Stepping into the mountains

There’s an infection spreading through the mountains. It’s not new, but it’s intensifying. I’m writing this because someone you know or someone they know might unknowingly be a carrier.
Its symptoms are gashes in the middle of villages, as whole mountain sides are taken over by real estate projects. The irony is that many of these houses are being built for people who want to seek the peace and quiet of the mountains :/
How did we get so upside-down? This article is an exploration of where we might find balance.

It’s important to acknowledge that this is of course not the only infection ravaging the mountains, and it might not even be the worst or the most ironical because there are several competitors – big dams causing floods, four-lane highways for pilgrims on foot, forests made of a single species, and many more.
But this gated colony infection, or as many mountain people call it VIP housing, hits home the closest. Taken together as something happening all over the state of Uttarakhand for the last two decades it has considerable scale. The cummulative effect of many rich urban households making the same decisions. Same because they are often not independently thought out, but come from aspirations and trends as understood by contractors. Mostly the house owners want everything taken care of so they can just shift-in.
Big mistake. Beware of suave contractors who might say all the right things, plant a native tree or two, and keep you at a safe distance from all the harsh realities of the process…
Village people share how contractors throw their weight around because so much money is involved. They dip into fragile common resources like spring water for construction (remember big cement structures are very thirsty creatures), they alter the flow of forest streams to capture water before it reaches the village in the middle of a drought and this after the village has offered to share their water source (I guess ‘sharing’ means differen things to different people), they raise dust over people’s fields, they throw construction debris into village commons and allow more debris to just slide down into forests below, they upset the local economy, they disturb the peace of the night by working late, they don’t provide for their migrant labour who then end up becoming a nuisance at times, they encroach on common land, they lodge FIRs against locals that question them and are supported by thugs and low-level politicians in all of this.
A local farmer wisely said that the contractors don’t have to live with the village. They do their shoddy work and move on like locusts to the next place, leaving behind ill-feelings between local and outside people. Which of the people who get their second-homes made like this will take the time to repair these damages in trust? Probably no-one, and the ill-feelings build up till there are two parallel worlds. Sounds familiar?

A pause here.  

This is not to put anyone down for the sake of it, or to get kicks out of pointing out the obvious. In  fact, let’s get some of the obvious out of the way. 

I get it. I grew up in the outskirts of cities. I know how beautiful it can be to have some space, some  greenery, and all modern conveniences together in one place. I can’t even imagine how good it must look to someone approaching retirement waiting to exit the hell-hole out cities have become.  Because we know that this can’t be found in cities now, not least in Delhi.  

But this is when it can be very interesting to take the long view and think of how perhaps Delhi  herself used to be. Was she not a blessed land with the Yamuna meeting the Aravallis creating a  mosaic of flood-plains, rocky hills, wetlands, and forests? Putting together a picture of this today is  more mind-bendingly difficult for us than those huge puzzles where all 10000 pieces are the same  shade of blue-grey. 

We did something to the picture, to the stunningly complex dynamics that supported that picture,  and now we can’t see it.  

Now think of the history of the Himalayas. Immense, untouchable, except by puffy clouds that softly tickle those sheer faces, to shed tears into those mighty rivers that carve for themselves a way to the vast flood-plains. A healthy, strong people, working hard in high places to make a beautiful, if sometimes precarious, life. The mountains are beautiful not just because they are full of clouds and rivers, but also because they have been inaccesible to the plundering infectious culture that is now making its way deeper and deeper into its vast folds.

Another pause. A sharper look at some details.
The VIP houses come with an agressive territoriality unfamiliar to mountain culture. Suddenly individual homes have spike-studded high walls, colonies have unfriendly looking barbed fences and huge cement walls. Tarred roads lead all the way upto the doors, and giant 4-wheelers takes up more built space than the average village house. The land of the mountains are not made to carry such heavy footprints.
Just next to them we see the architecture of the village. There are old meandering village pathways the width of two people and a cow, tucked between hedges of beautiful flowers. These paths go around and even through households sometimes, where animals, birds and humans flit through, knowing the important boundaries in their minds and in their movements. All the space that’s saved like this stands as forest, as common land that provides for multiple ecological needs. This the mountains know, this they can handle.

The locals who sold the land, those who are still around, can now not even afford to come back on  to it except by being employed as care-takers, cleaners, drivers, handy-men. This is force-fitted by  the new owners into a story of ‘generating employment’. The original inhabitants just take it all as  an ironical twist of fate, and very rarely do they waste their time on hate or personal grudges. If at  all they blame themselves. This is also mountain culture, and makes it all the more important that  

we as outsiders carry more sensitivity.  

It helps to clarify that this is more a conflict between cultures than regions. Some mountain people  are swayed by desire because they have seen something in the flashy life of the tourists and want it  too. Others are anyway ready to leave farm work because all the forests and streams they need to  support their fields have been plundered. Mountain farming is slowly dying. But as one culture  replaces another, can we not keep some of the old wisdom? Maybe make minimal tweaks in the old  way of life instead of copy-pasting this culture of ours that consumes places and eventually itself? 

Many of the VIP houses make it a point to be larger than the average village house, and larger than  the other VIP houses that came before them. They jostle with each other for the most commanding  view nevermind that they end up casting huge shadows on the village below. They stand like  predatory birds of steel and cement dominating the landscape, standing out glittering with all that  glass. What’s left of the village must live under this shadow. The colonising urban crowd grabs  more than their share in every way. Actually, they don’t even think of what might be a fair share.  

As outside, so inside. The constantly flushing toilets, the hidden washing machines, wasteful water  filters, together backed up by massive storage tanks make sure that one of these houses grabs more  water than multiple village households.  

The mountains are running out of water. There can be no more irony than that.

The demand during construction and subsequently during occupation is so high that it can dry up  perrenial streams. It also increases disconnection from ecological reality. Many of these houses  depend on water tankers. Where are those tankers bringing water from? Some are considering  drilling borewells at the top of ridges! 

Every landscape has a carrying capacity. How can orchards run by a handful of households be  replaced by hundreds of water guzzling, pavement loving, car owning, ultra consumers from the  city? 

Here’s the thing. Come live in the mountains, but learn from the old ways. The ways of this place.  Learn a bit even from the new ways – practices like permaculture, light living, and whatever other  names there are for it.

Don’t carry your ways with you from where you’re escaping. That’s just silly. Lighten up. There are gentler ways to live.
You might not like the sound of these things, but I’ll say them anyway…
(these are mostly things that I’ve already seen in practice, feel free to add to them)

~Understand that relationship with land can not be reduced to matters of money. -But you say you’ve bought the land with your hard-earned money and you can do what you will. 

~Build smaller. There is an art to having your house blend in with its surroundings. -But what if you need to entertain your very extended family. 

Traditional building materials are local, ecologically lighter, beautiful in their own way, well adapted to the weather, among many other good things. 

~If you haven’t built yet, consider building out of clay and mud, and slate roof – if there’s enough.  Employ someone with these traditional skills. But also be open to using whatever material will do  least damage. The simplest might even be to just use the existing house that came with the land!  -You don’t want a hut you say, you want a pukka house. But the ‘pukka’ is in your mind. 

~Suggestion number 4! You could also consider not trying to own everything, and make a long-term relationship with a village homestay, or lease a family’s extra hut.  

-But that’s not fulfilling. Why not? What are you after? 

~Maybe don’t bring a car to the mountains.  

-What if there’s a medical emergency you ask? 

~Walk to the local market, or better still, to your neighbour’s home to get milk, madua, bhaang,  daal, lemons, cucumbers, pumpkins, fruits, tubers. Eat more of what grows in your village, not what is trucked into supermarkets and home-delivered. If the village can’t grow enough, maybe start  growing a little yourself. The produce you need from outside are better bought from smaller shops. -You don’t have time for all this you say. You’re not here to have relationships with famers. 

~Have a dry-toilet that doesn’t need flushing. It might even give you back valuable manure.  -Now you’ve really had it, you’re probably going to go all swachh-bhaarath on me. 

~Show care for the forests around the village. They are what give you water, give fertility to the  farms which means local food and abundance. They give the mountain village its soul.  Studies say that for every acre of village farmland in the Himalayas, there must be 10 acres of  village forest to support it. This figure probably goes up dramatically for every acre of urbanised  built space. Don’t eat up forest space with tar and cement.  

~Find out what the land that you built on used to be. Have conversations to understand what  damage was caused by your construction. Try to imagine what changes it brought to the aspirations  of people around. Try to repair some of that. 

-What does that even mean you might ask.  

~The selling of land to outsiders, along with many other historical issues, has broken village  democracy. People have been made to feel that their voice doesn’t matter. See if you can support  spaces for discussion where the village can talk about collective issues and common solutions.  -What, like an NGO? Maybe just as a citizen. 

~Maybe use your over-sized house as a community library or space. Even just for some hours  during the day-time. 

This article is written in the interest of increasing awareness, not to make people feel bad. If after all this a house-owner can say, “Maybe we made a mistake, I wonder what we can do now” some balance is restored.  

One the other hand if what crops up in their mind is how they are actually not to blame, that they are providing employment to local caretakers, that anyway farming is failing, that these things  are inevitable, etc etc, then we are all further from balance. 

All this also points to the need for stricter construction and tourism guidelines for the mountains –  size and density of ‘pukka’ structures needs to be limited. But till that becomes reality we are all  responsible. The mountain community is changing. People are moving out and others are moving  in. Those who move in need to learn to respect the ecology of this place, and fast.

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