Developing High Himalayan Habitats

Come autumn and the change of season highlights how the High Himalayan Habitats differ starkly from the rest of the North Indian landscapes ! Speaking of Uttarakhand the change of season means ‘curtains down’ for some 108 villages, all above 8,000 feet above the mean sea level. These 108 villages start the process of getting de-populated for at least the next 6 to 7 months, and remain what is officially termed by our Census organisation ‘snow-bound’. However, the main news covering these very regions, that one reads about in this ‘Dev –Bhumi’ relates to, if at all any news reaches down to the pages readers read in the central and southern-most districts, the closure dates of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri ‘dhams’ in that order. The humans, and their transhumance and the problems associated with this annual involuntary migration do not receive any notice, far less the mitigative steps that are expected to be taken to reduce their impact on the hapless families. For the State government, its much awaited ‘good riddance’, for the local administrations it is the beginning of ‘holiday times’, belated Ram –lilas, annual vacations and a series of official and non-official holidays. Central Himalayan populations resort to ‘gham-tapai’ ( wintering), somewhere in the Turai-Bhabar, or even beyond these days.

 Twice Annual Stock-takings

The utter callousness that was observed by this writer on the part of local administrations towards such a human-tragedy forced him to constitute a formal civil society architecture by the name of the Malla Johar Vikas Samiti ( MJVS ), exclusively dedicated to take an annual stock-tacking of  some of the basic socio-economic needs and infrastructure. As its was a totally voluntary intervention taken with the help of local concerned citizens this monitoring is confined to the transhumance issues of 15 trans-Himalayan villages, located in the Gori valley of district Pithoragarh, in obviously Munsyari Tehsil cum Block. After extensive consultations the Malla Johar Vikas Samiti was registered in June 2006. It closely monitors the progress of development of as many as 15 trans-Himalayan villages, namely Milam, Bilju, Burfu, Tola, Ganghar, Pachu, Rhalam, Martoli, Laspa, Poting, Lwan, Rilkot, Sumtu, Khailanch and Mapa, the highest being Milam ( 11,200 feet ) and the lowest at 10,000 feet. The total geographical area 88,758 sq kms, of which only 2,306 hectares is cultivable. The adverse impact of the cessation of ancient Indo-Tibetan trade since 1960, on record since the seventeenth century, is evidenced by ever decreasing trend of population. From 1,561 persons in 1961, it soon slipped to 186 in 1971 and just 113 by 1981- a record more than 99 % reduction in a period of just two decades ! The only silver lining has been that it could not have gone any worse, before the annual stock-taking commenced in 2006.

Past Seven Reviews ( 2006 – 2013 )

Following the dictates of the weather in the destination villages as also the current economic situation the families start migrating north-wards starting May every year and by the end of September most of the families are back in their wintering villages, spread over the Gori rivershed and the Munsyari-Talldesh region. The Annual Review was designed to capture their upwards migration and final wintering descent. Readers would recall that in a previous article in the Garhwal Post this writer had shared with them the ‘Munsyari Model of Development ) ( cf Garhwal Post, 7 June 2014), it included civil society institutional intervention by the likes of MJVS, which commenced these Reviews. The first Review takes place in May-June, at the time of Johar Football Club tournament, and the year-end review gets held at the annual Malla Dummar Hari Smarak festival, every November. Past seven year close tracking of problems encountered by the migrating families has covered an amazing range of interventions by MJVS, with the help of individuals, charities and of course, the district and local administration. Starting with election of officer bearers ( 2006), the yearly interventions have covered field survey of ground situation of local civil amenities in these villages, a total absence of roads linking 32 km away Rhalam, preparation of estimate for 5 bridges, documentation of difficulties experienced by migrants, recommendation to increase the number of Gram Sabhas from existing 2 to at least 6 ( 2006); preparation of ‘micro-plans’ of 10 villages, securing copies of record of rights and other lands ( ZA and Non ZA Khataunis) shajras ( Maps), communication with Ministry of External Affairs on the properties left of traders forced to foreclose trade due to Chinese occupation, participation in development programmes by some migrants ( GBPHIED, Almora ), annual sharing of migration-and stay related problems ( 2007). Yearly reviews, held twice every year, liberal use of RTI facilities has yielded a commendable range of reliefs, useful information, developmental initiatives, year after year. From initial scepticism on the part of the local residents, local petty officials and even among a good number of migrant families these annual reviews have now made the migrants look up to the MJVS to speak and act on their behalf. Besides a day long, twice a year review, these past years have made MJVS intervene in themes like

Memorandums on various problems to visiting officials from the district to the state and government of India, additional financial relief to natural calamity affected individuals, patenting of local products ( GBPHIED), petition against converting GIC playground into a heli-pad, food-shortage and PDS related issues, improvement of Milam-Munsyari road, participation in State level Tribal Conference ( 2010), medical help in remote villages, participation in public hearing on NHPC Rupsia-bagar Hydro-project and protest on non-transparency, supply of stretchers to the villages ( SMILE), help installation of Sat-phones in 7 villages 9 BSNL) ( 2009 ), distribution of wool among women ( Nanda Devi Biosphere ), distribution of solar latern, distribution of improved agricultural implements supplied by VPKAS, participation in several events in Munsyari, Almora and elsewhere ( 2010-2012). Year 2013 saw a critical intervention by MJVS when the higher reaches of these villages also suffered very heavy damage. When the local administration totally failed to pay heed a survey team was sent to survey the actual damage to lives and property. This MJVS led survey disclosed the callousness of local administration to the immediate needs of the migrant families. As many as three people, including two elderly women lost their lives, and several sheep and cattle were also lost. Extensive damage to roads and bridges were documented and a detailed report was shared with the local administration and on the internet with the public at large. Donations were solicited and the disapora of the Munsyari regions responded liberally. Private charities also contribute and M/s Bajaj Electricals came forward to provide more than a dozen relief-tents. Solar lanterns, which were distributed. Several articles highlighting the utter neglect of Kumaon and this region during the June-August 2013 calamity was highlighted through a series of articles sent from Munsyari, which were not only published, but as a compendium presented to the President of India. This ( 2013 ) intervention has not only demonstrated the utility of having citizen-sponsored societies but also how effective their overall role could be in high-lighting the tragedy and neglect, assessing and seeking assistance which the administration simply failed to provide, act as a watch-dog of relief that is distributed by the state government, mobilizing local support in cash and kind and above all advocating all these needs and tracking the efforts of various public institutions. What has been observed is that a calamity like that occurred in June 2013, which truly tests the utility of civil society organisations, converts initial scepticism into deep faith and ownership, and it takes time to become a spokesperson organisation, and thus an effective instrument of positive intervention. 

The Eighth Review ( October, 2014 )

The second annual Review, held on the 9th October 2014, at Jyoti-Devindra Hall, another CSO intervention ( Johar Sangh), took the best part of the day, and held in  far improved atmosphere of understanding between the local people and the migrant representatives , who came for this review. Not only both the newly-elected young Pradhans of Milam and Burfu, and almost all Sarpanchs of Van Panchayats were present but even old ladies, in a fair measure. It was one of the most orderly and inspiring annual review that has been held, and it proved to be a major mile-stone, in the evolving of the so-called ‘Munsyari Model of Development’. In a span of eight years, a civil society without any assistance and support of the state or local administration, assumes the role of ‘watch-dog’ of the over-all interest of the poorest border-people ( almost all of them below poverty line ), who brave one of the worst stretch of road this state could possibly boast of ( Munsyari- Milam, 60 kms of high Himalayan tract, without any PWD maintenance -gang, or BRO construction intervention ), to reach the 15 High-Himalayan villages, on Indo-China border.

Listing of Twenty Two Main-Issues

It has been shown that during the first twenty years ( 1961-1981 ) there was a predictable but record decline in the recorded population of these 15 High Himalayan Villages, by more than 99 per cent ! In 1981 it was just 113 persons. What has been the number of families who spent their summer in their villages and what was the total number of persons. Wide variation in the average number of persons per family, varies very significantly, and that is a factor of the condition and location of the village, out-migration from the region that has taken a permanent shape, what was the original composition of the village in question, and last but not the least, what is the access condition of the connecting road and bridges is, especially after the catastrophic June 2013 natural disaster.  

Increased Migrants Families and Persons

It is indeed remarkable that in a post – 2013 Malla Johar trans-Himalayan habitat approximately 326 families migrated to as many as 14 villages, each with over 8,000 feet high altitude and their actual number was 656 persons. Unlike in the ancient days of economic prosperity, when the last village Milam ( 11,200 feet asl ) would have won hands down, now it was Rhalam village ( 60 families, 150 persons ) which led the migrant population number, followed by, in terms of families, Burfu ( 45 and 60 ), Laspa ( 40 and 150 ), Milam ( 38 and 85 ), Martoli ( 25 and 29 ), Bilju ( 23 and 38 ), Tola ( 22 and 46 ), Pachu ( 20 and 40 ), Mapa ( 18 and 35 ), Ganghar ( 13 and 15 ), Khailanch ( 10 and 35 ), Rilkot ( 10 and 10 ) and Lwan ( 2 and 9 ). Notably Sumtu, adjoining Tola, is to-day totally depopulated. The ratio of migrant families vis a vis the persons who went up and stayed throughout is far more complex than a mere factor of ( i ) availability of total cultivable land, ( ii ) number of original land-holders and agricultural labourer families, ( iii ) availability of irrigation, labour, inputs facilities etc as these high-Himalayan villages are defined by their access from the main track, proximity to wildly-growing or available natural resources ( Cordyseps sinenesis or keera ghas being a recent discovery ), altitude, rivulets, their fordability, past population, recent out-migrations, in some places mix of sub-clans and so on. In the trading –past, proximity to the three passes leading to the Tibetan marts, defined the size and mix of each of these villages, providing Milam the pride of place, in size, prosperity, mix of sub-clans, even the political and social clout. However, the present situation of migration, and family persons ratio, is a temporary and transitory phase which defies any interpretation, just as the fast-changing socio-economic condition of its permanent and original residents, the Johari Shakas ( Johari Bhotia) defies any generic description.  

Further, these apparently modest resident family statistics relate to nearly correct assessment, convassed in open knowlefgeable review, but these do not include the near invasion of seasonal labourers who visit as a trail of the recent golden rush triggered by discovery of Cordyseps sinenses ( Keera jari/ghas). These are now turning into ‘visitations’ by the outsiders, as they have brought in a whole range of new issues and concerns that now threaten these peaceful but highly fragile ecosystems, dotted with large meadows and high-Himalayan vegetations an and wild rare animal species.

Range of Issues

The issues that got discussed in great details were, ( i ) Roads of all kinds, ( ii ) bridges of all kinds, ( iii ) Security, ( iv ) food-grains and their distribution, ( v ) human health, ( vi ) animal care, ( vii ) state of communication, ( viii ) education of children, ( ix ) drinking water supply, ( x ) toilets, ( xi ) electricity, alternate energy, ( xii ) supply and availability of kerosene, ( xiii ) portable gas cylinders, ( xiv ) Yarsa-Gambu related issues, (xv ) tourism infrastructures and related problems, ( xvi) pollution-control, environmental issues, ( xvii ) Wild-life protection, ( xviii ) Theft and other crimes during winters, ( xix) land and housing availability to the land and homeless, especially SCs, ( xx ) Women and Child care, ( xxi ) Fixing dates for Opening and Closure of Migration period, and ( xxii) Role and responsibilities of Indo Tibetan Border Police ( ITBP ) Outpost at Milam and other departments connected with these issues, in the border-region.

This piece is no place to recount in detail how informed and intense these discussions are gradually turning to be. Extensive use of the Right to Information ( RTI ) has laid bare the dismal record of departmental functionaries when it comes to receiving the services in these strategically sensitive regions, bordering a growing giant country, who in the main has been the main cause of present miseries of these very people. While action of each of the items that were discussed in the last edition of review gets build up through petitions, memorandums and yet another barrage of RTI applications seeking more and more information it would be sufficient to record that Chief Minister Harish Rawat would need a major ‘accountability and explanation’ round of measures against all responsible local and district officials who adamantly refuse to budge from their comfort-zones and with impunity create a huge gulf between what is announced daily in newspapers and what one observes on ground. There is every need to stem the rot of mis-governance and official apathy lest one day the sum total of rank inaction becomes the proverbial last-straw. 

On the other side, the silver lining is, that the even the poorest, the most under-privileged is so well informed today that such reality-checks, as is being reported, becomes a major learning for any one who participates in such reviews. The heartening part is that now there is a far more increased awareness among the local people that much can indeed be achieved even through their physical presence in these remote regions as empowering the poorest and the most underprivileged, with information and access to assistance, is the first positive step that they can be enabled to take towards ameliorating their current situation. MJVS is one such innovation which has demonstrated that much can indeed be achieved through community action through awareness building and small collective efforts. 

Tail-piece : NINB

Listening to the villagers who have recently spent six long months arguably in one of the harshest climates that High Himalaya provide as human habitats, further made most miserable thanks to a six decade long apathy displayed by India towards its border regions, mostly inhabited by various tribal ethnic groups, one gets some of the most jarring and near bizarre reality-checks, in almost all public domains ! Measured against claims of Martian rover achievements of a fast developing India, Chandrayans, over-bursting Sensex figures, 3D rhetorics and future alignments converting INCH into MILES, one wonders whether we are also part of the same country. Over the years one  was made acutely conscious of one India, another Bharat, out here there seems to be an urgent need to add yet another classification of India, NINB, Neither India, Nor Bharat ( mostly to be found in High Himalayas ). If Kashi has a PMO-Kashi, there appears an need for a CMO- Munsyari/Dharchula, if having the Chief Minister as the local MLA, is likely to make any difference to these High Himalayan habitatas.

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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