Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Un-Virgin Forests of Bastar:

Wooden totem in a village in Bastar - where religion is creeping into their traditional Animism form of worship

We were sipping tea at a small tea stall next to a small bus stand in one of the forest fringe villages of Bastar. A motley crowd of rather well informed and opinionated men had gathered around us. The discussion typically veered towards everybody’s favourite topic these days.

Vikas (Development).

The chitchats ranged from Obama and America, Narendra Modi and Obama, life in a metro versus life in a village etc. In between all these talks, one rotund man proclaimed. Much to my chagrin.

“Vikas ka matlab jungle nahin. Jungle hoga toh vikas kaise hoga. Mumbai bhi toh jungle kaat ke bana hain na.” (Development means no forest. If there is forest, how can development happen? Mumbai was also built by cutting down forests.)

My vexation was due to the fact that he was right in his thinking, especially about the Mumbai or the current spate of urbanization part.

And therein lay my predicament. About the last standing virgin (supposedly) forests of Bastar. These forests are home to Naxals, and not animals. One can only find a few stray deer in a largely empty forest. Empty because animals serve as food for the people living inside. Same is the case in most forest regions affected by Naxalism. The forest of Simlipal has been almost stripped bare, something my mother can’t fathom because she remembers a dense jungle of long ago. Well, considering my affection for wildlife, I should have been raving mad but I am not. Mainly because for now these lovely forests are still standing.

I am not a big fan of the romantic opinions of Arundhati Roy about Naxalism. It was perhaps ideologically apt as well as romantic when the movement had started in the 70s. Not now. Now the ideology has disintegrated into some other unknown form. What I have seen is that village communities in the affected zones are squeezed in by both the Naxals and the government resulting in terrible conditions. The Naxals do not want any sort of interaction with the outside world and hence the villages are in extremely poor conditions. On the other hand, the government looks at these villages with suspicion and round up innocent people often. A case in point is Jharkhand, where a lack of stable government has resulted in a kind of ‘free for all’ situation. Here village people complain that Naxals take money from private companies to allow them to take land from the village people. Mind you, I have not used the word ‘acquire’ since there is no such implementable legal process here. Atleast not to my knowledge.

On the other hand, all governments - past or the development-at-any-cost current one – are eyeing these forests for the minerals and the other natural resources it contains. Infact, a part of the Bastar forests has already been ear-marked for providing water to an upcoming power plant in the region. In other words, damming of yet another pristine river. As one of my ex-colleague mentioned, the region is an anthropological goldmine and it could have been applied to better the region’s prospects. Yet successive governments choose to look at destructive ways. And it’s just the presence of the Naxals that is acting as the only deterrent for the government to sell it all off.

So, between all this and vikas and a dream of a Mumbai in the (erstwhile) forests of Bastar, I have only one choice.

An empty but a still standing forest.  

Anytime.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

The New Class Divide:

To be educated or not to be. Well, that will never be an existential question for anybody. It’s the question of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of education that is beginning to bother me. I am slowly being forced to believe that the current education system, its curriculum and methods of teaching need a massive re-haul. Because now apart from all the discriminations that we have in our society, the new class-divide taking place is between those who are supposedly ‘educated’ and those who are not.

Let me explain.

One elderly farmer I met in Chamoli in Uttarakhand commented that there are no ‘jobs’ for the ‘educated’ youth, so everybody migrates to the cities. He also said that the younger generation who have completed their education did not want to work or stay in villages, as its below their dignity to study and be a farmer. A young enterprising chap I was talking to in another village in Tehri, refused to speak to me in Hindi. Working for a shipping company, he has travelled to most countries in the Gulf region and hence wanted to impress me with his English. He was noncommittal about his feelings for the mountains. Similarly, in Ganjam, Odisha, the son of one of the self proclaimed last generation of fishermen declared with a quiet pride that those who are educated will not do fishing as it’s a profession only for the uneducated.      

source: http://csmefgi.blogspot.in/
There is nothing wrong in aspiring and wanting a different life. But there is a serious problem if it disconnects you from your roots and even makes you despise them. There is a problem if education means that there is dignity in only a few professions. Being ‘english educated’ and getting a ‘job’ has suddenly become the big aspiration. In Bastar, a group of women looked at my friend and me almost in awe and asked: do you speak in English? Once even I, being ‘English-medium convent’ educated, used to consider Hindi or state board pass-outs inferior than me.

So I cringe when I hear children from tribal regions greet us with ‘good mornings’ and then narrate a nursery rhyme (government schools); or when I hear of children in remote regions of Ladakh being inundated with library books, games or computer aided learning all in English (NGO run by ex-corporate people). As Snow Leopard Conservancy (an NGO in Ladakh) found out, most children studying in schools could identify deer and peacocks from their books but did not know about Ibex or snowcocks in their own backyard.           

source: http://aakashpydi.com/
The inescapable reality is that the current ‘westernised’ form of education is already deeply entrenched and changing it would be a herculean task. On the other, a large number of children are illiterate even now, so a huge problem exists of getting them into this fold of education. But somewhere in between, we all (NGOs, CSRs and Governments) can still create a balance by giving them a little bit of both the worlds. Global with the local. Penguins with Lammergeiers. Science with traditional knowledge and practices. Two examples stand out for me in this form of education. Deep in the forest of Bastar, a retired CA from Pune opened a school called the Imlee Mahuaa School for tribal children when he realized that the Ghotul system of life-skills education amongst them was fast eroding. In this school, even though children have to sit for exams every year, they do not follow a strict curriculum. Here the children dictate what they want to learn, when to learn and for how long. Similarly in Ladakh, SECMOL was started by a group of Ladakhis when they realized that the current system of education is completely alien to Ladakh’s culture, language, topography etc. In this school, the curriculum is different from what’s prescribed elsewhere with a focus on the requirements of Ladakh.


Even in a poor country like Vietnam who got independence much later than us, there is basic dignity of labour. I would like to believe that it’s the reason why they are progressing faster and better than us. While we as a society continue to create more and more divisions and indignities in life.                    

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Missing Men of Uttarakhand:

Actually the story is about the Garhwal part of Uttarakhand since that’s the region I have visited a few times in the recent past. However, the situation is symptomatic of a much deeper problem and where we are headed collectively as a society.

My last visit to Garhwal was in the year 2006 when I had visited the then-beautiful villages of Ukimath and Chopta crossing the then-pristine river basins of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. In mere nine years, the region has seen a 180 degrees shift in its ecology, economy and society when a self-sustaining society was hit by money and ‘growth’ economy. The Garhwal side of Uttarakhand has seen rapid urbanization in the past six to seven years; so much so that all aspects of natural beauty are completely obliterated. This urbanization can be seen mostly in the Shivaliks and the Middle Himalayas and continues unabated despite the region’s propensity to natural disasters. Village elders who had experienced the earthquake epicentered in Chamoli in 1991, talk of how the geology of the region has changed after the event rendering the mountains more fragile. In Uttarkashi, entire mountainsides have collapsed just like that in the recent past.

Massive deforestation due to developmental projects, by the forest department, timber mafia and then by the communities themselves has left hill ranges after hill ranges without a single tree (Tehri-Garhwal). Other hills have been taken over by agriculture which also has led to loss of tree cover, with the result that there has been rapid soil erosion and degradation. Wild animals, due to habitat and food loss now come down to the fields to forage destroying crop harvests. This situation has been compounded by the fact that 90% of farming is dependent on rainfall which has now become very erratic leading to regular crop failure. So, men across villages started migrated in hordes fuelled by and also fuelling the urbanization process taking place in the valleys. More ambitious of the lot came down to the plains, in cities like Chandigarh, Dehradoon, Delhi and Mumbai. One young guy I met works in a ship which takes him to the Gulf region.

The money earned by them has helped in improving their economic condition and now most of them have pucca homes, vehicles, satellite TV and other amenities in their villages. The younger generation, especially guys who have completed their education, look down upon agriculture as an occupation. They all want to earn money by doing ‘jobs’ and since there are no jobs in villages, they are also migrating to the plains. As a result, now most of the villages are populated by only women, old men and men who have small businesses or are alcoholic. A once self-sustaining society now buys almost everything from outside including food.

The younger generation women complain of a tough life in the hills and those belonging to prosperous families find it difficult to trek up or down hill sides. One such woman in a village in Chamoli said that she would prefer a road behind her village rather than a forest which is of no use to her. In the meanwhile, the micro climate continues to get hotter, rainfall and hail is becoming more erratic, snowfall has vanished from regions and the flora and fauna of the region are changing. 

I spoke to people and heard them all out. And I remained a mute spectator to the process of rapid destruction of a unique ecology and life, which I could see from afar but could not explain to them. In this rapidly changing situation, only the village elders are baffled: as to why many things have become so difficult despite much ease of life. As one elderly man in another village in Chamoli said, one can’t keep buying food as it doesn’t grow in the sky. When everything gets over, people will have to come back to the land and grow their own food.   

But by then, perhaps all will be over.
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The Himalayas are fragile and need an alternative development strategy and plans which will help save and sustain the ecology of the mountains and its communities. If you believe in this, please add your voice to our campaign on Greenpeace Extra platform. The Himalayan Niti Abhiyan is spearheaded by like minded NGOs on ground. 


Monday, 2 February 2015

A Home in Tibet:

“Don’t you think with China occupying all territories, the situation in Tibet is hopeless? Do you feel rootless being in India?”

I had met Tenzin in Leh, who had come there as part of a documentary film crew shooting a film about a Tibetan who had immolated himself in Delhi. Tenzin is a second generation Tibetan, born and raised in India, who like most others has refused to take up Indian citizenship. In loyalty to their dream of a free country, a home they can return to.

The high altitude mountains, barren rolling plateaus, breathtaking water bodies, nomadic life, galloping horses, an ingrained deep seated spirituality, Buddhism – of Tibet and Ladakh have had a strong hold over me for years.  During my restless years, I desperately longed to be there. Now, in a more settled state of mind, I look forward to be there whenever I feel rootless. But in my ignorance, I had mistakenly come to believe that my sense of rootlessness is perhaps similar to how the Tibetans feel in an adopted country. Until I read Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s book, A Home in Tibet. Considered the first female Tibetan writer, Tsering has poetically, eloquently and without judging described what life is for a Tibetan in Tibet and outside it. How, Tibetans, despite a long history of atrocities by the Chinese government have managed to continue with the same equanimity and spiritual outlook towards life, how the younger generation who wants to assimilate with the majority Han Chinese society are discriminated against as ‘tribals’ (perhaps a shade better than the Uighurs), how both government and corporations are looting the earth and the mountains they held sacred for centuries, how the government is force-implementing schemes without understanding the needs of the communities.  
     
The Changthang region of eastern Ladakh is an extension of the trans Himalayan Tibetan plateau.

The Chinese invasion of the region that is called Tibet has been instrumental in inculcating a sense of nationalism amongst the various tribes and those who escaped from there. More so with those who escaped, because away from their mountains and land and living as a ‘refugee’ in any adoptive country, they feel the absence of a home more acutely. Binding all these tribes together prior to the invasion, those still living in Chinese occupied Tibet and Tibetans now living in various countries is one key factor – His Holiness Dalai Lama and their infallible faith in him. Despite urbanization, like the Buddhists in Ladakh, Tibetans are still deeply rooted to their spirituality and spiritual guides in all aspects of their lives. With the current Dalai Lama not choosing his successor, how that void will affect the lives of Tibetans everywhere and their fight for an autonomous homeland is yet to be seen.

      
source: freetibet.org

In solidarity with them and the fact that China is environmentally dangerous, I will perhaps never choose to travel to the country or to Tibet for leisure. But then I am still lucky, because as a free citizen of this country (so far), I can travel to the high mountains of Ladakh and also live there whenever I feel restless or rootless. Perhaps not so with Tenzin and his fellow Tibetans, whose hope for a free Tibet burns strongly as ever. And in knowing this, I understood just how blunt and insensitive my questions to him were. Because however hard I might try, I will never really know what it is to be a Tibetan.

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Book to Read:
A Home in Tibet by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

To know more about Free Tibet cause:
Students for a Free Tibet, McLeodganj: http://sftindia.org/


Monday, 5 January 2015

A Matter of Choice:

While discussing the future of Ladakh, my friend S commented that my outlook towards the people of Ladakh seems derogatory since I insist that they do not yet fully understand the implication of the impending changes. Surely a youth who does not want to do farming has the right to choose not to do so. I should not assume that people of Ladakh or any other place are not smart enough to not know what to choose for their own development.  This argument has been raised by many others too while debating on ‘development’ versus environment.  This post is for my friend S and those others.

I have seen abject poverty, the type of poverty where men and women wore torn pieces of clothe barely enough to cover their bodies, the type of poverty which made people gaunt with hunger and eyes dazed with desperation. 30 years ago, in eastern India, a region where I grew up, such sights were common. Once traveling through the jungles of the region that is now Jharkhand, my father had commented that the area held so many minerals that India could easily come out of such poverty. 30 years later, the jungles of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh are dug up and minerals taken, yet the condition of people in these regions hasn't changed much. They are still poor if not in such abject poverty.     

Economic Health - GDP and Growth:
Since the markets opened up in the 90s, we are slowly but surely adopting all features that define the western development model which has been successful in making them rich nations. This model, so to speak, measures economic health in terms of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and puts high emphasis on growth. As Helena Norberg-Hodge puts it, GDP is a measurement of how many ‘products’ are manufactured and hence how much money is circulating in an economy. So, to take her examples, if you meet with an accident, it adds to the GDP because your accident has put an entire system of healthcare business into motion. So it is with cutting down of trees or blocking rivers. Growth on the other hand is linear; it has to keep going up. Both these together mean that in order for a country to be rich, it has to keep producing and keep selling, which means generate more consumerism, acquire more land, use up more natural resources, alienate communities from their traditional practices etc. And this will not stop till the last tree is cut down and all the rivers run dry eventually. This is also the reason why despite having small scale locally feasible answers to electricity generation, our government insists on bigger dams across all rivers. Look at the money being circulated here!




The Grabbing-From-Others Model:
If you look at how most of these nations have gotten rich, you will realize that it was mostly done by exploiting somebody else’s resources. America with native Indians, Britain with India and the SE etc. And we, blindly aping the model, are doing exactly the same with our farmers, tribals and African nations. This form of growth reminds me of various quick-rich pyramid / network marketing schemes, for example QNet.  In these schemes you have to generate the need for various dubious products through very creative means, ask for a huge investment from others and then encourage others to do the same to more people so that some amount of money keeps flowing back into your pocket. One does not realize that in the chain of such schemes, the bottom end of the lot will always be sufferers and hence very poor as all the resources of these people would have been taken.

Should It Be Capitalism or Communism Then?
Ask anybody, even in remote villages in India, and people will tell you that our country is very diverse. We are unique because of this diversity – socio-culturally, politically, geographically, climatic conditions and even biodiversity. Our problems are also unique and hence require different solutions than just thinking that either a capitalist or communist model will work. Both of these models are again made by westerners for their unique problems. Again as Helena NH puts it, both these models work on almost the same principles; they only differ in how the wealth is distributed. And as Sam Tranum puts it in his book Powerless (on India’s current energy situation), the only way India can face the energy crisis is to find a new or redefine its model of development. And the beginning for this redefinition will happen only when one starts looking within oneself, as a country and a society. 
Indian Himalayas, threatened by global warming 
  
A Matter of Choice:
When the markets were opened up in the 90s, were we told what these changes will bring in the next two decades? Were we told that one day, most forests will be cut down, species will go extinct, rivers will stop flowing and we as a community will be steeped in consumerism and lose our own unique identity to a more homogenous western world identity? Was I, as a citizen of this country, given a choice? Similarly, are the farmers, tribals, communities in remote regions, given the choice to define their form of development? Choice comes when people are explained the pros and cons of various alternatives and are then allowed to accept or reject any given option. We (the government, the more ‘educated’ lot and the ‘richer’class), on the other hand, are simply forcing down one mass solution for diverse issues and diverse communities and expecting the people to know better.

As the Sarpanch of Lata (in Uttarakhand) had once told me, it’s our duty to leave behind the world for our children exactly as we had inherited it from our forefathers. Our children it seems, will get to see a forest, snow capped mountains and free flowing rivers only in textbooks and films in future.

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Books to read:
Ancient Futures: Helena Norberg Hodge
Powerless: Sam Tranum
The Story of Stuff: Annie Leonard
Adventures in the Anthropocene: Gaia Vince


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Conversations:

The Nepali porter during a trek in Himachal:

“There are no facilities in my village, education is not free, there is no electricity and people have to walk for hours to get water. When I used to stay there, apart from farming there wasn’t anything else to do even if you completed your education. I came to Himachal a decade back. A lot of people from my country come here to work, mostly as labour. I used the money I earned over the years to get my two brothers educated so that they can get a job. My younger brother is in the field of medicine now. He hasn’t come home for the past three years. He doesn’t look after his wife or son. I am taking care of his son and paying for his education as well. Whether its Nepal or India, I have seen that the type of progress that’s happening today is making rich people richer and the poor poorer.”

Ashok, my trek guide:

“People in my village used to say that my grandfather understood the language of the crows. He would know what the birds and animals were trying to communicate and would predict things based on this communication. He knew each of his livestock by name and if one went a bit far from the grazing area, he would just call out the name and the animal would turn and come back. My grandfather used to feed birds and all animals around the house first before having his meal. As a kid, when I used to light a lamp in the evenings, he often used to tell me to put out the lamp and observe the darkness. If one gets used to the light, one will never be able see far in the dark.
     
Now we are not connected with nature. We are playing with nature and the consequences will not be good. I go with a scientist every year to measure the glaciers. In just two to three years time, the glaciers over that mountain range have shrunk from 5mtrs to 3mtrs in height. A day will come when we will kill each other over water. Humanity will not meet with a swift end but a torturous one.”

An elderly Kinnauri lady who came over to chat with me while I was sitting in the balcony of a guest house in Sangla:

“It took us almost one month to reach Sarahan, we had to walk all the way. A group of us girls were called to perform in the Independence Day parade in Delhi. The entire journey to and from Delhi took us three months and that was the biggest adventure of my life. I have not stepped out much since then. Our community was self-sufficient. We grew everything we wanted - all vegetables and had milk from the cows. We would store everything for the winters as the roads would close then. We never used to fall sick also. Now-a-days, you have medicine shops and people are falling sick too.”

Lama at Shanti Stupa in Leh who had kept my camera that I had left behind at the monastery the previous evening:
       
“I kept it with me knowing that the person who lost this would come back to collect it. People are attached to their material possessions. Don’t get attached to such material things, they will end up causing you pain. You are attached to the images that you have taken, the images of these mountains. If you had lost these images, you would have been in pain. If you go back home and look at these images of the mountains later, you will still be in pain. Do not get attached.”


Friday, 14 November 2014

Ladakh Diary: Changing Climate

“He who experiences the unity of life sees his own self in all beings, and all beings in his own self.” - Buddha

The Changthang region in eastern Ladakh, continuation of the Tibetan plateau is home to the nomadic tribe Changpa who have been rearing livestock for centuries. Studies on their traditional way of life have shown a highly sustainable grazing system and a life in tune with nature. ‘Goba’ or the village head’s decisions were followed without question and it was he who decided where livestock were to graze and when the group needed to move to another pasture land. Grazing areas were demarcated and any livestock found grazing outside that area was fined per animal. This ensured that an area was not overgrazed and it was allowed to regenerate. Groups would camp near water bodies, not too near to avoid polluting them. The tents would face east so as to receive the morning sun. Since the hearth is considered sacred, they would move camps mostly at night, so that the hearth was not open to outside eyes.

River Indus outside of Leh 

Even now a large number of communities all across India live a nature-based life. But this aspect is all the more prominent and deeply rooted in a harsh environment like Ladakh. Life here has evolved keeping in mind the scarcity of natural resources and communities have thrived and self sustained despite nature’s limited resources. Not only that, respect for nature and other forms of life is a way of life here and so is the understanding that humans are just a part of a larger whole. There are many practices which defines this sustainability and understanding, the lifestyle of the Changpas being just one of them. The presence of Army, urbanization, tourism and a western system of education has led to massive changes in Ladakh’s social fabric over the last few decades with the younger generation moving away from traditional livelihood practices and opting for jobs outside their villages and people losing their deeper connect with nature and sustainable practices. These changes will start reflecting on the use, misuse or overuse of these natural resources sooner or later. But what will hit them the hardest in future is not something of their own making but created by us people from the plains.

Grandmother with grandson in Sham Valley

The effects of climate change are right at the doorstep and being a fragile ecology the changes are stark. Ask anybody across Ladakh – from Leh to remote villages – everybody will tell you how the weather is warming up. Snow as precipitation is decreasing and glaciers are melting. Monsoon which was defined by drizzle like rain for a few weeks has now changed to heavy to very heavy rainfall in short bursts and dry periods after that. Being a mudslide prone region, these changes increase the risk of more mudslides like the one that happened in 2010. The cycle of farming and storing up for the severe winters will get affected. Water will get more scarce and high altitude pastures which are dependent on snow fall will decrease affecting wildlife and livestock alike. How this will affect the ecology of the region as a whole and humans and wildlife in particular is yet to be seen.

What saddens me greatly is that this magnificent place, its people and wildlife will end up suffering the most even though their contribution to the problem is the least. All because of the never ending greed, lack of respect for others and nature that defines life of the people in the plains and which is threatening to overtake Ladakh at some point in time. Despite the changes, I firmly believe that with their inherent sense of connect with nature and ability to self sustain, Ladakh will take a longer while to give in to the western concept of development unlike the other Himalayan states of Himachal and Uttarakhand. But if and when Ladakh totally switches over to that side, will be the time I lose all hope for my planet Earth.