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An ecological soul

There is no denying that Sonam Wangchuk has shown a great mailed fist, a human and very Ladakhi fist, to what may be called the assumptions and presumptions of ‘progress’

Gopalkrishna Gandhi Published 21.04.24, 06:47 AM
Sonam Wangchuk

Sonam Wangchuk File picture

Arne Naess is not a name that many in India would recognise. The Norwegian philosopher and environmentalist, who died in 2009 at the age of 96, meant nothing to this country though this country meant the world to him. Norway, for the superficial mind, is a faraway land with no colonial connect to India, nor an immediately discernible cultural or intellectual one either. And as for any direct experience of it, who would want to visit its steep and rugged slopes for snow when that thrill can be had in Switzerland, with strawberries thrown in, with far greater ease?

Sonam Wangchuk, too, is a name that many in India have been unfamiliar with. The engineer, architect, educator, who is 57 now, is from Ladakh, a faraway part of India which, though not so difficult to reach, is so high, oh, so high, that you will run the risk of a severe oxygen deficit. Who would want that when the ‘snow touch’ can be felt in Gulmarg, much more easily accessed, with saffron thrown in?


But here I must make a disclosure. While I have been in Norway, thanks to having been posted in our embassy in Oslo, and have had the privilege of meeting Naess, I have never been to Ladakh, nor met Wangchuk. My knowledge of the senior is first-hand, of his junior in age and environmental activism, derived from others’ writings.

My wife, Tara, an ornithologist and nature conservationist, had known of the great man and told me about him when we were about to set out for the land of the midnight sun. My cherished friend, the acclaimed historian, enthusiastic expert on environmental movements worldwide and biographer of Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha, acquainted me with more details on him. “Naess is regarded by many as an extremist,” Ram said, “and in a sense his ‘deep ecology’ idea is extreme but he is deadly earnest, and his passion is infectious. Besides, Naess’s sense of India and of Gandhi is as deep as his concept of ecology. Meet him earlier than later as he is getting on.” And he said the great movements for the ecological integrity of the Himalaya, of which Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna were pioneers, had a conceptual link with Naess’s ‘ecosophy’ — ecological philosophy.

I gathered later that Naess had carried out a satyagraha, no less, against the concept of dams. Along with a large number of protesters, Naess, in 1970, chained himself to rocks in front of the Mardalsfossen, a waterfall in a Norwegian fjord, and refused to descend until plans to build a dam were rolled back. Scandinavia is known for its instinctive respect for human rights and it is liberal in dealing with protests but Naess was a bit much even for Norway. The demonstrators were carried away by police and work on the dam did not stop. But Naess had launched Norwegian environmentalism’s activism.

When Tara and I called on him, he talked with feeling about India. Naess had led a mountaineering expedition in 1950 at age 38 to Tirich Mir in the Hindu Kush — a signal achievement. And he, of course, came to the subject of Gandhi. Inevitably, the subject of nuclear weapons came up and, to my surprise, I found him optimistic and, given the present pace of disarmament talks, even naïve. “Over the next two hundred years,” he said, “the world will come so clearly to realise the ridiculousness of war that it will banish it.” May your prophecy come true, I said to myself. As we left, Naess challenged me to an ‘arms hold’ and defeated me, thirty-three years younger than him, flat. His Viking arm was far too strong for my Vaishnavite one. His non-violence was that of the strong.

I pondered what Naess signified. Was he ‘close to nature’, ‘bonded’ to Norway’s life with the elements of its topography? Yes, of course. He represented Norway’s ecological intelligence, Norway’s environmental conscience, but he was more: he was Norway’s eco-ssentiality.

Sonam Wangchuk, as I said, I have never met. Nor read his writings with anything like focused concentration. But then how many other than the hundreds of thousands of Ladakhis who are rock-solid behind his movements for conserving Ladakh’s eco-ssentiality have? He is not the loser, I am. We are. Why? Because like Naess’s protest in Mardalsfossen was about more than stopping a dam, Wangchuk’s 21-day fast, recently concluded, has been about more than demanding statehood for Ladakh. Like Naess has become one with Norway’s ecological pulse, Wangchuk has become an indistinguishable part of Ladakh’s geophysical heartbeat.

His protests go beyond saying yes or no to this or that project. They are about what Ladakh’s soil, its rocks, its people need and desire, what their hopes and anxieties are about. They are about consultation. We may invoke concepts like federalism, democracy, consensus. And we would be right in doing so. But life is about the sense of touch, about tactility. Does Ladakh need a giant of a tunnel (Zojila, 14-25 km), a national highway (Kargil-Zanskar, 230 km)? Will the Himalaya there bear the disemboweling that this will involve? Does not the Joshimath experience tell us something is wrong about those interventions? This very month, on April 4, a magnitude-5.2 earthquake occurred in Ladakh. A ‘weak-to-light shaking’ was believed to have been felt ‘throughout the Himalayan border region’. Seismologists have told us, time and time again, that a great jolt may be expected by us in that region now that tectonic pressure has built up to bursting point. Are we doing what we should be doing to protect life in the Himalaya along with whatever we are doing to promote tourism?

Will statehood necessarily mean Ladakhis will have greater say, exercise better control, over their destinies? Hard to say. But it will at least give questioning a chance, interrogation a platform. It is, of course, likely that the prospect of ‘progress’, whatever that may mean for the people of the region, and the imperatives of ‘security’ may prevail over human doubt. And that great Indian solver, dissolver, of honest doubt, namely Vitamin M or Money, may win out.

But there is no denying that Sonam Wangchuk has shown a great mailed fist, a human and very Ladakhi fist, to what may be called the assumptions and presumptions of ‘progress’. Environmental mindfulness has shown it can count against developmental megalomania. True, Ladakh’s location, between China and Pakistan, makes it glint on any geopolitical map of India’s strategy concerns. But its location on any geophysical map of India’s environmental concerns is no less critical. As in the rest of the Himalaya, global warming has left its glaciers stricken. Their going thin and then dry will cripple life downstream where they have been sending snowmelt through the Indus, the Ganga and Brahmaputra. Engineer Wangchuk’s ice-stupas are an amazement.
They are not about worship of the Buddha, but about a novel way of ‘holding’ glacial ice through global warming and releasing water from them at the time needed.

What makes Wangchuk appealing is his great contemporaneity. He has an architect’s mind in an engineer’s brain, an ecologist’s soul in a mountain-dweller’s heart. He is Ladakh’s eco-ssentiality personified. Even as we show his example scant attention, I will not be surprised if he has already had his name inscribed — not by him but by those who care — among the high probables for a Nobel Peace Prize. I doubt though if that will interest him as much as what Ladakh prizes — peace for its pastoral life and the happiness of being left to decide what is best for it.

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