“Joshimath might be sinking, but we are on our way up,” says Ramesh, our entrepreneurial 25-year-old driver, as we enter the narrow mountain road leading to the village of Sankri, in the Indian Himalayas. The road is a log jam of honking trekkers, mangy mountain dogs, burning piles of plastic, exhausted mules and dozens of tourists and their handlers, jostling for momos, alcohol, hashish and rides.
We are returning to the Tons Valley, in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district after six years, and are astounded at the changes. The Tons is the largest tributary of the Yamuna River. Along with the mass of tourists on Sankri’s eroding streets, there is also a hydroelectric project under construction — a few kilometres away beside the sub-district headquarters of Mori (60 MW Naitwar-Mori Project) — and another proposed in the nearby town of Jakhol (44 MW Jakhol-Sankri Project). “When did all this happen, and that too, inside the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park?” we ask. “It has been happening for a while,” responds Ramesh. “Things change in days around here, forget about years,” he says.
In just six years, the sleepy road-head we knew has transformed itself into a bustling hub of adventure tourism. Kedarkantha, a 3,800-m-high mountain peak in the Sankri range, due to its winter snow cover, gentle incline, and ease of access, has been a major catalyst. Powerful national trekking companies have sold the Kedarkantha summit trek (and others in nearby Har-ki-Dun) across India; enabled by the rise of an outdoor tourism industry, ubiquitous social media posts and reviews, and online travel communities, the ‘peak’ has gone ‘viral’. We are witnessing the aftermath.
Villages near Sankri are exploding with new construction of hotels, restaurants and homestays. The perennial question of unemployment and lack of livelihoods has been replaced by an entrepreneurial ethos. There is fast, liquid money flowing into households, ensured by a voluminous ocean of tourists from all corners of India.
“There is a tourism company in every village house,” adds Ramesh who grew up in one of these villages, “maybe 200 or 250 currently operating just in Sankri”.
But who is paying the price for this rapid transformation through the unregulated tide of tourism in a region already grappling with the effects of large-scale infrastructure projects and the emerging impacts of climate change?
The Tourism Boom
The 958 sq km Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary (GPVNPWS) which extends to altitudes between 1,400 to 6,300 m was established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1955. It was then declared a national park in 1990 and remains a key location for the Indian government’s Snow Leopard Project and home to many endangered and culturally significant flora and fauna species. However, such national conservation goals are not in sync with local realities. Inside the national park Bugyals, the communal meadows, which are necessary for pastoralism, are tightly regulated. Road, electricity, and telecommunication infrastructure have been a struggle to develop (until recently); forest resources that are critical for the sustenance of communities are managed by top-down resource use policies.
The creation of the park has also significantly impacted the land use aspirations of communities, similar to other places in Uttarakhand. As Shiv Rawat, a local 49-year-old prosperous apple farmer and tourism business owner says, “It is a national park that was forced on us. How do you create a national park with more than 40 villages inside it? How does that work, you tell me?”
In Shiv’s village of Saur, such questions of rights and ownership of land and resources have become a flashpoint in recent years. Ongoing construction dots both sides of the motor road that passes through it, grey with cement and rebar — a far cry from the kath-ki-kuni (traditional wooden lock) deodar-pine-slate houses that used to be a mainstay a decade ago. While outsiders were intermittently buying land in Saur, sales and prices have skyrocketed in the past few years. According to 32-year-old Mohan, who runs a teashop in Sankri, “If you get a broker, you can sell a nali (1/20 of an acre) for ₹15-17 lakhs; without a broker, you are looking at ₹2-3 lakhs/nali.” This boom is driven by the influx of tourism, which brings in wealthy investors from metros to take on the construction of hotels, restaurants and homestays. The anxieties about outsiders owning large swathes of the village land has led to the creation of a ‘lease only’ policy for outsiders in the past few months. But, Mohan claims that such lease arrangements can often get circumvented. “The people who want to sell their land are selling it.”
“There are only about 20-30 local tourism companies,” says Giri Rawat, a 27-year-old man active in the local transportation union. “The rest are all outsiders, often operating on B2B relationships. Their offices in Delhi or Mumbai sell these packages and we provide the services.” This vast ecosystem of service staff includes mule owners who transport material, cooks, guides, managers, drivers, and hotel staff.
We ask Giri, who we’ve known since he was 16, what he thinks about this new tourism focussed avatar of Saur. He looks perplexed, as if in a struggle, and then says, “Look, we’ve been complaining about a lack of livelihoods for young people in this region for years. This has changed all that. People are making money. Families are finally ok, they are sending their children to study in Dehradun. Something we couldn’t have dreamed of five years ago… But, it has all happened, and is happening, too fast. I wish we had a little more control.”
A majority of youth in the area have replaced most other short-term ambitions with the promises of the tourism industry. Educational pathways, which have generally failed to produce meaningful employment for most, are now deferred. “When a 17-year-old with mules can make ₹10-15 lakhs a tourist season (2-3 months), do you think he will think about going to college?” asks Giri.
This fast money has also led to expensive acquisitions. Shiv says, “What does a boy with lakhs understand about responsibilities, or what is right from wrong?” Enfield motorbikes, cars, smartphones and valuable imported trekking gear are now ubiquitous in the village, as is a certain appearance and persona. Long hair and beards, new age Hindu hippie music and artefacts, tattoos and the liberal use of hashish – these men would not be out of place in the wildly popular, internationally famous, adventure tourism hubs of Kasol or Parvati valley in Himachal.
And along with the men, the land is also changing. Juda Tal, the small lake en route to Kedarkantha, where Gujjars watered their animals, is little more than a muddy mess. The thousands of tourists have to be housed and fed. At the Kedarkantha base camp, the communally-owned meadows have been reduced to a dug-up mela of tents, refuse, and trekking paraphernalia. Chetan Singh, a 55-year-old upper caste veteran of the trekking industry who set up his company in Saur in the 90s tells us that, “In 2021 when the snow really came down, the forest service issued receipts for at least 25,000 visitors entering the national park. The actual number was probably much higher since many people arrived at base camp through other routes. This is just too many people. But, when you are selling packages for 4,500 rupees, this is what happens. People are here for a picnic, to make Instagram videos of their summit ascent…getting drunk the night before and then creating a nuisance on the trek. What we need is what we had in the past — a few serious, well-paying tourists. These outside companies and their cost-cutting is killing us…How can I run a trip for ₹4,500/head when it costs close to ₹2,000, to just transport them?”
However, not everyone has equal access to this tourism boom. In the lower caste hamlet situated at the edge of the village, right where the steep hillside is most prone to erosion and all the plastic refuse dumped in the village streams accumulates, there is a pall quite different from the bustle near the road. Hari, a 19-year-old lower caste man says, “Saur has changed, but only for those that have land and contacts. We don’t have either. I don’t bother with that too much; my goal is to study hard and become someone and make my family proud.” Since his ancestral home and lands are closest to the river, we ask him if he is worried about the Naitwar-Mori and the Jakhol-Sankri hydroelectric projects that will definitely change regional hydrology. Hari seems unsure, “All I know is that they paid a lot of money to some households in Netwar (a nearby town next to the Naitwar-Mori Hydro Project) because their lands, homes, and forests were going to be damaged. We didn’t get anything, maybe we should have.”
Hydropower in the Tons Valley
A few days later on our way to Mori, we stop across the river and check out the 60 MW Naitwar-Mori hydropower installation. Massive JCBs are at work drilling through the hillside while dump trucks carry away the rubble, mud, and stones. The hillside is bare, dozens of ancient trees have been chopped off, and now the bare soil is sliding, carrying debris right into the river. There are two gigantic tunnels that have been drilled into the hillside through which the wild Tons is going to be diverted, forcing it to bring to life a complicated array of energy generation machinery that harnesses its power into electricity. Even as we stand in awe of the behemoth metal tubes and cranes, news about Joshimath, located about 400 km east on the edge of another national park (Nanda Devi National Park) — and its almost 1000 crumbling homes, catalysed by disastrous hydropower installations on a seismically dynamic zone — fills up our social media timelines. In just a few sq. km of the Rupin, Supin, and Sankri ranges spread across the Yamuna valley, there are now three proposed hydroelectric projects, one of which we are watching being built.
According to state records, the Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN), a Himachali public energy company, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Union Power Ministry in 2007 to generate 25,000 MW of electricity in Uttarakhand. Among them is the 47-hectare Mori-Netwar project which was given an investment clearance in 2017 for it to be completed in 48 months. The MoU states that most of the power generated will be diverted out of the state, with the Uttarakhand government receiving about 12% as royalty. Asking around we find out that along with the land compensation of more than ₹ 2 lakhs/nali, project-affected families have also been promised employment for one member of the family, and 100 units of electricity per month for the next 10 years.
A local tea shop owner whose house was not in the impacted zone seems crestfallen. “I wish my house had been in the dam’s way. I know people who have made ₹ 40-50 lakhs and are now buying land in Dehradun…This dam is the best thing that happened to us,” he says. Over in Jakhol village, the Jakhol-Sankri Hydro Project has been temporarily brought to a halt by a popular protest movement comprising village institutions, civil society, and worried households, after cracks showed up in houses.
As we climb back up to Sankri, behind honking trekkers filled with excited tourists, the hydroelectric project accompanies us, along with massive hillside erosion, mountains of excavated debris and a forest of felled logs.
Climate Change and Anxious Futures
While state-scale predictions are notoriously difficult to make, given the mountain topography, the multitude of land use feedbacks, and a paucity of ground data, in villages like Saur, most people are well aware of emerging novel climatic conditions. Rainfall has become more erratic, winters have become warmer with short, intense cold spells, and there is a wide consensus about the overall reduction in snow. However, most families have adapted quite well to the new conditions: apple trees have nets to protect them from spring hail; winter wheat, which requires significant soil moisture from snow, has been replaced by public distribution system grain; and many people grow monsoonal vegetables inside polyhouses with drip irrigation in place. It is much easier, as researchers and activists have long stated, to adapt to a changing climate than it is to respond to the whims of casteism, patriarchy, state violence, and predatory markets.
As Chetan from the trekking industry informs us, “Apples are our main crop here. We grow so many kinds and they sell well. The impacts of climate change on apple production have been quite minimal. Yes, without the winter chilling there are some additional pests, but they are easily dealt with.” Additionally, given the changing household diets and the increasing cash income, meeting food security needs is a lot easier than it was in the past.
The impact of climate change on the tourism industry is a bit more complicated. In 2021, the snow came down in droves and with it came the tourists. Sankri is after all a ‘snow tourism’ location. People from the plains want to experience and engage with snow, walk on it, play with it, and stream it, thanks to the now ubiquitous Jio mobile connectivity. However, in 2022 the snow was nowhere to be seen. Giri says, “This year there are barely half the people who were here last year. They call me from Delhi and ask if is there snow, and only then do they book the trip. Without snow, we can’t sell these mountains.”
Ultimately, in Saur, tourism has in many ways deepened inequalities. Upper-caste families have land to plant massive apple orchards and construct hotels and homestays and benefit from the changing landscape. Their historically genial relations with the forest department also allow them to access forest resources and pursue land-use which is beyond legal. This industry has also allowed local young men to avoid working on backbreaking labour crews, which are now populated by Biharis, Jharkhandis, and Nepalis. Youth from Saur follow the tourist masses from Sankri, when the snow ends, to Chamoli, Ladakh, Kashmir, and even Goa.
The industry though is a poisoned chalice and one that remains uncomfortably poised in local lives. Chetan sums it up well when he says, “You remember how many people used to die when there were no roads and we had to carry them on our shoulders? We need these roads. We need phones to be able to talk to our children. We need this income to pay for our necessities…But, there must be a better way to do all this. Do we really need to blast into the mountain to build the road…Also, why can’t there be a cap on tourists? How can this mountain handle 1 lakh people a season? We need to be in more control…the way things are right now, I feel outsiders will soon buy all this land and our children will be their servants.”
What is happening at Saur is a form of resistance which we see in other parts of the world, where historically marginalised communities are attempting to ‘domesticate capitalism’ and subvert state aspirations through local, albeit elite-captured, forms of ‘modernity’ and governance. But, despite such machinations the powerful historical project of relating to the Himalayas as an extraction zone – for land, water, people, and culture, is ongoing. The impacts of which are on full display in the disastrous floods of Chamoli (2021) and Kedarnath (2013), the ongoing destruction of Joshimath, and the strategic depeopling of the mountain districts of Uttarakhand to consolidate the vote bank in the plains.
On our last day, Chetan takes us for a walk to one of his apple orchards. It is mid-afternoon and the ridgeline across the Tons is ablaze with fires started by shepherds to regenerate the grass. A cloud has exploded across the western edge of snow-draped Swargrohini. We are swallowed by hundreds of terraced fields lined with newly transplanted apple trees, their arms interlocked, reaching for the sky. Across the cliff, a dumper is bringing rocks from a recent slide, and behind us, an electric saw is cutting through ancient pines like a hot knife through butter. A few years ago, leopards used to walk across that ridgeline and eagles floated on the thermals above the sacred cedars. Chetan says, “There is too much dirt here now. Both inside people’s bodies and outside. Kedar devta is watching it all. One day when he has had enough, he will send the waters and wash all this filth away…these shops, this waste, these dams, like he did in Kedarnath, all into the Tons.”
Then he walked away, picking up pieces of plastic trash from between his apple trees.
Featured image of a site along the Naitwar-Mori Hydropower Installation courtesy Ritodhi Chakraborty
Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.