Loving the hills unwisely

There is a near-total disconnect between the lives of locals in the Uttarakhand region and neo-environmentalists.

Written by MRINAL PANDE | Published: August 20, 2013 12:18 am

There is a near-total disconnect between the lives of locals in the Uttarakhand region and neo-environmentalists.

Even as relentless rains continue to wreak havoc in the Uttarakhand region,there is talk about how,as soon as the rains stop,rebuilding will begin on a grand scale. It may be true that raising funds for reconstruction will be no problem,since from Narendra Modi to Bollywood stars,everyone is willing to donate money. As though money is all that is needed.

Once upon a time,growing up in the Kumaon hills meant learning early on about the impermanence of the ground beneath our feet. Our patron goddess,Nanda Devi,said to reside upon the peak that bears her name,was said to be an ugra (fiery) virgin,prone to bouts of destructive anger when defied by mortals. Much before school teachers taught us about prehistoric geological fault lines,in particular the Yarlung Suture Zone that ran under our area,family elders had taught us to respect those young mountains. The local word for an earthquake in Kumaoni was “chaluk”,meaning when the earth decides to take a walk. The locals took care to build humbly,using timber and stones,avoiding cement,iron and steel as far as possible. The floors were mud plaster,the walls coated with local lime paste. Marble,plate glass windows and tiles were unheard of. And no one forgot to paste a special hand-painted holy prayer to the goddess over the entrance to ward off flood waters and lightening bolts during the monsoon.

Our summers were short. The cold,when it came,was relentless. The long monsoons sent the town’s meagre food resources and schooling schedules into a tizzy and with torrential downpours,the earth beneath our feet began to liquefy and sway. Each year,we heard of families from several villages forced to relocate suddenly wherever they could,until the waters receded and their semi-ruined homes became visible. Sometimes they could be salvaged,often they were beyond repair.

The floods in the Kedar valley have brought back those memories. But discussions on relocation and rebuilding reveal how little we’ve learnt from the past. Given the dangerous pressures of our fast-burgeoning population and the unyielding forest and wildlife laws,the interests of man and nature are frequently at odds with each other in this perennially delicate and poverty-ridden area.

The terrain has always rejected aggressive building activity. Nainital is a prime example. Around the 1820s,the British decided to convert it into an exclusive summer resort for British-born officials. As a grand gesture,a few privileged rajas and nawabs were also allowed to enjoy what F. Scott Fitzgerald once described as “the consoling proximity of multi-millionaires”. The new and wealthy occupants reserved the forests mainly for their own expeditions. The locals were barred from accessing what was their main source of food,fodder and fuel and reduced to becoming porters and domestic servants to the sahibs or migrating to the plains. In the gentrified hill station,class and status among wealthy inhabitants began to be signalled by how much pristine solitude and flat ground was available to the owner of each new bungalow. This was a recipe for disaster.

The local population has grown but old forest and wildlife laws guarantee that even if tigers lift cattle and children from villages,they cannot be touched,since they are a protected species. Then the boom years arrived,and for the first time,many local families came into hard cash by selling their farms to big-ticket builders. They quickly relocated,investing in building fancy cement and steel monstrosities down by the river beds where land was cheap and pilgrims on yatras were aplenty. Many shops and resthouses stood on ecologically fragile slopes and river beds,but the local authorities looked the other way.

Nainital was similarly impacted in 1866,1879 and finally in 1880,when massive landslides occurred,following heavy rains accompanied by earthquakes. The Nainital we see today was recreated around a relocated temple of Naina Devi upon the flat grounds that the landslide had miraculously created next to the lake. After the government of Uttar Pradesh declared Nainital to be its summer capital,tourists and visiting government officials brought in the monies to keep the town alive. For locals like us,however,who did not have the luxury of spending the nasty winter in some sunny house in the plains,life remained hard. When incessant rains began,the sahib log left in droves and our mothers improvised furiously,checking on leakages and seepages around the house. Meals had also to be re-planned and cooking methods changed,as things like candles,kerosene,bread and vegetables began to run out in the local shops. Roads and power lines kept collapsing and took days to get going again,so there were longish periods when the town,lost in a sea of mists and swirling waters,was like a ship that had lost its moorings.

Since the term “global warming” has entered the public discourse,the hills have once again acquired an aura. But most environmental writing or major support to save the forests or the vanishing wildlife comes from a certain kind of upper middle class citizen. She speaks like an ascetic Gandhian disgusted with the rapacity and greed of the middle classes. But in an overpopulated India,such romantic idealism has a price. It dictates that there be a near-total disconnect between the lives of the locals and the neo-environmentalists. Are these hill lovers then much different from the British in trying to create an enclave of like-minded folk,all craving purity and seclusion? Most will touch base with the locals only to order them to fetch and carry their stuff and cook and clean. Question is,can you have a population of almost a million pursuing a lifestyle devoted to the secluded and picturesque without undermining those things? We have certainly loved the hills well,but not too wisely.

The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and chairperson of Prasar Bharati

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