Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ladakh Diary: Greening of Ladakh

The flight dipped below the clouds and suddenly the vast vista of snow peaked mountains came into view. There was a collective gasp from the travelers at the incredible sight below. The plane followed the Indus, the blue river lined by poplar trees on both banks and just as Leh came into view, it was my turn to gasp. I had returned to Ladakh after a hiatus of 11 years and the change I saw was astounding. I could not recognize the small charming town I had last seen in 2003, which now had become a sprawling city with modern amenities, supermarkets and cars. But looking down at the city first from the flight and next from Shanti Stupa, the green canopy confirmed my doubts. I remembered a largely barren Leh with spots of greenery as a result of farms, not a city filled with Poplar trees.
‘Clean Ladakh, Green Ladakh’ - said a sign near the old bus station. My favourite colour is green but I am not sure I like it here in the desert ecology of these high mountains. Something seems very wrong. The Army, NGOs, spiritual leaders, people’s groups and even local communities are planting trees in valleys, river banks, villages etc. The ‘disease’ seems to have spread to Spiti too, where a once arid and completely barren Kaza is now thick with trees. Tall and slender Poplar tree is the popular choice even though other indigenous tree varieties of willow, juniper and birch trees are the natural species in pockets of Ladakh.

Tree Plantation drive by a spiritual leader Galwang Drukpa Rinpoche 

Ask around and you will find many reasons for this tree plantation craze. Most people think planting trees is generally good and it will help increase the level of oxygen in the air. Some are doing it for beautification, some are just following the others, while the prudent ones are planting Poplar trees as future investment as they are used for building houses which otherwise is an expensive affair. Traveling in the villages of Sham Valley, I asked most middle aged or elderly people I met if there are more trees than before and each of them replied in the affirmative. One woman in Yangthang mentioned that it used to be arid when she first came to the village as a bride. Tashi Dorjay of Hemis Shukpachan explained to me that earlier, people used to get wood for making houses through a barter system. Now people want money which most village folks don’t have, hence it is easier to grow the trees themselves.                        

Whatever may be the reason, common sense tells me that growing trees in an arid ecology might not bode well later for the region. Presence of trees where it is not supposed to be might bring changes in the climate of the region, ecology and the region’s rich biodiversity. There is already a rise in respiratory problems in regions around Leh which some are attributing to these trees. A friend who went to Zangla in Zanskar said that she had to leave earlier than planned as the place had become infested with insects especially after dusk. Village folks told her that the insects came after trees started being grown in the village.     

There is a reason for the existence of each ecosystem. Communities, culture, wildlife, all have developed over centuries for particular types of ecosystems and one small change can bring in a domino effect which can topple a lot of things in the process. With our supposedly ‘superior’ intelligence, humans have already done a lot of damage. It’s time we stop interfering more and let other species also live in their preferred and natural ecosystems.  

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Route to Our Roots:

Tsering is a young girl from Lamayuru whose family has shifted to Leh in search of better prospects. Although she is handling the management of one of the high end hotels in Leh, she wants to do more. She kept telling me that we, in the cities, have it better because there are many choices.

It is perhaps the same reason why I also shifted from the capital town of one of the poorest states to Delhi after school and it is perhaps why so many people from our country and other developing or under-developed countries have shifted to relatively developed countries. For better prospects, for better lifestyles. In fact, all of us are constantly moving towards that since ‘better’ is always relative. So given the fact that we are surely hurtling towards some sort of ‘calamity’, can we really begrudge others from getting what we have got? Surely everybody has a right to a better life. Even though I love to see pristine nature and communities following traditional lifestyles, can I really begrudge these mountain people better roads and amenities? Even though I know that like the bad ecological footprints we have left in our pursuit of better prospects, they eventually will too, can I really begrudge a village family wanting good jobs for their children?     

In all honesty, I cannot. It is not fair until the last under-privileged person gets to know what ‘better’ life is for him or herself. In fact the process of change had started since humans made the first tools and the wheel and it will not stop till this last person gets what he or she feels is a better prospect. We might destroy ourselves as a specie in the process and might come back to re-inhabit the planet but this will keep on happening endlessly. Because that’s how we humans currently are.

That is, till the time we can Redefine ourselves and lose our identity. The ‘I’ that is in search of ‘better’ prospects, ‘better’ lifestyles because this ‘I’ is always relative to ‘others’, always comparing. This ‘I’ always feels the need to stand out – an independent woman, a feminist, a neo-liberal, a Buddhist, a minority, a known poet, a famous writer, a comedian, an activist, a husband, a ceo, a global strategist, a much loved speaker, a mountaineer, a trekker,  a wildlife expert, a better house, many cars and the list can go on.   

What happens when we stop listening to the artificial cacophony created by all these ‘I’s, the cacophony that we are all so lost in? Perhaps then we can hear the sounds of nature, our Earth and know that we are just one of many species. Perhaps we need to learn to quieten down and listen before the Earth falls silent. Perhaps we need to listen to ourselves more and know that there is really no existence of an ‘I’.  And perhaps then we can have an Earth where we are we and not always searching for something or somebody ‘better’.  


Shikhshantar in Udaipur is an Unlearning Centre. Founder / Head, Manish Jain likes to question everything that we have currently chosen as society to follow. Even Maths. But he propagates three key steps in order to change oneself – Scale down, Slow Down and Learn to Listen.

5waraj is an organization based in Delhi which likes looking back at our roots, our traditions and customs in order to find solutions to current issues or lifestyles. One can find them at or FB page with same name.   

Monday, 14 July 2014

Heart Broken:

“There is coal underneath the land all around this area. Overnight people are becoming crorepati.”

I turned around to see a podgy man, a local, talking with a flourish to one of his co-passengers. I stared at him long and hard trying to fathom what exactly he understood of this coal business. I was traveling in a rickety ‘delux’ bus from Ambikapur to Bilaspur. The bus was crossing the thick Sal forests of the beautiful Hasdeo-Arand in north Chhattisgarh. I heard the mention of coal from another group of men sitting in front of me. Our bus was now crossing a bridge over one of the most beautiful, transparent and sparklingly clean river I have seen in a long time, the Hasdeo river. Now-a-days most rivers in the plains are either littered or are dry due to damming. Staring out the window at the rain-soaked dark green world outside, my heart grew heavier by the minute.

Parts of Hasdeo-Arand Forests

Coal is the new diamond across Central India and everybody is waiting for a turn to grab this treasure. In the fairly small town of Ambikapur, one cannot find a room in a hotel if you do not book in advance. The unfortunate part is that coal in this region is found just underneath dense virgin forests where elephants and bears live. To maximize profit, 90% of coal mining in India is done through open-pit mining since it’s easier and cheaper to remove layers from the top. Underground mining requires heavy investment in really good technology to maximize extraction. And we all are aware that Indians will do anything to cut corners. The thing with coal and why it is called ‘dirty’ is that it doesn’t stop with coal mining. Along with it comes ancillary industries like coal washing, power plants because transporting coal to larger distance is expensive, dams across rivers because coal based power plants are water guzzlers, rail lines to ferry coal (sometimes), dumping of fly ash, cement plants which uses fly ash etc. The devastation wrecked hence by coal mining in a forested area is now for you to imagine.  
Coal burning and releasing toxic smoke in Korba

A women walks in a coal mining affected region in Jharkhand

We have always known that when it comes to such industries, the government and the companies alike have scant regard for forests and wildlife. But this deep apathy also extends to the indigenous communities who have been living in these forests for generations. Despite laws which allow them legal rights over land and transparency and fairness during compensation, the companies have used loopholes, taken advantage of these communities and their inability to understand the business or laws, and numerous crooked means to get what they want. In Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, land is being acquired without notification and fudging signatures of Gram Sabhas. Compensation in Chhattisgarh is as low as Rs. 10lakhs per acre of fertile land and since average land-holding of families is 2-4 acres, nobody so far has become ‘crorepati’ as that man in the bus wanted others to believe.

In Jharkhand where political instability is the norm rather than exception, it has been a free-for-all so far. Three blocks in Hazaribag district with roughly between 200-300 villages are under ‘land grab’. It is being said that no village will be spared. Land is being acquired for coal mining, power plants, displacement due to dams, resettlement of displaced villages etc. Prime agricultural land with multi-cropping is earmarked for industries. Compensation varies on the basis of whims and fancies of companies and is known to differ from Rs. 21,000 per acre to Rs.71,000 per acre of fertile land. There are cases where two brothers from the same village have got different compensation on the basis of who has paid what amount to the village agents.

Greenpeace India has taken up the cause of Mahan (in MP), Jharkhand media is frail in portraying the actual picture, Chhattigarh media is controlled by the state government, hence nobody tells the actual tales happening there. But if anybody has the ability to take a bird’s eye view of the situation and understand the cumulative impact, the apathy, the utter disregard for wildlife and destruction of natural resources, and the injustice perpetrated by all involved towards the communities is so humongous that it can blow the mind. At least it blew my mind.

A forest village earmarked for full displacement due to mining in Chhattisgarh

While I listened to the conversations on coal around me in that rickety bus, kilometers and kilometers of the forest, all earmarked for land diversion, flew past my eyes. I love these forests of Chhattisgarh, second only to my love of the Himalayas. They are ancient, dark and deep. They have a living breathing soul. And in a few years time, they will cease to exist along with all the beings inside them.

At one point in time during my visits to the villages inside these forests, I got down the car, walked inside the forest and said sorry to the trees there for humanity’s misdeeds. I said sorry about the fact that I, despite loving them so much, cannot do anything to save them. Not a leaf stirred when I turned my back. Something told me they already knew their future.    


Save the forests of Mahan by signing the Greenpeace campaign:

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A conversation with a 17-year old:

I was traveling from Hazaribagh to Ranchi. Over the years, Jharkhand has changed considerably. In its 14 years of existence, there has been as many changes in government putting a big question mark on stability, law and order and governance. Identity, political awareness, political ideologies and a sense of distrust for anybody who looked like an outsider (especially from neighbouring Bihar) seem to have put multiple layers in the way society conducted itself. I got the sense that nothing could be taken at face value and you had to read a lot between the lines.

I was assigned a driver who looked barely sixteen. When I questioned his age, his employer insisted and with conviction that he was 28 years old. I acquiesced. A beautiful highway made by razing thousands of trees and an entire hillside; a conversation with this interesting driver helped me keep my mind from mulling unnecessarily over this fact.

A few excerpts (all happened in Hindi):

Me: Did you study?
Chotu: I am giving my inter (mediate)
Me: Aha, so you ARE 16!
Chotu: (smiling) No, I am 17. My driver’s license says I am 21. You want to see?


Chotu: Didi, are you married? (national obsession at play yet again)
Me: No
Chotu: What is your age?
Me: What is your guess?
Chotu: I can say only approximately. Hmmm…24?
Me: (blessing him in my mind) I am 30. (I hear a gasp and I quickly rephrase) I haven’t reached 30 yet. (I wondered how he would react if I told him my correct age)
Chotu: When are you planning to get married? Half of your life is already gone!
Me: I haven’t thought about marriage. Do you think marriage is necessary? What if I decide never to get married?
Chotu: (clearly alarmed) No, no. You must marry. Who will carry forward your lineage? Who will take care of you when you grow old?
Me: What is the guarantee that my children will look after me in old age?
Chotu: See, if you have a son, being a boy I can tell you that he won’t look after you. If you have a daughter, she will definitely take care of you. Don’t you look after your parents?


Me: What if you like a girl, will you marry her?
Chotu: Didi, we have many issues. The girl has to be of our caste and then everybody expects the girl's parents to give dowry. I will get a minimum of 5lakhs for the work I do now.
Me: Will you take dowry?
Chotu: This year, a man came with an offer of marriage to his daughter and said he will give me 6lakhs. I told him to give me 3lakhs if he wants to but let me wait for a year.
Me: Would you meet the girl first?
Chotu: Yes, nowadays 95% of people do ‘mohabbat’. I would like to know her story. If she tells me honestly, I will accept her. If I find out later, I will tell her to leave.
Me: What about you? Will you tell her your story?
Chotu: Yes of course, you cannot build a life together on lies.


Me: What do your parents do?
Chotu: We used to be very poor and they used to work very hard for us. Now I don’t let them work. I have been working since I was 10 years old. After this job as a driver, I earn enough money to let them rest.
Me: What about your brothers, do they help?
Chotu: I can’t say about them. All I know is that I will always take care of my parents, even if my brothers get married and go away. Women tend to break up families because they keep thinking unnecessarily over things in their head and we men tend to listen and forget.
Me: Really?
Chotu: Only women can make a home and also break a home. Didi, when you get married, please do not fight ever!
Me: Ok Chotu, I promise to get married and never ever fight!  


Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Deep Chasm:

Social Sector: For a sector which prides itself in understanding the real issues of real or ‘unprivileged’ aspects of India, they seem to completely lack an understanding of the other side of ‘developing’ India. They are quick to judge when it comes to anything or anyone related to corporate India, mostly on the basis of their ideology or the lack thereof (anti-secular, anti-reservation, sexist, communal, capitalist etc). Somewhere I get the feeling that they do not want to understand either. As per the sector’s ideology, they are morally superior because they are trying to resolve issues affecting the society while the other side is not. Ooops! Did I say superior? No, here everything is about equality. Right?

“Corporate India / Middle class India is apathetic. They do not want to know the social issues or be a part.” Well, I have not seen any real effort at engaging or dialouging with the corporate sector or the middle class by NGOs to make them feel included. The importance of Corporate India or the middle class is being felt only when international aid has dried up and there is a desperate need to raise funds from within the country.
“Capitalism or anything related is evil, it perpetrates discrimination and promotes inequality.” However, this has not stopped anybody from shopping at Marks and Spencer or trying out new gadgets like the tablet or Samsung phones. In case people haven’t realised, these all are products of Capitalism itself! And what many have failed to observe is that freeing up the market in the 90s gave a lot of people, especially from tier II and III cities, many opportunities to step out and fulfill their aspirations. Call it the McDonalds effect but social and economic changes especially for women across the country have been much faster due to it than any social movements.



Corporate Sector: Theirs is a happy bubble of high aspirations and even higher material needs. To them, the answer to most issues, even social, is ‘development’ or economic growth as this year’s Lok Sabha Election has shown. They firmly believe that the ‘Trickle Down Effect’ will reach the remotest corners of our country eventually and root out all problems along with it. All the hard earned monies that we give as tax are anyway going to our poorer cousins in the villages as ‘free’ or subsidized sops and schemes. Why do they need more? A mere mention of inequality or issues faced by communities at the village level or our poorer counterparts in the cities and one is labeled as Marxist, jholachaap, anti-development etc.

NGOs are looked upon suspiciously as all of the above, cogs in the wheel of policy changes, corrupt with either money going in their own pockets or wasting it on unnecessary foreign trips and high salaries. A friend once said when I asked him about philanthropy: “I would rather financially support people I know who need it and know for sure that my money was utilized well rather than donate to an NGO and not know where it went.”          

Ours is a complicated country/society with multiple layers to each problem. Here’s a simple example - Computer literacy is the way to go no doubt and by donating a computer to a school in a village, you feel you are contributing to educating these children. But if the village school does not have expertise to handle a computer or maintain it or if there is hardly any electricity in the village for it to work, will your contribution make any sense? If girls do not get to study, how does it really help in the longer run? Add to this aspects of caste and you will find that in the end, your computer is lying unused in its corner.

Sitting at extreme ends of different ideologies and style of working and looking suspiciously at the other will help nobody. Just as there are corrupt companies, there are corrupt NGOs. Just as there are good companies, there are NGOs and activists doing great work. Just as Capitalism has some good points, Socialism also has some valid aspects. Without effort and dialogue, the existing chasm in thinking and work will never be bridged.

And the village folks will not be the sole sufferers but all of us because like it or not, we and our issues at different levels are all connected.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Casting Away the Caste?

Late 80s – Bihar: There was an ongoing rate list for dowry as per the jobs held and salaries earned. I remember that lowest in the rate list was that of a bank PO. The rate then was a whooping Rs.7 lakhs, unthinkable at that time. Of course if you belonged to a higher caste, you could attach a premium and nobody questioned.

2004 – South India: The concept of Indians backpacking was not really known then; so my travel partner and I were often mistaken to be foreigners. The first question people asked us after clarifying that we were Indians was, “What is your caste?”. We were accorded quick and good service because my travel partner was a Brahmin. Naturally, we took advantage of it.   

2009 – Mumbai: An employee of a well known education NGO got super excited when she found out that my colleague is married to a Brahmin. She asked me enthusiastically if I was a Brahmin too.

2011 – West Rajasthan: We travelled to a village on work where we had lunch in the house of an adivasi family (one of the best meals I have had so far but that’s a different story). We invited our Muslim driver to join us but he consistently refused saying he already had his meal. Later we realised that he didn’t want to have food in an adivasi home.

Village elders who usually form the Jati or Caste Panchayats (in Rajasthan). 

2011 – Jodhpur: We had stopped for food at a roadside dhaba run by a Rajput, who told us with some pride in his voice that all people including dalits and adivasis are welcome to eat at his Dhaba. A bit later he adds that he however will never eat at a dhaba run by an adivasi or a dalit.

 2011 – Melghat: A tribal village in a forest had been assigned an Aanganwadi worker who threw her weight around because she belonged to a ‘higher’ caste. The result was that none of the families sent their children to the Aanganwadi resulting in waste of food every day.

2012 – Bhopal: A friend has a neighbour who belongs to the Scheduled Tribes. She asked my friend if her domestic help could also work for her. When my friend approached the help with the request, she flatly refused. The maid, also belonging to a Scheduled Tribe told my friend that she can’t work for the family because they belonged to a lower stratum than her.

An adivasi woman from a forest village in Maharashtra

2013 – Gadchiroli: Aanganwadi worker approaches me and asks, “Madam, Aapka surname?” (to figure out my community and caste). I tell her only my first name instead.

2013 – Delhi: An employee of a rights based organisation is heard asking another colleague her caste.

2014 – Pune: A well educated, professionally successful girl works in one of the best consultancy firms. She is 35 and single. Despite her background she has not been able to find a match because she belongs to a Scheduled Tribe and nobody from the ‘higher’ castes wants to marry an ST (as told to her). 
Across India: Areas in most villages are segregated as per community and caste. Due to reservation, many villages now have SC / Dalit sarpanches but they are treated just as nominal heads. The Up-Sarpanch from a higher caste holds the main power and people listen to him. If a Sarpanch is a woman from a lower caste, then she doesn’t have much of a chance of being heard at all.

Its a power game mostly – this desperate need to somehow feel superior in the absence of any other way to prove their superiority. Proving that you are better than others through deeds and actions is hard work and also subjective, hence its so much easier to fall back on your superiority by birth. Power comes easy.

Ambedkar was as usual right, social reforms are necessary if the country has to progress on all fronts. Abolition of caste so far has been neatly done on paper. The politics now behind the caste system (despite the best intentions of affirmative action) will ensure that it remains deeply entrenched in our society. Even after so many years of actually seeing and experiencing the fallout of some decisions by our founding leaders, we as a nation do not have the guts to debate again on this. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity like Secular are just mere words without meaning in our Constitution.

And since we do not have the ability to understand and follow the essence of our Constitution, we will continue to remain Un-Indians. 


Annihilation of Caste: An interesting read, more in the perspective of how Gandhi defended the caste and varna system.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Marriage, Feminism and Other Stories:

The question invariably creeps up. Women are more direct, while men try not to be direct. But ask all will once they get comfortable. And why not, since concern about other people’s marriage or marital status remains a national obsession.
Like my alteration tailor who often chats up with me.
Tailor: Aapke ghar mein kaun kaun hain?
When I tell him about my family, he asks: Aur Bhaiyya?
Bhaiyya here means husband and not brother, he clarifies when I looked confused.

Like the BCom pass farmer in Gadchiroli.

Farmer: Aapka ghar kahan hain?
Me: Mumbai
Farmer: Aap kahan ke ho?
And then he starts listing out the states in order to guess. When I tell him where my parents are staying, he finally talks straight.
Farmer: Ghar ka matlab, aapke husband kahan hain?


Though it’s a common refrain among married women in urban areas, lately I am beginning to hear the same from some rural pockets too.

After the day’s work, I was sipping ‘lal chai’ with Pooja, a young mother and her maternal aunt Shilpa in a village in Gadchiroli. The inevitable question came up.

Pooja: Didi, aapki shaadi ho chuki? (are you married?)
Me: No, not yet.
Pooja and Shilpa together: Didi, don’t get married. There is nothing in marriage. You are good being single.
Me (surprised and super curious): Why do you say so?
Pooja: In a marriage you can’t be your own, you can’t do anything for yourself. You only have to listen to others.
Shilpa: After marriage, I have always been stressed. About my children, my life. Look at me, I am 35 and marriage has made me lose my health and beauty. I wanted to do so many things, study and I have not been able to do anything.

Shilpa was a natural leader commanding attention the moment she spoke and bristling with curiosity. She had the restless energy of a person caged wanting to break free. Pooja on the other hand was bursting with a new found energy, ready to do more than just sit around the house. I felt sad and happy at the same time. Happy that there are women who are beginning to think differently; sad because so many lives like Shilpa’s are just dying a restless death.


Marriage is an institution created and perpetrated by patriarchy – so says the feminists but that has not stopped many of them from going ahead and getting married anyway. Some have done it the traditional way, some have retained their maiden names, some call each other partners instead of husband and wife while some just live together.   

In the urban areas, this institution or rather the idea of relationship is changing. Whether its distrust, ego, one- upmanship, space, equality, boredom or something else, relationships have altered dramatically. Like a fast changing society, people are also not sure what they should hold true or important.

The ancient Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang carries a universal truth, interpretable across all areas of life but more so in relationships. High cannot exist without the low, light cannot exist without the dark, man cannot exist without woman or vice versa. What is lacking in one, the other fulfils. Different yet complimentary and coming together to form a whole.

In an era where the self rules, this concept perhaps is too difficult for people to understand.