Himalayan differences

There are no universals in the problems and solutions of the mountain situation, says a compelling book on Himachal Pradesh.

Two decades ago the renowned Indologist, Agehananda Bharati, wrote an essay entitled "Actual and Ideal Himalayas: Hindu Views of the Mountains". Bharati, an Austro-Hungarian Jew who spent youthful summers in the Alps and — later in life as a sadhu — some years in a Himalayan ashram, documented the attitudes and biases that plains and peninsular Indians held about mountains and their inhabitants. Most of their accounts were coloured by their own cultural experiences. In the superb book under review, certainly the best I have read on the Himalaya in many years, the other viewpoint of the Himalaya is expressed. Chetan Singh explores Himachal Pradesh from the perspective of the people living there —locals as well as resident colonials —in the context of both the modern state and its antecedents.

Today, Himachal Pradesh is full of surprises for the outsider. It has a low poverty rate, the second lowest among the states in India, high literacy as well as a comparatively advanced level of development. Refuting all the doom and gloom accounts of the degraded status of the Himalayan environment by ´exerts´, is the amazing increase in forest cover from 21 percent in 1970 to 30 percent in 1990.

Throughout the book, the author sifts, weighs, and documents in a meticulous fashion all the evidence on the environmental history of Himachal Pradesh. The book should be read for not only what it tells us about Himachal Pradesh, but also more importantly what it implicitly tells us about the Himalaya and mountain environments in general.

Singh questions the environ mental deterministic views that many maintain about mountains and their inhabitants. Much is made these days by environmental activists of the devastation wrought by colonialists on the biophysical environment. In a felicitous manner, Singh quotes these sources and points out that, gross generalisations about the South Asian environment corrupt and distort the documented evidence from Himachal Pradesh. The historian that he is, Singh has drawn upon a vast array of archival sources, travellers´ accounts, settlement and agency reports, state and district gazetteers and innumerable surveys of customary land and forest rights.

Defining territory

The book opens with a discussion of state formation and territory. Aided by maps, the writer exhibits the highly varied nature of state boundaries. While these days watersheds are often seen by planners to be the ideal planning unit, this fashionable view conflicts with the princely state boundaries of yesteryear. Territorially, boundaries could be along ridgelines but as often as not, they were situated along some other topographic feature, often an unfordable river, or some ´negative´ feature such as high cliffs. What was most important to the delimitation of territory was accessibility. Narrow chasms with snow- and glacier-fed rivers were boundaries. Rivers divided, not united.

Ecological conditions, too, were instrumental in defining and maintaining territory. Accessibility to high-altitude pastures provided routes of communications. Ridgelines and not only valley bottoms , came into play as routes. The overall impression is tha the present-day state of Himachal´ Pradesh is the historic product of a mosaic of movements among plains, hills, mountains and plateaus, large states and small states knitted together by pastoralists, local folk,  petty aristocracy and outside traders, all of whom occupied and exploited altitudinal and aspectual ecological niches of the Himalaya and adjacent regions.

Working within the parameters of mountain environment were the princely states, always seeking revenue even as they fended off pressure from neighbours and alien invaders. The Gorkha invasion of the late 18th and early 19th centuries forced these princedoms to enlist outside help, thereby bringing Sikn support and later British annexation. Kangra and most of Kulu today reflect the template imposed by this early British control. But the lesser principalities remained largely independent. And it is this richness of spatial autonomy, with its trappings of small-scale bureauracy, revenue bookkeeping, and rule of customary law that may have spawned the dynamism of today.

Unlike so many contemporary chronicles of the Himalaya, with their emphasis on exceptional environmental features and ´mountain specificities´, Singh´s work pays close attention to the political economy of the hill states. He deftly weaves the story of all the different types of revenue gathered by the states from ghee, honey and fruits, to the tariffs on water mills, oil presses and mining. Tying the Himachal situation to mountains elsewhere are the copious endnotes of illustrations from Alpine literature where comparisons and contrasts are made of land use, administration, and revenue.

Supreme individualism
In his chapter on settlements, Singh exhibits his control over scale and reach, by highlighting the varied nature of human habitation in the mountains. Villages existed, but no general pattern was established. Dispersed settlements and hamlets seemed to be the norm, and out of his pattern came an almost autarkic sense of the human component.

Quotations from sources verifying this situation are abundant. In the mid-19th century, Barnes, a settlement officer, remarked that "each member lives upon his own holding and is quite independent of his neighbours. There is no idenity of feeling, no idea of acting in concert". About the Shimla area, another settlement officer noted that "there are no village communities". Again, in a consideration of the use of cultivable wastelands we see, a century ago, an official stating that there was "no villages community system". If there was a binding phenomenon, it came from the territory Prescribed by the religious deities of the settlements. Writes Singh: Within such a territory a ´community´ of a flexible kind does seem to have existed."

The author´s examination of archival sources echoes some of the settlement officers´; individual cultivators seemed paramount in moulding rural settlement and land use, and not a corporate village community. In the mountains, it appears that the individual reigned supreme. I would venture that this key feature may lie at the root of much of the success of Himachal´s citizenry today.

Several salient points emerge in the detailed analysis of agriculture systems. Virtually everyone, including ´low´ castes, held land, and supplementary sources of income existed, especially at higher altitude. Citing settlement reports of a century ago, Singh writes that large plots of land were common in the low altitude areas —attributable to malaria, which kept families small. Land holdings were smaller at higher altitudes but people there had access to more resources. A further entire chapter, an excellent one, is devoted to the issue of censusdefined ´culturable waste´, who owned that land or had rights to it and who used it and eventually what it was as a resource.

The book changes gear with the chapter on pastoralism. In agriculture, much of the activity is local. Pastoralism brings in another dimension, that of great mobility. "It was the shepherd and not the peasant who was more ´business´-oriented," says Singh. Not only did they have to cope with the seasonal vicissitudes of climate and its influnce on the resource-base, they, like the Gaddis and Gujjars — quite different groups — were also attuned to the vagaries of the market.

Sheep and goats loaded with agricultural produce or other products were ideal beasts of burden to convey marketable goods around the mountain trails. Pastoralists encouraged the development of markets and money in a marginal environment. Parenthetically, I should add that no less than economist Adam Smith once remarked that mountain dwellers had a great ability to "truck and trade". In Himachal Pradesh, the pastoralists were the driving force of this type of external exchange.

Illusory similarities
In dealing with the situation of the forests, Singh is careful to include evidence of exploitation on a mass scale of forest resources (while avoiding colonial bashing). He is also fair in his analysis to include the changing perceptions of forests and conservation in time and place. Colonials actually engaged in serious debates about conservation, and by the early 20th century, the tone of exploitation and revenue enhancement had changed to one of probity and conservation.

It is also true that forest exploitation ushered in an era where the regional identity of the princely states were expanded towards incorporation into a subcontinental milieu. The revenue was paid to the principality dominions from the Siwaliks to the Himalaya, even in the most inaccessible places. This era had multiplier effects; it produced goods of commercial value that were enhanced by the growth of the cash economy.

Singh´s historical analysis of Himachal Pradesh brings into perspective major issues in our contemporary concern over the Himalaya. Emerging mountain-oriented NGOs like the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Developmen (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu or the even more international US-based The Mountain Institute (TMI), would have us believe that there are universal problems in mountain areas, which can be remedied by universal solutions from universal bureaucratic organisations like the UN or the bilateral agencies. They seek similarities in the construction of problems or universal "mountain specificities" when the lesson to be learnt from this book is that the conditions of mountain environments are firmly rooted in the context of place.

From an academic viewpoint, it is the contextual theory, the connectedness of events located in space and time that defines Himachal in contrast to the illusory similarities that the proponents of compositional theory foster among the uninformed transnational bureaucrats. Himachal Pradesh is not Kashmir, nor is it Uttarakhand, and it certainly is not Nepal. Geography and history confirm that. A geologist sees some similarity of the Himalaya in the depths of geology, but a geographer never would.

Singh´s book is well worth reading. Each page has insights and revelations. One quibble though, and that is aimed at the publisher, Oxford University Press. Can the international readership please know about books published in South Asia? This book deserves to be read by an international readership.

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