The Lepcha Mother and Daughter

Gravity of Grassroots

Ecological Balance

“Location” and “livability” are terms, often used while speaking of how habitable a place is. What struck me during my recent visit to Kalimpong and its environs, are the precariously balanced small shanties on the edge of the slope of the mountains – the Himalayas. Himalayas are new fold mountains with loosely packed debris composing much it. There are portions that are made of igneous rocks, and no, this is not a geological exploration. My point in mentioning the land formation is to address the sort of building materials that may hold well on such a landform – light and sturdy. The indigenous people use wood from the many evergreens that grow on the mountains. The inner walls sometimes have a façade of woven bamboo, which also grow on the mountains. Typically small, for ease of conserving heat, propped on stilts to maximize level flooring against the slope.  This sort of construction prevents cutting the surface of the slopes or peaks, thereby damaging the fine ecological balance of the mountains. Excessive cutting and drilling on the loosely packed incline of the mountain weakens the land and leads to landslides in the aftermath of heavy rainfall.

The way the government and big contractors build on these mountains is quite different. Instead of using light, environmentally smart materials, brick, and mortar structures are built, refurbished with deeply drilled columns to hold the weight of large structures. Instead of wrapping the side of the mountains with light mesh to hold the debris, the wall of the mountain is sliced and patched with cement. Such constructions severely destabilize non paved parts of the mountains leading to extensive landslides, destruction, and deaths.

Popularity of the mountain destinations keep growing among people living in the crowded metropolis. People come for the fresh mountain air. Even though more tourists result in excessive traffic, consisting of cars and chartered buses polluting the air. Traffic in Jalpaiguri, a city in the foothills is comical in the extent to which traffic rules are disregarded leading to bottle necking and deadlocks. Tourists leave behind empty bottles of scotch, soda cans and even entire vehicles in the aftermath of a collision since towing a totaled car is expensive and time consuming.

Nutrition

Tourism has contributed to a boost in the standard of living of some of the indigenous people. The paradox however is that those whose lives improved chose to move away from the mountains to other parts of the country. Those living off the land continue to struggle using methods of farming that yield marginally more than what’s needed for subsistence. This does not contribute significantly to income, causing young people to explore alternate means of income away from the land. So, many of the traditions, farming knowhows and crops are lost from the diet of the indigenous people. In place of the traditional cuisine which incorporated organic produce, many young people prefer pizza and other fast foods.

One of the first things one feels when encountering the people in the mountains is how easily they embrace you. They invite you to come into their modest homes and have some tea. During my recent visit to Pedong, a small village a few miles from Kalimpong, I had the fortune of having lunch at the home of a local farmer. The farmer grows succulents among other things and his wife, from Bhutan, teaches high school students. She prepared a deliciously juicy pork dish with Phong noodles made from moong, a sort of lentil. A light flavorful curry made from ginger, garlic, tomato and onions, Bay leaves and garam masala. She also made Ema dachi – Bhutanese delicacy made of mildly spicy chilies cooked in a cheese fondue among other simple dishes such as steamed greens and stir fried local wild squash called eeskus. After lunch, we sat and spoke about the customs and idiosyncrasies of Bhutanese and Nepalese culture, in the warmth of their neat little kitchen. In the corner, there was some meat being cured in the streaming light from the window. All along the veranda, there was a row of yellow corn hanging like festival lights against the turquoise walls. She told us how she fell in love with a young farmer boy – her husband, with a lower societal standing and had to run away from home when she did not find parental consent.

He affectionately related the quaint Bhutanese customs while she mildly chided the demands, she met from her in-laws that kept her from making advancements in a career outside her home with a scope to use her education towards a prosperous future. The Nepalese farmer, Sandeep, explained to us, how some of the crops that his parents grew such as millets were not preferred and no longer grown by his own generation were now obsolete. These crops, once part of the indigenous cooking and a good source of protein and fiber were all but forgotten. The delectable array of local cuisine we enjoyed in his home, might also soon be a thing of the past as future generations opt for modern alternatives and boxed take outs.

The man who drove me around to various destinations, Bikas, worked with his 12-year-old apprentice, his son Samuel, training to be a chauffeur like his dad. Waiting to come of age and get his license, he was using his spoken English to assist his dad in communicating with customers who did not speak the local tongue. Driving on the mountain roads need undivided attention every step of the way to avert oncoming traffic on the narrow roads and sharp bends. Enterprising and hardworking, the chauffer and his wife ran an eatery of local foods of meat dumplings and noodle soup, momo and thugpa. Hospitable by nature, one night, Samuel brought us some steaming hot momos and thugpa, because I mentioned liking it!

Sustainability

Primarily an agrarian community, the lives of the people are intrinsically tied to the land and its resources. School kids scamper up a hill or two just to catch the morning school bus. This keeps them strong and fit unlike many of their wealthy contemporaries in the big cities of the plains. This automatically provides exercise. Local foods are rich in nutrients even though they may be simple. Most men and women carry loads in baskets hung around their heads. This method of carrying loads consist of a basket woven of bamboo canes hung around the head with a folded fabric for cushioning. Simple though, it is ergonomically sound and functional. Some raise a small number of livestock. Others rent out a room or two for home stay to tourists and visitors. Yet others carry limited quantities of packaged grocery or sell a few extra vegetables from their vegetable gardens. They live in a close-knit community and help each other out. Their frugal lives have an elegance which can only come from a total absence of poverty consciousness.   

Focus on Local

Erudite papers are written everyday about ecological disbalance caused by over building and excessive traffic from ever increasing tourism, but what’s required is assistance at a grass root level, working with the locals, advising, and providing basic tools for agriculture and small-scale production of cottage industries. Some are in effect, helping grow shitake mushrooms, avocado and asparagus, azaleas and other cash crops with novelty value in India.

Medicinal plants and roots and indigenous healing methods are time tested and effective. If harnessed strategically, may be a big source of income to the local communities and invaluable to the wellness industry. In passing I saw an entire mountain slope full of trees known as Kulen locally. Extracts from the Kulen tree is used to produce Paracetamol also known as Acetaminophen commonly used to make Tylenol. There is an abundance of wild aloe plants on the mountains, used to heal bruises and cuts. These aloe leaves may be harvested and used to make ointments and skin care products. Proceeds from the manufacture of these products are currently not enjoyed by the local growers. While popular healing plants and herbs can contribute to the pharmaceutical and wellness industry, a fraction of the proceeds of the drugs put back into the local communities can pay for upkeep and improvement of infrastructure in the mountains.

The focus of economic improvement kept local, will create employment, and education for the indigenous people in the Himalayas. Tourism for a major source of revenue , the attraction to these parts may be preserved by allowing the local people to preserve and flourish within their culture. So, they won’t feel impelled to move away from their roots in pursuit of a better living. Strategic assistance provided now will prevent indigenous culture from the mountains to get wiped out by the tide of commercial influx.