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Lessons from a Himalayan village

Uttarakhand is repeatedly witnessing devastating consequences of unsustainable development

Lessons from a Himalayan village

Climate crisis: Kedarnath was ravaged by flashfloods and landslides in 2013. istock

Avijit Pathak


RECENTLY, I visited a remote Himalayan hamlet in Uttarakhand — not as a typical tourist in search of temporal relief from the unbearable heat, but as a wanderer, a seeker or a student of life. Well, I am aware of my addiction to the privileges associated with my urban/metropolitan existence. I have tasted the fruits of modernity, development and a market-driven economy. Yet, I have no hesitation in saying that this time, this silent Himalayan village taught me three important lessons that my modernity or university education could seldom offer.

It is sad that the legacy of Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt has almost been forgotten in the hill state.

First, it was really great to feel, realise and internalise the power of silence. Think of the noise associated with our urban/metropolitan existence — the noise of thousands of vehicles running ceaselessly through our impersonal expressways and flyovers and causing massive carbon emissions; or the noise of television channels, loud music and constant bombardment of WhatsApp messages causing some sort of psychic pollution. Or, think of the fetish for speed we have begun to worship in our times. We are continually running after some sort of over-consumptionist mode of living. Is it that we are afraid of silence? But then, as I move around this village without any ‘goal’, I begin to realise the beauty of the art of doing nothing. And this relief from my hurried existence makes me realise the beauty and power of silence. The snow-clad peaks, the whispers of pine trees, the rhythmic play of butterflies and tiny yellow flowers, the slowness in the movement of an old lady walking through the rhythmic curved path, and the mystic presence of the fold of mountains: everything around me tends to detox my mind. I become light — free from the noise inside. This inner richness tends to free me from the practice of over-consumption that destroys the earth.

Second, I learn the art of relatedness. In the achievement-oriented/hyper-competitive/professional world, we often carry the heavy burden of our egos — our degrees and diplomas, our official powers and salary packages, or our wealth and status. And these egos disrupt the rhythm of holism, interconnectedness and a network of organic relationships. However, in this Himalayan village, as I find myself amid the majestic mountain peaks, the dense forest filled with extraordinarily graceful trees, the vast sky not yet blocked by huge towers and gigantic skyscrapers, and the chirping of birds (something that seems to have completely disappeared from our cities), I realise that it is futile to exist as a solitary, egotistic and possessive individual. I feel that I am not different from this entire ecosystem. To borrow Walt Whitman’s poetic wisdom, “I contain multitudes”; and I cannot live meaningfully if, instead of merging with the rhythm of nature, I seek to manipulate and conquer it through the arrogance of neoclassical economics and the cult of consumerism. In a way, it activates my ecological consciousness.

Third, I learn the futility of competition. As I look at the garland of trees, I realise that there is no standardised notion of ‘perfection’; in fact, each tree is unique and has its own story to tell. The gentle anarchy I experience as I walk through the Himalayan forest makes me realise the hollowness in our quest for standardised/homogenised aspirations (say, all beauty queens look similar; or, all our school ‘toppers’ want to become doctors/computer engineers). In fact, this striving for a ‘perfect’ and standardised notion of beauty and excellence has created a neurotic culture that causes psychic anxiety and restlessness because of constant comparison with others. In the natural world, there is no competition. A butterfly does not compete with a leopard; a tall pine tree does not want to touch the Nanda Devi peak; and the valleys and the peaks know the beauty of their coexistence.

Yes, my walk through the Himalayan path tends to make me a seeker or a wanderer. I begin to appreciate the value of these three lessons that no modern university can teach me — the power of silence, the spirit of holism or inter-connectedness, and the beauty of gentle anarchy. I begin to appreciate a mode of living that cherishes minimalism and simplicity. Well, I know that pragmatic economists and development experts would remind me of the limits to my ‘poetic romanticism’. Uttarakhand, they would assert, needs jobs and employment opportunities for the young; it needs roads, hospitals, electricity and other modern amenities. In other words, Uttarakhand needs what is valorised as ‘development’. The mushrooming growth of fancy hotels, resorts and ‘second homes’ for rich people from Delhi and Mumbai; the unplanned urbanisation and resultant deforestation in the places like Bhimtal, Bhowali, Nainital, Almora and Mussoorie; the destruction of fragile mountains for building the Char Dham highway to enable affluent ‘pilgrims’ to drive their SUVs; and the environmental impact of a series of hydropower projects — Uttarakhand is repeatedly witnessing the devastating consequences of this sort of ‘development’ in the form of flashfloods, landslides, earthquakes and forest fires. It is sad that the legacy of the likes of Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who strove for a pro-people, ecologically sustainable and life-affirming mode of development, has almost been forgotten in the hill state.

The climate emergency is here. It is quite likely that global temperatures will rise by at least 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. And we are already living with the consequences — deadly floods, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves and new diseases. Let Uttarakhand not imitate this mode of development. Instead, the lessons I have learned from this silent Himalayan village, I pray, should give us some insights for saving our earth and healing our tormented/violent selves.


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