Resilience, Sustainability and Equity: COVID-19 and Mountain Livelihoods

In the west Himalayan mountain state of Himachal Pradesh where 90% of the population is rural, of which close to two thirds is dependent on land-based livelihoods, we examine the impacts of the initial phases of the COVID-19-led lockdown. Experiences of both horticulturalists and subsistence farmers highlight that challenges rooted in long-brewing socio-political, economic and ecological imbalances were brought to the fore starkly during this crisis. We argue that if the livelihood interests of mountain people have to be protected along with the local ecology, state policies will have to revolve around the principles of equity, sustainability and resilience. 

Amidst this pandemic, the Himalaya have featured in various national news reports, albeit for their snow-capped peaks becoming visible again from miles away in the plains after decades, due to the clear air (Rob 2020). The view from the “inside,” especially on the still unravelling repercussions of the ongoing crisis on lives here, is waiting to be explored and analysed. It is true that so far, the spread of COVID-19 has been relatively contained in the region ranging from Kashmir, Himachal and Uttarakhand forming the western Himalaya and going upto Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, which form the eastern range, and even Nepal and Bhutan (Aman Sharma 2020). Smaller populations with lower densities, fewer urban centres and limited road access, these geographical and demographic factors may have been responsible for the minimal spread as well as conducive to distancing and quarantine measures. 

The ongoing lockdown, on the other hand, has not shown the same benignity, especially in states like Himachal Pradesh. On the face of it, an air of self-sufficient calm prevails here but scratching the surface reveals many cracks, symptoms of a deeper long-standing economic, ecological and political crisis. In this commentary, we highlight that while the focus of the state response has been more on measures for revival of the service and manufacturing sectors, it is the primary, agriculture-based economy, which sustains the majority of the population, that also faced repercussions of the lockdown. We examine both the cash-based as well as traditional land-based livelihoods and how these have been affected during the current crisis. While assessing these, we touch upon the structural and historical roots of the problem from the political economy and ecology perspective, and propose some institutional and policy interventions required to address these issues. 

In November 2020, the Himachal government, with the promise of employment for the struggling youth of the state (Thakur 2020), organised a global investor meet called “Rising Himachal” with much optimism and chutzpah. Memoranda of understanding (MoUs) worth Rs 75,000 to Rs 90,000 crore were signed in various sectors (ET Bureau 2019). Touted as the top grossers for the state’s economy were tourism (including the wellness industry), hydropower, and manufacturing with a focus on pharmaceuticals. While the country was already facing an economic slump at the time, and Himachal Pradesh was facing fiscal liabilities of over Rs 50,000 crore (Web 2020), the last two months have peeled off the remaining sheen and blown off the clouds of the mild euphoria generated during “Rising Himachal.” 

The state’s “tourism”-centred economy is what took the first blow even before the lockdown was officially announced right in the beginning of the peak tourist season. Himachal Pradesh gets over 1.5 crore tourists annually contributing to 7% of the state’s GDP.1 Neither Manali nor Dharamshala and Shimla witnessed the miles of traffic jams and the mad tourist rush, which they have now become infamous for. Within 10 days of the first phase of the lockdown, hoteliers in the state wrote to the government demanding relief measures and a bailout package. Despite the grave losses, there is still a consensus amongst entrepreneurs that tourism should not be opened up in the state for a while. Youth engaged in taxi services and other petty hotel jobs have returned to their villages from tourist hotspots and wonder what lies in store for them in the near future. Pharma units in the state’s industrial hub struggle to restart as distressed migrant workers headed back home in the thousands (Ambika Sharma 2020). The losses faced by hydropower projects generating costly electricity and what ails the energy sector is a subject for another long article (HERAC 2019).

Market and Labour Chains Cut Off for Commercial Farming

What is worth zooming into, however, is the land-based livelihood scenario supporting 70% of the population of the state which is 90% rural.2 Compared to its counterparts, Himachal Pradesh has a relatively higher proportion, up to one third of its cultivated area of about 9.5 lakh hectares, under horticulture and commercial farming.3 In the decades after independence, this emerged as the boon of Himachal Pradesh’s “mountain development model,” albeit completely dependent on the markets of the plains (Singh 1989). Kinnaur, Lahaul, Shimla, Kullu, Solan and parts of Mandi are districts with large areas under commercial agriculture and horticulture. “Off-season” vegetables, like capsicum, green peas, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, potato and cucumber that have markets in neighbouring Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi, have been the mainstay for cash incomes in Himachal Pradesh with annual revenue earnings up to Rs 4,000 crore. 

But with access to markets, supply chains and labour availability getting cut off in April and May, the “progressive” farmers of the state were hit hard. Bhagat Ram, a farmer and social activist from the remote Seraj region of Mandi district, laments, “Right when the peas were ready to be harvested and moved from the farm to the market, the lockdown was announced.” While the government attempted some procurement to relieve the farmers in areas like Solan and Una, he informs that people were forced to sell peas at a measly Rs 6 per kg as against the Rs 25 to Rs 30 market price. 

Given that the majority of the farmers in Himachal Pradesh are marginal (with landholdings between 5 to 10 bighas) and the farmers in this category are rising steadily over the years, the thrust on commercial farming has meant that the fall back option is weak.4 Cash-strapped farmers are also worried about returning annual loans that are taken for highly cost- and labour-intensive horticultural activities. Shakuntala Thakur, a resident of Raisen village in Kullu district shares, “Cauliflower is selling at Rs 5 a kg in the sabji mandi. Our plum is ready for harvest in the next 15 days and the contractor from Saharanpur who was to buy the entire lot cannot travel here. The Nepali labourers who help with harvesting are also not available.” Considering that seed distribution is more or less totally centralised in the state, there is additional dependence on state agencies to provide certified hybrid seeds. If the lockdown persists in the coming months, then seed availability for kharif cultivation could be a major challenge among the farmers.

In the tribal areas, like Spiti, which are remote and where health facilities are poor, communities have called for a self-imposed lockdown, preferring not to let in any agricultural labour or tourists from outside, even if it means losing their incomes. Even as the tribes of Lahaul and Kinnaur call for a partial lockdown, not opening tourism but allowing in labour for agriculture, a debate on the viability of cash cropping at such times has been stirred up here. Shanta Kumar Negi, a local leader from the tribal region Kinnaur adds, “the question looming in front of the Kinnauras is Seb hamaare liye vardaan hai ya abhishaap (“apple is a blessing or a curse for us”). Those who have available land without apple orchards planted have decided to go for local crops for consumption in the kharif season instead of cash crops. But what about those who do not have so much land?” Farmers in Spiti have made the move  to grow kala matar, phaphar and jaun or leaving lands fallow if there is paucity of hands to work on the farm (Phull 2020). Vikram Katoch, a young tourist operator from Lahaul valley, posted a video on Facebook, drawing much traction, which shows him planting potatoes with his mother on land where he runs his camping site every year this time. “Our livelihoods cannot revolve around tourism alone, we have to be connected with the land,” he says in a clear voice when queried. 

Traditional Land and Forest-based Livelihoods

With only 10% of the total geographical area under cultivation and private occupation, farming, in the conventional sense, has never been the sole source of sustenance in Himachal Pradesh.5 Historically, if we look at mountain economies, the ecological and geographical features, with a large area under forest and pastures, mostly “commons,” survival strategies always included agro-pastoralism and collection, utilisation/consumption and sale of a wide variety of forest produce considering the large area under “commons,” forests and pastures. And while thousands of families still practise livestock rearing (providing critical input to farms in the form of manure) and pastoralism in the state, here too the dependence on state interventions and markets meant that the impact of the lockdown was bound to occur. 

For instance, April is the time of import of fodder (wheat chaff) from neighbouring Punjab and Haryana for cattle and buffalo rearers in parts of Himachal Pradesh like Kangra, Hamirpur and Chamba. “Farmers bought wheat chaff for Rs 10 per kg instead of Rs 7 which makes the already precarious livestock economy more un-viable at this time,” according to Amit Upmanyu of Himmotthan Society, an initiative to support local livelihoods. Fodder scarcity has been ailing the livestock economy here for many years though. “A sharp rise in the rearing of non-native breeds of animals has created multiple issues. For instance, new breeds of cattle have to be stall fed, demand more fodder and veterinary services,” according to D K Sadana, a livestock breeding specialist. “The changing compositions of the forest—with mixed forests being invaded by non-grass friendly chir pine and pastures being taken over by weeds like Eupatorium and Lantana, have also contributed and aggravated the fodder crisis,” adds Upmanyu. The problems of the livestock economy have also played a role in weakening the farm–forest linkage. 

One of the marginalised communities of Himachal Pradesh, transhumant pastoralists, especially sheep and buffalo rearing, the Gaddis and Gujjars migrating to alpine pastures in the summers for a period of three to four months had a different set of challenges around this time. Gujjar pastorals had to face the brunt of stigma generated by rumour mongering as well as communal profiling of cases by the government, especially during the initial phases, which also affected their sale of milk (Mitra 2020). It also took pressure from community representatives for the government to pass orders to allow the unhindered movement of pastoralists with their animals through their usual route. Lal Hussain, an activist from the Gujjar community in Chamba district adds, “Local markets for milk, meat, khoya have also been impacted while paneer and ghee are slowly picking up. But the commercial vegetable cultivators are facing more uncertainty.” He also gives examples of young men who were forced to return from semi-skilled jobs they were at in industries saying, “Yes, they have lost some cash income. But now they are helping get the farms ready for the maize crop. At least, they will not starve.” 

The younger generation moving away from farming is a reality across areas where cultivators have not deep dived into cash crops. Two thirds of the total cultivation in the state is of food crops, which has seen declining productivity for a slew of reasons apart from lack of the “cash incentive.”6 These include damage by wild animals, fragmentation of landholdings and falling yields due to use of pesticides and fertilisers. Heavy sleet showers and storms wrecking damage to crops, bang in the middle of April and May 2020, added to farmer’s lockdown woes. Ecological catastrophes in the form of “the climate crisis” have manifested more harshly over the last few years, with untimely and erratic rains, and rising temperatures leading to drying springs, streams, depleting glacial sources and forest fires (Rana et al 2013). Large-scale development projects have further exacerbated existing ecological and geological vulnerabilities, apart from diverting precious forests and farmland (Kapoor 2020). The thrust on tourism has meant increasing road and other construction activities, rapidly changing the land use. 

Notwithstanding, food security is ensured in the state, less from home produce, more due to a well-functioning public distribution system (PDS) and for those with purchasing power through the open market. Many are critical of the dependence created by the PDS and the fact that the supplies of low nutrition, chemical-laden food produced in Punjab have replaced highly valuable cereals like finger millets, in the local platter. Nekram, who is part of an initiative called the Parvatiya Tikau Kheti Abhiyan and working on millet revival adds, “We are staring at a public health crisis and talking about good immunity suddenly, when our local food systems had many superfoods which we are on the verge of losing in most areas.” The cultural shifts brought with modernity have also meant that a wide variety of nutritious forest foods are not consumed as before. The invaluable Morel mushrooms or gucchi, for instance, has such a high demand from the five-star hotel industry that it sells for Rs 10,000 to Rs 13,000 per kg. Collectors often refrain from consuming it as they would rather sell and get cash. Bisheshar Negi, a local journalist from Rampur, shared how people are bringing it for their own consumption these days as rates dropped to Rs 1,000 per kg and plenty is available in the forest, in the absence of a rush for collection. 

Shifting the Focus in the Interest of Local Economy and Ecology: The Way Forward

Despite these grave challenges around land and forest-based livelihoods, they are still considered as the essential sources of sustenance by rural mountain communities. The COVID-19 crisis and resultant lockdown has indeed brought to the surface issues that were brewing for long, the most critical being around the dependencies as well as socio-economic and ecological imbalances created because of excessive reliance on a few cash crops like apple, potato and off-season vegetables on the one hand, and tourism and hydropower on the other (Singh 1989). In the wake of this pandemic, what we have in Himachal Pradesh is a government struggling to save the losing plot. This is evident in bizarre announcements like that of turning the state into a “quarantine” destination for tourists (Chauhan 2020). Whereas, the complex and deep nature of the crisis calls for structural and systemic transformation rather than more programmatic initiatives and technological inputs within the neo-liberal economic framework. If the livelihood interests of mountain people have to be protected along with the local ecology, any economic agenda cannot be based on economics alone. It will have to revolve around the principles of equity, sustainability and resilience. 

Land-dependent communities need to be central to planning and decision-making and also be recognised as owners. With a large portion of the land in the state categorised as “forest,” tightly in the grip of the forest department, the scope for this stand is constrained. “Forestland” in Himachal Pradesh comprises almost all forests and public lands, including pastures and commons that were once under the control of panchayats. This process of transfer of land to the forest department, which started during the colonial period, is responsible for the long-standing alienation of people from these lands. The agenda of land reforms that started well in the 1970s remain unfinished and will have to be reopened. “Marginalised communities need to be given a secure tenure over the land that is under their occupation for years but they have no title over it. And then there are Dalit families who were allotted plots in the 1970s and 1980s but do not have occupation. These lands have been taken over steadily by the state and recorded as “forestland” without settlement of rights,” adds Sukhdev Vishwapremi of People’s Campaign for Socio-economic Equity in the Himalayas.

These individual rights could be well covered and given tenurial security under the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest rights) Act (FRA), 2006, something that the state government has shown little will to do (Asher 2019). More importantly, the FRA strengthens community access, use and governance regimes, which is critical for both livelihood support, conservation and management of degrading forest and water ecosystems. “If you ask women, whose labour on the land has always been invisible, they will make the choice to plant more grass, fodder, fruit and fuel trees, to prune chir pine and clear out weeds in the forest. They are already doing it. The state should be getting this done under MGNREGA,” adds Nirmal Devi of Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan also campaigning for allocation of land to single women headed households, amounting to 12%–15% in the total number of families in the state. Implementation of community forest rights under FRA will also protect interests of those dependent on pastoralism and open avenues for re-building the livestock economy. Additionally, reforms would need to work on consolidation of fragmented holdings. Close to 2 lakh hectares of culturable waste and land lying fallow could be brought under community or collective agroforestry initiatives.7 This has the potential of bridging the gap between fodder demand and availability within the state. If the focus is on revival of traditional food crops like millets and mixed cropping patterns, then food sovereignty could be aimed for along with food security. Integrated farming and agroecology, in smaller decentralised village units, with shorter distribution webs, enhancing local markets and connecting a diverse set of local producers could be experimented with. 

But the above is only possible if farmers and forest-dependent communities are able to organise inclusively and educate themselves to resist the onslaught of the current development paradigm which draws them into the market with a false promise, and ultimately benefits only a few. The balance will have to be struck between creative community led and governed initiatives, and pressurising the state to put in place pro-people and pro-nature institutional mechanisms, law and policy. The limitations and fallibilities of the latter urge us to dig deeper on the former. The COVID-19 outbreak has just emboldened and underlined the writing that was already on the mountain wall.

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