Source : The Times of India, Last updated : 13 Feb 2021,4:00 am

‘The Chamoli deluge was foretold — we must heed the wisdom of the paharis’

‘The Chamoli deluge was foretold — we must heed the wisdom of the paharis’
Nayanika Mathur teaches anthropology at Oxford University. Writing in Times Evoke, she describes the deepening ecological concerns of villagers in Chamoli, the everyday impacts of climate change in the region which has just seen massive flooding — and why a ‘top-down’ approach isn’t working:

The flood of 7th February in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district was a disaster foretold. Many experts, including geologists, environmentalists, academics and even a cabinet minister had critiqued the excessive dam construction and other big infrastructure projects underway in Uttarakhand. The fact is, the ecological fragility of the Himalayas has been dramatically exacerbated by the climate crisis — yet, dams, highways and big infrastructure projects eating into the mountains continue unabated. In addition, buildings, commercial and residential, are found in spaces like riverbanks where they ought not to be. Forest and reserved lands are often acquired for commercial expansion. In such a scenario, environmental clearances seem like paper tigers. These transformations are unfolding in Uttarakhand in the name of ‘development’ and ‘modernity’. Very few local paharis or hill communities subscribe to this vision of development — but their concerns fall on deaf ears.


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WHEN THE GLACIERS GO: The Nanda Devi mountain peak near Chamoli houses the glacier which could have broken and caused February 2021’s avalanche and flash flood. (Picture courtesy: Nayanika Mathur)




I lived in Chamoli in the late 2000s as part of my doctoral fieldwork. I came to learn that it is only by listening seriously to different types of commentaries on life in the Himalayas can we truly understand the impacts of the climate crisis occurring now. I’ve heard textured and elaborate narratives of the withering away of the Himalayas from locals in Chamoli. These accounts are consistent and don’t emerge just when disaster strikes. Neither are these meaningless utterances or bleak ‘kalyug’ grumblings — they emanate from a sound understanding of the grievous harm being visited upon the Himalayas by human actions.



The appropriation of natural resources in the Himalayas, be it the damming of rivers, the felling of trees for commercial timber, intensive mining or the marketisation of the landscape itself, has a long history, stretching back into the colonial period. The coming of independence has been experienced by many paharis as the persistence of a colonial attitude, with extractive practices continuing. The situation has worsened with the intensification of industry in the Terai belt. The manner in which nature is considered by big capital to be merely a resource for consumption and commodification stands in marked contrast to far more sustainable local practices, as well as the deep care with which paharis approach the ecological world. Reverence for nature, fear of its might and love of its beauty characterise the pahari communities’ ties with their ecology. These qualities, I have often heard, are entirely missing in a ‘top-down’ approach to the Himalayas.



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BECAUSE THE HILLS ARE ALIVE: Pahari communities have long followed ecologically sensitive practices like terraced farming (Picture: iStock)




Practices like considering regions such as Chamoli as spaces populated with ‘simple’ paharis and merely a resource frontier allow for a massive undervaluing of human lives there. Pahari lives not mattering was a repeated refrain I heard in the region — after the flooding disaster of June 2013, many local people told me the only reason they felt the losses were considered extreme was because so many were ‘maidanis’, or people from the plains. Had over 5,000 residents of Chamoli lost their lives, would anyone have cared so much, came the anguished queries? Another plaint I heard is how it is only when a major disaster strikes that this region and its travails receive some fleeting attention. The smaller, almost routine disasters — less dramatic floods, avalanches, deforestation, fluctuating weather patterns, water shortages and biodiversity loss — remain invisible. Yet, it is in these everyday struggles that we see the effects of humaninduced climate change. But residents of Chamoli feel that the grind of their daily lives — the burden of which falls disproportionately on women and girls in these hills — are of scant interest to those who make the decisions about the transformations reshaping their Himalayan homes.


Everyday life is indeed becoming increasingly harder in the hills of Uttarakhand. The emergence of ghost villages — some estimates enumerate these at over 1,700 across the region — hit by an ecological collapse, and the crowding of the Terai and bigger cities like Dehradun, are notable. Yet, the significance of the depopulation of the Himalayas and its relationship to the climate crisis remains unremarked.


Experts will debate how climate change caused this disaster in Chamoli. But residents of Chamoli, where the Chipko movement originated in Raini village years ago, have for long been discussing the clear dangers of the ecological collapse in the Himalayas. Perhaps if we were more open to hearing what these paharis have to say, and didn’t dismiss their concerns and their complex relationships with nature, we might get a better handle on how these disasters came to be, and how more can be averted.
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