This is the story of a Himalayan community and their struggle for a quality of life, both for themselves and for the environment which shelters them.
Robert Alter has spent a lifetime serving the people of what is now the new hill state of Uttaranchal. As he reflects upon his life and work at the NGO he set up and co-ordinated, his humanistic approach and gentle narrative transform and transmute experiences of the everyday. Ordinary lives take on epic proportions as men and women come together to forge a new future against ancient barriers of exploitation and neglect, bringing to their lives a sense of shared purpose.
Located within the contemporary discourse of human geography, ecology and development, the intensely human stories of these hill people are told against a backdrop that gave the world the defining experiences of the Chipko movement, the Tehri Dam controversy and the 'Save the Doon' campaign. Water for Pabolee challenges many prevailing notions of development. It helps re-define sustainability as the capacity of those most in need of change to take actual charge of it. Pabolee is symbolic of communities and households across the globe where access to water is the touchstone of survival as well as of a life beyond mere existence. In the words of Nitin Desai. Secretary-General of the World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002: 'If you get water right, all the other factors of sustainable development fall into place.'
Water for Pabolee speaks for communities and activists struggling today to do just that. It draws on their experience to tell us of what and who must change if people, and the authorities responsible for their interests, are at last to 'get it right'. Making its appearance in the International Year of the mountain, Water for Pabolee is about the forces that are shaping our world, and the choices that will determine if a better life can be a reality for millions.
About the Author:
Robert C. Alter was born in Srinagar, Kashmir in 1926, to American missionary parents. He schooled at Woodstock School, Mussoorie where his father was Principal and then attended Westminster College in New Pilmington, Pennsylvania in the U.S.A.
Graduating in 1947, he returned to India to teach at Woodstock at the time of Indian Independence and Partition. He married Ellen Stewart, a college classmate in Woodstock in 1948 and they taught at Woodstock till 1951. He entered Yale University Divinity School in 1951, finishing his divinity degree in 1955. He also holds a Master's degree in Rural Sociology and Community Development from Cornell University, New York.
They returned to India in 1956 and retired thirty-eight years later in 1994. During those years he was an ordained minister. A teacher/educator and a community development social worker. In addition to teaching and administrative work, he was Superintendent (Principal) of Woodstock School from 1968-1971. He helped set up the Mussoorie Gramin Vikas Samiti, an NGO in communities in and around Mussoorie.
He and his wife now live in retirement at Wooster, Ohio but return to India each year to spend a few months in their home and among their friends in Mussoorie.
There is a bench on the path behind our house where I like to sit and reflect on all sorts of things, past and present. The idea of writing this book emerged there. The house is called Oakville, a strange name for a house in India. But then much of what follows will seem strange, and odd mixture of past and present, colonial and modern, Indian and Western. The house, we are told, was built over a hundred and fifty years ago by the British garrison engineer who built the nearby British Military Hospital, now an Indian defence department training centre. The masons, we speculate, were Muslim artisans, used to the old Mughal way of building houses on the Plains. There is something unmistakably 'Mughal' about the size and scope and decor of the inner rooms which once formed the original building. The mouse is located in Landour, a subsection of the city of Mussoorie, a 'hill station' in the recently formed state of Uttaranchal.
On clear days we can see the two mighty rivers of North India, the Ganga and the Yamuna, from our front veranda. These rivers originate in the mountains behind our house and flow to the south out across the plains of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. From our bench I can see both the mountains to the north, where the sources of these rivers lie and to the south, the point where the Ganga breaks through the Shivalik mountains onto the plains beyond. I can also see the faint outlines of Hardwar, the sacred city that marks that place.
These rivers give a special aura of sanctity to this part of the Himalayas. The mountains that tower over them have come to be called the 'abode of the gods,' and for good reason. They occupy a prominent place in the cartography of Indian religious mythology. It was here that Lord Shiva broke the force of the sacred Ganga upon his head when the gods released it from above for the salvation of their devotees. It was here the Pandava brothers escaped from their enemies, the Kauravas, in the story of the Mahabharata. And it was from here that Hanuman carried away a mountain on which there grew the sacred herb of immortality that saved Lakshmana's life, and where he returned to put out the fire on his tail after the defeat of Ravana.
One can see three snow-capped peaks from our bench, all over six thousand metres-Bandarpunch, Jaunli and Pathing Pitora; but it's better to walk a short distance to the top of the hill close by, along the road under the old British Military Hospital, to experience the full majesty-and magic-of the Himalayas, of snow-capped mountains, many well over six thousand metres, that extend from behind Simla, in the west, to the 7,800-metres Nandadevi, 180 kilometres to the east.
But what I usually look at from our bench are not the snows to the north, or the plains to the south, but what we like to call the 'blue Tehri hills.' These foothills of the Himalayas stretch out in front of us to the east, range upon range across Garhwal to Kumaon, and beyond that-one has to imagine this-to the borders of Nepal. South of where I sit is a round, heavily-wooded hill with a broad ridge that extends from it to the southeast away from me. This hill, which dominates the scene to my right, is no higher than Oakville and not more than three miles away as the crow flies. This is the last promontory between us and the Dun valley where the city of Dehra Dun is located. It's called 'Parritibba'.
In front, and a little to my left, opposite Parritibba, is a higher ridge that runs out at right angles to where I sit, away from Landour to the east. This ridge, which is roughly parallel to the Parritibba ridge, and higher, stands above a broad valley that separates the two. Here and there along its upper slopes one can see a motor road that leads back into the hills, marking the ins-and-outs of the ridges and ravines like the well-defined lines of a contour map. A stream runs along the bottom of this valley, one that is heard more often than seen. A system of sharply-defined spur ridges, and intervening gullies, drop steeply from the main ridge to my left. These reach up in reverse from the stream below like the fingers of a gigantic, upturned hand.
This is the scene of my reflections.
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