Another November In The Forests Of Uttarakhand

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, February 2020

By Rupal Rathore

It was our third month in Garhwal and we were still, like most people from the plains, very much in awe of the mountains – the terraced contours, rhododendron blooms, lazy streams, furry dogs and distant snow-capped peaks that only appeared on a clear day. However, a sense of derangement persists, which is more pronounced in empty villages than in bustling towns.

The people of Garhwal and Kumaon once shared an intimate relationship with their mountains, but many are now in search of more modern lifestyles and have started moving to urban areas. Could a new ruralism movement – a hybrid adaptation of the best of both worlds – save their future?
Photo: Gaurav Shirodkar

Falswadi is a compact settlement of old stone houses arranged in an organic cluster. The semi-agrarian lifestyle led here is all that remains of traditional mountain living. While there is a daily interaction with the forest – to cut grass, graze cattle, pick fruits and flowers, locked doors and barren fields suggest a prevailing dissatisfaction. Broken is a pattern of self-sufficiency as the village is now perpetually dependent on the government to provide water supply, transport, education and a livelihood.

Most architects, gripped by the discourse on sustainability, would prefer to use local stone and timber in the enchanting Himalayan landscape. But why are the natives shifting to brick and concrete? Why are the people, who have since ages built their own homes with chir logs and slate patthar (for important reasons of thermal insulation and fire resistance), accepting of a flat RCC roof and tiled walls? In Falswadi, they now rely on Bihari mistris to build them a ‘modern house’. It would be ignorant to dismiss this as their way of keeping pace with the advancing world and a result of exposure to the ‘outside’. We can only begin to answer this by tracing back to the times when the indigenous people of Garhwal and Kumaon had shared a deeply sacred and intelligent relationship with their surroundings. I say this in the past tense for that relationship has been mocked and exploited in irreversible ways by those in power. It makes us appreciate the slow and instinctive process of exchange with nature that simultaneously helped develop a bank of knowledge of what to take, when and how much. At the same time, it also fills us with rage on realising how insensitively an ancient symbiosis was disrupted.

Legacy of the Hills

Following the lead of a local (just ask for Bijendra ji!) through the dense banj trees in Khirsu, we could hear our own prying feet crunching loudly on a bed of dry leaves. The forest seemed to silently absorb the footsteps of the native who offered us an assortment of brightly coloured berries on the way. Further in, the forest echoed folk stories so ancient that they could only be passed on in grass clearings and tree groves. They are the legacy of the hills.

Lamenting the loss of oak tree groves that were cared for with a reverential attitude and often associated with a deity, the hillman from Garhwal earnestly relates to us their significance in an agrarian livelihood. With the capacity of holding water in the soil, these groves facilitated a natural cycle of aquatic replenishment. Now the people, who have given up on full-fledged farming, find themselves unable to rely upon the erratic water supply from pipelines or handpumps, which is insufficient for irrigation. Joining the dots, we realise that most villages responded to nature’s cycle by situating themselves ‘halfway up the spur’ with tree cover on top and terraced fields along a river below. This setting helped contain and channel water flows from the jungle for cultivation, as well as hold the ridge soil to prevent landslides. An integral part of what was considered ‘homeland’ by the natives, the forest also had specified boundaries for each village.

A semi-agrarian lifestyle is all that remains of a once-traditional way of life in much of the Garhwal Himalaya. As self-sufficiency disappears, people increasingly rely on outside sources for education, transport, construction and livelihoods.
Photo: Rupal Rathore

CRY FROM THE JUNGLE

The Uttarakhand hills, protected by the rising Himalaya in the North and separated from the plains by a swamp-like buffer, have never been a major target for territorial expansion. Garhwal and Kumaon, ruled by the Panwars and Chands respectively, were the two royal kingdoms that commanded the region almost unchallenged after the Katyuris. They were briefly captured by the Gurkhas of Nepal prior to the formal constitution of the British Raj in India. Eventually, with the prospect of commanding mountain passes to conduct trade with Tibet, the British overthrew the Gurkhas to restore administrative rule back in the hands of the royal line. Thus began a strategic endeavour to commercially exploit the ‘endless’ pool of natural resources in the mountains.

The string of British buildings in Khirsu all along a central football field are the crumbing remains of a rigid governance in the past. The State had declared the forests to be under their control, disrupting the established pattern of resource utilisation and making way for closely monitored timber production. The hillfolk, for whom no part of the jungle had been out of bounds, were alienated from their own land and branded as threats to the new system of ‘scientific management’. They had to now ‘legally’ prove their rights-of-access to the Forest Department created in 1864 with the help of German experts. As trees were being turned into tennis rackets, train bogies, turpentine and paper pulp by government-appointed contractors, villagers were denied their fair share of firewood and lumber. Natives were further oppressed by the system of begar, or forced labour, that demanded coolie services among other things to be given to the officials free of cost. Besides ecological damage, this resulted in the disintegration of the collective and incapacitation of the community. Individual struggle, both social and economic, translated into a unified cry from the jungle.

As the state took complete control of the forests, locals were alienated from their lands and their traditional forest-dependent lifestyles. A few resisted, but many had little choice but to migrate.
Photo: Rupal Rathore

PROTESTING PEASANT

Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.

– Oscar Wilde

Spending a month in Falswadi makes the disproportionate division of work between men and women very apparent. Lack of economic opportunities and disengagement with the village for able-bodied Garhwalis has shifted the burden of domestic chores, small-scale farming and earning a living to the womenfolk. Many youngsters from the village have migrated to Pauri, Dehradun and Delhi, or have enrolled in the army. The men that have either stayed behind or returned home after a work tenure spend their day at chai tapris or omelet stalls. To understand the initial trigger for migration of youth from the village, let us follow the social thread back in time.

Traditional homes used to be built using chir logs and slate patthar… much better suited to the mountain climate. 
Photo: Rupal Rathore

Once the devbhoomi of Uttarakhand had been introduced to the world market and its rich landscape corrupted with profit-driven agendas, the peasant could only but resist. Resist against the settlement operations and oppressive taxes levied by the State. Dhandak, the traditional form of protest in the hills, was an accepted practice in the raja-praja scheme to expose unjust law enforcers and bring to the king’s notice local grievances.  However, the methods of resistance that had worked before now seemed mild and insufficient. Deprived of forest resources, farmers were vulnerable to economic fluctuations. Since no developed notion of private property had existed in the community based-lifestyle, conflicts with regard to ownership and distribution of land considerably weakened social bonds. As a response, some chose early migration while others elevated their dhandak against an uncompromising regime, the most effective tactic being intentional forest fires. In the year 1916, 64 per cent of the fires that burnt 625 sq. km. of forest in the Gaula range of Nainital were termed as ‘deliberate and 
organised incendiarism’.

Even though general discontentment hung in the air due to lack of sympathy by the authorities post-Independence, it was the 1970 floods that announced a deep ecological imbalance created by a century-old trend of commercial forestry. As villagers correctly linked this devastation with deforestation, many cooperatives were organised and meetings held that ultimately culminated in the Chipko Movement. Its significance in history, apart from it being drawn from a strong tradition of peasant resistance, can also be attributed to its development as a technique of protest that was adopted in several instances by the villagers of Uttarakhand. It was a means of expression of their grave solidarity for the cause that was both social and environmental. The perceived non-violent ‘Gandhian’ approach in Chipko’s popular image of a woman hugging a tree to save it from the feller’s axe has been one of the reasons for its widespread approval. Its relevance in peninsular India can be associated with the fact that Himalayan forests have large agricultural implications since the Indo-Gangetic plains are fed by rivers that originate here.

In the coming decades, a number of issues pertaining to development, poverty, unemployment and ecological degradation merged into a common dream of the ‘Great Himalayan State’. Burdened with a 27 per cent reservation for OBCs and its neglected status in Uttar Pradesh, a series of rallies, bandhs, marches (Delhi Chalo!) and boycotts (Uttarakhand Nahin Toh Chunav Nahin!) preceded its separation. A demand for region specific planning had been raised in the parliament in 1967 (by Mahendra Shah, the former king of Tehri), but it was only in November, 2000, that Uttarakhand emerged as an independent state.

Now, mistris from Bihar are largely hired to build RCC and brick dwellings.
Photo: Rupal Rathore

NEW RURALISM

It is yet another November in the forests of Uttarakhand marking the beginning of the 20th year of ‘freedom’. Some efforts to decentralise the control on natural resources and restore forest-based livelihoods have been made by the state government. But here, we address the situation where over 700 villages in Uttarakhand have been deserted and more than 3.83 lakh people have left their villages in the last 10 years. The automatic link between cities and modernity has contributed to the conscious rejection of a rural lifestyle. With its architectural fabric also changing along with the social, villages are at the brink of being functionally urban, where they rely on an outside market for supplements and trade. This must also be associated with generic development strategies formulated with an urban vision that fail to respond to the ground reality of rural settings.

In the last decade, over 700 villages in Uttarakhand have been deserted and more than 3.83 lakh people have migrated. It is now vital to redefine the relationship between ecology, restructuring of the social fabric and innovating traditional architecture to save these places.
Photo: Rupal Rathore

We are in a time where the reversal of the notion that cities make privileged spaces has begun. This is not a neo-romantic suggestion of returning to the ways of the ‘countryside’ but an urgent calling for the preservation of cultures threatened by urban spill-out. One is not being nostalgic while invoking the traditional but merely using it to compare with the present state of villages, which is both inert and exhaustive. As the quality of city life is slowing degrading, people are choosing to not necessarily return but recourse their lives towards the non-city, sometimes living in small communes to practice farming and crafts inherent to a region and occupying abandoned village houses.

This is the birth of a New Ruralism in India, a phenomenon that had set into motion in the 1960s in America and Western Europe. It does not resist departure from the village but strives to restore the importance of local wisdom. Instead of trying to situate back to pre-colonial times, here we make way for a new hybrid system of adaptation – working with nature without losing touch with the global, where hill agriculture, animal husbandry and local crafts become part of the cycle of economic exchange. A redefining of the relationship with ecology, restructuring of the social fabric and innovating traditional architecture. 

The region was once ruled by the Panwars and Chand kingdoms, and later the Gurkhas from Nepal. Of course, during the British Raj, Garhwal and Kumaon were ruthlessly exploited. The string of British buildings in Khirsu, all along a central football field, are crumbling reminders of a bygone era.
Photo: Rupal Rathore

Falswadi, the first of the two sites for our architectural intervention, is a small village that falls under the block administration of Kot. It is 13 km. from Pauri and can be reached by a share taxi. It has an anganwadi, a panchayat ghar and hosts the famous Sita Mata Mela every November. Look out for the only hipped-roof house of the village, the owners of which have now migrated to New Delhi.

Khirsu is a bigger agglomeration of village settlements with its own Block Development Office. It is 21 km. from Pauri and attracts a fair number of tourists. It has some interesting British buildings around a football field, a newly constructed tourist centre, and some homegrown turmeric, mushrooms and vegetables.

Families have shifted out of their older homes that are further up the hill (occasionally visited by the baagh) into ‘newer’ cement houses built closer to the access road. Situated on stepped terraces, old stone houses have the ground floor carved out of the hill, which is used for keeping domestic animals and storing grains, haystacks and water. The living spaces on the first floor have a wooden projection that overlooks the aangan and often opens into the winding pedestrian pathway.

Surveys tell us that the sparse bits of forest that had been allotted to van panchayats for access to locals were uniformly better maintained than forests under the jurisdiction of the civil administration. A particular incident in 1973 at Mandal sparked off a chain of protests against commercial felling and denial of customary rights. Villagers had requested an allotment of ash trees to make agricultural implements but were asked to use chir instead, which was completely unsuitable for the purpose. However, an Allahabad-based sports manufacturer, Symonds Co., had been assigned a contract of ash trees in Gopeshwar around the same time.

Illustrated contoured map of Falswadi village settlement. A 3D-sectional view of a traditional Garhwal house.

A State monopoly had been established (on the basis of an All India Act of 1878) that ‘reserved’ land with the best quality sal, teak and deodar for its use as railway sleepers. Later, by the tapping of chir pine for oleo-resin, experiments were being conducted to enable the making of products that could compete with American and French varieties in the international market.

UNDERSTANDING SOCIAL ISSUES OF THE REGION

For readers interested in understanding more about the region’s socio-ecological and political influences, I recommend reading The Unquiet Woods by Ramachandra Guha. The book not only describes the timeline of social, ecological and political events in Uttarakhand ranging from the pre-British era to post-Independence, but also draws inferences through the narrative of their triggers and effects. Most importantly, it does not lose touch with the human – the farmer, the herder, the community. In fact, it prepares ground to tell the story of the dhandaki, the kisaan and the women of Chipko. Other references used in the essay are from The New Ruralism, An Epistemology of Transformed Space by Joan Ramon Resina and the Sociological Analysis of a Regional Movement: the Case of Uttarakhand by Surender Singh Ahlawat (2001, JNU).

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