The monsoon of 1999 is etched vividly in my memory. At 23, shortly after finishing my master’s, I was to join a project that worked on strengthening forest regeneration initiatives of local village forest councils called van panchayats in Munsiari, a border tehsil of Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand. Van panchayats, separate from Panchayati Raj institutions, are a category that the British created to quell a long agitation that began in the early 1900s in Kumaon in response to the empire’s attempt to reserve forests for commercial interests.
I had no insight into this history, its relevance, and no wherewithal, except a curious mind and starry eyes, for the wilderness. What I had was middle-class privilege and an urban gaze that exoticised the Himalaya as “hill stations” with lush coniferous canopies; much like the Insta-reels of today, except playing in one’s own head. Probably also like the sarkari babus for whom this was (perhaps still is?) a “punishment posting” or like the engineers who are brought in to build mountain roads. There I was, with zero knowledge and experience, entering a new world as a “qualified NGO professional”, largely minus the state’s institutional power and paraphernalia.
Work involved dialogues with van panchayats that necessitated treks to villages through forests and steep paths. The visit to Munsiari during the monsoon was a “litmus test” for the survival skills of a maidani or plainswali. My colleagues, mostly men native to the region, used this label liberally as a reminder of my ineptness in the terrain. I, on the other hand, driven by the need to belong, was determined to get rid of it, gradually recognising my own privileged class location and their attempt to level the playing field. To my contentment, after a year or two, friends in the village and a local women’s collective would fondly say: “Abh to pahari ho gaye” (now you have become a mountain dweller).
Hikes, leeches, landslides
The monsoon recce was a taste of what was to come: downpours, long uphill-downhill hikes, leeches, landslides. Road connectivity was absent, and the only functioning roads would be blocked by landslides during the rains. In the 9 kilometre walk on a khadancha (stone or concrete path) to Buin village, I met with my first landslide. This road, today partly motorable, was then a cobbled bridle path, once part of a trans-Himalayan trade route to Tibet via Milam.
One is forced to rethink the ideas of “remoteness” or “cut off” with reference to the communities in the great Himalayan ranges and the cold desert beyond. Be it the Bhotiya of the Johar Valley (Uttarakhand) or the Kinnaura of the Sutlej Valley (Himachal Pradesh), they travelled on foot, for trade (which ceased in the 1960s after the Sino-Indian war) and livestock herding, covering hundreds of kilometres across altitude zones, mingling with and imbibing elements from diverse cultures. These societies and their cultural and spiritual practices, viewed as “primitive”, have evolved over centuries, and they prepared for contingencies through adaptations with nature’s cycles in a complex topography. Interwoven with commons-dependent subsistence land-use patterns, their practices impacted, but did not destroy, local geographies.
That first encounter with a landslide in the monsoon, and the sight of what looked like a melting mountain slope, coupled with the incessant roar of the torrential Gori river (a tributary of the Mahakali and lifeline of the Johar Valley) below, were overwhelming. Even through this moving debris, the local people had carved a path with stepping stones, which could be replaced if they slid away.
Over this, passers-by, even children and pregnant women, glided swiftly but surely, keeping an eye out for falling stones and the right foothold. I, on the other hand, had one leg thigh-deep in muck when I finally managed to muster the courage to go across. When my teammate grabbed my hand to pull me out, I realised my shoe was missing. With lightning speed, he deftly rescued the shoe, too.
“These mountain societies and their cultural and spiritual practices, viewed as “primitive”, have evolved over centuries, and they prepared for contingencies through adaptations with nature’s cycles in a complex topography.”
Unique rhythms and challenges
In the next five years I spent in Munsiari, the distinctness of pahar (mountains) was reiterated not just by the people but by the place itself, though it is hard to separate the two. I learnt that in the mountains every season brought its unique rhythms and challenges, demanding recalibration and fresh resources of the body and mind. The physical hardships, which seemed like “occupational hazards”, were routine and negotiable risks in the lives of mountain people amidst other pressing societal challenges, especially for the more vulnerable. Along with resilience there was, understandably, a deep political resentment against a corrupt and apathetic state that had failed to provide them the basic infrastructure for health and education.
In the postcolonial decades, the struggles for survival in this north-west Himalayan region, erstwhile Uttar Pradesh, were enmeshed with political contestations around identity, representation, control over resources, and access to progress. By the turn of the millennium, a separate State was round the corner, along with the promise of development and autonomy. The neighbouring mountain State of Himachal Pradesh was often referred to, with its good governance and progressive policies, as a role model that would guide the newly formed Uttarakhand. One of the first moves of the new government was to alter the van panchayat rules to allow the Forest Department greater control over revenues.
When I moved to Himachal Pradesh 15 years ago, living in rural Kangra and travelling to the higher Himalayan districts, the well-maintained road network, government buses plying to the farthest areas regularly, and the health and educational services of this State seemed striking. Even though private landholdings were mostly small, Dalit and other marginalised communities were not landless, given the relatively effective land distribution that happened with land reforms.
“Images of cars and concrete structures forced to flow with the muddy and swollen Beas this July took us back to Kedarnath from a decade ago.”
While a part of the State has subsistence agriculture, nearly a third of the cultivated area is under horticulture and commercial vegetable farming. The foundations for these were laid, according to Himachalis, in the early years of statehood (1971) under a visionary, pro-people leadership. People also mentioned Punjab’s stronger influence here (as the erstwhile Punjab Hill States) than Uttar Pradesh’s.
The collective assertion of the pahari identity was not as strong here as in Uttarakhand though village clan deities were actively present in cultural (and political) idiom. While stories of Uttarakhand’s out-migration were rife, Himachal Pradesh also saw people moving out for work, but in many places the migration was temporary and aspirational. Young men, especially from the new middle-class peasantry, after getting degrees from Shimla or Chandigarh, commonly returned to horticulture or government jobs or tourism opportunities.
Even as these opportunities were disrupted, new environmental conflicts were appearing. I recall my first trip to Saal Valley in the eastern part of Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba district. A small hydropower project coming up on a local stream was being opposed on three clear grounds: it would destroy fishing, traditional watermills, and the area’s forests on which the Gaddi and Gujjar people were dependent. They had regenerated these forests several decades ago.
Himachal Pradesh’s installed hydropower capacity (over 11,000 megawatt) is the highest in the country (Central Electricity Authority of India). After power generation was opened to the private sector in the 1990s, work on hundreds of small, medium, and large dams was launched with subsidies under the “Clean Development Mechanism”, an international carbon trading scheme. Kinnaur and Kullu, the most hazard-prone districts of the State, saw similar nascent agitations against rampant hydropower projects that impacted livelihoods, the geology and the ecology. The socio-economic and political vulnerabilities, and the ecological costs that came with market-driven opportunities and mega infrastructure projects like dams and highway expansion, were slowly coming to the fore. They emerged more rapidly in the past decade.
As Himachal Pradesh struggles to re-establish road connectivity in the aftermath of the disaster this monsoon, mounds of export-grade apples pile up on roadsides in Kinnaur and Shimla, with some farmers unloading crates and chucking apples down the hillside. Images of cars and concrete structures forced to flow with the muddy and swollen Beas this July took us back to Kedarnath from a decade ago.
When the Kedarnath disaster was unfolding in the upper reaches of the Ganga river basin in Uttarakhand in June 2013, massive flash floods hit Kinnaur district. In 2021, the year of the Chamoli disaster in the Alaknanda valley, Himachal Pradesh saw two back-to-back landslides, at Batseri and Nigulsari in Kinnaur, apart from flash floods in Dharamshala. And this year, in the wake of the alarming land subsidence in Joshimath, Himachal Pradesh is reeling from losses of life and property, crossing the cumulative disaster-led loss and damage levels of the past five years in the State.
In the context of landslides, cloudbursts, and floods in the north-western Himalaya, the rapid landscape transformations owing to mega developments have been spotlighted, while drawing attention to climate data that highlighted threats posed by the compounding effects of active tectonics, geohydrological dynamics, and erratic precipitation and temperatures.
“Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand may be running neck and neck on growth indices, but with both States also suffering fiscal debt of thousands of crores, the stakes are high.”
And yet it would be simplistic to conclude that “climate” has been the “equaliser” bringing Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and, in fact, the entire Himalayan belt to more or less the same juncture today. Even more inviting is the appeal for “climate-smart, planned mountain development”, without deconstructing the terminologies and asking why these ideas cannot or do not translate into reality despite repeated usage in policy documents. These disasters, on account of their impact on tourism, the apocalyptic damage to infrastructure, and the huge financial costs involved, assume such massive proportions that we miss the political, economic, ecological, and sociocultural factors that lead to their making on a daily basis at multiple levels over a long period of time.
- Environmental conflicts in the Himalayan States owe their origin to a history of disregard for the views of local communities.
- The overarching contemporary realities in the Himalayan States emanate from shared historical realities.
- The colonial inroads made in the 19th century led to the emergence of powerful (forest) bureaucracies and a gradual alienation of forest-dependent communities.
- Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand may be running neck and neck on growth indices, but both States are also suffering from fiscal debt of thousands of crores.
In this part of the Himalaya, amidst subregional uniqueness and varied trajectories, the overarching contemporary realities emanate from shared historical realities. Some of these are the growing sankritisation of the central river valleys in the medieval and colonial period, the influence of which seems more pronounced in regions like Garhwal with its Char Dhams; its emergence as the hub of commercial yatra tourism; and the right-wing communal propaganda that is rife in the region. Gender and caste exclusion, in varied measures and forms, may have been present in mountain societies, but Brahminical influences fomented the elite capture of state institutions and resources, exacerbating structural oppression and vulnerabilities, sometimes despite and at other times owing to statehood.
The reining in of Himalayan borderlands because of their geopolitical location was also a colonial agenda, which extended into the post-Independence state. The induction of local populations of these regions into the military is one small but significant example. The building of the “temples of modern India”—the Bhakra, Pong, and Pandoh dams in Himachal Pradesh and the Tehri in Uttarakhand (Uttar Pradesh then)—that displaced thousands of people to usher in the Green Revolution in Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains is another.
In return, the mountain States, with less than 10 per cent of their area under agriculture, got the guarantee of food security. Apart from compromising food sovereignty and diversity, the latest wave of economic reforms has also put this guarantee on shaky ground.
The colonial inroads made in the 19th century led to the emergence of powerful (forest) bureaucracies and a gradual alienation of forest-dependent communities. The political movement for a separate Uttarakhand, along with the Chipko movement of the 1970s and the Tehri Dam struggle of the 1980s, raised the issue of exploitation of mountain resources for development in the plains. The dominant “resource” discourse, however, focussed on “Himalayan degradation” from colonial perspectives and put the responsibility of phenomena like flooding and landslides on local activities like sheep rearing and agriculture and fuelwood and fodder collection.
The first National Forest Policy (1952) specified that at least two-thirds of a hill State must come under the category of forestland. Forest conservation laws, policies, and judicial interventions that followed have since been aimed at reducing “anthropogenic pressures”. Measures like the green felling ban and the creation of inviolate habitats curtailed local access to forests. This, along with easy availability of cement in the market, also prompted a shift in the architectural practices of the region.
Forest regulations have deflected attention from historical and continuing state-led commercial forest exploitation and colonial “scientific forestry” measures like propagation of chir pine, leading to a severe fodder crisis and the destruction of grasslands. In response to this, local struggles raised the slogan “Chir, safeda band karo/ Chare ka prabandh karo” (Stop planting chir pine and eucalyptus, arrange for fodder trees instead) in the late 1980s. Today, these combustible monocultures that altered the forest composition and soil moisture are a fire hazard in the region.
The colonial-capitalist resource consolidation and extraction of these Himalayan frontiers continue, with neoliberal profit-making peppered with green vocabulary. This model includes energy transition through renewable hydropower that asserts control over transboundary rivers; the making of smart dham at Badrinath; the National Highways Authority of India’s ropeways and highway expansion; and bilateral climate mitigation funding through forest departments to implement nature-based solutions—all neatly threaded together in the Parvatmala (the name of a Central government scheme for mountain States).
“The dominant discourse, however, blamed flooding and landslides on sheep rearing or fuelwood gathering.”
Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand may be running neck and neck on growth indices, but with both States also suffering fiscal debt of thousands of crores, the stakes are high. And what about the Himalayan disasters? In this new normal, the concern is about how rescue operations can be made more effective. The Indian Institutes of Technology have been provided funds to come up with “early warning” technologies and identify “root causes” of disasters. Carrying- capacity studies have been ordered. Meanwhile, international loans will be raised for four-lane reconstructions and to restrict Himalayan rivers to assigned concrete channels.
An immediate political response would be a regime change at the Centre to salvage shrinking democratic spaces, constitutional morality, and pro-people and environment laws. But the long, uphill task is to address everyday risk production by framing plural anti-colonial mountain-specific narratives in line with sustainability, equity, justice, and autonomy.
The onus of this lies with the real custodians—diverse communities in the Himalayan catchments—who benefit from their ecological and sociocultural connections with the mountains. There are many dimensions to work on—relooking at our shared and unique place-based histories; rethinking our ideas of well-being; building resistance, resilience, and adaptive capacities with a dialogue between science and indigeneity—to reclaim and redefine our relationships with and in the Himalaya.
Manshi Asher is a researcher and activist working on environment justice issues with a focus on the western Himalaya. She is cofounder of the Himachal Pradesh-based Himdhara Collective.