Understanding socio-economic transitions in the mountains

Jayanta Bandyopadhyay

THE perceptions of socio-economic and cultural transitions in all parts of the world have, for a long time, been guided and promoted by the traditional ideas of economic growth. For some time, however, these perceptions have been facing fundamental challenges to their utility and continuity in the process of policy making for socio-economic transformations in general.

In addition, socio-economic transformations in environmentally fragile and ethnically diverse regions of the world, like the mountains or the deserts, need to be assessed with a conceptual framework much more comprehensive than the presently used one guided by reductionist concepts of economic growth. Accordingly, in addition to such a need to enlarge the conceptual foundations of traditional economics, understanding of the factors that encourage or hinder socio-economic well-being and cultural evolution in fragile regions like the mountains, have to be recognized and internalized in policy making.

This article addresses those factors that relate to these features that distinguish the mountain regions and have not been clearly internalized in the conceptual framework for the assessment and understanding of socio-economic transitions in the mountain regions, including the Himalaya. In common parlance, such transitions have been projected largely as ‘mountain development’, quite unrelated to the nature of their impacts on the well-being or otherwise of the natural environment or the communities living in the mountain regions. This is why there are frequent instances of conflicts over formally designed interventions and their ground realities in the mountains, commonly projected as ‘development’.

One step in the direction of distinguishing transformations in the mountains that promote well-being, both of the environment and the communities, is to distinguish the social, cultural and environmental status of the mountains in comparison with their surrounding plains. During the last few decades, some scholars have tried to articulate and describe the factors that represent the distinguishing features of socio-economic transformations in the mountains.1 Rana identified several challenges and opportunities for mountain development in the present century.2 Ramakrishnan et al  interpreted that there has been a lack of interest among the scientists in mountain research in such conceptual directions.3 Rhoades has stressed the need for new and creative thinking on the mountains in the wake of the worldwide attention now being focused on them, after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.4

Notwithstanding such a recognition of the need for novel thinking, planned interventions or other drivers of transformation, have only led to higher levels of new investments, guided by the old conceptual framework that equates development with economic growth. Such concepts have emerged in the context of economic processes associated with in the flat plains and applied mechanically on the mountains. This has resulted in a ‘plains bias’ in the understanding of socio-economic transitions in the mountains. One significant step in the direction of distinguishing desirable transformations in the mountains from those that are to be avoided.

In a pioneering work, Jodha articulated several ‘Mountain Specificities’.5 Such ideas encouraged Bandyopadhyay to provide an eco-system-oriented set of distinguishing features of the mountains and uplands in the form of ‘Mountain Characteristics’.6 These characteristics are described below in this article. In order to facilitate the development of a holistic conceptual framework for identifying desired forms of human interventions in the mountains and uplands, the mountain characteristics are recommended as useful starting points. In this background, the mountain characteristics will be elaborated in the section below.



J. Bandopadhyaya in Grassroots Environmental Action: People’s Participation in Sustainable Development. Routledge, London, 1992. 


With the brief background, the various mountain characteristics and their interlinkages will now be presented. This should be seen as an expression based on an evolving analysis. This presentation starts with the query about the most significant environmental factor that distinguishes between the plains and the mountains. Under all conditions, all mountain landscapes are characterized by their vertical formation (verticality) and slope. These are jointly identified as the primary characteristic of all the mountains.

The primary characteristic creates the condition for the emergence and functioning of secondary mountain characteristics, which are divided in two categories. The first type includes the environmental characteristics of the mountains, representing the state and functioning of the ecosystem. The other category includes the implications of these characteristics on the socio-economic and cultural characteristics. The environmental characteristics are integral to the mountains while the socio-economic characteristics express them-selves only in the case of the existence of human communities making use of the ecosystem services of the environment.

All these mountain characteristics have important operational implications. At this stage of analysis, however, these characteristics and their implications are mostly indicative and are subject to further indepth refinement. It is hoped that with such refinements in future, they may directly help in the creation and acceptance of a holistic analytical framework for addressing socio-economic and cultural transformations in the mountains. The primary characteristic of vertical formation and slope are obvious distinctive features of the mountain regions and could be taken to be synonymous with the idea of three dimensional landscape, as described by Troll.7

Rhoades and Thompson have also taken a similar approach to describing the distinctive features of the mountains, providing the starting point for a new and innovative approach to the understanding of transformations in the mountain regions.8 The introduction and description of the secondary mountain characteristics as emerging from the primary one, is an important feature of this presentation. This is seen as a convenient way in which a new holistic conceptual framework for the mountain transformations could be presented in a simple way. The environmental characteristics exist and operate even when there is no presence of humans in a mountain region. For about 60 million years the vertical formation has got built up without any human presence till very recently. However, human inflows have indeed changed the Himalaya quantitatively and qualitatively.

Various ecological processes involving the atmosphere, lithosphere, biosphere and the hydrosphere generate the environmental characteristics of the mountains. Due to their vertical formation, the mountain landscapes have much higher potential energy generating conditions for high levels of morphological instability. Example can be given of the many mass wasting or erosion events, like landslides in the mountains, especially after high rainfall events. In addition, the very tectonic/volcanic processes that contribute to their vertical formation through uplift or accumulation of lava on land, inflict a great deal of structural fragility. Structural fragility, here, is seen as the first among the four environmental characteristics of the mountains. This characteristic needs to be understood indepth and given due importance while designing engineering interventions in the mountains, among others the construction of roads or dams, expansion of farmlands and recreational parks.

Closely linked with their vertical formation, is the meteorological role of the mountains as the climate maker at both the macro, meso and micro spatial levels. The atmospheric circulations interact with the vertical landscape and create areas with scanty and high levels of precipitation. This is usually seen as rainfall but in high altitudes, there will be snowfalls also. The altitudinal zones, aspect of slopes, sunlight hours, rainfall direction and many meteorological conditions, all generate a great mosaic of micro-climates in the mountains including extreme climatic conditions causing floods and water scarcity. The climatic diversity further generates favourable conditions for rich biological diversity in the mountains. The climatic and biological diversity conditions are jointly identified as the second environmental characteristic of the mountains.

At a macro level, an extension of this categorization may divide mountain regions as low and high precipitation areas, as in the case of the Tibet Plateau with annual precipitation of about 400 mm and the south aspect of the Himalaya with annual precipitation of about 2500 mm.9

In the backdrop of these environmental characteristics, the mountains have a complex ecological status. This complexity is recognized as the fourth of the environmental characteristics of the mountains. Vertical formation as the primary characteristic and the environmental characteristics are omnipresent when mountains and uplands are concerned. However, they have very significant implications when humans start to intervene in the mountain regions for satisfying their socio-economic aspirations. In the section below, these implications will be described as socio-economic characteristics. They play crucial roles in the design of human interventions in the mountains aimed at promoting well-being of the environment and the communities of the mountains.

While the concepts of economic growth in general will change in the coming decades as a result of the emergence of new concepts in economics, the process of assessing the impacts of human interventions for socio-economic well-being and environmental stability need the internalization of a different set of parameters, which are identified in this article as the Mountain Characteristics. These characteristics have significant influences in the shaping of socio-economic transitions and environmental stability/instability in the mountains and uplands. With the consideration of these implications, backed by an updated perception of economics in general, it will be possible to generate a new conceptual framework for socio-economic and environmental well-being in the mountains and the uplands, opening the process of a more accurate and effective redefinition of ‘mountain development’.

Due to their vertical formation and slope, mountains and uplands are characterized by greater inaccessibility, when compared with the plains. Human interventions in the mountains and uplands to reduce this inaccessibility is as old an effort as human presence in these regions. In this process came the walking paths for humans, the horse tracks, ropeways, the rough roads for hardy vehicles, the multilane tracks for high-speed luxury automobiles and finally the helicopters, infusing a continuous decline in the inaccessibility of the mountains.

This array of technological advancements is considered, in the received perception, as an element of ‘mountain development’ but who gains and who is the loser in this transformation is not openly assessed. The mountain communities want to reduce inaccessibility for easy access to hospitals, schools, employment, etc. in the plains. The interest in the plains is in the replacement of local village economies by an expansion of the market system operated from the plains, followed by easier access to natural resources of the mountains and uplands, like water, timber, medicinal herbs and cheap labour.

The gradual but inevitable collapse of the barrier of inaccessibility has been the flag-bearer of traditional concept of mountain development. Within the limited scope of this article, a longer analysis of the political economy of this decline of inaccessibility of the mountain areas, like the Himalaya, is difficult, notwithstanding the fundamental importance of such an analysis.

In addition to inaccessibility, physical movement in the mountains and uplands is made more difficult and costly, by their vertical structure. As a result, the construction related movements have to often work against the gravitational force. Materials and equipment for any structural construction in the mountains and uplands have to be carried upwards against gravity over long distances. This increases the capital requirement of such projects, as opposed to in the plains. At the level of the communities, people in the mountains and uplands have to use muscle power for long hours in a day for their livelihood. This needs a fundamental modification of the traditional economics of transportation and construction in the mountains. Such a new economics will be most useful in the assessment of human interventions.

The climate processes in the mountains are much more complex than in the plains. In the context of the Himalaya, the data base on this climatic matrix is quite insufficient for analysis, leading to the region being described as a hydrological black box. This lack frequently leads to catastrophic extreme climate events, leading to heavy losses to communities or structural projects. Example may be given of the Kedarnath disaster in June 2013 or the more recent, flash floods in the Amarnath area, that caused extensive loss of life and property.

The altitudinal zones existing in the mountains often provide a natural capital for the promotion of leisure tourism from the nearby plains. In the case of the Himalaya, the small towns established by the British from Darjeeling in the East to Mussoorie in the west, have now become hill stations that get heavily congested by people from the plains in the summer months of May and June, bringing great economic growth to these locations. Spatial climatic variability is extremely high in areas with low rainfall and high rainfall (including hail-prone areas) forming a grand climatic mosaic. The land use and cropping pattern needs to be adapted to such a matrix, as opposed to the plains.

Those parts of the mountains and uplands that receive large precipitation, as snow or rain, have the potential for hydropower generation providing a good option for ensuring well-being by the governance of hydroprojects following the mountain characteristics. In the absence of such a recognition, hydropower projects often have become objects of popular opposition. More recently, the water potential and storage capacities have linked the mountains and the plains below, with the suggested arrangement of ‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’, bringing in a new dimension to promoting well-being of the environment and the communities of the mountains. With global warming and climate advancing undiminished, the hydrological picture of the mountains, including the Himalaya will become more challenging.

Ethnic diversity, marginality and migration are probably the most important socio-economic characteristic of the mountains and the uplands that needs to be most seriously internalized in the new conceptual framework. Mountains and uplands host a wide ethnic diversity while acting as a barrier to the rapid demographic movements. Pushed by their relative inaccessibility and energy intensity of movement, mountain landscapes encourage human settlements to be small and scattered. This, in turn, causes marginality of the mountain and upland communities. On the other hand, the societies and economies in the plains, generate strong economies and market forces, attracting people to migrate from the mountains to the plains for jobs, mainly as manual labour. The handling of this marginality thus is key to the generation of a new conceptual framework for assessing interventions to promote well-being of both the communities and the environment.

As described above, the concept of Mountain Characteristics will be most useful for the creation of a new and more accurate conceptual framework for addressing and assessing well-being in the mountains, like the Himalaya.


1. N.J.R. Allan, G.W. Knapp & C. Stadel (eds), Human Impacts on Mountains. Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, 1988; M. Sanwal, ‘What We Know about Mountain Development: Common Property, Investment Priority and Institutional Arrangements’, Mountain Research and Development 9(1), 1989, pp. 3-14.

2. R.S.J.B. Rana, ‘Mountain Development Towards 2000: Challenges and Opportunities’. Proceedings of the International Symposium and Inauguration of ICIMOD, Kathmandu, 1983.

3. P.S. Ramakrishnan, A.N. Purohit, K.G. Saxena & K.S. Rao, Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development. Indian National Science Academy, Diamond Jubilee Publication, New Delhi, 1994.

4. R.E. Rhoades, ‘Pathways Towards a Sustainable Mountain Agriculture for the 21st Century: The Hindukush-Himalayan Experience’. ICIMOD, Kathmandu, 1997.

5. N.S. Jodha, ‘Mountain Perspective and Sustainability: A Framework for Development Strategies’. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Strategies for Sustainable Mountain Agriculture, ICIMOD, Kathmandu, 1990.

6. J. Bandyopadhyay, ‘From Environmental Conflicts to Sustainable Mountain Trans-formations’, in D. Ghai, and J. Vivian (eds.), Grassroots Environmental Action: People’s Participation in Sustainable Development. Routledge, London, 1992.

7. C. Troll, ‘Comparative Geography of the High Mountains of the World in View of landscape Ecology’, in N.J.R. Allan, et al. (eds.), Human Impact on Mountains. Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, 1988.

8. R.E. Rhoades & S.I. Thompson, ‘Adaptive Strategies in Alpine Environments: Beyond Ecological Particularism’, American Ethnol-ogist 2, 1975, pp. 535-51.

9. Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and SayanangshuModak, Governing the Water Tower of Asia’. Observer Research Foundation, Monograph 25, March 2022, pp.16-17. https://www.orfonline.org/research/governing-the-water-tower-of-asia/