Karam Sain led the way through the narrow paths of the temperate forest near the tribal village of Lippa, located in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. The cool May air was filled with the scent of dried chilgoza pine cones, which crackled under his surefooted steps.
Sain, whose fellow villagers save his name as CM—short for chief minister, reflecting his leadership role in the community—in their mobile phones, entered the small gompa—Buddhist religious structure—at Dakchompa. Located at an altitude of ten thousand feet, the site is said to house the spirit of the eighth-century Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava, who is revered by the Kanauras, the indigenous people of Kinnaur. The people of Lippa trek even higher up, to a holy lake called Ronnam Sorang, to celebrate the festival of Dakhrain. The Kanauras are a Scheduled Tribe, whose cultural and religious practices are rooted in the worship of animistic deities and ancestral spirits. Over time, these have become intertwined with Buddhism, the predominant religion in upper Kinnaur.
In recent years, Lippa—a topographically fragile region with bare, rocky outcrops and patches of pine and cedar forests—has experienced the impact of rapid climatic changes, with lesser precipitation on average and unexpected heavy rains. Its main habitation is boxed in, with precipitous slopes on both sides and a raging river cutting at the feet of the village. The Pajer khadd—stream—brings millions of tonnes of silt to Lippa’s doorstep year after year, as it floods during the monsoon. Six years ago, even as disastrous floods in Kedarnath made national headlines, many parts of Kinnaur suffered unprecedented rains and loss of property. If it were not for the Kerang stream, which flows from the west to meet the Pajer near Lippa, their habitations would have been buried in a mountain of debris by now.
After six months of snowfall, the summer is the only time of the year the people of Lippa can work in their fields. Commercial horticulture—mainly apple cultivation, which has been promoted by the state government since the 1970s—is the primary source of sustenance. The villagers ensure irrigation by diverting chashmas—underground springs—from the forest. The forest also provides fuel, fodder, medicinal plants and the precious chilgozas, which are harvested and sold annually.
For the last decade, the tribal community of Lippa has been engaged in a relentless struggle to protect each of these critical elements of their lives and livelihoods: the revered Dakchompa gompa, the forest, the groundwater springs that feed their apple orchards, and the Kerang, the village’s lifeline. The proposed 130-megawatt Kashang hydroelectric project, to be constructed by the state-run Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited with a $208 million loan from the Asian Development Bank, involves the diversion of the Kerang through a six-kilometre tunnel into a neighbouring valley. In recent years, the construction of underground tunnels for hydropower projects has become the major cause of erosion, landslides and disturbance of groundwater in the Himalayas.