Saturday, February 7, 2015

Frozen at Muguthang

A NOW! fileFoto of a Dokpa and his yaks in North Sikkim

Snow might have imperiled the Dokpas and their yaks now, but their way of life has been on the brink for a while…

Muguthang in Spring [foto: Karchoong Diyali]
Muguthang this winter [foto: Hill Media Network]
Dokpas, the yak herders, are hardy folk. They need to be, living as they do beyond the tree-line in the cold desert of North Sikkim. They live in near isolation and are a dwindling tribe who rarely call out for help, knowing full well that when a situation is too difficult even for them, assistance from those who do not know their life is a bit too much to expect. So, when they send out an SOS, it demands attention because they are clearly flagging a dire emergency. And they have sounded an SOS now. 
Even though they number only a handful, in fact because they are so few, Sikkim should pay heed and deliver what is actually very little that they are seeking. 
For the immediate future, the Dokpas [of Muguthang in North Sikkim] want fodder to be airdropped for their yaks, next, they want telecom connectivity, and for the long term, they want one of their more educated younger ones to be trained as a paramedic and posted among them with at least some basic medical supplies. 
Why they are making these demands will be explained in more detail in the following paragraphs, but what cannot be ignored is that the demands are very basic and can be met through the corporate social responsibility kitty of even a mid-sized company. Some proactive engagement from the administration [which was on welcome display in the latest instance] and more civil society concern [still awaited] should power through the political engagement required to iron out the situational kinks which could obstacle delivery of even these simple demands.

Muguthang in the north-western tip of Sikkim bordering Tibet and Nepal is a high valley [16,500 ft above the sea level], hemmed in from all sides by high mountains. There are no motorable roads leading to it, and the valley, home to about nine yak-herding families now, apart from sizeable army and ITBP detachments, can be accessed only through an arduous five-hour trek from the nearest road-head at Thangu en route to Gurudongmar. Winters have always been severe there, but snow comes down with still more intensity some years. This is one of those winters. The beginning of the New Year sent down so much snow that not only was Muguthang cut off, but even the Dokpas were snowed into their homes. Snow had piled up to around 5 feet by the second week of January, and even as the around 15 Dokpas still in Muguthang [some others had already come down to Gangtok before the winters] were getting concerned with the turn in weather, four of them developed medical complications. The army and ITBP detachments at Muguthang can offer only the most basic medical assistance, and while in earlier times, the ailing could be taken down to Thangu on foot from where vehicles can be arranged, the thick snow made any such traverse impossible.
61-year-old Tsogya Bhutia, who escorted his wife and daughter along with one other Dokpa, out of Muguthang on 16 January on a medical evacuation carried out by Indian Army helicopters, recalls that getting word out about their situation was not easy. To begin with, the only telephone near them is at the ITBP camp, and because of the snow, accessing even this camp was not easy. The PCO there is also used by all the personnel stationed there, hence there is always a crush of people eager to make phone calls. Of course, there is also the attendant complication of coherently conveying the urgency of a situation over telephone to the outside world. Be that as it may, through mediation by the ITBP officers, word was conveyed to the SDM at Chungthang about the medical emergency at Muguthang and the desperate situation created by overland exits being snowed in.
Tsogya Bhutia makes special mention of the fact that this time, the administration was extremely proactive and responded with heart-warming empathy to their situation. The Chungthang SDM immediately brought the matter to the notice of District Collector, North, and the administration at once arranged for essential supplies  of food items such as rice, dal, salt, mustard oil, kerosene oil etc. and medicines to be dispatched to the nearest helicopter base at Chaten near Lachen to be air-dropped to Muguthang. The Muguthang posts of the ITBP and Army furthermore assured to extend all possible help to the local public in the interim till relief supplies reached.
Evacuating “civilians” in army helicopters however is more complicated than delivering essential commodities, so even though helicopters initially arrived with the ration, they could not initially evacuate the ailing Dokpas for want of requisite clearances. The State administration [through the Home and Land Revenue Departments] pursued the matter with the concerned authorities and expedited the process, and the clearances eventually came through. On 16 January, army helicopters flew two more sorties to Muguthang and airlifted four Dokpas, including Tsogya Bhutia, to Chaten near Lachen. Meanwhile 10 quintals of essential commodities were also reached to the valley.
Tsogya Bhutia is all praises for the effort and stresses that this was the first time such initiative was taken for them. This is not the first time that an emergency situation has developed for them, but this was the first time that such engaged response was extended, he shares.
“When we landed in Chaten, the Chungthang SDM was also there to check on us. Then an army lady doctor arrived and checked all of us after which they insisted that we board an army ambulance which reached us to Chungthang,” he details with an obvious sense of gratitude.

The Dokpas are not easily alarmed by snow. Their home is along an average elevation of 16,500 feet, so snow, high winds and piercing cold are part of their routine life. But talk to Tsogya Bhutia, and he will tell you that once every five years or so, the snow comes down in volumes which stagger even the Dokpas and their hardy yaks. They are going through one such cycle at present, and their situation is made more dire by the fact that because theirs is now a dwindling way of life, there are fewer hands to herd the yaks and the traditional solutions they had adopted till even a decade ago, are not possible any more.
This situation requires a slight digression to be put in perspective.
The Dokpas of Muguthang are known as the “Dokpa Gyaga”. The name comes from the Tibetan word for 100 [gya]. Tsogya Bhutia explains that they got this name because at one time there were a 100 yak herd in the Muguthang valley! Today there are Nine!! Their numbers have been falling for several reasons and even about two decades back, in the early 1990’s there were on 16 yak herds and about 80-90 Dokpas left in Muguthang. This season, there were only 15 when the year began. Since then, four were airlifted out, four others trekked out of Muguthang, and now there are only seven Dokpas left behind in Muguthang to attend to the around 1,500 yaks there.
As mentioned, snow, even “big snow”, is not new to either Muguthang or the Dokpas. There used to be a time, before 1962, when the Dokpas had the practice of moving to Tibet during winters since it snows relatively less there. The border is however now closed to them, and has been so for more than fifty years now. Given this situation, the Dokpas had devised a solution to ensure that their herds could feed even through the harshest winters – this, they achieved by moving the yaks to the still higher pastures at Dongbey and Janak right on the Tibetan border. This plain is extremely windy, and while this makes life for humans extremely uncomfortable, the wind ensures that the snow does not grow too thick and the grass hence is always within scraping reach of the yaks.
The travel to these goths [yak sheds] is however not possible anymore because there are no longer enough Dokpas around to make it a safe or even practical undertaking. Hence, while the full grown male yaks are still taken up to Dongbey and set loose there, the females and the calves, because they need to be corralled every evening, are kept back in Muguthang where the few remaining Dokpas stay. But every few years, Muguthang receives “too much snow” and even the corrals get snowed out. The grass gets too deep to reach for the yaks and the animals move to higher ridges where they are exposed even more severely to the elements and predators. Left out in the “wild”, the yaks and their young ones fall to the cold and starvation and also to packs of Tibetan Wolves. The former is an immediate worry, and the only solution the Dokpas see is for fodder to be air-dropped to them because the snow is too thick for the yaks with them to be able to graze.
As for the Tibetan Wolves, they are a part of the cold desert cycle, and this season four Yaks were killed by wolf packs while Tsogya Bhutia was still there. He attests that feed was posing a problem for the herds in Muguthang, but none had died while he was still there and there has been no contact with home since then for him to present an update. Meanwhile, a communiqué from Hill Media Network quotes former Lachen Pipon Cho Rapjor, who has a goth in Muguthang, as informing that 80 yaks have died of starvation there. He has conveyed fears for the remaining yaks if immediate assistance, by way of supply of fodder, was not rushed to the area at the earliest. In this regard, Tsogya Bhutia also stresses that a dispatch of fodder was an urgent need for the area. There are around 1,500 yaks in the valley, he informs. The district administration meanwhile, is in close contact with the ITBP personnel in Muguthang and keeping track of the situation. No yak deaths due to starvation have been reported to them, officials inform.
Clearly, it is not just the snow, but a combination of factors touched upon earlier which have come together to create the present emergency. Unfortunately, while the administration is seized of the situation and keen to airdrop fodder, the situation is complicated by the fact that fodder does not come under the definition of “essential commodities”, the airlifting of which by defence helicopters is much quicker and easier to negotiate than securing clearance to divert army helicopters to fodder-delivery duty. Work is reportedly underway to secure even this permission on a special needs basis, but as of now nothing concrete can be said. Reports suggest that one supply of fodder has been reached to Tsoka near Muguthang, but with around 1,500 yaks to feed, this will remain a challenging task if the weather does not clear up.
To get an understanding of how the Dokpas are not easily fazed and of how, in better times, when there were many more of them, they have weathered through much worse without reaching out for help, some stories of past extreme weather years need to be shared.
Ask a Dokpa about which was the worst year for them in living memory and they will mention 1968. Remember that was the year when the Teesta flooded, washing away all bridges on it in Sikkim and in West Bengal, a year when essential commodities had to be airdropped to most parts of Sikkim and Darjeeling. Few people remember the horrors of that year any more, and fewer still know of what happened in North Sikkim; But the Dokpas do. That was the year when the entire Yak population of Muguthang, as also some other valleys, was all but annihilated. Of the thousands of yaks at Muguthang at that time, barely around twenty survived! The following winters were mild, and as the yak herds being replenished, the pastures grew lush and the people and their livestock were resuscitated. They did so on their own. It needs to be mentioned here that the yaks do not die of cold per se, but succumb to it when they have already been rendered weak due to lack of adequate nutrition which is a very real worry for the present.
More recently, in 1985, the Dokpas, including Tsogya Bhutia, were caught in blizzard on their way to the high pastures of Dongbey. The Dokpas rushed to shelter and yaks were left exposed in the plains. When the storm abated, the Dokpas returned to find several yaks having died of cold and the remaining ones ambling blind, their eyes frozen shut! Even then, the Dokpas recovered on their own. But they still had their numbers then, a luxury they no longer enjoy any more. Tsogya Bhutia is frank in admitting that more and more of the young Dokpas are moving to other pursuits now. “Our way of life, our Goths and our yaks will probably be around only for another 10 years or so,” he believes.

The Dokpa way of life is clearly imperiled, and while the jury might be out on what comes next for them, because there are so few of them left, more voices need to join theirs in ensuring that they receive what is clearly very little that they are demanding for what will go a long for their sustenance.
1.    A telecom connection as much to remain in touch with family that has moved out of Muguthang as to communicate emergencies more conveniently and more urgently. The Dokpas have petitioned BSNL for a phone line, but in the present times, it should not be too difficult to even provide them with a satellite phone which will be much more versatile. The PCO at the ITBP camp, although open for Dokpas as well, is at best a medium for one-way communication out of Muguthang. For someone to check on the Dokpas conveniently, they will need to be brought under the telecommunication footprint.
2.    Fodder for the yaks. This, not just for the immediate situation, but as a supply for every winter since most yaks can no longer be taken to the higher pastures. This can easily be worked out in coordination with Dokpas themselves.
3.    Training a Dokpa youth as a paramedic and posting him/ her in Muguthang. Clearly no other paramedic is going to accept the posting to Muguthang and since the already scant population there is also ageing, they need someone with basic medical training and provisions to attend to them round the year.

Now, to see how Sikkim steps up to the aid of a people who are too few to knock on all doors by themselves.
[by PEMA WANGCHUK DORJEE, with additional reporting by VISHNU NEOPANEY]

1 comment:

  1. This article gives us a glimpse into the lives of the hardy Dokpas of Muguthang. Our trials and tribulations pale in their comparison. The heart goes out to these hardy people.Yet, the geo-political realities have compounded and edged them closer to extinction. Except for the Dokpas, the harsh truth, life will go on for others including myself.
    It is heart warming to know at least somebody cared.
    SikkimNow!, has placed it's conscience as top priority by publishing a thorough article on the plight of these people.
    The only thing that comes to mind is a quote by H.H. Dalai Lama,"When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways - either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength. Thanks to the teachings of Buddha, I have been able to take this second way".
    I hope all of us find inner strength!!.


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