Nearby, far away: reflections on globalisation in the Spiti Valley

The Spiti Valley in the Indian Himalayas. By Louisa Jones

After returning from the Spiti Valley in the Indian Himalayas, DiA volunteer Louisa Jones reflects on the effect that globalisation is having on the area

We’d been introduced to the inimitable Indian head-wobble during our orientation. At first this fluid, non-committal response to almost every conceivable communication was difficult to decipher, not least to replicate ourselves. But just a week later, wedged astride the hard middle seat of a run-down 4×4, arms braced for impact and with the constant thud of metal on rock chipping away at my nervous system, I was its involuntary master. Since 3am we’d been rattling along the narrow track from Manali to Kaza as the driver wrestled against the loose rubble of hairraising switchbacks and triumphant passes. This journey of just 132 miles would take us a tortuous 12 hours. Blocking our path, ridge after ridge of megalithic desolation. The sheer gravity of rock seemed to press in on us from every angle. Our crude trail was dwarfed within this colossal landscape, barely leaving a scratch on the brilliant diamond of the Transhimalaya. Yet it is a lifeline for the 10,000 inhabitants of Spiti, a desert valley cradled amongst these foreboding mountains, and our final destination.

For three weeks this July I volunteered with Ecosphere, an NGO attempting to promote environmental and cultural conservation as a means of creating sustainable livelihoods in this remote region. Until three decades ago, when government forces blasted a track northwards through contorted shale strata and sweeping curtains of scree, Spiti was completely cut off from the rest of India. Even now, at points exceeding 4000m, the route into the valley is barred for up to six months in the year by heavy snowfall, during which the local Buddhist population endures temperatures dropping to as low as -30°C. During the brief summer season, livelihoods have traditionally centred around agriculture. However, the monsoon rains that sweep inland from the Bay of Bengal never reach Spiti as they are stopped in their tracks by the main Himalayan range. The water supply here thus comes almost exclusively from far-off glaciers, channelled through stone-built kuhls over long distances to feed fields of drought-resistant barley and black pea. For hundreds of years, Spitians obtained everything they couldn’t produce in this resource-poor valley through barter, trading crops, livestock and craft products with their neighbours from Kullu, Kinnaur, Lahaul, Ladakh and – until the border between these culturally similar areas was closed – Tibet.

Walking around the streets of Kaza now, this traditional way of life has been transformed beyond all recognition. Everywhere the influence of the road beams out its message of prosperity, from the ladies’ bright salwar kameez to the ubiquitous yellow ‘Ambuja Cement’ shutters, as common a sight on shopfronts here as in Delhi. The grocery stores of the Main Bazaar – all of which profer an almost identical range of imported goods, from mangoes to Dove soap – are staffed by Hindu migrants, and Dravidian labourers drive their rickety tractors through town, collecting mud from the Spiti River to feed an unchecked building boom of new homes and guesthouses. The most striking contributor to the rise of this frontier town is undoubtedly tourism. Humble eating joints and accommodations scream out their presence in English lettering and trinket stores line the main avenue. Here and there you’ll even spot standard hippie iconography beckoning in a steady stream of Israeli and other Western travellers, crowned by the lurid ‘Viva el Che’ mural at the German Bakery. To find this oasis of globalisation in a town of just over 800 inhabitants, in one of the most remote areas of India, is quite staggering.

From the point of view of our textbook development goals, Spiti’s connection with the wider world has substantially increased its people’s quality of life. General health has improved due to the year-round availability of imported fresh fruit and vegetables, and Kaza is served by two basic hospitals, with primary healthcare outposts reaching out into some of the more remote villages. Intermittent electricity provides light to work by, heating and a safer fuel than the widely available kerosene. Incomes have grown, with new crops such as the green pea making harvests more commercially viable, and many families diversifying into tourism for extra revenue. The road that brings the world to Spiti also gives the locals unprecedented mobility and flexibility, with some youngsters leaving to receive a modern education in Shimla or Delhi, and others migrating to warmer climes during the winter with the tourist season.

The Spiti Valley in the Himalayas. Photo by Louisa Jones

Though I gladly benefited from these amenities every day I spent in Kaza, the costs of the town’s rapid commercialisation were clear to see. In their haste to integrate themselves into the regional market economy, Spitian farmers have carpeted their valley with a crop that is literally sucking the region dry. Compared to their traditional fare the green pea earns a handsome buck, but with local glaciers shrinking due to global warming and increasing pressure on water resources for the growing migrant and tourist population, its sustainability in the long term is tenuous at best. Sadly, the same farmers have also fallen prey to the pest of agricultural middlemen, the latter of whom thwarted a Fairtrade scheme trialled by Ecosphere a number of years ago. Currently peas sell at market in Delhi for just under Rs. 100 per kilo, while the growers receive only Rs. 30 per kilo.

Meanwhile, the carbon footprint of transporting commodities into and out of the valley is huge and the costs expensive. Ecosphere has attempted to counter reliance on imported vegetables by building greenhouses for monasteries, nunneries and other houses in the valley. Built with local materials, these structures should in theory allow a ready supply of vegetables to be grown on site during the harsh winter months using seeds harvested from the previous season. In practice, however, even relatively new habits die hard: two of these greenhouses that we came across during our travels in July lay derelict and unprepared for the season ahead. If such initiatives are to succeed, clearly much follow-up work will be needed to change attitudes towards environmental responsibility and awareness amongst the stakeholders themselves. I feel that this task would be easier were the monks and nuns to be more involved throughout the planning and construction process, whereas the labour is currently provided by Ecosphere’s unskilled tour groups under the auspices of ecotourism.

The unique culture of this place has been affected by its growing proximity to outside trends and ideas. While Buddhist ritual remains strong in the string of monasteries dotting the valley, the inevitable influx of Hindi and Western trends and innovations and the transition to a cash-based economy outside their walls have led to a decline in the practice of traditional crafts – such as thangkas (intricately-painted Buddhist silk hangings) and performing arts traditions. Of course, geopolitics have lent a hand. Cut off from any contact with their Tibetan neighbours in the People’s Republic of China, age-old trading alliances can no longer be utilised, rendering festivals such as the annual Ladarcha Mela in August – now confined to the government headquarters in Kaza – a relic of its former vibrant self.

But for me the story that brought home most violently the extent of Spiti’s globalisation was that of a little boy, no more than 10 years old, who worked wiping tables and fetching sodas at our favourite Kaza lunch spot. We found he’d been sent to the valley to earn a living – alone, on the back of a tractor – from Bihar, India’s poorest state more than 900 miles away. Staying in rented accommodation with fellow migrants – all grown men – he doesn’t go to school and has few companions. To know that this remote and forbidding place is a destination of choice for child labour is a chilling reminder of how insignificant an obstacle Spiti’s physical separation from the rest of India has become.

In the villages things have not changed so much. Fewer houses have swapped their mud walls for poorly-insulating concrete, barley remains the crop of choice and rustic homestays outnumber modern guesthouses: life is still slow here. But my worry is that in Spiti a wealth of centuries-old knowledge about how best to live sustainably in one’s particular environment is being rapidly neglected due to the lure of an economically-driven lifestyle. This is not only sad, but a dangerous direction for life in this fragile region to be moving. It is a difficult dilemma. Greater thinkers than I have succumbed to romanticising the primitive, and I would hate to be accused of this. Of course we cannot morally object to Spitians and others like them the world over from benefiting from the technological infrastructure we now take for granted in the global North, and it isn’t difficult to understand why many would give so much to obtain it. But effectively obliterating one’s own survival mechanisms in the process cannot be the answer. And finding a way to convince the local population to constrain this sort of development when we ourselves are perceived to have it all…that’s going to be long struggle.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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