For British photojournalist Toby Smith, the seemingly simple photograph of a Nepali family posing for selfies, playing with the water gushing out of a concrete cement structure at the spillway of the hydroelectric dam in Bidur, demonstrated a pressing concern. Smith, who has worked on projects focussing on landscape, environment and science stories, witnessed local visitors climbing up and down the canal and playing in the water stream, and tried to depict how everyone is drawn to water and the emotional connect that they share with it. His photographs form the crux of the exhibition “Pani-Pahar: Waters of the Himalayas” in Delhi, as part of the year-long photography exhibition on sustainable development titled Habitat Photosphere, curated by Alka Pande.
“We use water to drink and for agriculture, and it plays a significant role in our lives. This spillway in Bidur is where a lot of people choose to spend their free time. I am surprised this practice exists because it is very dangerous to go so close to it. In India, one cannot even attempt going close to the dam,” says the 35-year-old, also an associate scholar at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute.
Through the exhibition, Smith has brought to life a compelling story based on the academic research spearheaded by professor Bhaskar Vira and Eszter Kovacs at Cambridge University’s Department of Geography, in association with CEDAR, an Indian NGO based in Dehradun, and Southasia Institute for Advanced Studies, to put the spotlight on water problems in towns such as Nainital, Mussoorie, Dehradun and Rajgarh.
Elaborating on the inception of the research-based project in 2014, Vira says, “It emerged from the work I have been interested in for a long time, which explores how we continue to depend on nature for key services, but often take it for granted. One of the most important examples is water, and our project focussed on the changing needs for water in the rapidly urbanising small towns of the Himalayas, and carried a few case studies in Uttarakhand, Himachal and also in Nepal.”
While sourcing research sites from the academic paper and photographs from the archives of Cambridge University, Smith has placed the mushrooming residential and hotel complexes around the Naini Lake beside a sepia-toned photograph from 1880, capturing the same spot after the Nainital landslide. Pointing out the hazardous living conditions of the locals, Vira says, “Nainital is prone to this type of landslip again, as well as being in a seismic zone, these houses are exposed to these risks, and most residents are not aware of the dangers, and do not have adequate measures in terms of the construction quality of their homes. The images convey all of these risks.”
In another photograph, the washermen of Mussoorie Road raise their arms and pierce a muddy piece of white shirt through the air, as they clean clothes along a natural stream. With the advent of washing machines, the demand for services of the dhobighat community has witnessed a decline, and also threatened their livelihoods. Smith says, “The community is the real way of illustrating how society is changing and how they are almost obsolete. The laundering services in hotels and domestic washing machines use a lot of water, chemical detergents and electricity. In that respect, a traditional dhobighat is better.”
The Kempty Falls, 13 km from Mussoorie, feature prominently in Smith’s photographs, as he captures tourists dressed in colourful swimwear, sporting inflatable tubes. It features rightly so in the exhibition, owing to the explosion of domestic tourists, unregulated construction and development it has seen in the last five years. “Our colleagues in the irrigation department have indicated that, if properly managed, a place like Kempty Falls could meet a large part of Mussoorie’s water needs. It is, of course, currently not managed in this way, and the significant increase in tourist traffic risks both polluting and degrading the water source,” Vira says. The aim of this exhibition, says Smith, is to make the project more accessible to audiences in a metro city.
(The exhibition is on at the India Habitat Centre and Jor Bagh Metro Station till June 29)