Giving water its place: Artificial glaciers and the politics of place in a high-altitude Himalayan Village

Arjun Sharma
Modernity and Society 1800-2000 Department, Leuven, Belgium; arjun091182@gmail.com

ABSTRACT: Jeff Malpasʼ concept of place as a bounded, open, and emergent structure is used in this article to understand the reasons for the differences in villagersʼ responses to 'artificial glaciers', or 'Ice stupas', built in two different places in the Himalayan village of Phyang, in Ladakh. Using archival material, geographic information system tools and ethnographic research, this study reveals how Phyang as a village is constituted by interacting ecological-technical, socio-symbolic, and bureaucratic-legal boundaries. It is observed that technologies such as land revenue records, and cadastral maps, introduced in previous processes of imperialist state formation, continue to inform water politics in this Himalayan region. It is further demonstrated how this politics is framed within the village of Phyang, but also shifts its boundaries to create the physical, discursive, and symbolic space necessary for projects like the Ice stupa to emerge. By examining the conflict through the lens of place, it is possible to identify the competing discursive frames employed by different stakeholders to legitimise their own projects for developing the arid area (or Thang) where the contested Ice stupa is located. Such an analysis allows critical water scholarship to understand both how places allow hydrosocial relationships to emerge, and how competing representations of place portray these relationships. Understanding the role of place in the constitution of hydrosocial relationships allows for a more nuanced appraisal of the challenges and opportunities inherent in negotiating development interventions aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. It is also recommended that scholars studying primarily the institutional dimensions of community-managed resource regimes consider the impact on these institutions of technological artefacts such as the high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes used to construct the Ice stupas.

KEYWORDS: Artificial glaciers, place, irrigation, water politics, Ladakh