A new hope

I’ve written again and again about the destruction of the beautiful land of Meghalaya, this week and before. I’d said already that I have no stake in the place, no livelihood to maintain; I was only a tourist. I did not have to balance a desire for a good life against preserving the land. But the people of this place reached a new balance. This is a post about a small victory in sustainable living, and the opportunity for a breathing space.

When I traveled from Shillong to Sohra five years ago, I saw open quarrying of the limestone hills everywhere. For decades schoolbooks had proclaimed Sohra as the rainiest place on earth, but its place had recently been taken by points in other continents. The reason was not hard to guess. Large-scale deforestation was evident, and now the ground was being cut away from under their feet. Rivers were being polluted not only by ground up limestone, but by other chemicals mixed into it.

On our way to see the Seven Sisters waterfall then we stood aghast in front of another quarry. A hill was being eaten away, leaving something looking like an apple core. This was what the place looked like then. The scene was like something out of Mordor. This image stayed with me for years: a horrifying vision of development gone mad.

Greed for limestone, an ingredient of cement, brought the British here in the first place, and seeded this disaster. Five years ago I talked to people and everyone was in despair. But fortunately, I was not the only one who noticed this destruction. Locally, in Meghalaya, a movement sprang up to demand that the quarrying be regulated. Mountainsides are still cut away for limestone, but the industry is now controlled. Sohra’s cement factory seemed to be shut (featured photo; credit The Family). The apple-core-hill, as I call it, remains as it was five years ago (new photo above). The land still looks desolate, but it hasn’t disappeared in the five years that passed between my two visits.

But new times bring new challenges. I stopped the Rath of the Clan to take my “after” photo of the before-and-after pair. Across the road was this other hill. The Family and my nieces climbed up it as I took photos. There is now a graveyard on top. The community that uses it has newly settled across this landscape. You can see a sign of the development in the second photo of the apple-core-hill: power-lines cross this area now, bringing electricity to the new blocks of houses. Human growth also brings problems of deforestation, but it is a slower problem. It gives us time to talk and discover ways to minimize damage. At least the hills now remain. There is a small hope for improvement, but it is a new hope.

Lookout point

The Rath of the Clan stopped at a place that the driver called a “viewpoint”. It was once a bend in the road overlooking a long valley. The view (featured photo) was very nice. The stop was now a jumble of shops and restaurants and a concrete structure enclosing the rock that you had to climb in order to get the best view. There was a ticket office and a minimal entry charge to see the view. The clan immediately dispersed, and a few of us went straight for the view. These rolling hills covered with forests are what Meghalaya was famous for once. The big brown scab that you see in the middle of the photo looked like yet another tourist resort being built. Note how much larger it is than the open fields of the village behind it.

When I looked away from the valley, I could see something interesting. The hills did not jut out of the line of the horizon. Quite to the contrary, the horizon looked flat. The impression of folds, hills and valleys, is formed by a process quite different from that which formed the Himalayas. The Shillong plateau is a flat slab of stone pushed up by the collision of continental plates. The hills and valleys are carved by water flowing over this land for several million years. The volume of water is intense, since this is among the wettest places on the planet. But the land is still rising, so over the last ten million years or so, erosion has not managed to keep pace with the uplifting of the plateau. In fact, in the Shillong earthquake of 1897, the plateau is said to have risen by 11 meters.

Behind us this plateau was being systematically cut down. Someone had put out their washing to dry on a line just above the quarry, probably the workers. All along the route we had seen limestone hills being quarried. The British annexation of this land was driven by greed for this limestone, necessary to the then new building industry. Since then the construction boom has increased the demand for limestone, and the locals here are stuck in a vicious economic cycle which makes them cut away the ground beneath their feet. The picturesque south eastern part of the plateau is largely made of sedimentary limestone, and we would see more evidence of quarrying during our trip.

I gravitated to a restaurant which was serving tea and found part of the clan already inside. Between long queues at the toilet, finding the best place for selfies, and sitting down for a chat, the clan seemed to move at a geologically slow pace. Several cousins and nieces joined me for tea while I waited. I had time for many cups of strong and sweet tea, and also enough time to line up the cups so that I could take photos. By late morning we were done and on the move again.

The Despoliation of Sohra

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
–Ogden Nash

Some of the most beautiful sights in Meghalaya are to be seen in the Sohra region of the East Khasi Hills. The road between Shillong and the town of Sohra (aka Cherrapunji) skirts wonderful valleys and passes tall waterfalls tumbling over the limestone cliffs. There are times when you feel you could just sit there on one of the high meadows, among the wildflowers, and watch the play of light through the clouds. I sat on just such a meadow and recalled the descriptions of the forests of Sohra from the early 19th century. Now there are no trees. They were the first things to go. The hills are next.

The evening before we left for Sohra we’d got a little lost in Shillong. We wandered into some roads which turned out to belong to one of the more famous schools. As we tried to find our way, we ran into one of the senior teachers. When he found that we were from Mumbai, he invited us home for a tea and reminiscences of his days in Mumbai. He was a Telugu married to a Khasi. Eventually the conversation turned to Sohra. He seemed to speak with anger about the state of Sohra: how it was being destroyed by people who should have taken care of it. His wife was quiet, but jogged his memory with an occasional word. It seemed to me that they were in agreement, and perhaps some of his vehemence came from their shared experience. I learnt from him how the very hills which make up Meghalaya are disappearing.

The next two days gave us more and more evidence of this despoliation. We passed a place where two streams merged (photo on top). One had clear water, the other was white with the residue of crushed limestone. Near the merger of the streams another hill was being quarried, and trucks were carrying away the limestone. We saw hills being cut away, the residue looking like a half eaten apple (photo above). The limestone is crushed right there before being transported. There are also larger industrial units devoted to making cement using the limestone. It is a matter of time before the hills themselves go the way of the trees which once covered them.

I don’t know enough about Meghalaya to figure out how all this happened. I have no stake in Meghalaya, I was just a visitor. But it would be good to understand how land which is held by the tribe can be treated like this. Is it the tragedy of the commons, or a >subversion of tribal democracy?