Mental Health In The Darjeeling Himalaya Socio-Ecology - MHI




Mental Health In The Darjeeling
Himalaya Socio-Ecology

Recognising Voices of Stakeholders
in Marginalised Mountainous Regions

Roshan P. Rai, Michael Matergia, and Rinzi Lama


illustrator’s bio

Amreeta Banerjee

Alice A. Barwa completed her MA in Education from Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Univerity, Delhi (AUD), in 2022, and is from the Oraon Adivasi community, a native of Chhotanagpur Plateau, Chhattisgarh. She has been an advocate for Adivasi rights and voices as a member of an Adivasi youth collective @TheAdivasiPost, and has been an Adivasi youth representative at UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. Her research interests include education, culture, sociology, and linguistics.

The IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2022) report states that some impacts of climate change are already “irreversible” and it has adversely affected the mental health of people. It is evident that the impacts of this global crisis are disproportionate across regions and communities, with disproportionate mental health impacts which cannot be ignored. There is an immediate need towards integrating mental health into climate justice with an understanding of the socio-ecological context of communities to address mental health consequences related to climate change. 

This article aims to locate climate change and mental health in the Darjeeling Himalaya, based on our experience partnering with communities since 1996. In and through this narrative, we argue for an intersectional approach to understanding the socio-ecological context to develop community-based interventions and policies that promote climate resilience inclusive of mental well-being. 

The Darjeeling narrative

The global narrative of Darjeeling tends to be towards a romanticised, post-colonial, and touristy landscape with great views of the Kanchenjunga, Darjeeling Tea, and forests. Darjeeling Tea, a global brand, is sold with imagery of green plantations and smiling women picking tea. This is supplemented by the narrative of discord and conflict related to the political demands for statehood as well as the discourse around the Eastern Himalaya, a global biodiversity hotspot.

When viewed through the lens of equity, justice, and well-being, these dominant narratives are found to be devoid of the everyday realities of people. Life in Darjeeling is complex and challenging. Access and benefits of nature’s bounty are limited for the people despite being resource-rich. Locating mental health in this challenging socio-ecology requires unpacking Darjeeling.

Unpacking the Darjeeling narrative 

Rural Darjeeling communities spread across 3 distinct landscapes: tea plantations, forests, and small farming hamlets.  

Unpacking ‘Darjeeling Tea’ entails recognising a history steeped in colonialism, being perpetuated even today. A recent report from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce states: “the plight and deprivation of the tea workers and feudalistic set up that alienate tea workers from their basic land rights despite seven decades of independence starkly undermines 7 successful land reform movements in the country”.  This colonial legacy perpetuates insufficient wages which are “minimal to the extent of not meeting the basic needs of workers manifests a severe crisis in the tea sector”.

Similar to narratives around tea, there is a simplistic celebration of the forest cover of Darjeeling as a global good with environmental benefits for humanity, leaving out the forest villagers of Darjeeling. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 which sought to address the ‛historical injusticeʼ done to ‛traditional forest dwellersʼ has resulted in limited dispensation and setting up of institutional mechanisms at an extremely slow pace. Dispensation has been mostly for people with tribal certificates, resulting in only a section of the village with formal land ownership, leaving others without. Furthermore, in these remote villages, there has been an increasing amount of human-wildlife conflict that is threatening peoples’ lives and livelihoods, but these remain not adequately redressed, acknowledged, or compensated.  

Farmers occupy an important part of the Darjeeling socio-ecology but maintain extremely small land holdings and face severe remunerative injustices. Agriculture offers a bleak life opportunity, being far removed from the social infrastructure and market. Additionally, human-wildlife conflict is now overflowing out of forest boundaries, making agriculture an impossible task.

Across the tea, forest, and farming communities, many families manage their lives through migration to cities and other countries. Thus, in some sense, Darjeeling survives on a repatriation economy. These socio-ecological stressors have contributed to Darjeeling’s long-standing demand for autonomy from West Bengal. It has undergone experiments of autonomy without proper devolution of power since 1988, with the formation of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council and the successive three versions of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. Throughout this, the everyday lives of people have had extremely limited recourse to self-governance.

Climate crisis in Darjeeling 

Climate change heavily impacts the Himalayas and within the intervention time scale of DLR Prerna from 1996 till date, we have witnessed a number of ecological impacts in the region. Some of the most visible are – Darjeeling Mandarins have made a range-shift in altitude; rhododendrons are blooming early; and changes that have a direct impact on productivity, the mosquito and tea mosquito, are seen in higher altitudes, impacting health. Newer pests and diseases have developed in crops, and in some cases, with increased virulence, reducing production. These changes threaten livelihoods, food and nutrition security. Changes in temperature and precipitation are aggravating water stresses and contributing to reduced and changing spring flows that have huge communal impacts. Extreme weather events result in more frequent landslides and flash floods, leading to loss of life and livelihoods.

Map of Darjeeling District

Mental health in the climate crisis 

The climate crisis and its impacts in Darjeeling have added a further layer of stress that individuals, families, and communities have to adapt to, with its fallout on the mental well-being most of all. 

Lack of agency as a region and community; social and political marginalisation and identity; and issues related to land ownership and opportunities are central to the narrative of the everyday lives of Darjeeling. This sense of lack is central to the political autonomy demand. Such a difficult socio-ecological context has meant that the people of Darjeeling have been living in duress that has a direct impact on their mental health. The everyday solutions like migration have affected the migrant as well as the family which stays home.

There is a lack of language and conversation on mental health in Darjeeling which is further aggravated by the lack of basic care and support services in the region. It is only with the COVID-19 pandemic that mental health issues are being acknowledged and discussed. 

In this challenging interplay of life in Darjeeling, with its pre-existing vulnerabilities, the climate crisis has added a further layer of stress that individuals and communities have to adapt to for the mental well-being of all.

Lack of agency as a region and community; social and political marginalisation and identity; and issues related to land ownership and opportunities are central to the narrative of the everyday lives of Darjeeling.

Lack of agency as a region and community; social and political marginalisation and identity; and issues related to land ownership and opportunities are central to the narrative of the everyday lives of Darjeeling.

Negotiating pathways to redress mental health and the climate crisis 

The climate crisis shines a spotlight on the deep intersection and alignment between the socio-ecological context and mental health within Darjeeling. There is a need to acknowledge this and have explicit representation in the National Action Plan and State Action Plans for Climate Change. The national plan has a special mission for the Himalaya but does not acknowledge mental health. There is a need for climate action plans to integrate climate crisis trauma management. Likewise, the progressive Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, while guaranteeing rights to access mental health services to all, does not go on to recognise the intersection of climate change and mental health. While it talks of access at the district levels, what is appropriate to the mountains and socio-ecological context like Darjeeling is not explicit. 

Community-based approaches have the potential to involve individuals as active participants in efforts to improve collective mental health. Our experience in Darjeeling demonstrates that the impacts of climate change and mental health are shaped by each community’s unique socio-ecology. Thus, successful interventions will need to move away from dominant and incomplete narratives to respond to unique vulnerabilities driving climate trauma and build upon existing local capacity for peer-support, mutual-aid, and resilience. Furthermore, acknowledgement of socio-ecological context may lead to broad-based intersectoral responses that interweave clinical and psychological responses within a broader framework of livelihoods, ecological sustainability, and resilient infrastructure. 

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