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“Put people, indigenous local knowledge and governance at the centre”: Himdhara study

The devastation in the Himalayan region is getting worse. Find out why in our blog post about the Himdhara Report!

By B. Mohita
New Update
“Put people, indigenous local knowledge and governance at the centre”: Himdhara study

The study brings into focus community perspectives on Himalayan disasters and calls for a holistic interdisciplinary rethinking of the rapid development wreaking havoc in the entire region.

The year 2023 has seen an unprecedented increase in deaths and losses due to disasters in the Himalayan region. The sinking of Joshimath in Uttarakhand, the massive Himachal deluge and the recent outburst and flooding of the glacier-fed Lhonak Lake in Sikkim and the subsequent dam-burst are fatal tragedies that caught media attention. 

A report released by the Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective on October 10, 2023, warns that these events are not isolated and are not the making of climate change alone. Rather, the report, titled Disaster-making in the Himalayas draws attention to the systemic changes backed by the government and large companies with vested interests that contributed to multiplying risks in an already fragile and vulnerable Himalayan ecosystem.

“It is the gradual and incremental displacement – a biswa of land, a crack on the wall, a handful of families -at a time- over the decades, which remain invisibilized affecting local lives and livelihoods irreversibly.” 

Source: Himdhara Collective’s Disaster Making in Himalaya report

The study was conducted in 22 villages spread across three sub-climate zones within Kinnaur, a tribal district in Himachal Pradesh, and a multi-hazard zone where over 1,500 landslide-prone sites have been identified by the government. 


In an online press conference, Jiya Lal Negi, a resident of Kinnaur and member of Himlok Jagrati Manch points out how mega hydropower projects, tunnels and indiscriminate widening of roads have contributed to the landslides in the region. But, are blanketed under the name of climate change, with no compensation in sight for local and marginalised communities who bear the brunt of the destruction.

"The communities of this tribal belt have spent the past two decades engaging with courts and struggling for their rights but no heed has been paid to their early warnings. This has prompted youth clubs to launch the 'No Means No' campaign, resisting further hydropower development", Pramiti Negi from Kinnaur says.

Kinnaur’s tribal population’s ‘No Means No’ campaign against further hydropower projects in the region.
Source: Himdhara Collective’s Disaster Making in Himalaya Report

Manshi Asher from the Himdhara Collective questioned the narrowness of the disaster discourse in the Himalayas which portrays the Himalayas as ‘inherently’ fragile and attributes disasters solely to the global climate crisis. Asher says this narrative has contributed to complacency as well as lack of accountability amongst governments, scientific bodies and corporations who deem the disasters as ‘natural’. 

Community-centric methodology

The report followed a community-centric methodology that sought to encompass the perceptions of the local community living in a landslide-prone landscape. Himshi Singh, from the research team, says,

“We understood that criticality of localised place-based insights, invaluable indigenous perspectives based historical lived experiences in a landscape prone to landslides, something that is given no importance in disaster and climate policies.”

The report underscores the importance of considering historical factors like colonialism, and neo-liberal extractive development in contributing to disaster and climate risk in Himalayan regions. It also emphasizes the intrinsic links between landscapes, societies, economies, and politics. And, further highlighting their role in building resilience or driving vulnerability in a diverse ecosystem.

“Post-independence State welfare policies and development in Kinnaur initiated with motorable roads along with events like the 1962 trade halt, schedule V area declaration, land reforms, and horticulture promotion opened up new opportunities but also triggered significant socio-economic and cultural shifts”, said Prakash Bhandari from the Himdhara Collective. 

Source: Himdhara Collective’s Disaster Making in Himalaya Report

“The 1990s witnessed a complete shift to cash-based horticulture and commercial cultivation and rapid land use changes driven by 30 small and large hydropower projects with an installed capacity of 4000 MW have come up here. 90% of all the forest diversion in Kinnaur forest division, has been for hydropower projects and transmission lines officially devouring more than 11,500 trees”, Bhandari adds further. 

Current Mitigation Measures

Himshi notes that while the disaster response has evolved since 2005 with the coming of The Disaster Management Act, 2005. However, she points out that the response is not holistic and restricted in the domain of 'managing' disasters limited to rescue and recovery. 

The panel also noted that the primary responsibility of preventing disasters and mitigating their impact is absent in the current discourse. When preventive steps are taken, they are in the form of deployment of techno-managerial systems like plantations, structural engineering and early warning systems which have not proven to be efficient in mitigating damage as in the case of the Kedarnath floods and the very recent glacial lake outburst in Sikkim. 

Source: Himdhara Collective’s Disaster Making in Himalaya Report 

Local Knowledge

Roshan Lal Negi, also a resident of Kinnaur draws attention towards the complete disregard for local knowledge systems and concerns of the community who have developed practices over centuries that aid their adaptation to the vulnerable Himalayan ecosystem. He says that any solution to the current crisis in Himalayas cannot be arrived at without the active employment of these knowledge systems of the wide range of communities that live in the Himalayan region.

The report underscores the urgency to ‘Decentralise; Democratise and Decolonise’ knowledge and resources. At the same time, situate the local communities and their knowledge systems at the helm of solutions. It also calls for the active implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 provides for a legal framework whereby communities can protect and sustainably manage, use and protect biodiversity, water sources and pastures.

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