A new book on the Great Himalayan National Park offers compelling insights into the quest to save the region

Roughly 15 years ago, during a workshop organised for reviewing conservation projects, after an engaging speech, the presenter (a forest department officer) was asked: “This all is great, but what of the National Park and the project after you? What do you tell the people in the villages?”. “I tell them not to trust the Forest Department,” was the response. The captivating presentation and striking response were my first introduction to the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) and Sanjeeva Pandey.

Two treks in GHNP in recent years have left me in awe of the landscape. The sights, smells, sounds and conversations during the treks underscored what I had read and heard — that not only does the landscape stand out based on its ecological value and the stunning vistas it offers, but also for the manner in which it has been managed. They also indicated that the landscape has, managerially, seen better days. All this had me look forward to Pandey's book with Anthony J Gaston — The Great Himalayan National Park: The Struggle to Save the Western Himalayas (Niyogi Books, 2019).

In the initial chapters, Pandey and Gaston present a macro picture: they describe the Himalayas and the GHNP’s strategic location, while also taking cognisance of its rich biodiversity values, and highlight the elements which make it a trekking heaven.

The authors question the notion we have of our forests: ‘We see the past as having been much kinder to the forests than the present’. They challenge conventional wisdom with references, when they state that afforestation programmes have been taken up in the Himalayas since a century-and-a-half and that there has been during this period, ‘little change in the area covered by the forest’. Based on the wisdom gained over time they are also critical of the past, pointing out that ‘though the policy was sound, the practice was faulty’.

 A new book on the Great Himalayan National Park offers compelling insights into the quest to save the region

The Great Himalayan National Park — The Struggle to Save the Western Himalayas, by Sanjeeva Pandey and Anthony J Gaston

The authors also look at decisions of the recent past, some of which they also have been a part of. These include the decision of the Himachal Wildlife Project to ‘completely exclude grazing from the GHNP area’. They touch upon issues that impinge on conservation, including caste, ‘the caste hierarchy reflects the land tenure and natural resource use, which ultimately is linked to environmental knowledge as well’. And question the system, ‘It requires dismantling of the top down approach which has flourished since colonial times’. The intensity of their involvement is apparent.

In the second half, they talk about species occurring in the landscape and impact of seasons; both enhancing the beauty of the landscape. The book, spread over 364 pages and 15 sections, underscores the underlying theme at GNHP — that of placing people at the centre of conservation. A major, and much needed, shift from the traditional approach to protected area management in our country.

The book commends the management of GHNP on multiple occasions and also refers to it as the GHNP model; for instance — ‘the science based creation of the GHNP was a rather exceptional event in Indian conservation’, ‘probably the best example of systematically organised, co-ordinated, multi-disciplinary research covering the length and breadth of a vast terrain...’, and ‘prepare and implement India’s first ever livelihood-based management plan for biodiversity conservation’. These, besides generating respect and awe, give rise to questions. If it is referred to as the GHNP model how many protected areas in the Himalayas have adopted the model? How much has the dispensation, during recent years, built on the foundation of the initial years?

I was also left wondering why the authors have accorded the space they have to the UNESCO tag, the process of obtaining it, and the friends of GHNP. Given that this is an area controlled by forest department and the book’s welcome stress on local people as primary stake-holders, the stories and names of people dealing with the nuts and bolts on the ground are starkly missing.

The high standards which the authors set in the initial sections raised my expectations for the sections which  followed. I had looked forward to read of Sanjeeva Pandey’s journey with GHNP; especially how he achieved what he did while being a part of the state machinery. And, returning to his response of 15 years ago, compounded with the apprehension about the forest department that the book projects, whom do we trust with GHNP today? From Anthony J Gaston, I was keen to learn what are the issues that other protected areas in Himalayas need to focus on? If funds at GHNP today were limited, how much would he apportion between research and conservation? From the conservation perspective, is there a point when research is enough?

The book size and page quality are apt. However, a few editing glitches have crept in. The source of the text is missing in some chapter introductions. Most of the images are stunning and took me to the mountains; a few, however, appear hazy.

That the authors are well versed with the landscape is an understatement. The time they have invested in the landscape and the sheer depth of their involvement will have few parallels. As I read the book I became more jealous of their knowledge of the landscape and envious of their walks up and down these mountains. Not only have the authors walked the landscape extensively but they are also head over heels in love with it. More than a book by a research scholar an a forest officer, this is an ode to a landscape by two people who care for it.

The book has me enthused for yet another trek in GHNP. If you love the mountains, get a copy.

The Great Himalayan National Park — The Struggle to Save the Western Himalayas by Sanjeeva Pandey and Anthony J Gaston | Niyogi Books | Pages: 364 | Price: Rs 1,500

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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2019 09:45:57 IST