It arrived in a standard brown envelope, stamped without the Queen’s famous visage but Royal Mail from Great Britain nonetheless. It turned out to be a slim volume titled Voices from the Mountain, Oral Testimonies from Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh, India, one of a series of booklets published by Panos London’s Oral Testimony Programme (OTP) as part of its international Mountains project. Intriguing.

For the booklet, unedited transcripts, background information and new developments, see
Here was a document that sought to ‘stimulate debate on global environment and development issues...working through partners with a variety of highland communities for several years...explore the changing environment and culture of these regions through the direct testimony of those who live there; to raise awareness and understanding of the accelerating impact of development; and to communicate people’s experiences and perceptions of the changes - social, economic and environmental - taking place as a result.’ And yet, there were no paragraphs (make that pages) on statistics, nor any refined/elaborate language that tested the reader’s logical perception. The book spoke exactly the way its titled promised – Voices From the Mountain.

As the editorial note acknowleges, the interviews are only a selection from those originally gathered. Extracts have been chosen for interest and to represent, as far as possible, the range of concerns views and experiences found within the overall Indian collection. They have been edited, primarily to remove repetition or confusion (and questions).

These stories were alive. They breathed a common air. They felt pain, experienced sorrow, expressed hope and brought memories into our present. Memories that deserve a hearing, memories that hold the key to how we shape our future. Each speaker recounts the way that life was, aspects unique to their particular local region, often touching on unexpected sidelights and incisive observations. The editorial note clarifies that all interviews have been translated, with varying levels of professional experience and, in some cases, from a local language to a national language and then to English, so some misrespresentations may have occurred. The blurb also says that each collection is a snapshot, and does not claim to represent the entire mountain community.

To quote, “But the range of individual voices provides a remarkably comprehensive picture of highland societies, their changing environments, and their concerns for the future. The challenge is to meet national development needs without further marginalising mountain peoples. They are the custodians of diverse - sometimes unique - environments, essential to the survival of the global ecosystem. Further erosion of the mountain people’s ability to care for those assets will be the world’s loss, not just theirs.”

It is impossible to do justice in this limited space to the 46 pages of rivetting, often innocent, insights. The glossary hints at this piquant situation by admitting, “...finding the meaning for all the words has not proved possible.” As the Introduction says, “...the interviews are exceptionally lively and interesting. They are not only rich in culture, knowledge and history but also in positive ideas on development and ways forward. Many people accept that past practices have to change as communities open up to wider social and economic influences, but they stress it is essential to take some of the strengths from the past and build on these too. In particular, people advocate a return to some farming practices of the past, including cultivating traditonal crops - many of which were more suited to the environment and had a multitude of applications...Sadly, many older people feel that their knowledge, based on accumulated experience rather than formal schooling, is gradually being undervalued as ‘bookish’ knowledge predominates: ‘Today’s generation...talks of science in books while the earlier generation practised it on the ground,’ says Jagat.”

The following samples are culled from different testimonies, not on the basis of their length (often running to 3 or 4 pages) or the degree of felicity in speech but rather, the varied and unique aspects they touch upon. Without more ado, over to some excerpts:

Lakhupati, 80, belongs to a scheduled tribe and lives in the remote village of Chura in Kinnaur, close to the Indo-Tibetan border (a handy map shows the hamlet nestled in the upper reaches Himachal Pradesh, much beyond Uttar Kashi, Gangotri and Yamunotri).

“I was born in the hills, and like living here, though it’s very cold. It snows and rains heavily. We have avalanches and floods and we often get cut off from the ‘mainland’. The roads are bad and so are the means of transportation. We have power shortages and shortages of food grain, vegetables and grocery items. We do not get proper communication facilities, health facilities, and other development projects, as the people of the plains do...(But) I have not seen anywhere the kind of freedom we have in the hills, no other place has such good water or food...”

Bihari, 60, a veteran Gandhian worker and social activist based in the village of Budakedar, Balganga valley.

“At first, people here were self-sufficient because the means of transport was not there, so they felt that wheat, rice, pulses etc, should be grown only...for themselves...they also kept sheep. Even cloth was produced by each household for its own use. When it snowed on the peaks we used to shear the wool from the sheep and goats. We used to do carving, too, in our homes. But all this has disappeared with the passage of time...Today, it is as if houses are made overnight....Today, wood is not available, and even if we have wood lying on our own land the forest officer come to arrest us and asks us...where we have obtained it...”

Sudesha, in her 50s, a leading environmental activist in the Henval valley (she lives in the village of Rampur) has spearheaded Chipko and other protest movements locally.

We first went into the forests and clung to the trees where the contractors were tapping for that time, everyone got together - men, children, everyone. So many people that the police got frightened. Five women clung to every tree...[Later they took us to jail]...At home we are always working...but in jail we were able to sit and rest...The day we were taken to jail, my husband had warned me that I would be imprisoned. I answered: ‘So what? Many important people have gone to jail.’ The [the anti-Tehri dam] movement...was a completely different type of protest...I have seen that whatever happens all the blows fall on the poor. Rich people get away with anything, they can get employed doing dam work, they can make the dam theirs but when the poor die, they will be no place even to float them down the river. Apart from that, this dam is dangerous...The government wants [those displaced by the dam] to have good land, but even if they get better land, it is no substitute for losing a home...however poor it’s home is one’s home.”

Mahesha, 67, a farmer and shopkeeper whose family has lived in Khumera village in the Mandakini valley, Chamoli district, for 10 generations.

“We had a thriving panchayat system in our area. In each village a panchayati square would be identified and everybody would gather there. Then people would put aside their spindles and cane baskets and be quiet, and one or two panchs would speak while the rest listened attentively. On any big occasion all the connecting roads of the village would be repaired...Everyone abided by the panchayat’s decision....All the forest-related work was also done by the panchayat...roads and water springs were repaired by collective labour...If a panchayati house had to be constructed then there would be a roster of 10 person from each family would hew the stone, another 10 would cut the wood... Now there are no panchayats; if ever there is one then each person tries to put pressure to get his own way and there is no decision...”

Chatra, 50, lives in the Bhelgandi village, Mandakini valley, where she works as a village supervisor with the Mahila Samakhya, a government programme for women’s empowerment.

“In the earlier days the rainfall was much more...This is because the forests were very dense - we were afraid of going into the forest. But now they are disappearing completely....During the monsoons we used the chop the branches and the leaves acted as a good matress. Nowadays tree-felling is comparatively controlled, but people do it on the quiet...Earlier we used to collect one load [of fodder] in only a minute whereas these days it takes us the whole day. The quantity of water has reduced and the quality of water has deteriorated since the pipeline has been fitted... We have revolted against [the hybrid seeds]. Our seeds used to be very good...they were properly cleaned and kept aside. But the seeds from outside - we know nothing about them, whether they are fresh or old, where they have been purchased. On many occasions it is seen that the seeds of tripatya grass - a weed - have come with other seeds from outside...The seeds of tripatya are like garlic and no other grass grows near it. It grows wild and stops the growth of other grains.”

Mohan, 60, from Chamba in Henval valley, is one of the few Ayurvedic physicians left in the area.

“The Himalaya is the storehouse of medicinal plants and roots...In [the old days] people had knowledge of wild, medicinal plants and roots...if research work is conducted we can make such medicines known, that are unknown to medical science even today...The ancient system of exchange of goods was excellent. All the traditional work like pottery, carpentary and [the work of] blacksmiths and goldsmiths [has diminished]...Now we depend on those who come from outside for a short period...This is the transition period. On the one hand people are losing their traditional knowledge and means; on the other they are not getting adequate training in modern scientific techniques...If you import a song from outside, and the people here don’t know the tune, the results will not be good.”