Fighting to Stay: Resistances and Rehabilitation

At the edge of the bowl-shaped inner sanctuary of Nanda Devi lies, Paing a village that was officially resettled way back in 2000 after a major landslide struck. Yet, its 27 elderly residents continue to resist by staying. The dwindling yet close-knit Bhotiya community that resides here has now become a scattered people with different generations living in different Paings.

While Ramni Devi lives in Old Paing, her son and grandkids have shifted to the New Paing plots allotted to them in 2000 mainly for their kids education.

Ramni Devi’s resolve to stay back is fueled by her memories of a time gone by. A life when they would set up bridges to access the alpine meadows where glacial waters flowed down from the mountains; where wild fruits and vegetables fed them during barren winters; where medicinal herbs healed them and protein-rich grass fed their sheep that gave them wool. In 1982 when their forests and mountains were cordoned off as the core zone of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, hundreds of villagers protested the taking away of not just their lands but also their livelihoods. Today, a severed Old Paing is only a faint reflection of what it once was.

Her son Prakash Rana’s psyche has been etched instead by the frequent man-made disasters this seismically vulnerable region has faced in his 34 years. On most days now, Prakash is the only youngster one can see in Old Paing as he lives a life of transit between the two Paings. His older brother and all his friends have gradually shifted down to a 15 X15 sq metre plot allotted to them in New Paing Muranda, a half an hour drive to Joshimath, the closest business, education and healthcare hub. The shutting down of the primary school in Old Paing four years back is now sealing its fate even further.

However, the residents of New Paing reiterate that this was just a temporary resettlement and not a rehabilitation. This self-reliant, cattle-rearing and farming community lives a cramped, tenant like two-room existence with no land to pursue their livelihood here.

The promised land of 250 sq metre is a key violation in this Himalayan state’s rehabilitation policy with just 14% arable land. With 450 of the 484 villages threatened by ‘natural disasters’ in the state awaiting relocation, the onus to fight seems to have fallen on the victims themselves. Yet the Land of Gods, Uttarakhand continues to bore through the Himalayas at break neck speed in the name of green hydel, border security and development. As the resulting cracks of ground subsidence, ‘the silent disaster of the Himalayas’, spreads to 500 villages and still counting, rehabilitation to a safer land seems farcical.

“I have nowhere else to go” says Rukmani Devi, still stranded in an ironically tunnel shaped army barrack. Locals hold the 12 km long underground tunnel of the NTPC hydel project going under Joshimath responsible for the land subsidence here.

Each time the government takes on the rescuer role in what is seen as a one-time natural calamity or climate change disaster, called Devi Aapda in these parts. In a bid to escape scrutiny, accountability and culpability, argue Manshi Asher and Vivek Negi in their research Tunnels as Temples of ‘New Green India’, … there is a transferring of the project’s risks to local inhabitants and the environment.

It’s been a year since ISRO confirmed the sinking of Joshimath, yet only 15 lined up tents in the middle of nowhere are on offer still. This temporary settlement, 14 kms away from their red crossed ancestral homes of Joshimath, lies abandoned.

These Himalayan people have chosen to resist by staying, even if it means living in danger, lest their future generations may be rendered landless.