies.

Since its dictionary existence hasn’t caught on, expecting ‘montology’ as a possible new academic discipline to work its way through could only be preposterous. Isn’t it risking one’s own career path in already established disciplines in favour of a yet-to-be-created discipline? Will it not subsume some of the current dominant areas of ‘expertise’ concerning mountains? There is clearly more to it than just being apprehensive of a fresh ‘intrusion’ into well entrenched academic/research dominance. Glance at the epistemic structure of development of western science thus far. What emerges is that science was organized both intellectually and institutionally around ‘disciplines’ in which researchers could develop a high level of ‘expertise’ in a small area of inquiry. This ‘reductionist’ approach, often credited to Rene Descartes has proved powerful in areas like quantum physics, molecular biology and medical diagnostics but has impeded investigations of complex systems.

Climate change is one area where the failure of the ‘reductionist’ approach has made it difficult for scientists to articulate the threat posed by climate change since it lies beyond their expertise. No wonder, climate change has remained a contentious issue among scientists without any clear line of thought emerging. Alvin Toffler had articulated it: ‘western science has split-up problems into their smallest possible components, often forgetting to put the pieces back together again’.

One is reminded of Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine who wasn’t satisfied with merely taking things apart. Prigogine had spent the better part of his lifetime researching trying to ‘put the pieces back together again’ – the pieces being biology and physics, necessity and chance, science and humanity. Mountain challenges are akin to climate change, both suffering from a ‘reductionist’ mindset. Montology can thus be developed as a discipline that can address prevailing uncertainty and ambiguity in making a sense of the complex mountain environments.

Developing and organizing montology as an area of academic/research can help us draw some order out of the current chaos – a new dialogue with the mountains.

Footnotes:

* Sudhirendar Sharma has engaged in understanding mountain development for little over three decades, and wonders why unlike sages and seekers, researchers and planners have continued to perceive mountains differently and often as a problem. Unless the ‘idea of mountain’ from socio-cultural, spiritual and meta-physical perspective is superimposed on all pervasive bio-physical understanding, mountains may not be the change that we want them to be.