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Odyssey in the clouds

This people's trek across Uttarakhand trek to record changes in society takes place every 10 years. This year's event starts on May 25

Joel Rai 

In January 1974, social worker Sundarlal Bahuguna was on a tour of Garhwal and Kumaon hills in Uttar Pradesh when he read an article in a local newspaper about a trip that some young men had made to the Pindari glacier a year earlier. Bahuguna summoned Sekhar Pathak, Shamsher Singh Bisht, Kunwar Prasun and Pratap Shikhar, all students of Almora Degree College in their mid-20s, and told them, “You need to learn about the mountains, you need to know the people.”

The young men were bemused. What did the venerable activist mean by saying they had to learn about the region and its people? What was there to know about them that they didn’t already know? “Walk from one end of the hills to another,” Bahuguna advised them. “And don’t carry money, live with the people,” he requested of them. The quartet remained unconvinced, but decided nevertheless to do as their icon bade them. The 45-day, 1,100-km journey from Askot on the eastern border with Nepal to Arakot bordering the state of Himachal Pradesh in the west proved a life changer for the trekkers.

“I had got admission to Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi,” remembers Bisht, now 66. “The university was a launch pad for me to go to the United States or to Europe. But the trek changed my thinking. I left JNU after six months, returned to the hills and have worked for the hill people since.” And though he earned a PhD degree later, he did not, as others of his persuasion would have, become a teacher in a college, choosing instead to live a life dedicated to people’s movements. Pathak, 64, who became a reputed historian in time, says of the eye-opening journey: “It developed in us an original way of thinking about mountains.”

The epochal Askot-Arakot Abhiyan, now organised by Pahar, or People’s Association for Himalayan Area Research, Nainital, has become a decadal event, held in 1984, 1994 and 2004. This year, while a main group will retrace the original route, others will undertake shorter digressions when the fifth trek begins, as it always has, on May 25. Beginning at Pangu on the eastern border of what is now the state of Uttarakhand, the journey will end on July 8 at Arakot.

True to its origins, even 40 years later, the abhiyan’s motto remains “Apnay gaon ko tum jaano, apnay logo ko pehchano (Know your village, know your people)”. The effort has become a decennial tryst with change, an attempt to record both the positive and negative aspects of development in the lives of the people, who live hard lives in a tough terrain.

This year’s trekkers will criss-cross six districts of Uttarakhand, ford 35 swift mountain rivers, walk across 16 lush bugyals (Himalayan leas) and 20 verdant kharaks (grazing grounds), climb up to 16,000 ft and come down to river valleys, touch eight places where the Chipko movement was initiated, interact with indigenous communities like the Bhotiya, Banraji, Jat and Jaunsari in five tribal areas and stay at the homes of folks living along six pilgrimage paths. They will also talk to the people in 15 earthquake-affected areas as well as those traumatised by the flash floods last year.

But it is not an adventure or a picnic. In the spirit of the 1974 trek, no one will carry money or tents or food items. Nor will there be porters for the hikers. “Jan nirvar (dependence on people) is the theme of the journey,” says Pathak. The first abhiyan had been hastily arranged and the four young men had just an Agfa Click III as the sole device to record their perceptions. In subsequent years, it has become better organised, modern technology is used, including GPS, and there are advance parties that set up interactions with the farmers, students, youth and women along remote villages, sometimes 50 km from the nearest motorable road. Night halts are arranged at schools and colleges. But the essence of the journey is to hear first hand the story of change in the state. So every participant will carry a survey questionnaire.

Bisht says that the idea of jan nirvar can be daunting. He recalls, “In 1974, when we wanted a cup of tea, we realised we couldn’t just go to a house and ask for it. Adha ghanta bhumika badhna padta tha (We had to first make small talk for half an hour). But this gave us the chance to talk to the rustic folk and gain their trust. Buying a cup of tea would not have helped begin conversations.”

Spending time with the people has given the participants of the four treks insights into the way of life in the mountains. At Ghussu village in Tehri, for instance, while collecting information on literacy, the Pahar trekkers learnt that after finishing school, young men went to towns to pursue higher education, their studies financed by selling ancestral properties. “But here we saw a startlingly negative aspect of education,” says Bisht. “Education was distancing the youth from their roots because they no longer wanted to come back to villages after spending time in towns and cities.”

Pathak adds, “There has been change, of course, but the speed of the change has been slow and many times the change has not been positive.” The trekkers, drawn from social bodies, colleges, research agencies and from all walks of life, have seen the development process destroying the people’s assets — forest, land and water. They could also see how at times development brought crime and alcoholism to the hills, increased the loot of medicinal herbs, wildlife resources and even cultural treasures and how the traditional architecture using slate stone and wood has given way to concrete and tiles. They have also noted how, due to climate change, rhododendrons were flowering out of season in some places, while in others the kafal fruit (Myrica esculentens) and wheat were ripening at odd times of the year.

One startling statistic that the Pahar teams have established is the migration of over 1.2 million people from the 10 mountainous districts of the state to the three plains districts between 1974 and the present. They see this as proof that the developmental issues of the hills have not been addressed despite 14 years of statehood. “Development seems forced on the hills, it isn’t emerging from the roots there,” says Pathak. Over 80 per cent of Uttarakhand’s 52,000 square kilometers straddles mountains, while around 47 per cent of the state’s 120 million people live in these hostile terrains. The migration of hill people has, depressingly, led to jhuggi-jhopris making an appearance in the urban areas of Haldwani, Bageswar and Srinagar.

Mahesh Punetha, a 43-year-old teacher in Pithoragarh, will be going on the trek for the first time this year. What is it that he hopes to achieve during the odyssey? “We are teachers and bring out a magazine called Saikshik Dakhal. We will only trek between the Namik glacier near Munshiyari and the Pindari glacier. We want to collect information about education in that region, where only government schools exist. Government education is in a decline and we want to know how this will affect the people. We will then send our findings to the government,” he says.

In Delhi, soon after Pathak spoke at a college about the trek, many felt inspired to join. Munish Tamang, a teacher at Delhi University’s Motilal Nehru College, plans to go on one of the legs. “I belong to the Darjeeling-Dooars area that faces similar development problems as Uttarakhand,” says Tamang. “I told Professor Pathak that we want to replicate the abhiyan in our region. My participation in the trek will help me see how it is organised.”

Over 150 walkers traipsed across the mountains in 2004 over various legs. They included Dan Jentzen, an enthusiastic walker in his 60s from the United States. He covered the full 1,000-km stretch, falling ill just a couple of times, despite having to eat whatever was offered in the villages. The immense data collected by people like them have been disseminated through newspapers and periodicals and presented at numerous seminars. They have also been forwarded to governments in Lucknow, Dehradun and New Delhi.

Who can go on the main trek or join the different legs or even the subsidiary ones? Anyone interested in learning about the real India and is reasonably healthy. “But be sure, you will have to sing and dance with rural folk and eat humble fare,” cautions Pathak jocularly. India International Centre in New Delhi plans to have a three-day session in December where all the 2014 participants will be given the chance to talk about their experiences. To be sure, everyone will have a lot to say.

Note: Those interested in participating in the trek can check the calendar of events and the itinerary at The trek starts on May 25 and ends on July 8.

First Published: Sat, May 10 2014. 00:24 IST