A unique and passionate gathering of acrophiles, or mountain lovers, took place in neat and picturesque Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram state in north-eastern India in September.
By P D Rai
A unique and passionate gathering of acrophiles, or mountain lovers, took place in neat and picturesque Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram state in north-eastern India in September. Eight Members of Parliament MPs), two state ministers, 24 Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) and many experts and mountain aficionados representing eight Indian states attended the meeting.
They signed the Aizawl Declaration calling for urgent action to help states and constituents deal with the impact of climate change, already being witnessed across the country.
The Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI) is about the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) and its mountain people; diverse societies and tribes that inhabit them. IMI seeks to bind the hopes and aspirations of these people, represented by state chapters of IMI, using a platform where they can cross-fertilize their ideas. It further draws attention to IHR’s contributions, mainstreams sustainable mountain development into the developmental agenda of states and districts of the mountains.
The IHR plays a vital role in sustaining life, with the rivers and siltation, from Jammu & Kashmir in the north through the Indo-Gangetic plains to Assam and beyond. Despite their critical importance in the ecological and economical balance of the country, the mountains and people’s needs remain at the margins when formulating India’s development plans.
A 2013 study by the Planning Commission, ranking Indian states on a range of basic indicators for development, found the IHR states have the greatest developmental disability scores.
For the average Indian, therefore, the mountains are all about being faraway, difficult terrains, but cool. They are also where hermits, monks, sadhus and other reclusive people reside who, by choice, want to be alone. The cool climes of Shimla, Mussoorie, Darjeeling, Shillong and Gangtok beckon when the sweltering heat of the plains makes life difficult in the cities and towns. But the annual escape from the plains causes major traffic jams in the mountains and puts pressure on its fragile ecology. Little attention has been paid to the huge potential of mountain tourism in a planned and sustained basis.
Since its inception in 2011, IMI has been at the forefront of policy advocacy efforts. It initiated the annual Sustainable Mountain Development Summits (SMDS) that are a unique forum for voicing local issues and finding sustainable solutions. Attending are bilateral and multilateral development agencies, policy experts, think-tanks, legislators and administrators.
The main delegates representing the state chapters of IMI are key to the whole debate. The six editions of the SMDS have discussed themes like forests, ground water, climate change, mountain livelihoods, disaster risk reduction, rural tourism, hydro-electric power plants, skill development, water policy for mountains, mountain cities and has striven to translate research and dialogue into policy interventions.
Three distinct levels of conversation about mountains and how to protect their ecology and people have emerged. The first tier is the Summit where the main conversations happen. Research papers are discussed and presentations made and local stories from the dying apple orchards of Kashmir, to the fast vanishing tribe of yak farmers in northern Sikkim to the ‘jhum’ (slash and burn) cultivation of Nagaland are shared. This platform gives voice to issues confronting the mountain people and sharpens them for policy intervention.
The second tier is the Policy Dialogue where administrators and analysts meet to discuss major policy issues that concern the mountains. These are filtered from the first tier. The SMDS-6 Policy Dialogue discussed the Himalayan Development Policy which has been on the anvil in the Ministry of Environment & Forests and climate change.
The final tier is the legislators’ Meet. Here, Members of Parliament from the mountain states and MLAs of various states meet to discuss an important topic. This time it was about climate change and its impacts on the constituencies of the people’s representatives.
The 5th Legislators’ Meet was held in Aizawl where the Speaker, Hiphei, of the Mizoram State Legislative Assembly, in his inaugural address set the tone by saying, “For floods in the plains there are schemes for control and relief.
In the mountains there are no such provisions for landslides. This lacuna must be bridged by the central government.” This was a passionate plea from a mountain man to draw attention to the plight of the mountain dwellers.
The attending legislators were unanimous that they found this meeting to be “very valuable and meeting people’s representatives from across the Himalaya is truly a worthwhile experience,” said the J&K Deputy Speaker, Nazir Gurezi. Ninong Ering, MP from Arunachal Pradesh, said he saw this meet as a platform to facilitate learning and advocacy about state level issues. His sentiments were echoed by all present.
This three-tier approach is immensely significant as it binds the various actors together. This synthesis of ground level discussions feeding the policy discourse and then moving it to the political arena is what makes the SMDS so powerful a process.
IMI is a democratic organization. It is led by mountain people. It seeks to ‘Make India Proud of its Mountains’, a vision that can be achieved in another decade. Before that happens, many mountains will have to be climbed which will lead to more advocacy about the mountains and their people and their core value to the nation.
(The author is a sitting two-term Lok Sabha MP representing Sikkim and is a Member of the Governing Council of IMI)