Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sharing Apples and Wives on the Top of the World

It was hard to imagine how people would eke out a living in these surroundings. The hillsides were steep and covered with rubble and boulders. The high mountaintops shone unbearably bright with pristine white snow against the cloudless blue sky. There was barely anything organic in sight. Even the houses perched on the slopes were made of stone. We were only six kilometers from the border of Tibet.

My travel companion Ratna was chatting up a group of women we had encountered upon arrival in the village of Dubling in the Indian Himalayas. We had driven in a four-wheel-drive up the gravel road on the path that wound up the hillside. Only a kilometer and a half from the Titang power station by the riverside in the valley, the trip had taken us more than half an hour to navigate. At times it had been demanding to hang onto the handles as the vehicle ambled slowly at improbable angles.

Entering the village, we saw perhaps ten to fifteen houses located on rather a steep slope. They were the same color as the rocks on the hills they were made of. Below, there were a few stony fields that were still the same monotone grey after the long winter. Wheat and beans would be amongst the few crops to grow at this altitude. A few cows and donkeys were foraging in the orchard munching on whatever little there was to eat.

The women, all dressed in traditional patterned robes and wearing colorful pillboxes on their heads, snickered as we entered the village. Their round sun-darkened faces displayed distinctly Tibetan features beneath the sweet smiles. The women were sitting on the flat roof of one of the houses attending to their chores, mostly sowing cloths, and chatting leisurely. One of them was nursing a tiny baby in her lap. The mother looked to be in her teens with a pretty, innocent face. There were several goats basking in the sun, their white pelts reflecting the rays unmitigated by the thin mountain atmosphere. This was early-March and the harsh winter was just behind. Therefore, the women had time on their hands before they would need to start to tend to their fields. It was obvious that, against all the odds produced by the harsh environment and the isolated location, the people in Dubling were not destitute. Everyone appeared cheerful and well fed. To our astonishment, there were several large parabolic antennas standing on the roofs. One of our new acquaintances actually did her knitting while sitting on the concave edge of one. Electricity thus clearly was available in the village.

My friend who has an easy way with people was joking with the ladies in a language unknown to me. Ratna Reddy was an economics professor from Hyderabad in the south of India, far from where we were, but he had conducted a lot of field research in various remote communities in the country and had knowledge of an array of languages in this vast and varied country. The purpose of our visit to this – and many other villages in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh – was to assess whether an internationally-funded project intended to promote small hydroelectricity by installing tiny environmentally sound power stations in the numerous streams that flowed down from the Himalayas was reaching its objectives and benefiting the local people. The village of Dubling was one of the intended beneficiaries of the Titang scheme run by a local not-for-profit outfit, Sai Engineering Foundation. It was the remotest scheme in the entire project.

Ratna was explaining the purpose of our trip and the project, and inquiring whether it was benefiting the village. They had electricity alright and used it mostly for lighting and watching the television. Unfortunately, they could only see one government-sponsored channel. The tall mountains made reception weak and Dubling out of reach of private broadcasters. Ratna got us invited to one of the houses – free, although the proprietess first asked playfully how much we would pay in entrance fee. Inside was small, walls and floor the dull grey of baked earth. A vertical tree trunk connected to a horizontal beam holding the habitation safe in case of an earthquake, which are quite common in the hills. The centerpiece of the room was a wood burning chula with a pipe leading to a rooftop chimney. There was a single bare light bulb providing light. No windows, presumably to keep out the extremely cold winter winds. In the corner, sat a small black and white TV set.

We asked the lady why she was still cooking with firewood when the Titang station just down the hill produced ample and clean electricity. She explained patiently that cooking with wood was the tradition and the hearth also kept the room warm in the winter. Most importantly, however, the electricity tariff was still too high and fuel wood was free for all to collect. But collecting it must be quite a hike in this barren environment, I thought. In the summertime, they’d use liquid petroleum gas for cooking, as there was no need for heating and the mountain winds had eased enough not to blow out the flame. This was a story we would hear over and over again in all the villages we’d visit. It would take time and an economic restructuring to make electricity affordable to the people.

Bidding farewell to the ladies who promptly got back to their chores, we wandered up the steep and narrow path made muddy by the melting snow to the next level of houses. We were followed by a small group of children wearing wool caps and sweaters. We encountered a group of men sitting on another rooftop chiseling wooden utensils with their tools. The scene was very leisurely in the bright noon sunshine. Some boys were hovering around, learning the craft by watching their elders. The most senior of the men sat cross-legged at the center of the small group wearing a black knitted vest over his green jacket. His mustachioed face was tan under the round cap. The hills behind him appeared totally barren. Only a few trees close to the village stood grey still without leaves in the early spring.

Arriving at the main square of the village we found the Buddhist temple. Perched on the steep hillside, somewhat larger houses surrounded the square that had the appearance of being the main place of the village. Tanned faces with squint lines observed us from doorways. The peaks behind were still white with snow. A youngish man, perhaps in his 30s, smiled confidently and emerged as a natural counterpart for us to approach. Sitting on a stone bench by the temple, he finally explained to us what constituted the economic backbone of Dubling: Kinnaur apples. Beautiful, large, juicy, dark red apples. Kinnaur apples are famous all around India and fetch a premium price on markets in Delhi and other big cities. The short but extremely sunny summer, fresh clean mountain water, and the rocky soils are ideal for apple production. The young and clearly wealthy man said that he could produce 250-300 cases of apples annually from his orchard.

But how on earth could they get the apples to the market? The solution was very cooperative and beneficial to all of the people in village. The families would get together and rent a truck in which the men would drive the apples to Delhi or to Chandighar. It wasn’t, after all, that far. You’d need a long day to drive to the Himachal capital of Shimla. Then another down the foothills and into the plains north of the national capital. In a couple of days nothing bad would happen to the fresh produce from the Himalayas. The men would receive an ample compensation for their effort selling the produce in Delhi to eager mouths waiting for the arguably best apple in the world.

The man told us that he belonged to a common family typical up here. They were several brothers sharing the same wife. This practice has a long history in Himachal. The ancient legend tells about five brothers with a blind mother. The men used to go hunting in the mountains and every time they’d return from the hunt their mother would tell them to share the catch. One day, one of the brothers had come across a beautiful young woman in the forest and carried her home. Enthusiastically, he exclaimed to his mother that today he had an extraordinary catch. The mother who could not see ordered him to share it with his brothers like everything else. This practice thus still lingered on in the mountain communities with limited land and other natural resources to share.

Life up in the hills was harsh, but not bad to those who had grown up there. Nobody starved and the houses stayed warm during the long winter. In fact, the government had made offers to relocate the people from these remote villages closer to services, but they had flatly refused. After all, this was home.

As for electricity, it was definitely welcome to the villagers who saw many benefits from it. However, there was a lot to do to make expansion of electric power affordable to people. Sai Engineering Foundation – set up under the name of the controversial frizzy haired guru Sai Baba – had originally wanted to demonstrate that it was economically feasible to use small hydropower to generate electricity to remote communities in the mountains. Even they had had to give up the idea and accept that power station operation had to be subsidized from their other operations. Yet, the people in Dubling and other villages benefited even from limited power. They had more reliable current for the TV that brought them news and educational programs, the light hanging in the ceiling allowed them to work and socialize in the dark evenings, and there were now outside lights lighting up public areas to make them safer. Life could be worse.

© Juha I. Uitto, 2004

No comments: