On the Tibet border in north India, Kinnaur is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth. Abode of 6050 feet Kinner Kailash peak, picture postcard pastures, Himalayan glaciers, Kinnaur is a veritable paradise on the old Hindustan Tibet route. Rivers Baspa and Sutlej traverse through Kinnaur, holding some truly awe inspiring valleys and jungles, home to the majestic snow leopard. Some of the quaint villages are situated at a height of 4000m in Himalayas, surviving in their ancient ways. The lifestyle, folk lore and culture of people of Kinnaur are subjects of great fascination and intrigue.
The journey to Kinnaur had started with my quest to explore what lies beyond the obvious. From the scorching summer heat of the plains in the month of May, reaching Shimla was like a magical transformation for the senses. My cinematographer friend Anup Singh shares my passion for the Himalayas and he joined me with his video camera. Our mission was clear. Rather than following the typical touristy circuit, we intended to travel to Kinnaur and meet the locals en-route and discover the unexplored aspects of the Himalayas.
At the mall road of Shimla, we negotiated a truly attractive four days’ package to Kinnaur. Like most of the Himachalis, our skilled mountain driver Praveen was a friendly and extremely helpful accomplice.
Bang next to the highway near Narkanda, about 50 km from Shimla, is situated a village called Kandiali. On one side of the road there is cherry plantation on the hill slopes. Down on the other side is perched the village, with a quaint little post office and a fabulous vista of blue rolling hills. We disembarked here to inspect the cherry farm.
“Whooaahh!!” a loud voice followed by a sharp catapult shot alarmed us as we thought we were caught trespassing. But this warning was meant to scare away the marauding crows hell bent on eating the cherries from the farm, as the smiling gentleman explained this to us. However, crows are not the prime concern of Mr RD Sharma. After showing us around his farm, he took us to a place where his neighbor Mr J R Varma was getting the cherries packed. There were four large baskets of freshly plucked cherries, two of good quality and the remaining two completely damaged. Sharma attributed this phenomenon to the changing weather patterns since last few years that included unseasonal hail storms.
After several hours of delightful journey, much of it along the Sutlej river, we finally entered the district of Kinnaur. Road cutting across hair raising vertical cliffs added an element of thrill. And then, snow white peaks suddenly rising out of horizon turned our thrill into sheer joy. But soon a disgusting vista jolted us out of our blissful state of mind. There were tunnels blasted in the hills.The road was picture of disgust with muck splashing on the windshield of our car. Dozens of trucks roared about and the effect of soot could be felt in the air. This was Karchham-Wangtoo mega hydro-electric project. I had always envisioned hydel projects as one of the most eco-friendly ways of power generation. But such brutal treatment of hills- next to snow covered mountains, many of them sensitive glaciers- something didn’t seem right out there.
Sitting around the bonfire, Ishwar Singh, the village chief enlightened us with local traditions, culture and folk lore. We were in Chansu, a village surrounded by mesmerizing snow covered peaks. Anecdotes were shared as old and the young joined hearty laughter, so typical of cheerful of hill folks. As the ambers crackled, sky took on a mysterious dark blue shade and the still visible Kinner Kailash, benevolent giant of Kinnaur was shrouded in an ethereal glow.
We retired to the nearby Gitanjali hotel, an extremely eco-friendly abode run by Vikram Singh Negi of Chansu. On each floor of this three story building, there is a common kitchen where one can cook one’s own food. Incidentally, we were the only tourists in that simple but tastefully designed hotel.
Early next morning, while the nip in the air was still sharp, we joined Ratan Negi, who was supervising pesticide spray in his apple orchard. He explained that till a few years ago, about two sprays were enough for a crop. Now he needed to spray at least eight times to protect his crop from the pests. For a healthy apple crop, at least 1500 hours of temperature below 15 degrees centigrade is essential. Since last few years, snowfall has been erratic even in these higher reaches of Himalayas. The situation in the lower Himachal has been much worse. Climate change is one thing. But Ratan’s other concern is located closer home. He showed a layer of dust on the apple leaves. This, ominous development was of recent years, coinciding with construction of hydel project near Sangla, he felt.
During the day, we drove down to Batseri, a beautiful village on the banks of river Baspa. We came across Banjara camps, an eco-friendly tourist retreat with its dozens of swiss tents near the gurgling Baspa. While enjoying nature in its most pristine form, one can experience adventure sports and trekking in the Himalayas with like minded nature loving tourists.
High up in the Himalayas, near the picturesque Nathpa village, Tashi was a sad young man. Until a few years ago, his herd of goats used to graze contentedly in the sprawling rich pasture. But this pasture went dry all of a sudden, robbing the place of its ethereal beauty and directly impacting the livelihood of goatherds like Tashi. Reason was poignant. Down below, mountains were blasted to divert the Sutlej river for hydel projects. Several connected streams dried up and the consequences are felt in Tashi’s pasture.
Stories and evidences of destruction abounded, from the impact on world renowned Kinnaur apple crop, chilgoza pine trees to natural calamities in the form of land slides and flood. But the moot question is why such ruthless treatment is meted out to this extremely eco sensitive Himalayan paradise, which was opened up for the outside world as recent as 1989?
Kinnaur’s majestic Sutlej and Baspa rivers became the reason for outside intrusion with construction of several mega hydro-electric projects. Modern world’s compulsive and obsessive need for power generation is becoming a nemesis for the Himalayas in Kinnaur .
The careless execution of such hydel projects – supposed to be an eco-friendly way of generating power – has ironically wrecked havoc, defying all environmental norms and causing untold misery to the livelihood of locals. What’s more worrisome is the fact that Himalayas, heritage of the entire world, are facing threat of irreversible damage. The research on the impact on Kinnaur’s glaciers- which feed rivers, which in turn nourish the plains of India- is perhaps yet to be done by the scientific community.
Despite great opposition from locals and environmentalists, several new hydel projects threaten to engulf Kinnaur jeopardizing its ecology and culture. Experts believe that while a powerful hydel company indeed overstepped the limits in its hurry to implement the projects, all is not lost yet. If the hydel company is made to implement all the mandatory conditions for environment protection with no further exploitation of nature, some loss can still be recovered.
Kinnaur has two extreme topographies. Some mountains hold dense rich vegetation, while the higher reaches are akin to barren cold desert. At one such punishing location, which entails several hours of trekking, a local gentleman has converted vast area of barren Himalayas into a lush green paradise.
The collective might of a big hydel company and several agencies with endless resources could not control the destructive tendencies unleashed with the hydel projects. In the same area, the grit of one determined man changed the facade of a barren outpost of Himalayas. This is just the perfect juxtaposition to hammer home the message what should have been done and what can still be done to save one of the last remaining bastions of nature in its most stunning, awesome form.