Cloudy cliffs: Forgotten frontiers
Shodhyatra to Sikkim last week with the students from IIMA was an extremely enlivening experience. We absorbed undiluted warmth of local communities and much of the undisturbed nature in Yoksum region on the Nepal border. The contribution Sikkim is making for conservation of biodiversity, fragile mountains and keeping the water of various streams and rivers flowing, often in a very clean condition does not get reciprocated by the rest of the country. We stayed in some of the primary schools which had either no chart or just one chart. Even the basic material for teaching children was missing from the walls and shelves of the school. Neither were there any maps nor any globe. Despite a rich biodiversity, charts of plant samples with their uses, local names and English names could easily be made practically with no cost. There was not any library for the communities or the children. Kanchanganga Conservation Society organized our learning walk with a very responsible and respectful approach to nature. This society also trains local youth in guiding the treks for eco tourists and the mountaineers. One could see the use of bamboo for taking water to long distances. The large size cardamom cultivation had suffered greatly a few years ago but had come up again recently. For none of the local crops, there were any in-situ facilities for processing, drying and packaging the products. Despite Sikkim being an organic state, the advantages of keeping the eco system healthy were not accruing to the local communities enough. The students tried to learn from four teachers during the yatra: one within, second among the peers, third the nature and the fourth, the common people. For many, the experience of having leeches suck their blood was painful. For others, the opportunity to learn from communities and the nature was rewarding enough. Some of the suggestions which emerged in the discussion were shared with the Hon’ble Governor Shri. Balmiki Prasad Singh who is taking a lot of interest in promoting local creativity and talent.
Key ideas for revitalizing the economic development without impairing the ecological balance are: [a] promotion of responsible tourism through social media, having outreach offices in places like Ahmedabad [from where a very large number of tourists emanate] and through a YouTube channel of cultural diversity; [b] the importance of ‘untouristic places’ must be highlighted so that authors, artists, scholars and others could also plan retreats in the mountains; [c] development of GPS based ecological trails so that people can monitor the detailed information about biodiversity, rocks and other socio-ecological endowments at specific locations; [d] creating the facilities for in-situ value addition of unique vegetables such as ferns and fruits like ficus. It is planned to invite some groups from Sikkim to the forthcoming Sattvik Traditional Food Festival being organized by SRISTI at IIMA in December 2012; [e] lack of locally made products sold at local shops. Paradoxically in some places, the water bottles were brought from Siliguri; [f] Despite such rich culinary creativity, lack of commercial outlets are difficult to appreciate. The aspirations of many children were not very high although the state produced the captain of Indian Football team; [g] On the school walls the name of the local achievers could be written up to inspire children to learn and grow. A helpline to guide children not only about their career prospects but also understanding various subjects could be established; [h] Unlike Mizoram, there was not much evidence of rooftop water harvesting systems and local water filtering facilities, [i] there was a huge scope for medicinal plant cultivation and processing.
The communities welcome outsiders with open arms. It was striking that even those who had nothing much in their houses will invariably have rows of flower pots outside their house, proving once again, how wrong Maslow has been. There is a considerable scope for rest of the country to reciprocate the unique contribution communities are making for conservation in this Himalayan state. For how long will people conserve the resources despite remaining poor. A frontier region deserves much greater support and attention. There is so much that we all can learn from the ecological ethics and socio cultural diversity evident in everyday life in Sikkim. I hope that planners will pay urgent attention to the need for improving water, sanitation, employment and educational needs of the region while leveraging the socio cultural and ecological balance.
Anil K Gupta