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Big awards in the name of environment when community rights were trampled upon

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

I was fairly impressed while interacting with the group of people that had gathered to hear my presentation "Challenges of the river valley civilisation of Uttarakhand & its user communities" at the Doon Library and Research Centre, Dehradun on Wednesday, 28 June.
My point was that not merely geography of a region but also its people and communities create a civilisation. A civilisation is not born out of mere geography but people and communities play important role in building it hence when we speak about Uttarakhand, it is extremely important to understand how communities live along with it.
In the popular discourse about environment and livelihood, the issues of the native people are often ignored. A movement like chipko was romanticised by the urban elite as a fight ‘for environment’, which it was, but more than that it was the fight of the native people’s right to ‘access to forest’ which had been denied to the local communities while big contracts were given to companies from the outside, for commercial lumber operations. 
It is another matter that people got big awards in the name of environmental protection even while the rights of the native communities were trampled. The political leadership of the state was rarely questioned even when it played politics and tried to divide the movement. Today, the village of Raini is under the threat, but we don’t hear much outrage against its dislocation.
A question often asked but rarely probed is why the issue of Ganga Bachao, which is worshipped as mother, has failed to galvanise the people of Uttarakhand. Why have activists like the Ganga Bachao group failed to gain traction in the state. The answer actually lies in effort by the dominant groups to make the issue of the Ganga merely that of the Bhagirathi river and confine it to opposing the Tehri dam; and the issue of religious sentiments of the people. 
The same people did not find time to resist the assault on other rivers in the Alaknanda Valley where multiple dams are being planned. Why we keep quiet on Pancheshwar which will be the highest dam in Asia and which will ultimately destroy the beautiful valley of Pancheshwar till Ghat and Joljibi in Pithoragarh? The problem in these Ganga Bachao or Yamuna Bachao campaigns is that they have no participation of the local communities. These campaigns are lead by powerful lobbies with bigger agendas, which often result in the denial of rights to the local communities, as happened in the case of Chipko.
The cultural context of Himalayas needs to be understood as they are different from other states. There is more openness in the Himalayas where people worship local deities more than anything else. All the valleys of Himalayas have different forms of Shiva as well as Buddha. Buddhism and Shaivism flourished in the Himalayas which resulted in openness in food culture and behavioral patterns.
In that sense, we need to understand why Ganga is powerful symbol of our civilisation because its inherent strength in taking all together. It may be said that Ganga rises from Gaumukh but the fact is that Ganga is a continuation process of engagement with local communities and building up a common cultural heritage. Rivers, streams, Gad and Gatheres, all flow into what we call Ganga. Bigger rivers like Yamuna, Ghaghra, Kali, Sharada flows into it and enrich it. Even in prior to Dev Prayag, Alaknanda provide more water to Ganga than Bhagirathi. Equally important is that Alaknanda has more important places of pilgrims than Bhagirathi on its bank.
Shaivism and Buddhism is spread all over Himalayas can provide unique understanding of how the two grew together without Brahmins being at the top. The culture of Shiva and Buddha actually brought openness regarding food culture in the Himalayas. The brahmanical value system was introduced in the Uttarakhand Himalayas by Adi Sankara but it could not wipe out the impact of the both Buddhism and Shaivism as defined in the local traditions in the Himalayas. The findings of thousands of Shivalingams at Lakha Mandal as well as the rock edict of Ashoka at Kalsi are example of an ancient culture in the Himalayas which flourished together.
Therefore Ganga Bachao, should mean protection of all the rivers, riverines, Gad, Gatheres, Naula, and Dharas in the Himalayas. Current crises in Uttarakhand also expose the activities being undertaken in the name of religion and development, which ultimately result in degradation of our beautiful river valley civilization. If there are no Pahads, there won’t be any Pahadis. 
The onslaught on Uttarakhand’s social and cultural identity needs to be resisted as without that, the Himalayas can’t be protected and our biodiversity will be endangered. Thank you Doon Library, Mr Nicholas, Mr Tiwari, Shri Biju Negi, Dr Ajay Sharma, Shri Diwan Singh Bora and others whose name I may not know but interacted with them for your presence and interventions. Looking forward to have another session some time next.
The exchange of views after the presentation was impressive. I never thought that the discussion would take more than hour in the form of counter arguments as well as questions. Doon Library and Research Center in Dehradun is becoming an ideal place for youths as well as veterans in the social movements. It provide stimulating debates and discussions and hope that will help build a vibrant society in the region.
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*Human rights defender

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