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Home > News> Big Story > On Thin Ice: How climate change is wrecking the Himalaya

On Thin Ice: How climate change is wrecking the Himalaya

As temperatures rise, glaciers are retreating, ice and snow are disappearing and water scarcity is rising. Lounge looks at how this is affecting Himalayan communities

The edge of a 'lagoon' on the Pangong Tso freezes as winter approaches.
The edge of a 'lagoon' on the Pangong Tso freezes as winter approaches. (Sankar Sridhar)

Around 10.30am on Sunday, 7 February, a flash flood swept down the Rishi Ganga river. Draining the glaciers of the Nanda Devi National Park, as well as those of Trishul, Nanda Ghunti and Ronti, the Rishi Ganga carves out one of the deepest gorges in the Himalaya. Travelling through this narrow, deep valley at a high speed, the wall of water, carrying with it silt, rocks and other debris, soon reached the privately run Rishi Ganga hydroelectric power project (HEP) near Reni village. Situated near the mouth of the gorge, where the Rishi Ganga meets the wider Dhauli Ganga, the HEP was swept away in the blink of an eye.

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The flood raged on, soon hitting NTPC’s under-construction Tapovan-Vishnugad HEP 8km downstream, on the Dhauli Ganga. This, too, was overwhelmed, the barrage broken, and the nearby tunnel inundated. A Border Roads Organisation (BRO) bridge over the Dhauli, the only connection to the upper reaches of the Dhauli Ganga valley (also known as the Niti Valley), was washed away. While the effect of the flash flood was felt as far downstream as Vishnuprayag, where the Dhauli meets the Alakananda near the town of Joshimath, the main theatre of devastation lay between the two HEPs. And the toll has been high. While Reni was mostly spared, due to its location some way up the slope on the southern flank of the Dhauli, at the time of writing this story, 60 people have been killed, and another 145 are missing.

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What caused this disaster? Although the full report is awaited, preliminary reports from a fact-finding team of scientists from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology paint a clear picture. Sometime towards the latter half of 2020, probably after September, a rockslide broke off a large chunk of glacial ice from the Ronti glacier. The resulting landslide dammed the Ronti Gad stream which flows into the Rishi Ganga. In the clear, sunny and warm days leading up to 7 February, the trapped ice melted, there was a slope failure, and the dam was breached, bringing the full force of the accumulated water and debris into the Rishi gorge.

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“This is unheard of,” says Dhan Singh Rana, 64, of Lata village in the Niti Valley, a few kilometres upstream from Reni. “I have never heard, from our father’s, grandfather’s times, that in the month of February a piece of glacial ice would break off. During the rains, this is common. In July-August, rotting ice might break off, landslides happen, floods come, the river levels rise. But this is the first time I am seeing something like this in the winter,” he says, adding, “This is nature’s revenge.” Rana, a former pradhan (headman) of the village, hails from the Bhotiya community, with close familial ties with the Bhotiyas who make up the 45 homesteads in Reni. “Two men and two women are lost in Reni. They had gone to graze their cattle and to collect firewood. No one knows what happened to them, where they were buried. People’s properties are buried in the rubble. Tapovan has been really badly damaged. In Reni, only one of the people working in the project survived. The rest were all buried in the silt,” he laments.

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The Unstable Range

As climate change gathers apace, the Himalaya is already facing the impacts of global warming. Considered the “Third Pole”, due to the largest accumulation of snow and ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions, the Himalaya is heating up at a rate faster than the global average. This poses a real and immediate threat to the approximately 77 million people who live in the Indian Himalaya.

In early 2019, the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental body of countries comprising High Mountain Asia, published The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability And People. Created by its Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), this report was the first such document on the effects of climate change on the Himalaya. It stated that the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH, comprising the Himalaya, Karakoram, Kunlun and Hindu Kush ranges, among others) had warmed steadily between 1901-2014 at the rate of 0.1 degree Celsius per decade. This warming has increased in the past 50 years, at the rate of 0.2 degree Celsius per decade.

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The HIMAP assessment also contains a note which could hint at what caused the flash flood in Uttarakhand. It says that as the mountains heat up, permafrost in the higher Himalaya will continue to thaw, and seasonally thawed upper soil layers will thicken. This, it says, will end up destabilising high mountain slopes, lead to local changes in hydrology and threaten infrastructure.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change aims to restrict global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. A more desirable aim is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, to avoid the worst impacts of an overheated planet. The HIMAP assessment warns that the HKH is warming faster than the global average. This means that if the global temperature rise tops off at 1.5 degrees Celsius, the HKH would still heat up by 1.8 degrees Celsius. The assessment further states that even in a realistic scenario which sees some, if not radical, reductions in green house gas (GHG) emissions, the HKH would still heat up by 1.7-2.4 degrees Celsius (above 1976-2005 levels) in the near term (2036-65). However, under the current emissions scenario, in the near term, the heating could rise to a whopping 3.2 degrees Celsius. In the longer term, by 2100, it could be as high as an unimaginable 4.2-6.5 degrees Celsius.

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As temperatures rise due to climate change, the Himalaya is already feeling the impact.
As temperatures rise due to climate change, the Himalaya is already feeling the impact. (Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint)

Shrinking winters, declining snow

When Lounge asked scientist Arun B. Shrestha of ICIMOD, one of the HIMAP assessment’s editors and coordinating lead authors, about the threat posed to the Himalaya by climate change, he sighed. “Where do I even start?” Shrestha says climate change is going to affect every aspect of Himalayan life, in direct and indirect ways. “There are regional variabilities, depending on where you are, whether in eastern, central or western Himalaya. Whether you live in upstream areas or downstream areas; whether your region is dependent more on monsoon rains or on snowmelt from western disturbances. But one of the main sectors that will be impacted is water, both in terms of water availability and the changing extremes in the flow of rivers.” There will be instances of flood events, like in Uttarakhand in 2013, but also creeping effects of water shortage over time.

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In the western Himalaya, water availability, both in terms of drinking water and water for agriculture, is tied to winter snowfall. And as winters shrink and snowfall becomes more erratic or fails altogether, the millennia-old seasonal cycle for Himalayan communities will be destabilised. This is something Dharamsala-based Manu Hiyunri is experiencing first-hand. Hiyunri, 40, hails from the Gaddi community that predominantly lives in the Kangra and Chamba valleys on either side of the Dhauladhar range in Himachal Pradesh. Hiyunri runs a trekking company from the village of Bhagsu, above McLeodganj, and lives in the nearby village of Naddi, under the shadow of the looming granite cliffs of the Dhauladhar, “the white ridge”. However, the Dhauladhar is hardly white these days, since winter snowfall has declined dramatically.

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“Usually, by this time (mid-February), in Triund there would be 4-5ft of snow. If you go today, it’s zero. It has snowed just twice this winter, that too about four-six inches. It has been this way for the last five-six years. With less snow, our water sources, like springs, are all disappearing. Their water is almost all gone,” says Hiyunri. This will spell trouble for the summer months. Till end-June, the villages of the Dhauladhar depend entirely on snowmelt-fed springs for water. “After all, we are dependent on the springs and the small nalas for our pre-monsoon irrigation and that only comes from snowmelt and glaciers,” says Hiyunri. “If the monsoon comes early, then that will take care of water problems. But if the monsoon is late, then the lack of water will be quite an issue.”

A woman in Supi village in Uttarakhand carries water.
A woman in Supi village in Uttarakhand carries water. (Alamy)

The phenomenon of shrinking winters is now a well-established fact in the lived experience of mountain communities. “Mausam poora gadbad ho gaya hai (the climate has gone haywire),” says Dhan Singh Rana ruefully. “There’s a massive difference in the amount of snowfall. Earlier, it would snow as much as 7ft in the winter in Lata. Nowadays, there’s no sign of any snow.” A month or so ago, he laughs, people in Dehradun were saying that if it was raining so much in the foothills, imagine the amount of snow up in the higher valleys. “Forget snow, there were no clouds in the sky!”

Over the past 50 years, the Himalaya has steadily become less cold. The number of extreme cold days has declined by about four days in the past five decades. Extreme cold nights have declined by about 12 nights in the same time. There has been a significant decline in frost days as well, an alarming reduction of 18 days in five decades. Dhan Singh Rana’s son Narendra, 36, says that due to a lack of snowfall and shrinking winter, local agriculture will suffer this year. “Snowmelt is very important for agriculture. For our potato, rajma (kidney beans), apple crops, the year we get good snowfall, all the crops would be good. Because the snowmelt percolates into the ground. Now monsoon rains, or any other rain, doesn’t really help, because that water doesn’t reach the roots. That just skims the surface.”

The villagers usually start sowing in March. “By August-September, the crops are ready. Vegetables, fruits, they are all ready by then, and for that the March sowing is important. I don’t think we will get a similarly good crop of apples this year, as we did last year. The quantity will be less, and the quality too will suffer,” says Narendra.

The frozen surface of Mirpal Tso in Ladakh.
The frozen surface of Mirpal Tso in Ladakh. (Sankar Sridhar)

His words are echoed by Tsewang Namgail in Leh. Namgail, 46, a wildlife biologist and director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy—India Trust, reminisces about his experience of winters while growing up in the village of Skurbuchan in western Ladakh. “We used to get a lot of snow every winter. I don’t remember any snow-free year. And snow of 4-5ft on average. Nowadays, we hardly see that kind of snow.” He says winters in Ladakh are growing milder and the reason for that is a lack of snow cover.

“Earlier, people wouldn’t need to irrigate and get water from the streams to make the field moist, for ploughing. In May, during the process we call khaser, we would wait for a few days after the snow had melted and then sow the seeds. We wouldn’t need to irrigate the fields. That kind of a situation hardly happens any more,” says Namgail. As a result, the agricultural season in some villages is shifting.

Not that monsoon rains are of much use in the arid, rain-shadow areas of trans-Himalaya, like Ladakh. If anything, says Namgail, they are disastrous. “The monsoons are becoming very extreme events. The rain isn’t steady, but very heavy rain for half an hour at a time. In Ladakh we don’t have plants on the higher slopes to retain water, so such rainfall just washes away the soil. It’s harmful for the farmers, because that’s the harvest season. Crops are also destroyed in that process,” he says. Earlier, just as winter snow was plentiful, monsoon floods were unheard of. “I do remember when I was a kid there was a flood. But after that, there was quite a long gap. Now it has been happening almost every year since 2006 or so.”

In areas in Ladakh and Zanskar, a warming climate is leading to changes that have a domino effect on communities and wildlife alike. Namgail says all animals have what’s called a thermal envelope, a temperature niche they need to occupy. As the snowline shifts up, so do snow leopards, into narrower altitudinal niches, along with prey species like the ground-burrowing marmots. This is leading to man-animal conflicts as marmots raid crops and snow leopards raid livestock.

Namgail talks about the village of Kumik in Zanskar, which ran out of fresh water because the glacier at the head of the valley retreated to an alarming degree. Whatever water is discharged flows to a different village on the other side of the ridge. Some people in Kumik shifted to a new village closer to the Zanskar river but the water pipeline that the local government laid to carry water from the river has also failed. “They are in dire need,” says Namgail, “and you can imagine the cultural problems of having to leave their centuries-old home village and having to move away.”

Changpa nomads collecting drinking water from melted ice during winter.
Changpa nomads collecting drinking water from melted ice during winter. (Sankar Sridhar)

In eastern Ladakh’s Changthang plateau, political pressures due to India’s border conflict with China, as well as disappearing pasture lands due to warming, mean that the nomadic Changpa people, who rear pashmina goats, are increasingly settling down and becoming an agrarian community. “They are settling near water bodies. They are in some cases draining the marshes and diverting water for agriculture. That is affecting migratory birds. The whole system is stressed. The invertebrate life, insect life would be finished, and that would affect the migratory birds that come there,” says Namgail.

Vanishing Glaciers

The most visible face of climate change in the Himalaya has been the retreat of glaciers. In 2016, the Gangotri glacier in Uttarakhand was in the news after a study showed that the snout of the glacier, the gomukh, had retreated by 3km in 200 years. Similarly, the Khumbu glacier on Mt Everest’s south-east face has shrunk so much that the retreating glacier is revealing bodies of climbers who had died or disappeared on the mountain. While such news makes the headlines, the reality of glacier loss is much more complex. However, there are a few established facts.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 2019 Special Report On The Ocean And Cryosphere In A Changing Climate (SROCC), stated that most glaciers in High Mountain Asia could hit peak water discharge around 2050 and be completely lost by 2100. According to the report, no matter what our future emissions, surface temperatures in High Mountain Asia will continue to rise at 0.3 degrees Celsius per decade. The HIMAP assessment says most glaciers in the HKH have thinned, retreated and lost mass steadily since 1970. In a business-as-usual scenario, glacier volumes could decline by as much as 90% by 2100 due to decreased snowfall, increased snowline elevations and longer melt seasons.

To understand the science behind glacier retreat, Lounge spoke to glaciologist Mohd. Farooq Azam, from the Indian Institute of Technology, Indore (IIT-I). Azam has been studying the Chhota Shigri glacier in the Chandra river basin in the Pir Panjal range in Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, since 2008. He says almost all the glaciers in the Himalaya are “wasting their mass”, and that warming is the culprit for such glacier wastage.

“It is something like your bank account. You are earning some money every month, and you have some expenditure. So the precipitation coming in the form of snow, that is the positive balance for the glacier, and the melting because of the temperature, that is the negative balance. And the balance between both is the mass balance of the glacier.” Azam says warming is happening everywhere. However, precipitation patterns, which are a much more complex phenomenon, vary, sometimes very dramatically. So while in some areas the precipitation has increased slightly, in other areas, it is decreasing.

Azam led a study, Review Of The Status And Mass Changes Of Himalayan-Karakoram Glaciers, published in the Journal Of Glaciology in 2018. It’s a useful document to understand the scale of glacier loss. After a thorough analysis of data from 29 indicative glaciers from across the Himalaya and the Karakoram ranges, the review concludes that at present rates, these glaciers are likely to hit “peak melt” around 2050, following which the water run-off will decrease. Which is another way of saying that there won’t be much of the glaciers left.

A team of scientists on the Chhota Shigri glacier in Himachal Pradesh.
A team of scientists on the Chhota Shigri glacier in Himachal Pradesh. (Mohd. Farooq Azam)

Polar scientist Thamban Meloth of the Goa-based National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) says that while Himalayan glaciers are melting, the rate of melting varies from glacier to glacier, depending on the topographic and climate variability of the region, as well as the geographic setting. “We find that the rate of retreat also varies. On average, it’s about 15m per year. The range of variation is from 5-40m per year. In some cases, we have also found glacial retreat of 60m per year,” he says. “In terms of the loss in the thickness of the glaciers, typically we find it varies from 0.5-1.5m per year,” says Meloth, adding that nearly 15% of glaciated area in the Himalaya has been lost. That rate of retreat has increased in recent decades.

Meloth heads an NCPOR team that has been studying the Chandra basin since 2014. The Chandra river, which merges with the Bhaga river to form Chandrabhaga (called Chenab when it moves into Kashmir), is an important headwater of the Indus. “We decided to look at six representative glaciers. So we have a large representation of glaciers in a particular climate zone,” he says.

The glaciated area being studied is huge, covering nearly 280 sq. km. The NCPOR has set up a series of automated weather stations (AWS) on the glaciers as well as radar-based systems throughout the river basin. This, says Meloth, helps the scientists glean a large bouquet of year-on-year data pertaining to glacier mass, radiation, the hydrological cycle and sediment data, among other things.

Of the six glaciers, the scientists also monitor two—Samudra Tapu and Gepang Gath—which end in glacial lakes. Such lakes are formed typically when glaciers melt and recede, and the meltwater is dammed by moraine deposits (glacier rocks, boulders, and debris). As they grow in size, over time they become a potential hazard for glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs). The breaching of the Chorabari glacial lake in the Kedarnath valley in 2013 was one of the worst such cases in the Himalaya, killing over 5,000 people. According to a 2013 study, Glacial Lakes In The Indian Himalayas, 91 of 251 such lakes in the Indian Himalaya were in a critical state.

Kedarnath in Uttarakhand was a picture of devastation in the wake of the deadly 2013 flood.
Kedarnath in Uttarakhand was a picture of devastation in the wake of the deadly 2013 flood. (Alamy)

“In the case of the Gepang Gath glacier lake, we find that between 1971 and 2014, the lakes have really expanded, in terms of volume, by more than 20 times. That’s a really huge expansion,” says Meloth. A study co-written by NCPOR scientists, including Meloth, and published in the journal Natural Hazards in 2017, stated that “while Samudra Tapu has a high discharge potential, Gepang Gath has a high damage potential”. Meloth says monitoring is essential because, for example, the village of Sissu is placed right at the foot of the Gepang Gath valley. Monitoring is closely tied to early warnings, says Meloth. “Early warning systems in the country, at the present, aren’t very good.”

To aid in the collection of data and scientific experiments, the NCPOR opened an all-weather research station called HIMANSH in the Chandra basin near the Sutri Dhaka glacier in 2016. The station has two units where eight people can stay, as well as a laboratory equipped for climate and glaciological research. “It provides a facility where we can keep the various equipment as well as undertake studies,” says Meloth. He says the NCPOR team is studying six large glaciers, including the huge Bara Shigri glacier, and getting to some of them requires a trek of at least 30km. The station is a useful base. “HIMANSH forms the core of all our Himalayan work.”

The HIMANSH station in the Chandra river basin in Himachal Pradesh.
The HIMANSH station in the Chandra river basin in Himachal Pradesh. (Courtesy NCPOR)

Azam says that given the rate of warming, we should be prepared to see glacial retreat at all altitudes. “Everything is out of balance right now.” This is something that both Manu Hiyunri in Dharamsala and Dhan Singh Rana in Lata understand instinctively. Hiyunri points to the Laka glacier, which descends from the Indrahar Pass to Lata Got in the Dhauladhar, above McLeodganj. “The glacier is already gone, completely melted, and it’s only February. There’s just some snow, in some places about 2-3ft.,” he says, his voice incredulous.

Rana, who used to work as a porter with international mountaineering expeditions travelling into the Nanda Devi sanctuary in the 1970s, is similarly stunned at the loss of glaciers. The notoriously difficult approach route into the sanctuary used to lie through an incredibly steep section of the upper Rishi Ganga gorge, past a point called Sarsopatal. “To get to the Nanda Devi base camp, from Sanchuri the trail would pass through Sarsopatal. The river was invisible because it was glaciated. Today, there’s only some ice and glaciers near the summits of the mountains, like Nanda Devi, and nowhere else.”

In western Sikkim’s Rinchenpong village, mountain guide Binod Gurung, 37, has seen the glaciers on the Kangchenjunga massif decrease steadily every year. “For the past few years, I have been noticing that every season, the glaciers are melting quicker. The snowfall season is changing. After the melting of glaciers, flooding disasters are also increasing. Every year the glaciers are shrinking. Both in Goecha La and in Green Lake,” he says.

DOING THE RIGHT THING

In 2020, ICIMOD published an inventory of potentially dangerous glacial lakes (PGDLs) in central and eastern Himalaya. The report found 42 such lakes in the Kosi river basin in Nepal, and one in the Kali river basin in India, all of which can result in a flood. Although the Kosi basin PGDLs are in Nepal, given the notoriously flood-prone lower reaches of the Kosi on the Bihar plains, it’s a trans-boundary problem. Arun Shrestha is keen to stress on the international status of Himalayan rivers and glaciers and the importance of data sharing. “Had we invested more in data collection and data sharing, we would have a much better understanding and managed the challenges better. When it comes to data, we do not collect. And whatever we do collect, we do not share. This is a big impediment to scientific understanding,” he says.

The Tsho Rolpa glacial lake on the Tarkading glacier in Nepal.
The Tsho Rolpa glacial lake on the Tarkading glacier in Nepal. (Courtesy ICIMOD)

While this is true on an international scale, this lack of data is also a glaring gap in the national context. Both Azam and Meloth stress on the need for more and better data and data sharing. “We need to have more measurements relative to mass balance observations, related to the high-altitude meteorology, high altitude hydrology, so that we can make some overall picture of how the glaciers are melting. Only if we know the present time, can we predict the future with some confidence,” he says. Himalayan science needs more manpower, more funding, people who are willing to do field experiments, more data modelers, says Azam.

Meloth says that that NCPOR, under the auspices of the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), has initiated a project called Himalayan Cryospheric Observations and Modeling (HiCOM) in 2018. Under this, the NCPOR will act as a nodal agency, while commissioning short collaborative sub-projects to various academic and research institutions. “Whatever projects that we are involved in, data needs to come at least within two years of collection. So there is a clear data policy and we have a database being created at NCPOR under the National Polar Data Centre. So any projects running on MoES support, the project data has to come for further funding approval,” he says. While the institutions are free to publish studies based on the data, ultimately it will become a repository under NCPOR. “We want to have an open data policy. Data is critical and should be available.”

While data is extremely important, Shrestha says lack of data cannot be an excuse for inaction. “The level of understanding at the moment might not be ideal, but it is sufficient to act now. There’s already much we can do based on what we know,” he says.

For example, the evidence on the environmental impact of HEPs on fragile Himalayan ecology is clear. So, better studies are required before projects are approved. “There are some sites where it is clear that the risks are great, and so one should avoid them. It has to be looked at much more broadly from a sustainability angle. It’s not just about setting up a hydropower station and getting revenue,” says Shrestha. He adds that when feasibility studies are conducted, they are mostly concerned with financial feasibility. “The social issues, environmental issues, are largely not incorporated into these studies.”

For Anjal Prakash, an IPCC author and adjunct associate professor and research director at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, there should be a national focus on three key issues when discussing adaptation to climate impacts in the Himalayan context. Firstly, he says, that all new infrastructure projects much take the climate related risks into account while designing, planning and executing them. “Strict cost-benefit analysis taking environmental costs into account, must be inducted into project designs,” he says.

Ultimately, the best way to check climate change impacts in the Himalaya is to lower global emissions. While certain long term impacts have already been woven into the Himalayan future, the worst can still be avoided with proper mitigation. For Prakash, Himalayan adaptation needs to be rooted in the contexts of forests, water and community rights. “Checking deforestation, doing large scale restoration of forests and mapping of springs and protecting them will help the local communities. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 that gives the rights of community forests to the people must be implemented in letter and spirit,” he says.

Finally, Prakash stresses on the need to monitor Himalayan glaciers, especially in light of the Uttarakhand disaster. “There are over 54,000 glaciers in HKH region, and around 1,500 just in Uttarakhand. One of the reasons why we didn’t have knowledge of what transpired on 7 January is also because of the lack of monitoring. When climate change impacts are so visible now, we can’t afford not to monitor the region closely.”

Dhan Singh Rana is tired and angry, with hydro- electric projects, with four-lane highways in the mountains, with unjust laws, with what he considers a corrupt form of governance. The irony of an environmental disaster befalling Reni, which was one of the flashpoints of the Chipko movement to save forests in 1974, is not lost on him. Rana had participated in the movement as a young man, and in 1998, was one of the leaders of the Jhapto Chheeno movement organised by the Bhotiya villagers of Lata, Reni, Suraithota and Tolma. From this movement arose the Nanda Devi Campaign for Cultural Survival and Sustainable Livelihoods, in 2001. This led to the drafting of the Nanda Devi Declaration that year under Rana’s leadership, allowing the villagers to claim certain community rights over local commons and tourism in the Nanda Devi National Park.

“Some scientists are coming and saying that the rare wildlife here is the world’s heritage. Then other scientists and surveyors are coming and saying, oh there’s no wildlife here, let’s make a (hydroelectric) project. Do you think we are fools? What will we do, start another movement? Get beaten up? Conned? Nature will have its revenge. That’s how the world will go on.”

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