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Himalaya's human face

HIMALAYA LIFE ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD·David Zurick and P P Karan·John Hopkins University Press Baltimore and London·1999·pp355

Published: Thursday 31 May 2001

-- The magic of the Himalaya is heady. It has led many researchers and travelers to record their impression of this mountain range. Himalaya : Life on the edge of the world, is one such labour of love by David Zurick and PP Karan both professors of geography at the Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky respectively.

Studies conducted in the Himalaya since the 1970s tend to fall into two groups. The first is the voice of doom that projects widespread environmental catastrophe in the Himalaya, caused mainly by human activities. The other group challenges this viewpoint and argues that the environmental problems of the Himalaya have been exaggerated and that the impact of human intervention has been insignificant when balanced against the natural processes here.

This book steers clear of both these categories. It avoids a generalisation but analyses the major regional variations in the patterns of change both in nature and society. The treatment of the subject is refreshing, as it takes into account the fact that the Himalaya no longer remains isolated and pristine. The roads of modern civilisation have also reached this terrain and changed its landscape.

The book is a result of the writer's long-term association with the Himalaya and is "dedicated to the advancement of social science and research on the environment, to the understanding of the plight of the mountain people." It covers over 50 years of studying the human, economic, social and environmental transformations in more than hundred districts. It includes intensive local studies at seven field sites. The Kulu and the Sutlej valleys (Himachal Pradesh), the Alaknanda valley (Uttaranchal), are among them. It also incorporates additional field visits to remote areas in Zanskar, Garhwal and Arunachal.

The book describes the inherent fragility and active geology of the Himalaya, that persists from the time of its tumultous birth from the upheaval in the Tethys sea when the Indian and Asian plates collided millions of years ago. Recognising the tremendous natural and cultural diversity of the range the authors document the historical, national and regional developments that "herald a new order for places that lie at the edge of the world."

The book sketches the various Himalyan landscapes from the remote terrain of the southern margin of the Tibetan plateau to the sparsely-populated Greater Himalaya. It also dwells on the most densely populated middle mountains and the outer foothills and Piedmont plain. But this description is not without a human face. The authors bring in the human element by linking the varying landscape with the diverse modes of cultural adaptations in the Himalaya. They also do well to point out how through long-standing cultural practices and mixed economy, the mountain dwellers have managed their environment judiciously. This is a relevant comment as in this era of technology and research, we often fail to acknowledge the role of simple traditions in conservation efforts. The book also points out that the rapid changes in the recent past have brought in forces, with which the local people cannot deal.

The authors analyse changes in nature and society and explore environmental and social trends in the Himalaya in a historical perspective over five broad phases. The book covers the pre-historic period of indigenous land settlement, the medieval period of early state formation, the colonial spheres of influence, the era of post-colonial nationalism and finally the modern period of national development. The last part explores infrastructure development and territorial interests of the people of the Himalayan regions. It reflects the people's desire to develop the resource potential of the mountains to maintain authority over their land, life and resources. The legendary Chipko movement of the 1970s and most recently, the separatist movements of the hill regions of Uttarakhand, Gorkhaland, Bodoland best exemplify these trends.

The authors utilise the insights of potential ecology to study the interrelationships between local environmental management systems and environmental quality. They also study the larger political economy and how the distribution of power influences control over resources. The book questions the Himalyan Environmental Degradation Model according to which overpopulation causes cultivated land expansion, deforestation of steep lands, thereby increasing soil erosion and silt-laden runoff deposited downstream. Zurick and Karan document a far more complex scenario in which various conflicting pressures of growing population, local subsistence needs and external industrial demands on the Himalaya contribute to its environmental problems.

They also point out that if a single cause were to be picked for this, it would be poverty. They examine the mosaic of trends of population growth and density, increased accessibility through road networks, urbanisation, farmland and forest area changes with the help of extensive archival data, maps and field studies in conjunction with the ecological fragility of the Himalaya.

'Life on the edge' records an interesting period in the history of the mountain. The population living in the Himalaya has doubled since the 1950s. Land productivity and yields of cereal crops have shown decline in many areas. In 1981 less than one in 10 of Himalayan people lived in a town or city. The current urban population is now greater than 20 per cent. This has been accompanied by blatant deforestation. Every year 126,000 hectares of forest are being removed. The book also covers other developments: controversial big dams, tourism, cash farming, mining and roads that dot the Himalayan ranges. Accessibility has come with a price. The building of roads have often triggered landslides. Roads have become routes for the plunder of mountain resources.

Zurick and Karan discuss the development policies of the Himalayan countries and point out the growing need for international cooperation and trans-border environmental management. This requirement has resulted in the combined Sagarmatha National Park-Qomolangma Nature Preserve in Nepal.

The authors also address the issue of sustainable development and the formation of protected areas based on the concept of multiple landuse.

Exemplary models of such efforts are the Annapurna and Makalu-Baran areas in Nepal and a similar design proposed in the Great Himalyan National Park in India. Elaborately illustrated with maps and photos it is an informative package that weaves geography, history, ecology and culture into a pattern as rich and complex as the great mountain range itself.

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