CONSENSUS eludes much of our political discourse, today. It would seem that polarisation is often the name of the game. The closed mind confines us.
Despite this, the concept of a Himalayan Consensus is compelling. The Himalayas are an abode of light, of sacred meaning, a mandala of integrated spaces and composite cultures from the Hindu Kush in the west where the Pamirs can be touched, to the trailing ranges of the borderlands of North-East India and Myanmar. This great fringe that marks the frontiers between South Asia and Central Asia, including Tibet, holds the secrets of our future — in terms of climate, water, sustainability, preservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, transport and communications, disaster management and prevention and human security. Can we elude sovereignties and cartographic lines to protect and advance the interests of the people-in-between, the millions who inhabit the geography of the Hindu Kush Himalaya?
How do countries like India and China forge a new idea of peaceful coexistence for this inner Asian heartland that accesses peace, tranquility and happiness — the essential meaning of the Sanskrit term ‘Shambhala’? The definition of an uninterrupted Asia should aspire to uniting Shambhala and Mahasagara — the Himalayan and ocean space that make our weather, have defined the movement of our peoples across history, have created empires of the mind, and of commerce, meeting at the crossroads of cultural values and material progress.
In 1983, Sunderlal Bahuguna, summarising his 5,000-km 300-day walk through the Himalaya wrote the following in his report to the Unicef: “The Himalayan crisis is not an isolated event. It has roots in the materialistic civilisation, in the spiral of demands, ever-increasing but never satisfied. Even the renewable resources become non-renewable due to over exploitation. The air and water pollution, acid rains and barren stretches, familiar today in many countries, are the gifts of this civilisation.
“... the viable answer to the ecological imbalance is to adopt a new development strategy in which man and nature coexist in harmony. This in turn is possible only if small communities are allowed to meet their own basic needs. The perils of centralised production systems were anticipated at the beginning of this century. As we move towards its end, the challenge is to implement a programme of survival…to summon the blessings of science in the service of the people.”
Much remains to be done to fulfil this people-centred goal of sustainable development. Regional connectivity must advance local livelihoods. We aim for interconnected electricity grids and ambitious power generation projects that harness mountain rivers, but where are the peoples of the Himalaya, of the Hindu Kush? They inhabit divided homelands. Ambitiously conceived economic corridors to the sea, aim to bridge mountains and river valleys across ancient habitats, defying nature and traditional custom. Little attention is paid to the aspirations of local communities.
Recently, the ICIMOD, which is headquartered in Kathmandu, brought out the Himalayan Climate and Water Atlas tracing the impact of climate change on water resources in five of Asia’s major river basins: Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganga, Salween and Mekong. It showed that the region’s climate, which has been changing rapidly, will continue to do so in the future, with severe consequences for populations locally and downstream.
Its findings stated: Temperatures across the mountainous Hindu Kush Himalayan region will increase by about 1-2°C (in some places by up to 4-5°C) by 2050; precipitation will change with more erratic and longer monsoon; extreme rainfall events are becoming less frequent, but more violent and are likely to increase in intensity; glaciers will continue to suffer substantial ice loss, with the main loss in the Indus basin; communities living downstream from glaciers are most vulnerable to glacial changes; despite overall greater river flow projected, higher variability in river flows and more water in pre-monsoon months are expected, which will lead to a higher incidence of unexpected floods and droughts, impacting the livelihood security and agriculture of river-dependent people; changes in temperature and precipitation will have serious and far-reaching consequences for climate-dependent sectors, such as agriculture, water resources and health.
As Bahuguna foresaw, the Himalayan crisis is not an isolated event. Our region, indeed the world, is an integer. The idea of a Himalayan Consensus is an intrinsic part of the idea of Asia — of our capability to shape the resolving of global challenges. As Himalayans, as South Asians particularly, we face many challenges: the management of diversity, environmental degradation, the clash of narrow interest groups, the choice of the kind of economic development we want, the questions of democratic choice and rising public expectations, corruption and governance, cross-border disputes and religious radicalism and terrorism.
Of all principles enshrined in the Panchsheel that was launched by India and China (Myanmar played a part too) in 1954, the principle of equality and mutual benefit stands out. We need to encode a new definition of peaceful coexistence today with people at the centre. The need is for balance and equilibrium. That balance is best defined by openness, pluralism, and a non-hierarchical, multipolar architecture — something like the Buddhist mandala, or the very topography of the mountains that surround us, the highest peaks co-existing with the lower ones.
There is talk of a new Silk Route. The old Silk Route was a creative continuum that engaged in the traffic of ideas, of trade and commerce, of great commons — a geo-civilisational and geo-economic space where different territorial and ethnic units understood the values of sustainable development in a common ecosystem. The lives of ancient wayfarers were mortgaged to pilgrimage and intellectual discovery. That past must be a rough guide to our future.
The idea of a shared space is the best way to respect our histories, our traditions of peaceful engagement, the cultural geographies we inhabit — all with blurred and indistinct boundaries and interrelated contexts of meaning. A Himalayan Consensus should move away from essentially Western notions of centre and periphery, mainland and margins and the ways of war. We return here again to the image of the mandala, built on a geometry that is organic and free of blockages, a network of different but not antithetical trajectories, all mutually adjusting. This is a new arc of economic advantage. We must not cut off historical flows. Let our fragmented geographies be sutured, let the people of our borderlands fulfil their aspirations for development, for learning, for livelihoods and the preservation of their bio-diversity.
The definition of an unbounded Himalaya suggests that borders are negotiable and porous; let us remember that people will not be fenced. Let recent histories not prevent our contemplation of more visionary futures.
— The writer is a former Foreign Secretary