Perceptions of Risk in the Himalayas

Monthly Webinar Series: December 2023-December 2024 (Culminating in a workshop)

In recent years, the Himalayas have increasingly come to be seen as a canary in the coal mine with respect to climate change impact. The region has therefore become a testing ground for theories of ‘risk’, ‘crisis’ and other associated terms such as disaster, hazards, vulnerability, and resilience.

Beyond the immediacy of this ecological framing of both risk and of the Himalayas as a region of interest, this webinar series is an invitation to reflect on the “productive life of risk” (Zaloom 2004) in the Himalayas through longer historical trajectories and wider disciplinary perspectives.

How might our understanding of the Himalayas - as a physical location, as a cultural construct, as a political space - be enriched by this interdisciplinary interrogation of the idea of risk? How do geographers, engineers, anthropologists, artists, historians, architects, political scientists differently use the lens of risk to study the Himalayas, and how might a conversation between them engender new insights and new questions, both about the region and about the concept itself?

The calculability of risk is at the heart of the project of modernity. Instead of taking this calculability as a given, this webinar series seeks to interrogate the assumptions underlying the idea of "acceptable risk" in various disciplinary approaches to the region. The series will contribute to a broader effort to denaturalise and historise the concept of risk, by exploring how “risk” has been constitutive in shaping the materiality, geopolitics, cultural articulations, history and perceptions of the Himalayas.

The specific (but not exhaustive) questions that the webinar series will address include:

  • How have pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial understandings and negotiations of risk between the British, Russian, Chinese and Indian states shaped the Himalayan frontier as a geo-political entity?
  • What are the scientific, ecological paradigms of risk that are being applied to diagnose the current environment condition of the Himalayas? What is their efficacy and what is left to be desired?
  • In the continued imaginary of the Himalayas as a “risky” terrain, how have modern explorers/travelers and postmodern adventurers constituted their selfhood through an engagement with this landscape? What does such self-fashioning tell us about the region and about modern and postmodern subjectivity as articulated through leisure and tourism?
  • How have Himalayan communities negotiated “risks” to their heritage and culture, against the terrain of “exoticisation” and “othering” from the hegemonic lowlands? Can such projects go beyond the modernist projects of “salvage” and offer decolonial perspectives on risk?
  • Theorists worry that the centering of risk and therefore narratives of crisis in environmental and climate change research will lead to inaction, pessimism and apathy (Cons 2018; Klein 2020; Masco 2017; Whitington 2016) among people. What constitutes meaningful action in such a scenario? 
  • How do these narratives of risk impact the governance of more-than-human lives in the Himalayas? If salvage is often the mode of encounter with “at risk” cultural diversity in the Himalayas, what governance practices do perception of risk to the non-human on the Himalayan frontier engender?


Shubhra Sharma
Earth Scientist, Physical Research Laboratory, India
Western Himalaya
Link to webinar

Aditi Saraf
Cultural Anthropologist, Utrecht University, Netherlands
Link to webinar

Fidel Devkota
Filmmaker and Anthropologist, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Radhika Govindrajan
Cultural Anthropologist, University of Washington, USA
Kuman region, Uttarakhand

Gyan Nyaupane
Natural resource management/Community Development , Arizona State University, USA

Sayantani Mukherjee
Historian, Ashoka University, India
China and the trans-Himalayan Tibetan region

Jenny Bentley & Minket Lepcha
Social Anthropologist & Storyteller/Filmmaker, Echostream (India) & Tapriza (Switzerland/Nepal)
Sikkim, Darjeeling

Ambika Aiyadurai
Environmental Anthropologist, IIT Gandhinagar, India
Arunachal Pradesh

Kyle Gardner
Non-resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council
India-China Border

Rohit Naniwadekar
Ecologist, Nature Conservation Foundation, India
Eastern Himalaya

About the convener

Suchismita Das ([email protected])is a cultural anthropologist working in the Eastern Himalayas. Her current project Cultural Analysis of Environmental Precarity and Adaptation in the Eastern Himalayas examines how Indian citizens of the Eastern Himalayan borderlands of Sikkim experience environmental vulnerability when recurrent landslides wash away arterial roads, isolating and marginalising them from the mainland. The study offers an anthropological understanding of how people in Sikkim perceive environmental vulnerability in culturally specific ways and evolve socio-politically grounded strategies to adapt to such vulnerability. While migration as a form of environmental adaptation has received attention, this study seeks to analyse how citizens deal with immobilisation as an effect of environmental vulnerability. While cultural studies of adaptation in Sikkim often limit themselves to focusing on specific ethnic groups and their traditional practices, this study aims to examine the dynamic cultural practices evolving across the state, in response to changing environmental conditions. The project analyses how citizens, politicians, bureaucrats and engineers in the Himalayas address environmental vulnerability and adaptation differently, informed by their cultural beliefs, political motives and scientific knowledge.

Registration link for future talks in the series