Transport

Driving through Uttarakhand we can see many of the hillsides terraced into fields. Where there were no terraces, there could still be houses straggling down hillsides. Several times I stopped to confirm that were no roads to many of these places. How were goods to be transported then? The few trucks we passed on these roads were the ones which carried a few tons. There were no industries up there which needed the multi-axle behemoths which ply on highways in the plains, not were there large dams and power stations which might require them now and then. But strangely, there were very few light trucks either.

In the hills of Bhutan I had seen people carrying logs of wood for construction up such slopes on their backs. I had the feeling that the extensive agriculture and construction that I saw here could not have been accomplished if human muscles were the only powered transport. The mystery was cleared up on our drive down from Kausani. When we began to pass packs of mules on the road I realized that these must be the backbone of the off-road transport network in these hills.

The botanist and spy, Frank Kingdon Ward, wrote some bestselling books about his journeys through the Himalayas. In the book In the Land of the Blue Poppies (1913) he wrote about a variety of pack saddles for mules, ranging from “a wooden frame, with such a multiplicity of bends and hitches that you feel it can never be undone again” to a Chinese “wooden pack-saddle made in two halves hinged like the covers of a book” and the “Indian Government mule harness [which] is provided with two iron hooks on each side, and the loads are attached by slings”. Perhaps the makeshift packs of re-purposed gunny bags, often splitting open at the seams and spilling loads on to roads, that I saw are a jugaadi innovation, created by an economy which takes all skilled workers out of villages and into towns, leaving the former empty of all skills except agriculture. If the pandemic reversal of this traffic lasts long enough, it could be of long-term gain to these communities, as trained people drift back and jugaad is replaced by genuine innovative skill. Long drives lead to new thoughts.