Moving mountains: Here is how India’s upland regions can be sustainably developed  

The approach to direct mountains towards sustainable development should evolve by drawing attention towards a disciplinary perspective, governance legitimacy and democratic voice

By Rommila Chandra
Published: Wednesday 13 July 2022

Life-threatening environmental concerns have surfaced the mountain regions of India over the past few decades. The loss of environmental, social and economic capital has left lives in a lurch.

The disappointment among mountain-dwellers varies according to the geopolitical, environmental and socio-cultural conditions prevailing in a particular region.

Also read: Heavy rainfall due to climate change increasing landslides, say experts

Mountain-dwellers, who mainly live in regions peripheral from mainstream ones, have usually felt neglected. On the other hand, intense human activities and technological advancements have enhanced inter-regional connectivity. This integration has changed the socio-economic scenario and governance system of the region.

Until mountainous areas were integrated into national economic development, the upland-lowland interactions were primarily confined to meeting the basic necessities of the upland communities. As the world progressed and developed, its reach and accessibility to mountainous areas magnified.

As mountain people and resources descended, ecological threats ascended. This deteriorated the environment’s capacity to sustainably support  societal needs. It further created vulnerability among mountain communities, with constrained options for livelihood, growth and development.

The well-being of the society as a whole, is attained not only through socio-economic upliftment but also through the capacity of the Earth’s ecosystem to sustain them.

The scale and rate of increase in external stressors are threatening the efforts towards sustainability, leading to severe degradation and destruction of mountain ecosystems. The mountain governance system faces multiple challenges to strike a balance between local, regional and national levels.

Planning, decision-making and implementation powers usually rest with the higher state and / or national-level authorities, with negligible contribution of the local administration. 

This disparity in the vertical set-up of governance leads to an imbalance in the dissemination of power. It creates a ridge in governance, which is often incompatible with the agenda of sustainable development.

Institutional diversity in terms of structure and function is essential for growth, evolution and better governance of society. As the demand for a localized and decentralised governance system is rising across India’s mountainous region, it still remains unheard.

This has significantly hampered its ability to respond to socio-economic and natural crisis in isolated areas.

Hence, managing sustainability in a mountain ecosystem requires the balancing of ecological complexity, along with socio-economic responsibilities.

A well-balanced and simultaneously evolving governance system holds the key to the future sustainable development of the mountains.

Transforming mountains

The governance system should incorporate both formal (official, governmental or bureaucratic formalities which are legally defined) and informal (traditional, indigenous, local level authorities and groups which are defined by local societal beliefs and values) institutions.

Regional cooperation and agreement should be recognised, adopted and implemented by working together for a long-term, healthy partnership.

A participatory institutional arrangement, with a focus on the social responsiveness of individuals towards the socio-ecological system, would help establish a scientific base to policy-making.

It would involve the decentralisation of operational power and management rights and improving the participation of the local community. This allows various stakeholders to share the roles and responsibilities within a defined system. Such a system can enable them to explore a common goal.

However, it does not replace the credibility of formal bureaucracies. Instead, it functions within its own jurisdiction and with self-guidance.

Attributes that promote good governance include participation, representation, deliberation and accountability. A multi-layered and polycentric organisational set up can ensure empowerment and social justice.

Such interlinked partnership networks require a powerful leadership as well. A good leader can build a stable and participatory governance system by establishing trust within communities.

This can be done by managing their conflicts, compiling relevant local information and mobilising local support for a strong and inclusive system.

It is crucial to build social capital by investing in social relationships with the local community, for an effective horizontal and vertical institutional collaboration.

Thus, various local actors and stakeholders play an important role in mobilising the local network to cooperate with the formal governance system. These kinds of mobilisations ensure equitable usage and sharing of benefits among local people.

The key element for a blooming partnership is to protect the community from external stress and encroachments. It can encourage them to act collectively rather than independently for the sustainable development of the mountains.

Sustainable mountain development

Concurrent reforms in the governance system are required in order to have a more substantial voice representing the mountain community.

It has to ensure participation and support traditional values, knowledge and culture. The complexity of the social system is often underestimated during governance and management.

Understanding the dynamism of mountain ecosystems, with the capacity of mountain communities provides insight into the hidden opportunities for sustainable mountain development.

So far, traditional mountain cultures have intensively managed natural resources, practiced local sustainability and demonstrated self-sufficiency. The feeling of belongingness of local communities would be aptly represented through their involvement and active participation.

A sustainable governance system should be based on collaboration (vertical and horizontal), learning (experiential and experimental) and institutional development.

Various stakeholders, like government officials, private organisations, researchers and locals should be brought together in this regard. The approach to direct mountains towards sustainable development should evolve by drawing attention towards a disciplinary perspective, governance legitimacy and democratic voice.

Rommila Chandra is Scientific Officer, Uttarakhand State Council for Science & Technology

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.