From the Swiss Alps to the Hilltops of Manali

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

By Peter Bosshard
Originally published in Foreign Eye column, Tehelka Magazine, December 2004

Most Indian visitors who step outside Zurich airport will be struck by how different Switzerland is: the clean sidewalks. The trains that run on time. The bland food. The girls in skimpy dresses.

Likewise, I always find myself overwhelmed by foreign impressions when I return to India. The beautiful colors. The deafening noise. The elephants making their way through Delhi’s rush-hour traffic. The poor contract laborers from Bihar huddled together in a crowded train compartment.

My last trip took me to Prini and Jagatsukh, two villages perched on the slopes of the Beas valley near Manali. With support from the World Bank, a private company plans to build a hydropower project on their land, and will divert a river that they are using for drinking water and irrigating apple orchards. The impacts have not been properly studied. The villagers have not been offered adequate compensation, and are strongly opposed to the project. Together with Indian colleagues, I want to inform them about their rights under World Bank policies, and take their story back to the Bank’s member governments.

A cold spell has reached Manali, and the deep snow reminds me of winter in Switzerland. As I walk to the villages with an Indian friend, I realize that in spite of obvious differences, it would be superficial to see our countries as some strange, exotic opposites. Sitting in the warm, hospitable houses of Jagatsukh, discussing politics with local farmers over a glass of chai feels no different from visiting farm houses in the Swiss mountains. In India and Switzerland, many people cherish the gods of small things, and others want to marry a Crorepati on tv. In both countries, most people will be united in watching a big cricket match or football game.

In India and Switzerland, many companies want to make a quick buck on the back of the poor and the public good. Corruption scandals involve Indian politicians and Swiss bankers, and investigative journalists in both countries try to uncover them. The dividing lines have more to do with power and ethics than with the color of our passports. When an Indian journalist takes bankers in Geneva to account for a shady arms deal, she is not meddling in Swiss affairs. When Indian farmers get cheated in a World Bank project, it is not an Indian family matter.

As we leave the Beas valley, I think of the farmers in Switzerland’s Urseren valley. When a power utility attempted to drown their homes and pastures for a hydropower project, the farmers rose and drove the engineers out of their valley in no uncertain terms. Today, Bollywood stars may still be dancing in the Urseren valley, as they are on the hilltops of Manali. As we bid farewell to the good people of Prini and Jagatsukh, I hope they will be as successful in their struggle for land and water as their colleagues in Switzerland.

Peter Bosshard, Policy Director of International Rivers Network, an environmental organization based in Berkeley/USA