It is Republic Day today – an occasion to celebrate the Constitution and the rights enshrined in it. Yet if one looks at what has been going on in the Hills one gets to see local communities constantly engaged in the fight to save their Constitutional guarantees of Right to Equality, Life and Livelihood.

This compulsion to fight is the outcome of a development model, and narratives that continue to be imposed on them. The tussle between those thrusting the external development narratives, and the locals fighting to save the hills, their environment, ecology, biodiversity and way of life is right now being reflected by the land subsidence in Joshimath where thousands are facing a forced displacement.

It is the story of the old saying about forgetting the past and being condemned to repeat it. There have been several such examples over the decades across the Himalayas that have been conveniently forgotten, with people having been left to fend for themselves.

Right now it is Joshimath that has been making headlines across the globe. But as it is being pointed repeatedly by those leading the locals’ fight for a decent rehabilitation and compensation package, the efforts and wait by the authorities is just about the issue fading into the backdrop over the period of time.

“People of Joshimath are braving extreme cold and uncertainty while sitting on a dharna to just protect their right to life and liberty. We have a democracy where even the democratically elected leaders think of themselves to be monarchs. We talk of lok (people) and tantra (government) but in reality it is the tantra that always tries to dominate the lok,” said social and political activist Indresh Maikhuri who is involved in the ongoing people’s movement seeking decent rehabilitation and compensation to the people of the sinking town.

Talking about the development models being imposed on the hills, he explained, “the people are never asked whether they want this kind of development. Everybody knows that large scale hydro projects right from those at Tehri to Joshimath are not for them.”

Matters are taking a turn for the worst with reports about cracks now appearing on the Badrinath highway.

Neighbouring Himachal Pradesh too has been seeing the onslaught on the environment and related hill communities for several years now. “Joshimath has drawn the attention of the global community to the plight of the people and the environmental concerns across the hills in India. It is the repetition of the story of larger interests of the local communities being ignored.

“For those imposing their development narrative on the local communities everything just boils down to investment, profits and what they see as economic growth. The social outcomes, environment concerns, life and livelihood are conveniently ignored. We have seen relocation of the people of Kandar and Nathpa way back in 2005.

“People are relocated to places with no facilities. In this case they have to walk for at least an hour to reach their habitats. We are still witnessing the constant landslides at Urni where a road construction project is underway,” explained Jiya Negi who has been constantly engaged in taking up the issues of the people of Kinnaur that is perhaps the worst affected district in Himachal Pradesh on account of the devastation caused by the hydro electric projects and the tunnels being made.

He pointed out that while the authorities claim to follow procedures in developing such projects, the fact is that every attempt is made to subvert the law and hoodwink the innocent masses. It has been years now that the people of this belt have been pointing at frequent landslides, disappearing of water channels and constant threat to human lives but nobody is bothered about what people say.

“The enquiry committees and technical committees are formed when people make a hue and cry. But how do you expect the experts to speak in favour of the people when they enjoy the hospitality of the corporates and write the reports sitting in their guest houses. In public hearings every effort is made that most things are not put on paper in black and white. When it comes to fixing accountability the burden is shifted from one department to the other while the people remain confused and perplexed,” Negi added.

He said that the activists and concerned citizens are planning to take up the issue again with the new government that has been elected in the state. The locals have recently approached the tribal development minister Jagat Singh Negi who is from the district on issues being faced by them. In the letter addressed to him they have pointed, “Kinnaur district is the largest producer of hydropower (more than 3000 MW) in the entire state. Due to the indiscriminate construction of these projects, today the whole area has become vulnerable to disaster. Landslides, flash-floods have increased in the last decade. Due to these hydroelectric projects, the existence of Kinnaur is in danger today.”

They have also sought that the Forest Rights Act 2006 be implemented in letter and spirit in the area to protect the rights of the people.

Elaborating on the issue of the rights of the people living in the hills and facing ecological devastation Hottam Shaunkla who has been involved in several people’s movements in the Kullu valley said, “the system that has been put in place to serve the people is itself responsible for bulldozing and trampling upon their rights.

“The people who face the threat to their lives, livelihood and acquisition of their lands have to fight to get a decent compensation besides facing displacement while the system facilitates the corporations responsible for their plight. Those who fight sustained battles still manage to get something while others are left nowhere. The laws are never implemented.”

He pointed at the depleting forest cover in the hills and said, “there are tall claims about aforestation and every year there are ‘van mahotsavs’ being celebrated but where are the new forest areas and how many of the trees that are claimed to have been planted survive? Has anyone bothered to get an audit done till now? Why is there less snowfall every year leading to the shifting of the apple belts northwards?”

He said that it is the government that needs to make a new beginning like the recent impetus on electric vehicles. But it is just a small step as one can see the authorities themselves flouting building norms by erecting buildings way above the prescribed limits.

It is ironic that the hill society that demonstrated how natural resources in the hills can be protected successfully through the Chipko Movement of the 1970s and 1980s is now facing the worst assault on the environment by an imposed development model.

In a recent conference that this reporter attended on localised solutions and implementation strategies in the Himalayas, the following was shared: “due to their direct provision of food, fuel and fodder as well as their function in maintaining soil and water resources, India’s forests are an essential resource for the subsistence of rural people across the nation, but particularly in hill and mountain areas.

“The Gandhian strategy of non violent Satyagraha has been used by Indian villagers to defend their way of life as these forests have been increasingly cleared for trade and industry. This opposition to the clearing of the forests grew throughout India on the 1970s and 1980s, organised itself and took the name Chipko movement.”