Published: June 4, 2020 7:25:48 pm

Sankri is close to Yamunotri, the origin of the river Yamuna. ( Photo source: Wikimedia/ flicker.com)

Written by Lokesh Ohri

Last winter, I happened to be in one of the remotest corners of India, in a place called Sankri, in Uttarakhand. Sankri is close to Yamunotri, the origin of the river Yamuna. The village is approached through a claustrophobic highway with the source streams of the river carving out deep gorges into the Himalayas. The river, in these parts, is referred to as Tamasa, the dark and angry one. I was visiting Sankri on an invitation from the United Nations Development Programme to meet and orient people from five villages into alternative employment opportunities since their traditional occupation — agro-pastoralism — had been deeply affected by the region falling under the Govind Pashu Vihar, a protected high-altitude forest, now under the UNDP’s snow leopard conservation programme.

As we drove up the narrow, serpentine roads, we saw hydro-electric projects in what was no-man’s land until a few years ago. Sankri’s skyline too came as a shock to me, with the snow-capped ranges almost obscured by a number of hotels, cafes and guest houses that have come up in the last few years. When we met the locals, we found them as angry as the river.

The region, they informed me, had recently been “discovered” by adventure tourism companies as a trekking destination for popular winter treks such as Kedarkantha and Har-ki-Doon. I saw large groups of young people descending on Sankri when other regions like Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh would be effectively closed due to the excessive snow. This is due to the fact that the Sankri trails themselves are largely free of snow, and therefore easier to climb, while the peaks offer fantastic Himalayan panoramas and ample opportunity for the kind of adventure one might boast of on social media.

These operators have scant regard for local cultural sensibilities or the environment and have set up large facilities in collusion with the powers that be in what is essentially a protected tribal area. The employment and revenues generated by brisk “adventure tourism” is going entirely to these companies and their “experts” brought in from the bigger cities. Thanks to this assault on their property and culture, the locals are left picking up the crumbs as bearers and porters while others maximise profits. Another familiar tale of internal colonialism, some would say.

Why I chose to describe it as internal colonialism is because post-independence, Uttarakhand emerged as a state only in the year 2000 — its progress hampered by the oppressive decision-making from faraway Lucknow by then. However, when the struggle seemed to be finally over, another class of rulers took over the newly-formed state, even more colonial and insensitive than the earlier masters. Completely driven by their own commercial interests and lack of ideas, the gap between what the people want and what they deliver is much wider than the Yamuna gorges.

Across the country, rural and still-picturesque India is struggling to save itself from the urban ugliness and gas-chambers that our cities have become. The struggle seems to be, as they say in the mountains, to save the four Js — jal, jangal, jameen, jawani (water, forest, land and youth). But our governments seem to be hell-bent on ensuring these last bastions, too, crumble under the weight of their greed and senseless “development” agendas. Not that the urban centres have fared any better. From the Ram Temple, in what is now emerging as a Buddhist site, to the Rs 20,000 crore Central-Vista gift to the RSS on completing one hundred years, India’s cultural and ecological heritage is under attack as never before.

For the mountains, however, the first year of this government’s second term has been particularly terrible. It began with the incumbent prime minister spending election eve at Kedarnath, wrapped in saffron, milking the tragedy that unfolded there for electoral goals. Kedarnath, as we are all aware, was devastated in 2013 in a flood resulting in thousands of casualties. The washing away of the buildings around the temple, and the survival of the temple itself — miraculously protected by a large boulder — led many to believe that the disaster would perhaps force government agencies to reflect upon Kedarnath’s transition from a remote pilgrim destination to a hub of pleasure-seeking tourism, and bring about a course correction in terms of enforcing more stringent environmental safeguards.

The disaster, however, coincided with the upping of the ante of polarising rhetoric, necessary to win an election: As soon as the results were out, the exultation accompanying the victory ensured that the debates on spiritual debasement and ecological protection were quickly brushed aside. Realising that the widespread media coverage of the disaster had converted Kedarnath into an emotive pan-India issue, the new dispensation quickly appropriated the site. About 40,000 trees, many of them Ficus religiosa or peepal, considered sacred by the pilgrims as Pitron ke Peepal or trees planted in the memory of ancestors, were felled for the Char Dham Mahamarg Yojana — a massive four-lane highway. The ambitious all-weather road has completely disregarded the fact that the Himalayan pilgrimage has evolved over the centuries as a summer-only activity and allows for the deities and the landscape to recover in the snowbound winter. So, if Shiva is not granting appointments in winter, why would you build an all-weather road right up to his doorstep? Despite no environmental impact assessment, the road, like most other ecologically disastrous projects, continues to dump tonnes of debris into the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers, blasting its way through the fragile Himalayas. A few months ago, we also witnessed the prime minister spending a night at the site, inside a cave fashioned out of concrete at an elevation higher than the temple itself, for the benefit of cameras all fixed at the correct angles inside it. This, soon after the locals had strongly objected to a boisterous laser show staged by a company from Gujarat, that used the temple spire itself as a projection screen.

A year on, news from Sankri is not very heartening. A road has been approved right up to Osla. The road, not even notified as a forest road but a Prime Minister Gram Sadak Yojana project, will cut right through the protected zones and bring in hordes of selfie-obsessed thrill-seekers. The rich and the powerful from Delhi, meanwhile, have already gone ahead and secured land deals with the hapless villagers to set up their resorts.

The writer is an anthropologist.

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