As someone who spent their childhood in crowded cities, I have found the mountains hold a sort of mysterious appeal. My earliest memory of the mountains is from a family trip to Chail in Himachal Pradesh, when I was 11 years old. I remember the distinct moment when the air turned cool and dry as our car pulled its weight up the winding road. I remember the wonder of being surrounded by an infinite sea of towering pine trees as my stomach churned to the rhythms of our Maruti Suzuki. It was a surreal trip, especially for a family of ‘matchbox-apartment’ dwellers, as my mother called us. A few days later, refreshed by the mountain air, we returned, ready to get back to our routines.
There is, of course, a long history of hill stations serving as therapeutic getaways. From the 19th century onwards, Westerners living in various parts of Asia travelled to these high-elevation ecosystems to escape the clamour and disease they felt surrounded them in the low-lying plains. Scholars such as Barbara Crossette (1999), Dane Kennedy (2002) and Queeny Pradhan (2017) even argue that the establishment of ‘hill stations’ in former colonies like India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines was crucial to the success of the British Empire. The tranquillity and romance associated with these landscapes has endured for centuries.
My own romance with these landscapes, however, turned a little less rosy after moving to the hills and working on development issues for the last 10 years. More than 50% of the global human population draws benefits directly or indirectly from mountain resources and services, according to the book Globalization and Marginalization in Mountain Regions: Assets and Challenges in Mountain Regions (edited by Raghubir Chand and Walter Leimgruber)—and yet mountain ecosystems and communities remain marginal to our collective imagination. While vulnerable communities struggle to access basic healthcare, education and sustainable livelihoods, mainstream development approaches and programmes ignore the particular vulnerabilities of communities living in these landscapes.And so, my romance with life in the mountains needed a reality check!
For instance, the Palani Hills, fed by two monsoons, is an important watershed, irrigating agricultural fields, sustaining life and supporting growing populations in the surrounding plains. However, a recent baseline study on urban sanitation in Kodaikanal undertaken by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements established that water shortage had escalated to an alarming rate for residents in the Palani Hills, and that the municipal water supply had been cut down to half. While high- and middle-income groups replaced the deficit with water from private vendors, low-income groups struggled to access this basic resource.
‘Hilly regions have their own challenges when it comes to water and sanitation,’ says Arumugam Kalimuthu, executive director of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Institute (or WASH), a non-profit organisation registered in Kodaikanal working on issues of water and sanitation at a national level. According to him, the Central government’s Jal Jeevan Mission—envisioned to provide safe drinking water to every household in rural India by 2024—while active in villages in the plains across the Dindigul district, has still not been implemented in Kodaikanal. ‘Such schemes take a lot longer to reach hilly regions,’ he says. As a response to this, the organisation is undertaking a preliminary technical study of water and sanitation conditions, assessing water quality and collecting topographical data in the Palani Hills this year. Based on this assessment, a complete water system—taking into consideration the quality and quantity of all water sources in the region—will be designed, kickstarting intensive work required to improve conditions across villages in the Palani Hills region over the coming three to four years. The current system is not based on such a holistic assessment, according to Kalimuthu.
The hills pose certain specific challenges when it comes to healthcare too. A study conducted by the Rural Development and Migration Commission found that in the hilly regions of Uttarakhand, 8% of residents had migrated out of the hills due to a lack of medical facilities. No such study exists for Kodaikanal. However, hospitals in these landscapes face a shortage not only of doctors but paramedical staff as well.
Dr Sudipta Mahto, co-founder of the Sirumalai Health Centre, which works to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare to the residents of Kodaikanal, shared some healthcare challenges in this landscape. ‘The lack of diagnostic facilities is a major hurdle. A doctor has to rely on basic investigation and her clinical skills, as getting results from diagnostic reports can take a long time and requires patients to bear the cost of travelling down the mountain, which many low-income patients are unable to do,’ she says. According to her, affordable healthcare in the hills is the need of the hour. ‘Those with money simply travel to other locations to access good- quality healthcare, while low-income groups struggle with the limited resources of the hills.’Along with her husband, Dr Vivek Karthikeyan, Mahto runs clinics and conducts regular outreach camps in rural areas such as Vilpatti, Attuvampatti, Pallangi, Pethuparai and Chinnapalam to address these challenges.
An alarming 2019 report authored by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the Western Ghats will lose 33% of their biodiversity by 2050 due to extreme weather phenomena. While this can have significant direct human health impacts and lead to loss of livelihoods and greater food insecurity for all of us, certain communities are rendered particularly vulnerable in the face of such a calamity.
What will this mean for the Adivasi residents of these landscapes, who, over many centuries, have honed their skills and developed the wisdom to live with our forests? How will this large-scale destruction impact their lives, which are inextricably entwined with the rhythms of the forest? There is a growing body of global research that demonstrates how indigenous communities can lead the way in coexistence-based approaches to conservation. However, despite this, Adivasis in the Palani Hills continue to face intimidation and threats from forest officials when they try to enter the forest for the collection of non-timber forest produce (or NTFP) for their livelihood and sustenance, in the name of ‘forest conservation’.
Under the Forest Rights Act (2006), Adivasis across the Palani Hills are entitled to Community Forest Resource (CFR) rights, which give communities ownership and management rights over their forests. If local forest department officials implemented this existing law, allowing Adivasis to play the critical role they have been given by our Constitution in the conservation of our forests, we will be much better positioned to tackle the rapid destruction of our forests and biodiversity.
Gender, too, plays out in particular ways in these hills. The lack of public transport in far-flung villages has particularly impacted women in these landscapes, denying them their right to mobility, and limiting their access to higher education and gainful employment.Meena, a young Adivasi woman from Palamalai village, spends two hours travelling 15 kilometres to Kodaikanal town to access a bank or a hospital. She walks 5 kilometres through steep hills to a bus stand, where she waits for a public bus that comes by twice each day. Where families have broken with traditional norms to allow women to live alone and there is financial support to do so, migrating out of the hills has been the only option for the younger generation of residents who aspire for a life of relative comfort and dignity.
While men are given access to motorbikes at a young age, independent access to mobility is not seen as a priority for women across all ages and is often curtailed. Thus, women are far more dependent on public transport, and, impacted by the lack thereof. For Hoopoe on a Hill (HoH), a women-run organisation that I co-founded in 2015 that brings Adivasi honey and beeswax products to markets, it was important to set up a workshop in Shenbaganur, despite the challenges of this remote location. Although Shenbaganur is only 8 kilometres away from the town of Kodaikanal, poor connectivity to public transport has made this distance insurmountable, particularly for its women residents. By establishing a workplace close to their home, HoH has made it possible for women to get to work each morning with relative ease, thereby giving local women an alternative livelihood opportunity.
These are some of the ways in which local communities can and are trying to address the specific challenges of living in these landscapes. These solutions are often driven by those who understand first-hand what it means to exist in this ecosystem. This community-led model of change and development is driven by the lived experience, wisdom, passion and commitment of all those involved. These are the ways in which our fragile and beautiful home becomes a better place, with communities working every day to make it a truly peaceful and tranquil abode for us all.