Saturday, 1 August 2015

There is Something About the North-East:

This is a region where men do not feel the need to be macho or are bridling with ‘male pride’ and women are not overly coy, feminine or just trying to be sexy. Here, men work alongside women in farms and help with household work. Here, there is no strict division of labour, a men’s work versus women’s work kind of world. Here, if a man beats up his wife, his wife is just as capable of beating up the man. This is a place where men and women are not strictly ‘men and women’, but two sides of being human. 

Well its true, the North East – from Darjeeling Hills in the north to Arunachal in the extreme east – is a place which is definitely not like the rest of India. For a deeply patriarchal society that defines the rest of India, the NE can feel like a foreign land. But if one stays in any place in this vast region and experience daily life here, he/she will truly understand just how horribly wrong things are on the other side of the country and probably other parts of the world.

Many feminists may still argue that a society can’t be so perfect. But for me, this is as perfect as it can get. For this is where I feel like a human; this is where I am able to breathe freely.

Darjeeling Hills

If on one side, the rest of India seems to have become almost homogenous, the NE on the other side is a kaleidoscope of socio-cultural identities, traditions and stunning biodiversity. I still do not understand the political intricacies of this region well and you can call me selfish, but I want this region to remain as secluded as it is right now from the rest of the country. As a country, we are governed by the same laws and policies, strategy and vision across all states, which at some level do not take into cognizance or acknowledge the huge diversity that once existed and still exists in pockets. For example: the rich anthropological sites of Bastar and Araku Valley will cease to exist in a few years with the thrust on mainstream ways of governance and exposure to mass media. In Ladakh, the ‘Hindu’ law of monogamous marriages did away with the tradition of polyandry which helped to keep the population in check as is required in a limited-resources region. Or the culture and traditions of small tribes of Arunachal Pradesh threatened by exposure to labourers from outside outnumbering these tribes, when dams get built on their rivers and valleys.

Take another example of Gorkhaland. It’s a region which is socio-culturally much closer to Sikkim yet it’s a part of West Bengal. In all aspects, Gorkhaland is as different from the rest of WB as potatoes are to fish. And all the successive governments have not done much to recognise the different identity and culture. My project colleague narrated how the current government sent dhotis and sarees during the HudHud disaster which seemed like a complete disregard and affront to the community’s way of life. During my stay in Gorkhaland also, I saw signages and cultural functions being staged in Bengali. I am told that when Mamta didi comes, she gives speeches in Bangla in her effort to create a larger Bengali identity.

I do not like the idea of a separate state as one can see the devastation caused in Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand in the name of development after they became separate states. Perhaps an autonomous hill council like the one that exists or that of Ladakh might work. Or a union territory. Or perhaps we can let these regions and states develop like Bhutan and help preserve their unique identities. I don’t know what the perfect solution is which can work politically, socio-culturally and environmentally too.     

As my project colleague mentioned, urbanization, environmental destruction and dilution of culture will probably happen as part of the ongoing process. The question now is who does it and who gains from it – a government who is keen on alienating them or their own people.

This prediction might just be right, but it’s a future which I refuse to acknowledge.

Not for the North East atleast.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Aruna Shanbaug Case: On a Philosophical Note

The Aruna Shanbaug case grew old with me. Literally.

Perhaps the people of India were deeply shocked when this made news in 1973. I would never know. While she lived in a world which we will never understand and ‘justice’ dragged on for years, I grew up living a happy and carefree life. Far far away from a world of discriminations, violence or notions of good touch and bad touch.   

My first association with the case came with the word ‘euthanasia’. Not with Rape. The gruesomeness of the case did not suddenly dawn on me one fine day but slowly made its presence felt over the years as I grew up. Because rape was not a socially acknowledged or acceptable word then, and people would do anything to sweep it under the carpet and keep it tightly there. Even the doctors at KEM Hospital did not report the sodomy for fear that Aruna would face social ostracism when she recovered and that it could damage her reputation.  It took another 40 years and yet another horrific case, this time in Delhi, for society and lawmakers to acknowledge and accept that rape could be much more than just vaginal. And it took Aruna’s death (finally) for society and media to talk about her story openly.

Which makes me wonder. Like Jesus did in the past, how many women or people would have to bear the cross of society and lawmakers’ ignorance and apathy before an iota of justice is delivered to them and to others. Why is that it takes only a heinous crime for people to take notice of the lacunae in our laws or just as heinous societal norms?  

Perhaps that is why as a society, we have not yet been able to evaluate justice objectively. But only emotionally.

I, being a part of this very society, am also struggling to understand. Many questions come to mind. Sohanlal completed his sentences as per the charges and laws of that time. The fact that he was wrongly charged was not his fault but the fault of the law (anal rape was not acknowledged as rape) as well as societal outlook (doctors didn’t file a case of rape) of that time. So, is the society justified in taking out its ire against him after all these years? If a person has served his/her sentence as per law and is truly repentant about the crime, is he/she not allowed to live the rest of his/her life with a bit of dignity? What about his family who are innocent except for the fact that they accepted him back in their lives; should they also suffer for his crime? Sohanlal comes from a poor Dalit community, perhaps that’s why he worked as a sweeper in the Hospital and was also treated badly (if we believe his side of the story though it will never justify the crime). So, by hounding him now after so many years, are we not again perpetuating the same discrimination that was meted out to him years ago? If Sohanlal was a businessman from an upper caste, would we have hounded him just as badly?

I don’t have any answers, only questions. All I can see is that actions have had retaliatory reactions and there’s a chain of hate everywhere. As a friend said, it’s this chain of actions/reactions that one should seek to deal with (as per Buddhist philosophy).  And this can come only with Forgiveness.

But then who does one forgive? My women friends can’t forgive Sohanlal. I can’t forgive the society and system of justice. If we could have asked Aruna whose life was a series of injustice, would she be able to forgive anybody? Even though he is repentant, will Sohanlal ever be able to forgive himself? Should he be allowed to forgive himself? Should society ever forgive such people?

This is not the end to the Aruna Shanbaug case. There is still much more left in it as it continues to grow older with me.

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.  


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.      

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.           

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.

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.


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.


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

To know more about Free Tibet cause:
Students for a Free Tibet, McLeodganj:

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.

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