Tuesday, January 10, 2023
Munsyari in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand was recently in the news for a sad reason: 43 residents of three villages — Chetla, Mati and Balagaon were buried alive after a seasonal landslide destroyed their village.
This event did not garner the same amount of ink as the swine flu did; it is not as thrilling. The tragedy attracted a few lines in the media and this for a day only.
It is in this last small town, the last one before the Nepal-Tibet border, that Claude Arpi and Abha Tewari met Malika Virdi, one of the most renowned Indian mountaineers, a social worker and sarpanch, who has chosen to live the ordinary life of local folks. Her endeavour is to find herself and eventually also be a catalyst to help ease the harshness of their lives.
It needs courage, character and idealism to decide to spend one’s life in such a beautiful, but harsh place. This is evident in the answers of Malika which justify her choices and point to the issues faced by mountain populations, especially women.
At a time when eco-tourism is fast becomes a fashion, Malika tells us of an incident which occurred during the All-Women Himalayan Traverse in 1997: as she walked with a Nepali porter carrying 100kg on his back, she remarked pointing at the gorgeous mountains around, “Kitne sundar!” (How beautiful they are!), his reply was immediate, “Kitna dukh!” (So much suffering!). This summarizes the hard life in these mountainous areas.
The backdrop of this free discussion with Malika is the gorgeous Panchachuli range where the Five Pandavas are supposed to have cooked their last meal before leaving this world. But even here, at the gateway to Heaven, it is said that there was a sixth chula (stove) for Draupadi to cook for her husbands!!
Claude Arpi: Malika, you wear several caps: you are a sarpanch (elected village head person), you are a mountaineer, you are working on women’s issues. But before going into this, tell us about your background. Where do you come from, where were you educated?
Malika: For me, it is a question of identity. It means who am I? My identity as a woman was easy enough to discover early. Having grown up in an urban area, for a long time it was not clear. My cultural roots were in rural Punjab; but it was not obvious. We lived in Delhi, we traveled around. The first assertion of my identity came in 1984 when I realized that I belong to the Sikh community, a minority community. It was quite different from having a free-floating identity as an urban woman or just a Punjabi woman.
In 1984, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when the Sikh carnage took place, it became very clear to me. I came face to face with my roots.
CA: You were a student at that time?
MV: No, I was working in the resettlement slums in Delhi. Many Sikhs got massacred at that time. I lived close to the area in East Delhi [where the massacre took place] and I spent 3 nights waiting with my father and my mother. I thought: “They [the mobs looking for Sikhs] will come”. We had just moved 6 months earlier [to this area]; we could see houses burning, people with broken legs or arms being carried away. We were just waiting and not sure [what will happen to us]. At that time, I clearly realized that I belonged to a minority community. I am a Sikh and it has a meaning. It is not just a surname that I carry around in life.
Apart from that, I always lived in an urban area, my parents lived in Delhi, but grand-parents were farmers [in Punjab]. I was twice removed from the land. I did my schooling and college in Delhi, started working in Delhi after my MA in Social Sciences. I did my MPhil and wanted to do a PhD. But I wanted to ‘work’. I was interested more by action than research. I stopped my studies, went into activism. It is how I can describe myself.
CA: Tell us how did you decided to leave Delhi and come to Munsyari, this remote part of Uttarakhand?
MV: I was working in Rajasthan on a Women’s Development Program. It was interesting. Theo [Malika’s partner] and I had been together for many years, but we lived our own lives. He was in Anand in Gujarat [with the National Dairy Development Board] and I was in Rajasthan. We decided to set up a home together; it made sense to do so in the mountains. We came here in 1992. He had a project and I came to settle here and be a farmer and a mother. I had never done farming before, but I thought that it was the right thing to do. It was not really significant that this place was very remote. We thought if we can find a piece of land, ‘fine, we can settle here’. There was a lot of romanticism involved. . In 1993, we bought a piece of land and in 1994 we built a small room.
CA: How did you get involved in local politics? Today you are a sarpanch (head person of the village forest council or Van Panchayat). What does it mean to be a sarpanch?
MV: Sarmoli is a remote mountain village. The subsistence economy is such that you need a forest to support it. It is the way agriculture has been going on in the Himalayas for a long, long time. After a struggle during the British Raj, the people managed to get community forests legally notified: this is called the Van Panchayat. This happened in 1931, and our village Van Panchayat was notified in 1949. Each village community has a support forest area (in our case 34 hectares) and it is governed in a democratic way. We have elections every five years. A council is elected and the head of the council is called a sarpanch.
CA: How many members do you have in the council?
MV: We have nine because it is a large Panchayat with two revenue villages, Jainti and Sarmoli. I have just completed my five-year term.
Already when I worked in Rajasthan, I did not want to do my work as a ‘job’. As an activist, if it is your [earning] ‘job’, you first think of securing your job and it may be at variance with your beliefs. It happened to us a couple of times, when either our project was closed down or we had to quit. [In these cases] you have then to decide if you want to stick to your beliefs or secure your job.
I like to work with communities and take up causes as they come, but as a citizen, not someone who is getting paid.
I work more on the political level, though on the same [social] issues. I am on my own and not part of any large institution or political party]. It is the same for women’s issues and keeping your autonomy has been central to my beliefs
When I came here, I did not join any organization. It was hard, I had no work. I took up farming. I basically wanted to be part of the community. I was a persona non grata for five years. I did not belong to the urban area, I did not belong here. It took time for me to get really accepted. After 5-7 years of checking me out, [they realized] that I did stand by what I professed. It is always easy to talk principles, but is more difficult to stand by them. The community looks at actions, not talks. The reason why they made me sarpanch, besides the fact that by that time I had been accepted by the community, is that nobody wanted to be sarpanch.
MV: It is interesting. When there is money coming in for development in the Gram or Village Panchayat, you can not only make a ‘political’ career, but you can also ‘earn’ something [out of it]. In contrast, the Van Panchayat has no money, we are working for the common property and we are not getting state funding. There is no money allocated from anywhere. So nobody is eager to be sarpanch.
In our village, because we are close to the town of Munsyari, people prefer to be where they stand a better chance [to make money].
The Van Panchayat is (or was) a losing proposition. Not only do we not have [development] money, but people usually do not want to work together. It is an eroding culture. When I became sarpanch, the community said: “you are talking so much, now show us”. [Personally] I was very excited. Because I did not have ‘political’ ambitions, I was able to mobilize the community, first the women and the youth of the region.
CA: Do you think that women can do better than men to bring people together?
MV: I wouldn’t say that, but women are more dependent on the forest, so it made sense to respond to me [as a sarpanch]. [In our area] economy has not been monetized that much, there is still the remnants of the concept of shared labour.
CA: Is it disappearing?
MV: Yes, it is, but women are still ready to share labour and they are more dependant on the forest. As a woman, I was also ready to give them space, not just the rhetoric. Still women were cynical [at the beginning], “the village won’t change, there will be no turn around”. What we managed in 5 years is that a third (or perhaps half) of the village has really changed.
CA: In which way?
MV: Today, there is hope. People want to keep the Van Panchayat going. Some will still say [cynically], “Go ahead, since you are so keen!”. But there is a change.
CA: Is there still an exodus towards the cities and the plains?
MV: Yes, agriculture is only subsistence agriculture, you can’t make cash. It is a problem.
CA: What about tourism?
MV: It is one of the experiments of our Van Panchayat. To be meaningful, one should get something back from the forest. It is too small to meet all the subsistence needs of all our right holders of fuel-wood and fodder; too many people depend on a too small land.
We had to find some [environmentally] non-extractive way to get benefits to as many people as possible. Tourism was a good option. We have organized it involving the community of right holders. It means that benefit comes to the community at large. Some 50 families out of the 300 are benefiting directly. We have a home-stay program with 25 families on the roster. We have also 25 families where young men or women work as porters and guides. They are trained. They can also plan logistics for different types of treks.
These are two aspects: the home-stay where visitors share food, house, skills, crafts, etc. with the host family and the second one is the logistic for treks.
CA: The Uttarakhand Government is planning to develop tourism on a much larger scale. What are your views? Is it not destructive?
MV: As the Government created SEZs [Special Economic Zones], the State today speaks of STZ (for tourism). This is typical top-down model of planning and development. It is the wrong way to go. All the benefits are kept at the top and little ‘trickles’ down to the bottom. Only the crumbs only reach the communities; and s what the Uttarakhand state government is trying to do. But the Government also knows that eco-tourism has potential. We find some support with the Forest Department, perhaps because eco-tourism is fashionable. We have received some money for a community center. [In a way] it has validated our endeavor, but it is too small. The main thrust is with the big tourism industry which is based in Nainital or Dehra Dun.
CA: Could the Government make Munsyari, a Nainital?
MV: Well, many people are turning their houses into lodges or hotels. One can’t imagine that there is a recession in India when one sees the amount of [new] buildings under construction. If one does not watch, the same thing will happen in Munsyari as elsewhere. But it will be an overkill. The [tourist] capacity in a place like Munsyari is limited.
CA: In which way?
MV: Take water, we had never heard of water shortage until 5 years ago. Whether it is because of global warming or other problems, it is becoming an issue.
CA: What are the main women issues in Munsyari?
MV: Broadly the same issues as anywhere else [in India]. It is why women’s groups will never be out of work, I am speaking of slog work. Violence does not seem to end. Deep patriarchal perspectives [in the villages] legitimize any degree of violence against woman. When I first came, during the first six years, I observed that there were 6 brutal murders, and the police did nothing. [At that time], I had no credibility as I was a newcomer to this community. When I would raise the issue of speaking out against the violence, I was ignored. People would say, “what is the big deal”.
CA: What was the motivation of the murderers?
MV: Mainly for marital affairs. The man had another woman and wanted to marry again. The first time, I got involved is when there was a brutal murder in the bazaar; everybody was horrified; people had seen the woman's dead body, but nobody wanted to say anything. There was a complicity of silence. I had the same question, should I speak? I felt it was time to speak up. I noticed that people need a catalyst; there is some cynicism which believes people do not want to speak, but they do. Someone has to start. In no time, we were 40 women going to the police station asking for a post-mortem; what was the State doing? etc… Since then, we never looked back. We have a small organization, not yet registered called Mahila Sangathan.
We are thinking of registering it, because we now have a public profile and there is antipathy to what we stand for in some quarters. For our own safety, we need to be registered; our accounts have to be [officially] audited. Even if we generate very little money, we need to be able to show where we are getting funds from.
So, the first issue is violence against women. The second issue is liquor.
In the mountains, people have always brewed their own liquor). . It is part of the culture of the Bhotias a local tribe that is a Scheduled Tribe. It makes sense when it is cold, life is tough, but the now the growing problem is the commercialization of liquor.
When there is already poverty, when the minimum wage is so small, when people are in a general state of hopelessness, then take to drink- it often results in violence against women, and then there is a problem. It is not just a women’s issue, though women take the brunt of it. It is an economic and political issue.
I am a feminist, but I believe that it is not only gender which traps people. It is as much the caste, the class, and poverty related. We have to look at life in a multidimensional way.
Many women's groups like ours in Munsyari work first to liberate ourselves, we invest our energies [on our issues and problems]; and society will change only when we have a critical mass. We have to change the way society sanctions things. If you stand up and say, “I don’t agree”, after sometime, you find that there are 10 people who do not agree, and after a while many others begin to stand up. Then there is a cultural shift. Times are changing. That is what we are fighting for!
CA: Do you see any change with the spreading of education?
MV: Definitely. It has been a very important factor, even though our educational system is not in a good shape, even though we don’t have enough teachers.
CA: Nobody wants to come to such a remote place?
MV: Yes, this is a genuine problem. But, just the fact that girls can now step out, that they are no longer restricted to private spheres [of the household]; the fact that schools are for them as well, this has brought a big big change. They are not fully educated, but they have stepped out. Amongst them, the more assertive can move ahead. That is good, though the quality of education in general is bad, but there is now an opportunity for them.
CA: What brought you to mountaineering?
MV: I grew up with my grand-mother in Dehra Dun. I was always close to the land. We had some land; we did a bit of agriculture. I liked to walk in the forests. I realized that it had a special meaning in my life. In school, I started rock climbing, then I pushed ahead, did my mountaineering courses. At that time in India, it was hard to be a woman mountaineer. It still is!
CA: Can you explain?
MV: Either you are part of a club and a club culture where everything is laid out for you. [In this set up], women have their place and remain at their place. If you don’t belong to a club, if you are not patronized by an institution or the Army, you are left to your own strength. Though mountaineering is about physical ability, but it is not the reason why you are usually selected for an expedition]. You are called, because you are someone’s partner or daughter, or for a funding purpose: a woman is needed on the team to secure sponsorships. If you want to do mountaineering for the pleasure of it or the adventure, it is hard to find a group where you will be valued for what you are, not just for your ‘label’. I did my basic and advanced mountaineering courses, a few expeditions, but I was choosy. I was not ready to do anything to get on an expedition. I like to do it the way I believe it should be done.
CA: Can you elaborate?
MV: Some people take to mountaineering not to challenge themselves, but to ‘vanquish’ the mountain. They say they have ‘conquered’ a peak. Sometimes even, ‘a virgin peak’! This is patriarchal; it is like ‘conquest’ during a war. I look at it the other way around: there is only yourself to ‘conquer’. You vanquish your own fears, your own limits. It is for the challenge of conquering yourself that you are there. Then I feel physically alive.
Styles are also different: you have the ‘siege’ type or ‘military’ type, where you rope up the mountain and there is the ‘alpine’ style, you pull your own weight. The first is OK when you want to ‘win’. For example, the Everest was a race between the British and the Swiss. The Karakoram was a ‘German’ goal.
CA: Annapurna is ‘French’?
MV: Yes! It became a symbol of nationalistic prowess instead of being a pleasure to be with the mountain. I am not necessarily negating [the first type], but it is not my style.
CA: A few words on your trans-himalayan venture, the `Indian Women's First Trans-Himalayan Journey '97?
MV: Being a mountaineer, you usually want to go to the top. There is a peak attraction; there is the name to be earned, the recognition at the end of the tunnel. Ours was different; the Traverse [trans-Himalayan trek] was more an expedition of endurance. It was a physical expedition as well as an emotional one. It took us some 6 and half months to walk from Arunachal Pradesh [the eastern most part of Himalay in India] to the Karakoram Pass in Ladakh [at the border of Chinese ]. We walked 205 days in high altitude. Of these just 19 days was spent replenishing our stocks or having a bath, but the rest of the time, we trekked. It was the first all-women expedition. There were 9 of us. Earlier only 8 expeditions worldwide had attempted and completed the Himalayan Traverse.
We were fortunate to do it in one push, some of the earlier expeditions with foreigners had to it in several stages (to get their visas for example). Being Indians, it was easier for this. We were State guests in Bhutan and with Nepal, India has special arrangements.
It was a good challenge for me. First because we were all women.
Politically, it was important that we succeeded. But power [equation between individuals] is not different, just because we were women. [Between ourselves], we had different styles of working. The leader of the expedition was Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb the Everest. She put this expedition together, and her style was more a military style. She was not from the Army, but she had climbed the Everest with the Army.
After 4 months of trekking, we had a split. We had crossed Arunachal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal. [We separated] and three of us completed it and went to Karakoram Pass, the others went to the Siachen Glacier [located nearby].
The essential thing is that all of us started and all of us completed it. Nobody went home crying. Before we left, the media had said: “Oh, nine women, they will certainly have a fight and go home crying”. Typical [macho media]! “They can’t make it without a male presence”.
But it is true, we had different styles of climbing and these got thrown up in sharp contradictions during the traverse.
CA: Which is your best souvenir after 17 years?
MV: The trek confirmed certain things that I always believed in. Emotionally and physically, it was extremely hard in parts, but at the same time, affirming. The sheer joy of having gone to places I would not have gone to without this expedition; to have seen how people live there. From outside as a short tourist trip, mountains are always beautiful, but while trekking you see another side of it. I won’t say poverty, it would be patronizing, but the hardship of life in this rugged and demanding terrain becomes a living reality; though people are [usually] coping well. It is a life style that is meaningful, sustainable — quite like here in Munsyari. The problem is that now people feel, “it is not good enough; we have to go to the cities”. That is perceived as ‘progress’. The expedition was the occasion to see so many mountains communities, so many different people and how life in these mountains can sustain and be meaningful.
CA: Is there a link between all these communities?
MV: Yes, essentially yes. The terrain decides. But Bhutan is different in a way. It is a monarchy. It is good that they decided to limit the number of tourists [allowed in Bhutan]. It was also depressing to see the divide between the urban rich and rural areas of Bhutan. It was quite shocking.
In Nepal, it was still a monarchy, but the Maoist revolution was picking up in 1997. In remote areas, you could understand why people became Maoists. I remember once walking in one of these beautiful places around the Annapurna region with a Nepali porter. He was my size, but he was carrying a pack of 100 kg (mainly beer bottles for some tourists). I said your country is so beautiful (“kitna sundar hai”), he replied: “kitna dukh hai” (so much suffering). It struck me! Two people are walking the same mountain path. One is here to see the world and to experience beauty; the other sees suffering. We had a real conversation, he said that if he fell sick, he would die, but if a rich man's sheep fell sick, he would be flown out of the valley in an aircraft. I think that without democracy, poor people remain in a much more difficult position.
What has bound us together is the challenge to be in a mountain area.
CA: How did your partner and son take it?
MV: They were very supportive. When I embarked on the expedition my son was five years old. Though I had chosen to be a home maker, I had become very restless. I feared that the world had passed me by. I was 37 and I believed that my time was over and I had finished my active physically challenging life in this remote mountain area. I asked Zanskar [Malika’s son]: “I want so much to go for this expedition, what do you say?” He first said: “No, Amma, please don’t go!”
I told him: “To be a happy mother, I have first to be a happy woman”. He said: “Ok, but we should meet every Sunday?” I said: “Just give me 6 months”. When 6 months were over, I spoke to him from Ladakh and said to him “ Another 20 days and I will be home”. He got emotional and told me: “But, Amma, you have told me 6 months”. Before this, I had never heard him missing me- he must have adjusted.
With Theo [Malika’s life partner], there was a lot of support in another way. When there was a crisis between us in the expedition team it was very difficult. For example in Nepal, they would not tell us the next destination; they would not give us enough food. It was a way to say: “Well, if you don’t want to fall in line… It is your problem, you handle it”. It was hard and emotionally trying. When I spoke to Theo, he said: “It is the trek of your lifetime, let us do it on our own. .” When we reached Dharchula [Indo-Nepal border] after 4 months of trekking together with the original team, I had made up my mind and said to the leader of the expedition: “You do it your way, I do it mine.” So after entering India, from there on, till the Karakorum Pass, we continued the through the next 3 months expedition as a new team. All my friends rallied around; all those who think the same way about mountaineering as I do. Even people that I did not know, came forward and sent money, support for the remaining 3 months of the expedition.
AT: Theo joined you in the trek?
MV: After splitting from the main expedition team, we first came home in Munsyari [it was not far from Dharchula] and it took 5 days to reorganize the next phase of our expedition. With the 2 other women who left the group, we reequipped ourselves. Theo, our colleague Ram and some others joined us as the support team. One would walk with us while the other would prepare the logistic waiting for us at the next stage. They had taken leave from their respective jobs to join the expedition. Ram trekked with us from here Munsyari to Leh. Theo trekked till Himachal.
AT: What about Zanskar?
MV: He was too small; he stayed with Theo and then with my parents, but came wherever he could to meet us.
CA: In India, there are many ‘nouveau riches’. Do you think that they are happier than mountain folk?
MV: I would say: it depends what you are looking for. What makes you happy?
CA: The problem is: do the people here have a choice?
MV: If you asked them, they would like to be better off. The confusion comes when happiness is equated to material well-being only. But material well-being is also critical. That is the crux. If you have no money, you are struggling and it is an unhappy situation. One could romanticize poverty and say: “They are happy with so little!”
One is not happy with too little, but to get what people get in Delhi and still wanting more, does not provide happiness either. If you are looking for money only, you are in big trouble, like the ‘nouveaux riches’ Punjabis in Delhi. Because there is no end to what they want.
CA: There is a Resort in Uttarakhand that is running a Rural Home Stay Programme and part of its package and the rate is 625 $ a night to see ‘rustic life’- what do you think of it in light of your Community Based Nature Tourism Programme?.
MV: When I first saw it, I thought the rate was in Rupees. When I realized it was in dollars, I could not believe it. It is insane. But it works; they can’t cope with the demand. We are not in that league as we run a programme that is inclusive of the different sections of the village community and at the same time is affordable to the discerning traveler. We continue to grow in our enterprise, but the high end tourism companies have started suffering with the recession. We believe that the benefits of tourism must flow to the mountain communities that conserve the beauty and ecological integrity of places like Munsyari and that the endeavour be sustainable in the long run.