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Socio-economic condition of the people in the Himalayas

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Title:Socio-economic condition of the people in the Himalayas
Credit:Compiled from multiple sources by Pragya

The socio-economic lifestyle of the hill communities is a result of the intermingling of people with diverse backgrounds and their close interaction with the natural resources of the region. Inaccessibility, remoteness, poor communication and trade networks and the severe climatic conditions have also affected the evolution of the socio-economic lifestyle of the Himalayan people. Over the centuries, the people of the Himalayas have followed traditional lifestyles, along with practices like trading through barter and the use of water and land resources as common property. Indigenous practices have usually emphasized the use of resources in a sustainable manner, keeping in view their limited availability. The traditional economic activities and social structure of the people display a continuous process of innovation coupled with the use of management techniques that are best suited for the limited resources of the area. The main economic activities of the people are limited to the sectors of agriculture, animal rearing, trade (on a small basis) and recently, tourism. 

  • Agriculture: The agricultural practices of the hill communities have adapted to overcome problems like low availability of irrigational water (in cold desert regions like Ladakh and Lahaul and Spiti), small land-holdings and limited time for cultivation in the form of one short growing season. The agricultural patterns differ according to regions. In Arunachal Pradesh and the highlands of Sikkim, shifting cultivation, popularly called "jhoom cultivation" is prevalent where farmers clear a tract of forestland for cultivation purposes. The farmers move from area to area, clearing the forest and rotate among each piece of land in a rotational manner, allowing the vegetation of the region to regenerate. Earlier, the rotation period was approximately 10 years and has rapidly decreased to an unsustainable 2-3 years in present times. In Nepal, Uttarakhand and the lowlands of Himachal Pradesh, the hillsides are defined into terraces, to maximize the land under cultivation and minimize loss of soil with runoff. Several crops are grown for commercial purposes: cereals like wheat, rice and maize, vegetables like potatoes and peas and horticultural crops like apples, walnuts, oranges, apricots and cherries. In conjunction with the significant produce of horticultural crops from the area, several processing industries (juices, jams, alcoholic beverages etc.) have developed. In the eastern region, tea is grown on the foothills (Darjeeling, Assam). Several vegetables are also grown for personal consumption. Nowadays, mountain agriculture is in a phase of transition from traditional methods of cultivation to a more intensive, demand driven system.
  • Animal husbandry: To overcome the harsh conditions of the area, communities have largely depended upon animal energy for transportation, trade and agricultural activities like ploughing. Thus, many tribes in the Himalayas are fully or partially engaged in animal rearing activities. Many communities in the region are completely pastoralist in nature. Animals like the yak and Bactrian camel are synonymous with the Himalayas as beasts of burden. Yaks, goats, sheep and cows are kept for milk and its products, and also for their wool and meat. The wealth of a family is often quantified by the number of animals it has and animal products serve as important sources of income. Most pastoral communities move with their animals and families to the high altitude rangelands during summer, returning to the lowlands in the winter months. Semi-pastoral communities also practice agriculture as an alternate source of income.
  • Trade: Traditionally, trade among hill communities followed the barter system. Trade fairs would be organized wherein animals, utensils, grains, fruits and vegetables etc. would be exchanged without any monetary transactions. Although such practices are still prevalent, they are fast eroding and modern commercial transactions involving money are practiced with increasing frequency. The introduction of markets has however, led to a decrease in local self-sufficiency. People have shifted from mixed sustenance cropping to cultivation of cash crops like potatoes and apples. Thus, local populations are slowly being weaned from their traditional trading methods and are relying on external sources to meet their basic consumption.
  • Tourism: The tourism sector is rapidly expanding in the Himalayan region and offers income-generating options to the local communities. Annually, over a million tourists come to the region for trekking, sightseeing, wildlife viewing and pilgrimages; ensuing income generation from tourism has immense scope. Apart from conventional jobs like hoteliers or tour guides, new sustainable initiatives like eco-tourism and home-stays are being adopted.
Developments in the road infrastructure, air links and means of communication like mobile phones are also impacting the socio-economic condition of the people. This development is often (though not necessarily) at the cost of the existing natural resources. Thus economic development has often translated to widespread deforestation, unsustainable harvest of medicinal plants, and destruction of ecosystems due to large hydrological projects; increase in tourist influx and to some extent, extraction of minerals. Deterioration in the status of the environment and decrease in agricultural productivity is now pushing the local populations to migrate to other areas to fill the widening gap between production and demand. Apart from the impact on the natural resources of the region, developmental initiatives often expose a previously inaccessible area to external influences, thereby having an effect on the lifestyle of local populations. On one hand, better education systems and accessibility to facilities like televisions and the Internet are positively affecting the youth while on the other hand, there has been an increase in migration to urban areas in search of higher incomes and a 'better' lifestyle. With male members usually moving to towns and cities in search of employment, the women, elders and children face the brunt of having to fill the gap in the fragmented social structures. However, equating development with negative impacts on the socio-economic systems of the people is not correct, it is a matter of striking a balance. Economic reforms, progressive government schemes like NREGA and increased levels of education are some means of striking this balance and helping the mountain communities enjoy a better economic lifestyle, while preserving the social fabric.
Animal husbandry