Community response keeps Spiti resilient : The Tribune India

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Community response keeps Spiti resilient

In mid-March, while everyone was still coming to grips with the emerging Covid-19 situation, this little valley had swung into action. What began as a discussion among some concerned hotel operators in Kaza, Spiti’s largest village, had found traction. All 13 panchayats agreed to take turns to help the police monitor and prevent the entry of anyone into Spiti via Sumdo.

Community response keeps Spiti resilient

Legacy: Decision-making in Spiti is shared among traditional institutions that have retained their relevance over generations.



Ajay Bijoor

Conservationist

WHEN the phone rang at 6:30 am, I knew it had to be someone from Spiti. Thinley, my colleague, greeted me with a Julley in the most matter-of-fact manner. Life in this remote valley of Himachal Pradesh is usually up and about at the break of day. The Spiti subdivision is part of Lahaul and Spiti district, with a population of nearly 12,500. Over the past eight years, I have spent a lot of time in Spiti coordinating efforts in community-based conservation as part of the Nature Conservation Foundation. Thinley had called to update me about a developing situation.

“Please cancel all travel plans to Spiti. Travellers currently in Spiti will be asked to leave in the coming days. There is a meeting in Kaza to discuss the matter and residents of all villages have been asked to be present at the Gompa (monastery),” he said.

This was on March 15. While everyone was still coming to grips with the emerging Covid-19 situation, this little valley had swung into action. What began as a discussion among some concerned hotel operators in Kaza, Spiti’s largest village, had found traction.

The meeting on March 17 was called by the five main monasteries of Spiti. These monasteries are located along the length of the valley and command a great deal of respect from the surrounding villages that come under their patronage. These include the Tabo, Kee and Dhankar monasteries that follow the Gelug sect, the Komic monastery that follows the Sakya sect and the Kungri monastery that aligns with the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The monasteries seldom call for such meetings, but when they do, they are not to be taken lightly. This meeting was well attended by pradhans of all panchayats, the numberdar of every village, mahila mandal representatives, members of the Panchayat Samiti and Tribal Advisory Council, representatives of the monasteries and other eminent people of the valley. A few important decisions were made at the meeting: all locals stuck outside Spiti were instructed to return by March 20 and ensure 14-day isolation in their respective homes. Likewise, all tourists in Spiti were requested to leave by March 20 and the local hotel owners were asked to facilitate return travel for their guests. All 13 panchayats of Spiti agreed to take turns to help the police monitor and prevent the entry of anyone into Spiti via Sumdo — the district border and the only entry point into the valley in the winter months. Within Spiti, locals agreed to restrict movement across villages as well as within them. Villages were to appoint committees to make these restrictions operational.

These decisions were brought into immediate effect. Mahila mandals ensured that these were strictly implemented, while village youth groups periodically facilitated the procurement of essentials from Kaza to their respective village. The situation in Spiti has remained encouraging with no cases of Covid-19 being reported. While the call for a nationwide lockdown by the government followed, this remote valley had already set its plan into action, a remarkable feat for a small community.

What makes Spiti so resilient? Here, decision-making is rarely centralised, rather it is shared among a number of traditional institutions that have retained their role and relevance over generations. While a pradhan is elected for every panchayat, each village annually appoints a numberdar to handle matters that pertain to the village. Important affairs are discussed among all residents of the village in pre-designated groups and a quorum is required to arrive at any decision. Groups like the village mahila mandal (women’s collective) and the village youth are given equal leverage in decision-making. Other traditional institutions like the village elders, the devta (oracle), and the monastery are requested to weigh in on matters, depending on its seriousness. Matters requiring deliberation among villages can be convened by the monastery. Contemporary institutions under the district administration have acknowledged these traditional institutions and worked in tandem rather than create new ones. Such traditional institutions allow wider representation and participation in not just decision-making but also in the implementation. The relation between these institutions is not hierarchical, rather it is polycentric. This has fundamentally allowed Spiti to retain its resilience.

This resilience surfaces from time to time. Some years ago, in the wake of rising tourism, Kibber, a village popular with tourists and mountaineers, withdrew its consent to allow trekking to the popular peak of Kanamo near their village. There had been mismanagement of human waste and garbage at the base camp of this peak, threatening the water source of the village. They also feared the consequences of a rising number of trekker tourists. The matter was discussed by the entire village led by the numberdar and a decision to revoke permission that allowed trekking to Kanamo was made and communicated to the local tour operators. That decision has been honoured ever since.

In other situations, villages like Kaza and Rangrik have come together to work closely with the district administration to facilitate animal birth control camps for free-ranging dogs that kill local livestock. Here too, the responsibilities were shared equally: the Animal Husbandry Department carried out sterilisation under guidance from the panchayat and the district administration, with local villagers pitching in to catch dogs, helping as para-vets, and providing post-operative care to the sterilised dogs. This is in stark contrast to most urban centres where a similar initiative is expected to be run solely by the municipality with little or no public participation. Making time for the village meetings organised regularly is a way of life here. Non-participation in the process comes at the cost of sanctions from the community. In this rugged valley in the Himalayas, participation in decision-making and implementation is expected of every member of society.

While the Covid-19 situation is far from resolved, the response of the community is truly commendable. The challenge before them will be to stay clear through this time and ensure their traditional institutions retain their role and relevance in the post-pandemic world. Without their traditional institutions playing the vital role they do, Spiti might lose its character that has allowed it to remain a resilient community until now.


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