I went to Ramgarh this year. The Nainital Lake pooled in the centre of the hills. In the mornings, it is a sight to see, with the sun breaking over blue waters, the surface smooth as poured glass. There are boats anchored with rope at the bank. The colony around the lake is mostly wooden structures of markets. The road was crammed with cars and trucks. The ones driving up the hill were carrying metal and PVC pipes, bags of concrete dust, and the ones coming down carried peaches, apricots and pears in sealed boxes.
Two years after the floods, this region has finally had a good year .The year before; I had visited Satoli, a village tucked into a pine forest whose economy functions on production of herbal products using apricots. The flesh was used for shampoos and gels, while the kernel was cracked and its insides went into scents and oils. Deep into June, the apricots were still small, green and hard, and the people I was staying with told me that it had not been a good year; that the last year it had been very difficult to make ends meet. Even the local berries, the kafal and hisaloo had not ripened when they were expected to. The lady’s name was Bhagwati, the same as my great grandmother. Her daughter’s name is Geeta. Like materials, names are also recycled in Uttarakhand- I came across an uncle’s name twice at a contractor’s office. One of them was pushing fifty, and the other was not yet twenty.
“Malla Puran and Talla Puran, “they laughed.
“Road contractors from cities do not understand the mountains.” Malla Puran said, when I asked him what he thought about the floods and landslides that occurred two years ago. “They cut into it and then we have to suffer the landslides for years.”
Apartment complexes are coming up higher in the hills. Unlike the Neemrana hotels, which work around a principle of postmodernism – they restore and reuse old heritage sites, like fort palaces and British Bungalows – these apartments are brand new and constructed like gated communities to replicate the style of the plains. The vernacular architecture style of the hills is not just purely for aesthetic reasons, it is also to maximize heat and protect when earthquakes occur, since slices of Kumaun are bounded by lines of tectonic disturbance. This area also lies in the catchment area of the Indo-Gangetic plain; and therefore the informal unit of measurement used is nali. In the local dialect, ‘Naula’ means a natural spring of water, and one of it comes out to approximately 220 square metres. In Kumaun, they are considered sacred community property and have a common design. They are closed on three sides, and the fourth side is open which has steps leading down to the tank. In the 1900’s in the Dwarahat Township in Almora, there were 3600 naulas, but now the number has reduced to 36, which have only a perennial supply of water. Deforestation and unnecessary road construction has been called to blame here as well; neither allowing the earth and rivers to build up their water quantity, nor providing a barrier during times of torrential downpour. Often when the rain falls, it carries away things with it; debris, houses, people.
I began to sight pinecones as we went higher up. The area I was staying in was in the middle of the market area, houses built in hill style- wooden, small openings, and small shuttered windows. From this point, the hill breaks off, and a splendid panorama of the hillocks can be seen. At night, spots of light condense in the valleys and snuff out with elevation. The Writer’s Cottage, where Rabindranath Tagore wrote Geetanjali, is part of this property. It is, my mother told me, like the house she had lived in in Wellington, Ooty. Stone with moss peeping in from the breaks, a flower garden in the front yard. Clusters of ruby berries hanging from leaves. And from where the hill breaks, the orchards, thick with peaches. I had plucked a few orange and red berries last year – being from the city, the very action was a novelty. The kaafal had worms in them and made us sick- made a lot of the volunteers sick. The chickens too were sick; they had not produced as many eggs as they were expected to. Because of that, Bhagwati was unable to host as many volunteers as she normally did; because they fed them from vegetables from their garden- and their garden was not producing. A few steppes below their farm, the ground was being blasted and leveled to prepare for a road.
Uttarakhand’s political instability is parallel to the frailty of its mountain ranges. It has been fifteen years since the state was created, yet the average tenure of each chief minister has been two years. The carnage at Kedarnath has been termed a human tsunami. Despite that, no lessons seem to have been learnt. Development is still irregular. Stone is still imported from the plains and used to construct on ground that is used to underground shifts- and it creates a cycle when floods occur; paving and smoothening a path so that rocks and rivers can follow unhindered. Some of these rocks create barriers and form lakes; like the waters of the Ramganga. Other rivers, like the Mahakali, eat at chunks of houses, causing them to collapse like cards. At the time of the floods, it had been six years since the Uttarakhand disaster management authority conducted a meeting.
In Irish mythology, a geis is an idiosyncratic taboo, usually placed by women upon men, and if violated can result in misfortune. The most famous geasa are the ones laid on Cu Chulainn; the Hercules of Irish sagas. He was bound to never eat the flesh of dog, nor refuse anything offered to him by a woman, and conflict between the two eventually led to his demise. A geis can be as arbitrary as “On the day you walk under a banyan tree whistling a song about the stars, you will lose your superhuman strength.” Or it can be as realistic as “When you cut down a tree to build something made out of iron and steel, your end is near .” It is worrying because the earth is personified as a female entity, because natural catastrophes have become more common, because many environmentalists believe that we have crossed the line from where we could have turned back; from where the land could have begun to heal itself. In 1947, the Kumaun and Garhwal regions of Uttarakhand had 80 kilometres of road. Today, the length exceeds 35000 km, and there is a bleed of sedimentary rock every few klicks on every route. Although the Himalayas are steep, they are also young, weak and fragile-and what holds the soft rock together is the sal, the pine, the oak, the conifers. They are being converted into agricultural land, felled to create space for settlements, uprooted so that the mountain sides can be blasted into.
But the atmosphere in Uttarakhand is not that of despair. A frozen hope has settled on the landscape. A cloudburst over Jammu and Kashmir in July resulted in flash floods near the Amarnath Yatra base camp, though all the pilgrims were reported to be safe. The increasing vulnerability of the mountains is no deterrent to the millions that descend upon it each year .Perhaps they believe that it is impossible for the disasters to get worse. That after the cataclysms, it can only improve, because the world operates in peaks and troughs. The land will recover. People will be rehabilitated. Houses will be replaced. The economy will flourish. And bedu pako bara masa; the berries will ripen year round.
This article was published on The Indian Economist as a Home page feature