Vanishing snow

Print edition : December 21, 2007

Rising temperature is changing the climate and the lives of the people in the villages of Tehri Garhwal.

in Uttarkashi and Tehri

Harvest time in Jardhargaon. The spring that waters these fields has begun to dry up.-

Harvest time in

Vijay JARDHARI has a vague idea that greenhouse gas means pollution. And, he probably contributes towards easing the effects of pollution by preserving the forest in his village. Yet, he bears the brunt of its impact every day. Jardhari can explain how the warming climate is changing the delicate ecology of the Himalayas better than many scientists.

In Jardhargaon, a village on the slopes of the Tehri Garhwal Himalayas (1,500 metres), the rising temperatures are changing the climate and the lives of people who live off the land. When I was young, we hardly ever went to the market to buy grain. Now, the harvest is poor, so people have to depend on the market, says Jardhari, 55. He started the Beej Bachao Andolan (Save Seeds Movement) in his village to preserve indigenous seeds. The movement re-introduced the traditional 12-grain (baranaja) cropping pattern, which meets most of the basic needs of the villagers. But it is not enough. Less snow and erratic rains have reduced crop yields.

When I was a child, there were days in December and January when our village was covered with three to four feet of snow. People could not get out of the house for a few days. We used to stock firewood, rations and fodder because there was no way of getting out. We used to melt the snow outside our window and drink it. This continued until the 1970s, Jardhari recollects. Now, if we are lucky, we get two inches of snow at the most, and it melts in a few hours. It is not good for our fields. Heavy snow retains moisture in the ground for weeks and it helps rabi (winter) crops such as wheat to flourish. Without snow, the crop is half the normal output.

The summer monsoon is also acting up. Normally, the region gets rain in August and September. But erratic monsoons have affected both kharif (monsoon) and rabi (winter) crops. The rains are never on time when you need it, there is no sign of rain. And, when it should be dry, there is a downpour. This destroys the crops. Moreover, if it does not rain properly, the land becomes too dry for the rabi crop, so that suffers too, says Jardhari.

When we dont get enough grain, we use the fields where we normally grow medicinal herbs to grow vegetables and potatoes, which we can sell in the market and use the money to buy rations. That is how many people are managing to survive. These fields are like a bank deposit that we use in time of need, explains Sunder Singh Negi, 50, a farmer. In Jardhargaon, they grow more than 40 different crops, besides herbs. But as rains and crops keep failing, people will not be able to grow such a diverse variety of crops.

Further up the Himalayas, in Mustik Saund village near Uttarkashi, people express the same worries. Even before summer, the springs dry up because there is no snow or rain to feed them. It is just a trickle, so people queue up in the middle of the night to collect one bucket of water, says Abbal Singh Gosain, a farmer. There is no dew, so not enough grass for the cattle. Our buffaloes give 20 per cent less milk than they used to earlier. We sell milk every day. It is our only source of money. But now, we are losing that as well.

We have eaten a lot of ghee in our prime. Thats why we remain healthy even at this age. Now, people dont keep many cattle. Todays youth keep falling ill because they have not eaten as well as we did, says Kalam Singh Pawar, 75, a village elder. Many of them are studying but not getting jobs. And these kids cant cut grass or break rocks, so they are totally helpless.

People are left guessing why the climate has become so erratic. Most say it is in the hands of God and this is happening because we are in Kalyug, but some elders have wise insights. It is probably because of all this progress like the building of dams. Electricity could have made it hotter, so we have less water. It has dried up the environment, says Jamna Devi, 55.

Jungles are literally burning, with more and more forest fires due to the drier climate. Forest fires have increased since 1995 and are destroying biodiversity. Once the forest is cleared, invasive weeds such as laaltena [lantana], gajar ghaas [parthenium] and kala basa [eupatorium] take over, and there is less fodder, says Jardhari.

We call the oak tree the one that invites the monsoon. It is our most important tree. All the springs are found in oak forests. Its leaves retain moisture. That is why there are fewer fires in oak forests, explains Jardhari. But for the past two or three years, the oak trees have not shed their leaves because of the lack of water. So, they have remained stunted. If the oak goes, the Himalayas go. In the 1990s, the oak forest in Jardhargaon was destroyed by over-felling. But the Beej Bachao Andolan has managed to restore the jungle by self-regulation and by guarding it.

In the forest, we used to have lovely fruits of different kinds. If our mothers-in-law gave us less to eat, the forest could satisfy our hunger, says Sudeshaben,66, of Rampur village and a leader of the Van Samiti (Jungle Protection Committee). Now, the animals in the forest, such as monkeys and bears, dont get enough to eat. So, they enter our fields and destroy our crops. It is a serious problem.

All along the slopes of Jardhargaon, people cultivate small plots in the traditional baranaja pattern. Here, twelve or more indigenous food crops are grown together. Since it has become hotter, caterpillars are destroying the ramdana [amaranth], one of the main crops in the baranaja cropping system. They never existed here earlier, explains Jardhari.

The towns are also feeling the heat. For the past four years, we have been getting three- or four-hour power cuts every day in summer [May and June]. It is because there is less snow, there isnt enough water in the river and so the powerhouses in the Maneri Bhali dam cannot function properly, says S.S. Tariyal from the Clean Ganga Campaign in Uttarkashi.

It is definitely getting hotter. Earlier, there wasnt a single fan in towns such as Mussourie and Uttarkashi. Now, it has become a part of almost every house, says Tariyal.

The philosophical Sunder Singh Negi from Jardhargaon sums it up perfectly: I dont know whether this is happening because nature has changed or because man has changed, but this is something we have never seen before or imagined.

(The article is based on research under a grant from The Ashoka Trust for Ecology and Environment.)

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