Will the Real Montologist Please Stand up?

Jul 11th, 2014 | By | Category: CLIMATE SCIENCE, Ecosystem Functions, Experts Speak, Government Policies, Lessons, M-20 CAMPAIGN, MOUNTAIN ISSUES, Mountainvoice, POLICY ADVOCACY

‘Since its dictionary existence hasn’t caught on, expecting ‘montology’ as a possible new academic discipline to work its way through could only be preposterous. Isn’t it risking one’s own career path in already established disciplines in favor of a yet-to-be-created discipline? Will it not subsume some of the current dominant areas of ‘expertise’ concerning mountains?There is clearly more to it than just being apprehensive of a fresh ‘intrusion’ into well-entrenched academic/research dominance.’

 

Dr. Sudhirender Sharma, who studied in a mountain university and started his development interventions in the mountain villages, calls for a need to give ‘Montology’ a formal status in teaching and in research. Unless ‘Montology’ is developed as a subject, building a cadre of qualified people with empathy towards mountains may remain elusive. Though the issues of ‘marginality’ and ‘remoteness’ have been addressed in the mountains, growing ‘fragility’ and its consequent impact has not got the attention it deserves. Need it be said that mountain research has been inadequate in addressing genuine mountain concerns due to its project-focused, donor driven nature. No wonder, existing institutions in the mountain region have not been made accountable for mountain tragedies and disasters. It is time ‘Montology’ is nurtured as a new subject in mountain universities and colleges. 

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Like the Uttarakhand disaster of June 2013, the washing away of some two-dozen students recently (June 2014) in river Beas in  Himachal Pradesh will soon be history, if it already isn’t! While the man-made nature of the previous disaster has yet to be fully fathomed, the present tragedy has been sorely on account of the apathetic attitude of upstream dam regulators. The sudden release of waters without any forewarning had taken the students by fatal surprise.

Kedarnath-postdisasterWith little care, the tragedy could have easily been avoided. However, it isn’t the first time that such an avoidable tragedy has occurred. And there cannot be any guarantee that it may not occur again! That the flows in most rivers have been regulated and hence ‘unnatural’ is not in common public knowledge. Nowhere have people been taught that a ‘river’ is not what it used to be, neither natural nor free-flowing. The new knowledge has restricted reach and is often exclusive.

It is common knowledge that mountains (it’s governance structure) have had little say on the kind of ‘development’ that may have suited its geological and ecological exclusivity. To bring the mountain habitats at par with the human development indices of the downstream populace, the influx of systems and technologies from the plains has been unprecedented. Infrastructure development has addressed the core issues of mountain ‘marginality’ and ‘remoteness’, though!

Without doubt, development in the mountains has aggravated mountain ‘fragility’. Could not the impact of development in the mountains be foreseen? Mountain research, earlier known as orology, has been part of the institutional research agenda. Though conducted in public interest, mountain research remains largely accountable to its institutional mandate. No wonder, none of the existing institutions relate to or have been held accountable to any degree to the mountains tragedies and disasters.

bhutanMountain research has failed to live up to the promise of addressing genuine mountain concerns. A decade ago, yours truly have had the opportunity of moderating a session of the Vice-Chancellors (VC) of three mountain universities. Surprisingly, crop research was conducted in the agriculture university in irrigated plots whereas 80 per cent of mountain farming has been rain-fed. How could irrigated research be applied to rain-fed areas? Such examples abound in the mountains.

A significant aspect of the problem has been that the ‘mountain research’ agenda is set outside of the mountains, mostly by resource-rich academic decision-making super structures in the capital cities. At another extreme, mountain research is either influenced by overseas research or is guided by project donors. Trapped within the narrow confines of growing mountain hegemony – mountain research is but a reflection of growing donor-research(er) nexus.

The challenge is therefore to make mountain research locally relevant and socially accountable, liberated from donor crutches. With the nexus being well entrenched, it is easier said than done to make mountain research relevant as well as accountable. The mountain universities and research institutions ought to develop ‘mountain curriculum’ and ‘mountain research agenda’ specific to their catchments, under a newly constituted ‘mountain academic council’ or some such body.

Montologist ought to be nurtured as a new discipline. Like degrees in biology or sociology, montology as a subject of scientific inquiry alone can fill the hopes and expectations of mountain people. Though the term ‘montology’ was included into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002, it is over a decade that the subject has yet to catch the attention of those responsible for the mountain affairs. Only a montologist can have empathy for the mountains and its people!

Since its dictionary existence hasn’t caught on, expecting ‘montology’ as a possible new academic discipline to work its way through could only be preposterous. Isn’t it risking one’s own career path in already established disciplines in favor of a yet-to-be-created discipline? Will it not subsume some of the current dominant areas of ‘expertise’ concerning mountains?There is clearly more to it than just being apprehensive of a fresh ‘intrusion’ into well-entrenched academic/research dominance.
Glance at the epistemic structure of development of western science thus far.  What emerges is that science was organized both intellectually and institutionally around ‘disciplines’ in which researchers could develop a high level of ‘expertise’ in a small area of inquiry. This ‘reductionist’ approach, often credited to Rene Descartes. has proved powerful in areas like quantum physics, molecular biology and medical diagnostics but has impeded investigations of complex systems.
Kashmir IndiaClimate change is one area where the failure of the ‘reductionist’ approach has made it difficult for scientists to articulate the threat posed by climate change since it lies beyond their expertise. No wonder, climate change has remained contentious issue among scientists without any clear line of thought emerging. Alvin Toffler had articulated it: ‘western science has split-up problems into their smallest possible components, often forgetting to put the pieces back together again’.
One is reminded of Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine who wasn’t satisfied with merely taking things apart. Prigogine had spent the better part of his lifetime research trying to ‘put the pieces back together again’ – the pieces being biology and physics, necessity and chance, science and humanity. Mountain issues are akin to Climate change, both suffering from ‘reductionist’ mindset. Montology can be developed as a discipline that can address prevailing uncertainty and ambiguity in making a sense of the complex mountain environments.
Developing and organising ‘montology’ as an area of academic/research can help us draw some order out of the current chaos – a new dialogue with the mountains. Any takers?

Discussion Forum Link>>

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Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma wrote this article for Climate Himalaya’s Expert Speak Column. Dr. Sharma is a development analyst based in New Delhi, India.

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