Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Missing Men of Uttarakhand:

Actually the story is about the Garhwal part of Uttarakhand since that’s the region I have visited a few times in the recent past. However, the situation is symptomatic of a much deeper problem and where we are headed collectively as a society.

My last visit to Garhwal was in the year 2006 when I had visited the then-beautiful villages of Ukimath and Chopta crossing the then-pristine river basins of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. In mere nine years, the region has seen a 180 degrees shift in its ecology, economy and society when a self-sustaining society was hit by money and ‘growth’ economy. The Garhwal side of Uttarakhand has seen rapid urbanization in the past six to seven years; so much so that all aspects of natural beauty are completely obliterated. This urbanization can be seen mostly in the Shivaliks and the Middle Himalayas and continues unabated despite the region’s propensity to natural disasters. Village elders who had experienced the earthquake epicentered in Chamoli in 1991, talk of how the geology of the region has changed after the event rendering the mountains more fragile. In Uttarkashi, entire mountainsides have collapsed just like that in the recent past.

Massive deforestation due to developmental projects, by the forest department, timber mafia and then by the communities themselves has left hill ranges after hill ranges without a single tree (Tehri-Garhwal). Other hills have been taken over by agriculture which also has led to loss of tree cover, with the result that there has been rapid soil erosion and degradation. Wild animals, due to habitat and food loss now come down to the fields to forage destroying crop harvests. This situation has been compounded by the fact that 90% of farming is dependent on rainfall which has now become very erratic leading to regular crop failure. So, men across villages started migrated in hordes fuelled by and also fuelling the urbanization process taking place in the valleys. More ambitious of the lot came down to the plains, in cities like Chandigarh, Dehradoon, Delhi and Mumbai. One young guy I met works in a ship which takes him to the Gulf region.

The money earned by them has helped in improving their economic condition and now most of them have pucca homes, vehicles, satellite TV and other amenities in their villages. The younger generation, especially guys who have completed their education, look down upon agriculture as an occupation. They all want to earn money by doing ‘jobs’ and since there are no jobs in villages, they are also migrating to the plains. As a result, now most of the villages are populated by only women, old men and men who have small businesses or are alcoholic. A once self-sustaining society now buys almost everything from outside including food.

The younger generation women complain of a tough life in the hills and those belonging to prosperous families find it difficult to trek up or down hill sides. One such woman in a village in Chamoli said that she would prefer a road behind her village rather than a forest which is of no use to her. In the meanwhile, the micro climate continues to get hotter, rainfall and hail is becoming more erratic, snowfall has vanished from regions and the flora and fauna of the region are changing. 

I spoke to people and heard them all out. And I remained a mute spectator to the process of rapid destruction of a unique ecology and life, which I could see from afar but could not explain to them. In this rapidly changing situation, only the village elders are baffled: as to why many things have become so difficult despite much ease of life. As one elderly man in another village in Chamoli said, one can’t keep buying food as it doesn’t grow in the sky. When everything gets over, people will have to come back to the land and grow their own food.   

But by then, perhaps all will be over.

The Himalayas are fragile and need an alternative development strategy and plans which will help save and sustain the ecology of the mountains and its communities. If you believe in this, please add your voice to our campaign on Greenpeace Extra platform. The Himalayan Niti Abhiyan is spearheaded by like minded NGOs on ground. 

Monday, 2 February 2015

A Home in Tibet:

“Don’t you think with China occupying all territories, the situation in Tibet is hopeless? Do you feel rootless being in India?”

I had met Tenzin in Leh, who had come there as part of a documentary film crew shooting a film about a Tibetan who had immolated himself in Delhi. Tenzin is a second generation Tibetan, born and raised in India, who like most others has refused to take up Indian citizenship. In loyalty to their dream of a free country, a home they can return to.

The high altitude mountains, barren rolling plateaus, breathtaking water bodies, nomadic life, galloping horses, an ingrained deep seated spirituality, Buddhism – of Tibet and Ladakh have had a strong hold over me for years.  During my restless years, I desperately longed to be there. Now, in a more settled state of mind, I look forward to be there whenever I feel rootless. But in my ignorance, I had mistakenly come to believe that my sense of rootlessness is perhaps similar to how the Tibetans feel in an adopted country. Until I read Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s book, A Home in Tibet. Considered the first female Tibetan writer, Tsering has poetically, eloquently and without judging described what life is for a Tibetan in Tibet and outside it. How, Tibetans, despite a long history of atrocities by the Chinese government have managed to continue with the same equanimity and spiritual outlook towards life, how the younger generation who wants to assimilate with the majority Han Chinese society are discriminated against as ‘tribals’ (perhaps a shade better than the Uighurs), how both government and corporations are looting the earth and the mountains they held sacred for centuries, how the government is force-implementing schemes without understanding the needs of the communities.  
The Changthang region of eastern Ladakh is an extension of the trans Himalayan Tibetan plateau.

The Chinese invasion of the region that is called Tibet has been instrumental in inculcating a sense of nationalism amongst the various tribes and those who escaped from there. More so with those who escaped, because away from their mountains and land and living as a ‘refugee’ in any adoptive country, they feel the absence of a home more acutely. Binding all these tribes together prior to the invasion, those still living in Chinese occupied Tibet and Tibetans now living in various countries is one key factor – His Holiness Dalai Lama and their infallible faith in him. Despite urbanization, like the Buddhists in Ladakh, Tibetans are still deeply rooted to their spirituality and spiritual guides in all aspects of their lives. With the current Dalai Lama not choosing his successor, how that void will affect the lives of Tibetans everywhere and their fight for an autonomous homeland is yet to be seen.


In solidarity with them and the fact that China is environmentally dangerous, I will perhaps never choose to travel to the country or to Tibet for leisure. But then I am still lucky, because as a free citizen of this country (so far), I can travel to the high mountains of Ladakh and also live there whenever I feel restless or rootless. Perhaps not so with Tenzin and his fellow Tibetans, whose hope for a free Tibet burns strongly as ever. And in knowing this, I understood just how blunt and insensitive my questions to him were. Because however hard I might try, I will never really know what it is to be a Tibetan.


Book to Read:
A Home in Tibet by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

To know more about Free Tibet cause:
Students for a Free Tibet, McLeodganj:

Monday, 5 January 2015

A Matter of Choice:

While discussing the future of Ladakh, my friend S commented that my outlook towards the people of Ladakh seems derogatory since I insist that they do not yet fully understand the implication of the impending changes. Surely a youth who does not want to do farming has the right to choose not to do so. I should not assume that people of Ladakh or any other place are not smart enough to not know what to choose for their own development.  This argument has been raised by many others too while debating on ‘development’ versus environment.  This post is for my friend S and those others.

I have seen abject poverty, the type of poverty where men and women wore torn pieces of clothe barely enough to cover their bodies, the type of poverty which made people gaunt with hunger and eyes dazed with desperation. 30 years ago, in eastern India, a region where I grew up, such sights were common. Once traveling through the jungles of the region that is now Jharkhand, my father had commented that the area held so many minerals that India could easily come out of such poverty. 30 years later, the jungles of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh are dug up and minerals taken, yet the condition of people in these regions hasn't changed much. They are still poor if not in such abject poverty.     

Economic Health - GDP and Growth:
Since the markets opened up in the 90s, we are slowly but surely adopting all features that define the western development model which has been successful in making them rich nations. This model, so to speak, measures economic health in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and puts high emphasis on growth. As Helena Norberg-Hodge puts it, GDP is a measurement of how many ‘products’ are manufactured and hence how much money is circulating in an economy. So, to take her examples, if you meet with an accident, it adds to the GDP because your accident has put an entire system of healthcare business into motion. So it is with cutting down of trees or blocking rivers. Growth on the other hand is linear; it has to keep going up. Both these together mean that in order for a country to be rich, it has to keep producing and keep selling, which means generate more consumerism, acquire more land, use up more natural resources, alienate communities from their traditional practices etc. And this will not stop till the last tree is cut down and all the rivers run dry eventually. This is also the reason why despite having small scale locally feasible answers to electricity generation, our government insists on bigger dams across all rivers. Look at the money being circulated here!

The Grabbing-From-Others Model:
If you look at how most of these nations have gotten rich, you will realize that it was mostly done by exploiting somebody else’s resources. America with native Indians, Britain with India and the SE etc. And we, blindly aping the model, are doing exactly the same with our farmers, tribals and African nations. This form of growth reminds me of various quick-rich pyramid / network marketing schemes, for example QNet.  In these schemes you have to generate the need for various dubious products through very creative means, ask for a huge investment from others and then encourage others to do the same to more people so that some amount of money keeps flowing back into your pocket. One does not realize that in the chain of such schemes, the bottom end of the lot will always be sufferers and hence very poor as all the resources of these people would have been taken.

Should It Be Capitalism or Communism Then?
Ask anybody, even in remote villages in India, and people will tell you that our country is very diverse. We are unique because of this diversity – socio-culturally, politically, geographically, climatic conditions and even biodiversity. Our problems are also unique and hence require different solutions than just thinking that either a capitalist or communist model will work. Both of these models are again made by westerners for their unique problems. Again as Helena NH puts it, both these models work on almost the same principles; they only differ in how the wealth is distributed. And as Sam Tranum puts it in his book Powerless (on India’s current energy situation), the only way India can face the energy crisis is to find a new or redefine its model of development. And the beginning for this redefinition will happen only when one starts looking within oneself, as a country and a society. 
Indian Himalayas, threatened by global warming 
A Matter of Choice:
When the markets were opened up in the 90s, were we told what these changes will bring in the next two decades? Were we told that one day, most forests will be cut down, species will go extinct, rivers will stop flowing and we as a community will be steeped in consumerism and lose our own unique identity to a more homogenous western world identity? Was I, as a citizen of this country, given a choice? Similarly, are the farmers, tribals, communities in remote regions, given the choice to define their form of development? Choice comes when people are explained the pros and cons of various alternatives and are then allowed to accept or reject any given option. We (the government, the more ‘educated’ lot and the ‘richer’class), on the other hand, are simply forcing down one mass solution for diverse issues and diverse communities and expecting the people to know better.

As the Sarpanch of Lata (in Uttarakhand) had once told me, it’s our duty to leave behind the world for our children exactly as we had inherited it from our forefathers. Our children it seems, will get to see a forest, snow capped mountains and free flowing rivers only in textbooks and films in future.

Books to read:
Ancient Futures: Helena Norberg Hodge
Powerless: Sam Tranum
The Story of Stuff: Annie Leonard
Adventures in the Anthropocene: Gaia Vince

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


The Nepali porter during a trek in Himachal:

“There are no facilities in my village, education is not free, there is no electricity and people have to walk for hours to get water. When I used to stay there, apart from farming there wasn’t anything else to do even if you completed your education. I came to Himachal a decade back. A lot of people from my country come here to work, mostly as labour. I used the money I earned over the years to get my two brothers educated so that they can get a job. My younger brother is in the field of medicine now. He hasn’t come home for the past three years. He doesn’t look after his wife or son. I am taking care of his son and paying for his education as well. Whether its Nepal or India, I have seen that the type of progress that’s happening today is making rich people richer and the poor poorer.”

Ashok, my trek guide:

“People in my village used to say that my grandfather understood the language of the crows. He would know what the birds and animals were trying to communicate and would predict things based on this communication. He knew each of his livestock by name and if one went a bit far from the grazing area, he would just call out the name and the animal would turn and come back. My grandfather used to feed birds and all animals around the house first before having his meal. As a kid, when I used to light a lamp in the evenings, he often used to tell me to put out the lamp and observe the darkness. If one gets used to the light, one will never be able see far in the dark.
Now we are not connected with nature. We are playing with nature and the consequences will not be good. I go with a scientist every year to measure the glaciers. In just two to three years time, the glaciers over that mountain range have shrunk from 5mtrs to 3mtrs in height. A day will come when we will kill each other over water. Humanity will not meet with a swift end but a torturous one.”

An elderly Kinnauri lady who came over to chat with me while I was sitting in the balcony of a guest house in Sangla:

“It took us almost one month to reach Sarahan, we had to walk all the way. A group of us girls were called to perform in the Independence Day parade in Delhi. The entire journey to and from Delhi took us three months and that was the biggest adventure of my life. I have not stepped out much since then. Our community was self-sufficient. We grew everything we wanted - all vegetables and had milk from the cows. We would store everything for the winters as the roads would close then. We never used to fall sick also. Now-a-days, you have medicine shops and people are falling sick too.”

Lama at Shanti Stupa in Leh who had kept my camera that I had left behind at the monastery the previous evening:
“I kept it with me knowing that the person who lost this would come back to collect it. People are attached to their material possessions. Don’t get attached to such material things, they will end up causing you pain. You are attached to the images that you have taken, the images of these mountains. If you had lost these images, you would have been in pain. If you go back home and look at these images of the mountains later, you will still be in pain. Do not get attached.”

Friday, 14 November 2014

Ladakh Diary: Changing Climate

“He who experiences the unity of life sees his own self in all beings, and all beings in his own self.” - Buddha

The Changthang region in eastern Ladakh, continuation of the Tibetan plateau is home to the nomadic tribe Changpa who have been rearing livestock for centuries. Studies on their traditional way of life have shown a highly sustainable grazing system and a life in tune with nature. ‘Goba’ or the village head’s decisions were followed without question and it was he who decided where livestock were to graze and when the group needed to move to another pasture land. Grazing areas were demarcated and any livestock found grazing outside that area was fined per animal. This ensured that an area was not overgrazed and it was allowed to regenerate. Groups would camp near water bodies, not too near to avoid polluting them. The tents would face east so as to receive the morning sun. Since the hearth is considered sacred, they would move camps mostly at night, so that the hearth was not open to outside eyes.

River Indus outside of Leh 

Even now a large number of communities all across India live a nature-based life. But this aspect is all the more prominent and deeply rooted in a harsh environment like Ladakh. Life here has evolved keeping in mind the scarcity of natural resources and communities have thrived and self sustained despite nature’s limited resources. Not only that, respect for nature and other forms of life is a way of life here and so is the understanding that humans are just a part of a larger whole. There are many practices which defines this sustainability and understanding, the lifestyle of the Changpas being just one of them. The presence of Army, urbanization, tourism and a western system of education has led to massive changes in Ladakh’s social fabric over the last few decades with the younger generation moving away from traditional livelihood practices and opting for jobs outside their villages and people losing their deeper connect with nature and sustainable practices. These changes will start reflecting on the use, misuse or overuse of these natural resources sooner or later. But what will hit them the hardest in future is not something of their own making but created by us people from the plains.

Grandmother with grandson in Sham Valley

The effects of climate change are right at the doorstep and being a fragile ecology the changes are stark. Ask anybody across Ladakh – from Leh to remote villages – everybody will tell you how the weather is warming up. Snow as precipitation is decreasing and glaciers are melting. Monsoon which was defined by drizzle like rain for a few weeks has now changed to heavy to very heavy rainfall in short bursts and dry periods after that. Being a mudslide prone region, these changes increase the risk of more mudslides like the one that happened in 2010. The cycle of farming and storing up for the severe winters will get affected. Water will get more scarce and high altitude pastures which are dependent on snow fall will decrease affecting wildlife and livestock alike. How this will affect the ecology of the region as a whole and humans and wildlife in particular is yet to be seen.

What saddens me greatly is that this magnificent place, its people and wildlife will end up suffering the most even though their contribution to the problem is the least. All because of the never ending greed, lack of respect for others and nature that defines life of the people in the plains and which is threatening to overtake Ladakh at some point in time. Despite the changes, I firmly believe that with their inherent sense of connect with nature and ability to self sustain, Ladakh will take a longer while to give in to the western concept of development unlike the other Himalayan states of Himachal and Uttarakhand. But if and when Ladakh totally switches over to that side, will be the time I lose all hope for my planet Earth.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Ladakh Diary: Being Down-to-Earth

During the time of the great continental drift in the Early Cretaceous period (130-125 million years ago), the land mass that is now the Indian peninsula thrust into Asia creating the Himalayas. The region where it hit the Asian land mass is none other than Ladakh, which resulted in its unique geography and ecology. Ladakh lies within four key mountain ranges - Zanskar, Ladakh, Greater Himalayan and the Karakoram ranges - and traveling across the region, one can observe the amazing and different rock and mountain formations. Strangely shaped and brightly coloured mountain ranges, the presence of perfectly round shaped pebbles and sea-shells in the surroundings of a village called Lato speaks volume of this violent geological past. Ladakh’s wildlife is also a mix of species found in the vast Tibetan plateau in the east and the high mountains of Karakoram in the north-west.

Living in such high altitude and harsh conditions, the people of ancient Ladakh practiced animism and spirit worship, some tenets of which have got blended with Buddhism that is practiced today by most people here. Perhaps it is due to the harsh living conditions or perhaps their religious beliefs, but Ladakhis are one of the most helpful and hospitable people in the entire country. If you ever get lost and stray into a village here, you will not only find a warm hearth but an overdose of food and tea to eat and drink despite the fact that livelihood is mostly subsistence-based (agriculture and livestock) and other amenities don’t come by so easily.

Quite a few systems have evolved in Ladakh which are community-based and driven. During the time of harvesting, families form groups and help harvest each other’s crops. Though people are slowly moving away to the use of modern machineries and/ or hiring outside labour especially those from Bihar and Nepal (daily wage rates in Ladakh are one of the highest in India), this system is still found in pockets or interiors. Another effective system of controlling and managing the use of water for irrigation for the entire village is the system of churpun or water-lords.  A water-lord is selected by the village for the whole year and this role or position is rotated till all families in a village are covered. The responsibility of this person is to see that all the fields and houses get water systematically for their use. The glacial or spring water, which is the source of water here is made to flow through canals or streams and controlled and kept clean by the water-lord. Phaspun (brotherhood) is yet another system of communities working together where traditional groups are formed in a village to help each other during funerals or weddings. Work is divided between all the members of the group so that the concerned family is not overloaded with chores. During my stay in Ladakh, I saw how this worked when each family in a hamlet or area around Leh had to send one person as help for a wedding.     
A Ladakhi woman in a village serving lunch to her neighbours who had come to help her with the harvest 

And these are just some of the community-based traditional systems that I got to know of, perhaps many more exists. Even though urbanization is slowly but surely reaching all corners of Ladakh, these systems have endured in most regions. The strength of these systems can be seen from the fact that people still follow them in Leh, which is almost like a city now. Whether in future they will stay or not is yet to be seen. But something tells me they will. Life under the spirits of the high mountains and the eternal blue skies is very different and so are the hearts of the people here. Despite the changes, they will remain strongly inter-woven.

And I as an adrift bystander from the plains, feel blessed by the same spirits of these high mountains that I was able to be a part of this distinct life.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ladakh Diary: Greening of Ladakh

The flight dipped below the clouds and suddenly the vast vista of snow peaked mountains came into view. There was a collective gasp from the travelers at the incredible sight below. The plane followed the Indus, the blue river lined by poplar trees on both banks and just as Leh came into view, it was my turn to gasp. I had returned to Ladakh after a hiatus of 11 years and the change I saw was astounding. I could not recognize the small charming town I had last seen in 2003, which now had become a sprawling city with modern amenities, supermarkets and cars. But looking down at the city first from the flight and next from Shanti Stupa, the green canopy confirmed my doubts. I remembered a largely barren Leh with spots of greenery as a result of farms, not a city filled with Poplar trees.
‘Clean Ladakh, Green Ladakh’ - said a sign near the old bus station. My favourite colour is green but I am not sure I like it here in the desert ecology of these high mountains. Something seems very wrong. The Army, NGOs, spiritual leaders, people’s groups and even local communities are planting trees in valleys, river banks, villages etc. The ‘disease’ seems to have spread to Spiti too, where a once arid and completely barren Kaza is now thick with trees. Tall and slender Poplar tree is the popular choice even though other indigenous tree varieties of willow, juniper and birch trees are the natural species in pockets of Ladakh.

Tree Plantation drive by a spiritual leader Galwang Drukpa Rinpoche 

Ask around and you will find many reasons for this tree plantation craze. Most people think planting trees is generally good and it will help increase the level of oxygen in the air. Some are doing it for beautification, some are just following the others, while the prudent ones are planting Poplar trees as future investment as they are used for building houses which otherwise is an expensive affair. Traveling in the villages of Sham Valley, I asked most middle aged or elderly people I met if there are more trees than before and each of them replied in the affirmative. One woman in Yangthang mentioned that it used to be arid when she first came to the village as a bride. Tashi Dorjay of Hemis Shukpachan explained to me that earlier, people used to get wood for making houses through a barter system. Now people want money which most village folks don’t have, hence it is easier to grow the trees themselves.                        

Whatever may be the reason, common sense tells me that growing trees in an arid ecology might not bode well later for the region. Presence of trees where it is not supposed to be might bring changes in the climate of the region, ecology and the region’s rich biodiversity. There is already a rise in respiratory problems in regions around Leh which some are attributing to these trees. A friend who went to Zangla in Zanskar said that she had to leave earlier than planned as the place had become infested with insects especially after dusk. Village folks told her that the insects came after trees started being grown in the village.     

There is a reason for the existence of each ecosystem. Communities, culture, wildlife, all have developed over centuries for particular types of ecosystems and one small change can bring in a domino effect which can topple a lot of things in the process. With our supposedly ‘superior’ intelligence, humans have already done a lot of damage. It’s time we stop interfering more and let other species also live in their preferred and natural ecosystems.