GOVERNING THE ‘WATER TOWER’ OF ASIA: The Case for a System of Integrated Knowledge for the Hindu Kush Himalaya by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Sayanangshu Modak. Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, March 2022.


THE Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is the planet’s highest and one of the longest mountain chains. This geologically young mountain range begins in Myanmar and stretches up to Afghanistan, a distance of 3,500 km. From a few hundred metres above sea level along the Indo-Gangetic plains, the HKH’s elevation rises above the average 8000+m mountains in the north in a crow flying distance of 150-200 km and then towards the north descends to an average 4000+m of the Tibetan Plateau.

The basins contain a mosaic of highly diverse climate, ecology, hydrology, cultures, faiths, and political regimes, with countries at different stages of development and political power. Given the extreme diversity of this large canvass, why did the authors attempt to bring them together in the monograph? According to the authors, all these basins face two common critical challenges. First, the availability of freshwater, both for ecosystem conservation and for meeting people’s needs, is facing a massive crisis. This, the authors argue, is an outcome of the prevailing practices of water development and management, based on the reductionist perspective of engineering for economic and commercial gains.

Extreme floods, droughts, snow depletion, and glacial lake outburst floods are already increasing in the HKH. The basic premise of this monograph is that the business-as-usual approaches under the prevailing paradigm – to develop, use and manage water cannot address deteriorating conditions of the rivers and their emerging challenges. Successful responses, the authors contend, need to come from developing a system of integrated knowledge that requires the creative synthesis and assimilation of natural and social sciences, including indigenous and local practices of water and natural resource use.

The risks of climate change caused droughts certainly must be part of the wider conversation in South Asia where rivers already face pressures from multiple demands and rising pollution from solid and liquid wastes that turn them into sewers. Urbanization in the region has become synonymous with the haphazard concretization of open spaces, flood plains, wetlands, and water bodies as well as expropriation of spaces that naturally belong to rivers. Floods and inundations are now regular features in both cities and the villages. Embankments regularly breach, they do not provide security from floods.

Though the challenges are highlighted and discussed in some quarters, in the HKH region the march of the hydraulic mission, through the building of dams, inter-basin transfers, pump storage schemes, and river linking projects continues. In practical terms, this paradigm involves the construction of a physical structure (a dam, weir, or barrage) at a river section to modify the stock and flow of the flowing freshwater body in both space and time for meeting objectives defined by the centralized bureaucracy. In this scheme of things, the upstream watershed, river geomorphology, aquatic lives, water quality, and sediment pulses naturally inherent in a river are compartmentalized into discrete and separable components. This deliberate discretization of flowing freshwater, a partial knowledge to suit political ends has been the foundation of the paradigm under which modern management is pursued, and perhaps one of the leading causes of freshwater degradation highlighted by the authors.

The authors refer to the in-ground conditions and remind readers that very few examples provide a clear-cut way forward for integrated management. They offer a way out by reminding that rivers are a combination of interrelated and inseparable components: water flow, energy, biodiversity, and sediment, represented by the acronym WEBS. Unfortunately, to meet political imperatives this combination has been made discrete and this conceptual oversight has remained unquestioned for long. The authors propose the indivisibility of rivers embodied in WEBS as a guiding framework for developing a system of integrative and foundational knowledge.

Flowing rivers are part of the cycle that has connected oceans, clouds, and land as part of the natural ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years. In the last 150 years, however, human interventions have altered natural hydrology and our challenges are to balance water’s sources, uses, and users, while respecting the indivisibility of the hydrology cycle, and systematically restoring it. The development of a system of integrated knowledge also must accompany recrafting of the education stream and fostering these qualities for a healthy learning environment.

The authors remind us that collectively developing system integrative water knowledge can be the starting point for stewarding HKH’s rivers as well as for a healthier and balanced future. The region’s social and political collective, particularly in South Asia, needs to pause and reflect on what might be an appropriate approach for the long-term health of HKH. Simply, unquestioned transposing of a model of development pursued elsewhere on the fragile HKH landscape facing runaway climate change impacts will exacerbate water crisis in the basin countries and jeopardize the well-being of millions. They present new perspectives on flowing freshwater that backed by new integrative water knowledge can help begin a water journey in harmony with nature and human needs.                                                        

Ajaya Dixit

Senior Fellow, Institute for Social and

Environmental Transition (ISET-Nepal)


THE CHIPKO MOVEMENT: A People’s History by Shekhar Pathak. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2020.


IT was probably in the year 1990 that Ramchandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods introduced me to the Chipko Andolan (1973-1981). Chipko was, according to Guha, primarily a movement of resistance of the peasants of Uttarakhand against over-exploitation of the forest/natural resources by the government and its agents – the contractors.

 Forests are integral to the economy of the people because they are the source of fodder and nutrition of the soil as well as timber which for the local population has both commercial and domestic use. In short, forests provide sustenance and means of livelihood to the people; they have also played a major part in the shaping of the social systems and cultural identities of the local people.

A major concern in the ecologically fragile region of the Himalaya has been the extensive degradation of forests including changes in tree species. Over-exploitation of natural resources by the colonial masters had resulted in frequent natural calamities. Recurrence of floods and landslides jeopardized both the survival and livelihoods of the local population. The inhabitants of the region felt the need to restore the natural forest cover as the local economy was primarily based on the forest and its wealth. The shrinking of forests meant the shrinking of economic opportunities and employment.

The Chipko movement conveyed different connotations to different sects of people, as different narratives soon emerged. The feminists saw the movement essentially as a women’s movement. To the environmentalists it was an ecological movement. Sarvodaya activists saw in the movement a non-violent struggle based on Gandhian principles. Each narrative interpreted Chipko from its specific ideological standpoint and attempted to fit it into its specific ideological framework with a definitive aim to accommodate Chipko to the ongoing global discourses on feminism and environmentalism.

 Shekhar Pathak needs no introduction in academic circles, particularly to scholars interested in history and environment. Born and brought up in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, he is proficient in the local languages, has an understanding of the lives and psyche of the people of the region. He has chronicled a detailed account of the movement since its genesis to its decline, covering the various stages of its evolution.

 In the preface of his book, Professor Pathak admits the same when he points to the appearance of several distorted versions of events and people connected with the movement, proliferation of erroneous and half-baked conclusions and misrepresentations mainly because of a lack of knowledge of ground realities by scholars. It was against these attempts to distort Chipko and counter the projection of the ‘media made Chipko’, full of deceits and lies, that Pathak determinedly presents the ‘actual Chipko’in his book in its true historical perspective.

Towards the closing years of the ’70s of the last century, ‘the ecological and feminist forms of the Chipko was invented’, writes Pathak. Bahuguna and Vandana Shiva became its propagators and philosophers. Deep ecology was connected to the Chipko movement and the thesis of eco-feminism was forcibly imposed by linking the theory of patriarchal exploitation of nature and women on Chipko. This, according to Shekhar Pathak, was a deliberate attempt to push the movement further from its original objective which was ‘to make the forests the centre of a decentralized economy based on prudent use and the generation of local employment.’ (pp. 260-261)

Pathak’s book, aims to restore Chipko in its actual framework of time and place. The work supported by extensive ground level research combined with an examination of available official records and private papers, claims to shatter the ‘floated myths’ and to bring back the ‘flouted realities’ of the movement. With equal emphasis the book presents the existing narratives on Chipko quoting references to substantiate them.

The most publicized Gandhian narrative of Chipko, which is also the one most preferred by the media, describes the movement as nonviolent resistance spearheaded mainly by Sarvodaya activists. The book reveals the involvement of Communist Party members in the movement about which there is almost no mention in the popular Chipko literature. In fact, it is interesting to know that the Communist Party of India (CPI) was the first political organization to raise the forest question as early as in 1967. ‘The real wealth of Uttarakhand, its forests, were been plundered by the rich and the state; they should be given over to the villagers to manage.’ Its members further demanded the abolition of the existing system of auction of forests to outside contractors, urging instead that forest land be handed over at concessional rates for economic use to the local communities. (p. 81) Chipko activists collaborated with the CPI in areas where they were influential – for example in the Joshimath region where the Sarvodaya had not reached. (p. 114)

An understanding of the Chipko remains incomplete without comprehending the split within the movement which ultimately divided it into three streams with three distinctly strands. Shekhar Pathak’s book explains each of the three group’s ideologies, their actions with unbiased emphasis because according to him these three groups, taken collectively, constitute Chipko in its totality.

The year 1980 was significant in the history of forest agitations as the Forest Conservation Act (1980) was implemented all over India. The prerogative that Star Paper Mills had hitherto enjoyed to procure timber from the forests of Uttarakhand came to an end and a ban was announced on the felling of green trees for the next fifteen years in forests over an altitude of 1000 metres. However, Pathak points out that it was during this time it became clear that ‘a schism was developing within the Chipko.’

At the national level, a split had surfaced in the Sarvodaya movement due to Jayaprakash Narayan’s opposition to the Emergency and Vinoba Bhave’s support to it. This divide in turn, resulted in splitting the Sarvodaya movement in Uttarakhand into two – one represented by Chandi Prasad Bhatt and the other by Sunderlal Bahuguna.

Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini founded in 1977, aimed at the overall development of Uttarakhand represented the third stream of Chipko. Among its founders were Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Shamsher Bisht and Kunwar Prasun, among many others. (p. 166) Sunderlal Bahuguna kept himself away from this organization though many of its members were social activists connected with Chipko. In the 1980s this group deviated from its early stand of keeping itself distant from political activities and assumed a clear political and militant character.

The first and the second stream of Chipko earned several national and global acclamations, their leaders received awards and honours on national and global levels but the third stream, more radical in approach than the first two, did not receive any award. (p. 250)

Another myth associated with Chipko refuted by Pathak is the attempt to add a ‘spurious religious flavour’ to Chipko by connecting it to Bishnoi folklore which speaks of protecting trees by hugging them. Even Bahuguna projected this Bishnoi tradition to explain the origin of Chipko. (p. 256) Pathak rejects the story as a legend and points to the fact that this story was not known in Uttarakhand until the 1980s.

The most important chapter is ‘The Structure of a Social Movement’, because it justifies the author’s claim to reconstruct Chipko rooted in reality, based on empirical evidence, to ‘provide a more accurate and grounded account of the origins and articulation of the movement.’ In order to connect it to contemporary ground reality, Pathak makes a thorough analysis of the leadership and the organization of Chipko, probes the ideologies it propagated and why, their capabilities, the socio-economic background of leaders to understand their personalities and psyche, what compelled them to join the movement, their perceptions and intentions, if at any stage of the movement they underwent a change and if so, under what circumstances.

This book has relieved the ideological burden that was submerged under the facts. It provides an opportunity to those rural women who created the people’s history of Chipko.

                                                                                    Debarati Banerjee

 Associate Professor in History

Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata