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Living in the mountains

Published: 24th Mar, 2022

  • Before we embark on any discussion on the man-agriculture scenario, we must comprehend the dynamics of the day to day life here.
  • Before the craze of development took over in our country, the people here followed a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Men were essentially collectors and hunters who left the home to provide for his family, while the women and children stayed back and tended to the kitchen garden close by.
  • The basic energy intake of the subsistence villagers is satisfied by food crops, usually grown on irrigated terraces termed as ‘khet’ or rainfed terraces termed as ‘bari’, supplemented by some animal products.
  • At lower altitudes, where irrigation is feasible, the irrigated terraces produce a winter or dry-season crop in addition to the summer monsoon crop, rice.
  • With the increasing altitudes, the proportion of ‘bari’ to ‘khet’ increases, due to cooler dry-season conditions, increasing slope gradient and inaccessibility to water.
  • Livestock supply draught power and serve as the primary and perhaps only source of fertiliser.
  • In the last twenty years, population pressure lured the men towards better employment opportunities in the plains. Thus selective migration began.
  • The money that they earned was sent to the village to buy provisions, which were again transported from the plains, as hill production fell due to a smaller manpower.
  • Thus, a full cycle followed leaving the people here with very little savings. Soon the women were forced out of their homes to tend to the farther fields.
  • However unlike the men folk they were unable to venture into distant forests, depending on those around the village to provide fodder and firewood.
  • Consequently, the jungles around the village began to disappear.
  • This nibbling effect is apparent around all the hill villages, and its diameter is increasing alarmingly everyday.

The Himalayas comprise the most dominating geographical feature of India. No other mountain range anywhere in world has affected the life of people and shaped the destiny of a nation as the Himalayas have in respect of India. The following few points will bring out the significance of the Himalayan Mountains to India.

1. Climatic Influence:

The Himalayas play a very significant role in influencing the climate of India. By virtue of their high altitude, length and direction, they effectively intercept the summer monsoons coming from the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea and cause precipitation in the form of rain or snow. Besides, they prevent the cold continental air masses of central Asia from entering into India.

2. Defence:

The Himalayas have been protecting India from outside invaders since the early times thus serving as a defence barrier. But the Chinese aggression on India in October, 1962 has reduced the defence significance of the Himalayas to a considerable extent. In spite of advancement in modem warfare technology, the defence significance of the Himalayas cannot be ignored altogether.

3. Source of Rivers:

Almost all the great rivers of India have their sources in the Himalayan ranges. Abundant rainfall and vast snow-fields as well as large glaciers are the feeding grounds of the mighty rivers of India. Snow melt in summer provides water to these rivers even during dry season and these are perennial rivers. The Himalayan Rivers, along with hundreds of their tributaries, form the very basis of life in the whole of north India.

4. Fertile Soil:

The great rivers and their tributaries carry enormous quantities of alluvium while descending from the Himalayas. This is deposited in the Great Plain of North India in the form of fertile soil, making the plain one of the most fertile lands of the world.

5. Hydroelectricity:

The Himalayan region offers several sites which can be used for producing hydroelectricity. There are natural waterfalls at certain places while dams can be constructed across rivers at some other places. The vast power potential of the Himalayan Rivers still awaits proper utilisation.

6. Forest Wealth:

The Himalayan ranges are very rich in forest resources. In their altitude, the Himalayan ranges show a succession of vegetal cover from the tropical to the Alpine. The Himalayan forests provide fuel wood and a large variety of raw materials for forest based industries. Besides many medicinal plants grow in the Himalayan region. Several patches are covered with grass offering rich pastures for grazing animals.

7. Agriculture:

The Himalayas do not offer extensive flat lands for agriculture but some of the slopes are terraced for cultivation. Rice is the main crop on the terraced slopes. The other crops are wheat, maize, potatoes, tobacco and ginger. Tea is a unique crop which can be grown on the hill slopes only. A wide variety of fruits such as apples, pears, grapes, mulberry, walnut, cherries, peaches, apricot, etc. are also grown in the Himalayan region.

8. Tourism:

By virtue of their scenic beauty and healthy environment, the Himalayan ranges have developed a large number of tourist spots. The hilly areas in the Himalayas offer cool and comfortable climate when the neighbouring plains are reeling under the scorching heat of the summer season.

9. Pilgrimage:

Apart from places of tourist’s interest, the Himalayas are proud of being studded with sanctified shrines which are considered to be the abodes of the Gods. Large number of pilgrims trek through difficult terrain to pay their reverence to these sacred shrines. Kailas, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedamath, Vaishnu Devi, Jwalaji, Uttarkashi, Gangotri, Yamunotri, etc. are important places of pilgrimage.

10. Minerals:

The Himalayan region contains many valuable minerals. There are vast potentialities of mineral oil in the tertiary rocks. Coal is found in Kashmir. Copper, lead, zinc, nickel, cobalt, antimony, tungsten, gold, silver, limestone, semi-precious and precious stones, gypsum and magnesite are known to occur at more than 100 localities in the Himalayas

  • A vicious cycle exists in the developmental process of the Himalayan region.
  • With burgeoning population, the area under subsistence crops is constantly expanded along with an increased dependency on livestock farming.
  • All the sequences intensify the demand on these mountain lands.
  • Even the forests are pumped dry for basic human demands of fodder, fuelwood and other requirements.
  • Moreover, grazing more often than not tends to
  • Development of tourism is another factor that adds to the degradation and pollutes the mountainous environment.
  • Deforestation causes more degradation in the mountain slopes as compared to plains as gravity easily pulls off the loose top soil.
  • Therefore greater the slope angle, the greater will be the impact of deforestation.
  • It will disastrously affect the plains as the floods will be immense and siltation heavy.
  • According to many experts, semantics sometimes cause great confusion among the people who deal and discuss the issues related to environmental degradation in the Himalayas.
  • Some, in fact, do not agree with the popularly held views. In most part of the humid Himalayan area harvesting activity is wrongly described as the most responsible factor of deforestation.
  • It must be kept in mind that until and unless the deforested land is left bare and exposed to the high intensity rainfall the harvesting activity should not be described as deforestation.
  • It is also said that the biophysical consequences of these activities are complex, unknown or indistinct.
  • The term deforestation only compounds the problem and should be eliminated from both technical and popular thinking if not used with qualifications to indicate the actual pattern of forest land-use change.
  • In valley areas of the Himalayas, grazing of livestock is a regular practice. With the intensive harvesting practices, the practice of grazing has also been increased. As for the impact of grazing, two sets of arguments feature prominently. Some experts argue that the continuous and regular practice of grazing causes the exposure of the rock and soil layers. It reduces the compactness of the soil, thus erosion quickly lays the area bare. On the other hand, another set of argument states that grazing is essential for any plant life, especially in the mountainous regions. Two specific impacts are as follows:
    • Due to grazing, the low vegetation cover gets the potential of further growth. In fact the Valley of Flowers, which was protected from all grazing activities, found itself unable to cope with the sudden profusion of weeds!
    • Grazing adds animal fertiliser to the ground that increases the humus content of the soil.
  • Thus, experts add that the two issues of grazing and over grazing should not be confused as it would only provide a partial view.
  • However, the character of the herd is of utmost importance and any change in its composition can have adverse results.
  • One such instance may be found in the areas of Tehri in Uttaranchal where goat keeping seems to be on the rise.
  • This is mainly because sheep raised primarily for wool, now plays a less dominant role as high quality and cheaper wool is easily available from Australia.
  • Consequently it is more profitable to invest in goat rearing as goat meat is still a high sale commodity.
  • Sheep or goat, what difference does it make to the Himalayan environment? Well, for one sheep is more eco-friendly than goat restricting itself to the pasture while a goat claims fodder from all plant life, high or low. This degrades the environment more rapidly than we can imagine.
  • The Gujjars and many similar tribes that practice transhumance, take their flock up beyond the tree line. This is hardly new, as they have been practicing this movement for over hundreds of years.
  • The nature of the herd has changed in recent years, especially when we take the buffalo numbers into account.
  • The combined weight of the animal loosens the alpine soil which consequently gets washed away with the rains.
  • Moreover, the Alpine meadows, meant primarily for sheep grazing have a species of grass which acts as a sponge in absorbing the precipitation and slowly releasing it to recharge the water table.
  • Increased buffalo tending also affects this grass cover and subsequently the additional run-off swells the channels resulting in a marked change in the water cycle.
  • The Himalayan region is a familiar place for tourists as well as pilgrims since the historical past.
  • In addition to that, the complex terrain associated with the scenic beauty of the entire area attracts lots of expediters from all corners of the country and even from abroad.
  • Tourism as an industry is no doubt a part of the socio-economic development of any nation.
  • But from the point of view of sustainable development, this industry may yield some negative results.

Negative Impact

  • The tourists and pilgrims, who visit the scenic or sacred places on the hilltop, usually abandon used scrap around their temporary camps.
  • The garbage thus accumulated prevents the natural percolation of rainwater into the soil layers.
  • Some of the garbage, especially plastic does not degrade for hundreds of years, and leaves long-term repercussions on the environment!
  • Some claim that the heating effect of plastic may even affect the flora of the area.

Steps Taken

  • Uttaranchal Forest Department introduced a 2 kilometer barrier in Gangotri.
  • An attendant, living in a temple, inspects the passing tourist traffic for polythene items asking them to deposit a token amount for the number of the same that they are carrying. The catch here is that if you don’t bring back all that you take, you will forfeit the deposit. The amount of money is not the issue, but the dent that is made on the psyche on the visitor, who no doubt will carry all the plastic back. A commendable job indeed!
  • It is imperative to protect the fragile glacial environment and this seems to be a step in the right direction.
  • Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh is another potential area where such a practice may be undertaken.

Case Study-Ladakh

Ladakh was relatively inaccessible in the past. Ladakh lakes such as Tsomoriri, Tsokar and Pangong Tso were protected with only the Changpas or the Ladakhian shepherds visiting them. Now it is open for the foreign and Indian tourists. It seems that the habitat of the migratory birds have been disturbed due to this. These wetlands are believed to be the most important breeding site for waterfowl in Ladakh and are the only breeding ground of the bar-headed geese in India. Even the globally threatened black-necked crane finds a home here. In addition, this region also supports some of the most endangered species of mammals such as kiang, snow leopard, lynx, Himalayan blue sheep and more. In view of the extreme fragility of the lake ecosystems and their under representation at the national and international level, conservation of these lakes needs to be addressed. Thus immediate steps need to be taken to conserve the Tsomoriri, Tsokar and Pangong Tso from the uncontrolled onslaught of tourism.

Now the question automatically arises is what can be done to provide sustainable employment to the village folk as well as save the forests from rapidly depleting? Well, foremost, perceiving the complexities of the hill is most essential. Two major aspects must be kept in mind before taking any measure for environmental conservation

  • Each altitude shows a change in character and composition of the flora.
  • Even on the same altitude, the aspect of the hill determines the floral and the faunal composition


  • Orchid and bulb farming is said to be effective in stopping at least 10 to 20 percent of the migration and can get international money flowing into the region.
  • Orchids are exotic and expensive flowers that can be stored for a considerable period with a demand that is worldwide.
  • The farmers here, however, do not have the expertise to handle either the cultivation or the spatial and temporal fluctuating demand of their products .
  • Societies need educated people working in tandem with the farmers in accordance with the Japanese ‘just in time’
  • What is this model? Well, some may have land, while another may have the know-how and still another may have the finance. Putting together all these components would result in sustainable product which could boost the rural economy.

Economic utilisation of forest products

  • Bamboo in north-eastern belt, especially Mizoram, can provide a sustainable source of income.
  • A raging international market, especially in the eastern world, exists for bamboo shoots The rates of profits are also very high.
  • The impetus to canning bamboo shoots has given the premiere of the state of Mizoram, a dubious title of being ‘the Bamboo Chief Minister’.

Dairy development

  • Around 450-550 feet altitude, value addition to perishable quantities of milk results in cheese.
  • The shelf life of cheese is very long and the older the cheese gets, the better it is.
  • Unlike milk, it can also be carried over long distances and the prices are over three times higher.
  • The making of cheese is also socially empowering as milk, generally sold by the male members, finds its proceeds eroded.
  • In case of cheese-making women folk can directly benefit as the money finds its way home.

Introducing suitable cash crops

  • Yes, more money is welcome and necessary.
  • In fact it is possible to introduce a cash crop which is ecologically suited to the environment and would also spell conservation.
  • Thysoliana maxima is a perennial grass that grows in the hill areas and can be used for fodder in the dairies besides featuring as a ubiquitous and mundane broom in everybody’s homes.
  • Cardamom is an environment friendly high paying cash crop, mainly grown in the Eastern Himalayas and can be grown with the tree Alnus nepalensis, ensuring an income of Rs.20-30,000 along with the benefits of nitrogen fixing by the taller trees.
  • The cardamom plant also encourages the local animal population such as the civets, bear and pheasant.
  • Thus, there are three things that such a proposition can fulfill, one to protect the environment, two to provide a high paying crop and three to encourage the faunal diversity of the area.
  • The bark of the Daphne tree can be used to make handmade paper which is exported and it is claimed to be the mystery of the Buddhist monk’s good eye-sight, who use this paper for studying in their dimly lit monasteries.
  • This tree may also be used with cardamom for intercropping, thus increasing the value of the entire area.
  • Regularly pruning these trees allow the farmers earn about Rs.10 per kg.
  • Ginger is another crop which can be grown instead of millets to produce a higher income especially in the areas of dry land farming.
  • Herbal plant cultivation, a special project in the Kumaon region, has proved to be a success as marketing herbal plants through co-operative has been profitable.
  • A plant of the alium species locally known as ‘jambu’ is extensively grown in this new project and sold dried as a condiment to garnish food.

Off-season cultivation

  • Peas may be cultivated in the month of June to cater to the larger cities in the plains.
  • In the Kumaon region an NGO works with Mother Dairy to provide off season and organic vegetables to the plains.

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