Revisiting Munsiari

Mallika Leuzinger (India/ Switzerland, AC 07-09) 

2500 metres above sea level, at the feet of the Panch Chuli and shouldered by the Nanda Devi, Munsiari is a typical Uttarakhand village. It is hardly densely populated, and quite a steep way up from any major urban settlement; indeed my first impression of it was of an untouched, unknown valley, asleep in its forests, its open meadows and crystal-coloured streams. I didn’t expect to revise this opinion when I made my latest journey up there, worrying instead about the hairpin bends, the dust and the gravel that threatened at any moment to send our bus rattling off into some crevice.


But Munsiari is changing. Part of an area known for its homogenous village communities, its economy is almost solely agrarian, and mainly concerned with subsistence farming. The land has always been quite equally distributed, and while individuals rarely hold property of over 2 hectares, there has never been a case of landlessness. In any case, access to commons and forests, regulated by an able “Van Panchayat” has provided an abundant source of fuel, fodder, manure and materials such as timber for construction. This Van Panchayat system, a compromise between community responsibility and state ownership of forests begun in the 1920s, and prevalent in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, has enabled Munsiari to maintain a relatively harmonious relationship between its inhabitants and its natural surroundings, and as crucially, between its inhabitants and the Forest Department (the latter is notorious for its policy of forest reservation, or “protecting” forestland, regardless of the needs and practices of the populations who dwell in or alongside them). But enter Mr. (or is it Dr.?) T, the local hero and politician, returned to his birthplace to revive a flagging career, or Company so-and-so and this-and-that plc, determined to capture the biggest share of the power industry. Or a band of industrious and crafty villagers, slowly realizing timber can be smuggled off and outsourced to big cities and big projects, for substantial financial gain. Or, as this is India, enter all. At exactly the same time, and possibly, arm-in-arm.

 

The picture our family friend, who is the Sarpanch, or elected leader of the Van Panchayat, painted for us was decidedly grim, and decidedly different to the Munsiari I hold dear. She lamented the increasingly careless and superficial attitude of the Forest Department, who would sooner build a two-storied Tourist Information centre than develop progressive, practical measures to rejuvenate degraded forests. She described too, the various attempts- from boycotts of meetings to outright physical threats- by Mr. T and his erstwhile followers, to prevent the Van Panchayat from questioning the mass entry of MNCs into the valley. These have, astonishingly quickly in a country known for its sluggish bureaucracy and delay with regard to licenses and permits, begun the construction of a dam along the main river that will displace at least 17 villages, and a tunnel right through the heart of a much-loved mountain. As distressing were the figures of trees lost, stolen, or senselessly chopped down, she quoted and the now common tales of people plundering hundreds of the “shared” hectares of forest by night and driving truckloads of their loot down to the plains. For its part, the Van Panchayat has earnestly tried to raise awareness within Munsiari of the importance of sustainable forest management, enforcing its own rules, sanctions and methods of arbitration; some of its members guard and patrol the forests themselves.

 

But the only effective solution to the ecological disasters Munsiari teeters towards, lies in its origins, in the declining relevance of the Van Panchayat’s core belief. This is that a forest, in a deeply humane but also real sense, is collective property; its fruit, its flowers, its life are for all to enjoy, and by the same token, for all to nurture and love. Munsiari’s miscreants do not understood that ultimately, nature is not something divisible or individualistic, nor do they seem convinced that a community, of men and women, can stand up for it, not as his or hers but as theirs, ours. The Chipko Movement managed it, a few decades ago and a few kilometres away. Perhaps Munsiari will make it too.

– United World College Student Magazine –

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