I returned to my village in Ladakh when the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown in late-March. I ended up spending the whole lockdown period in the village assisting my family with various agricultural and pastoral tasks. This was the first time I had spent so much time in the village since my childhood. This made me reflect on the idea of development itself.
For over 10 years I have worked in the tourism sector, like most of the young people in the village. However, this year the COVID-19 pandemic underlined the fact that tourism remains an unsustainable and unreliable source of livelihood. In the past, when I would return to the village, I would only meet the elderly as all the young people had left the village to pursue livelihood or educational opportunities. However, during the lockdown I realised that people in the village are constantly busy in productive work and have little time to worry about things like COVID-19. I spent my time working on the farm, planting fruit trees and tending to the garden. As a result, I became much fitter than I was earlier. I also ended up meeting and speaking with more people in my village and neighbouring areas than I have in the past.
I noticed an interesting trend during the lockdown period. Many young people had returned to the village for the first time in their adult lives. They were surprised to realise that it was much cheaper to live in the village where they are able to grow their own food. Like me, they also admitted that they became physically fitter in the village where they engaged in physical and mental work on a regular basis. At the same time, all of us were eating much healthier and more wholesome food as most of what is grown is organic. I could not help but think how this lifestyle may have boosted our immune system and substantially reduced the risk posed by viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.
I also noticed that having everyone back in the village had a very positive impact on its social and economic life. This year, none of the households had to hire daily wage labourers for any chores as there was a surplus of family members present. I saw and heard of numerous cases where families have revived and cultivated land that they had left barren for several years.
Many of the youth mentioned that they are now faced with a simple choice of either looking for a government job or finding a more sustainable and reliable source of livelihood. During the lockdown, my villagers started re-distributing barren land amongst the youth for irrigation and cultivation. I was surprised to see how much these youth seemed to enjoy farming and working on the land. The period of the lockdown was used productively as these youth managed to learn various skills needed for farming, orchard plantation, management of irrigation canals etc. In this time of uncertainty, this not only ensured that these youth were productively engaged but also ensured that they contributed to the well-being of the village.
Over the last few decades, most development in Ladakh has been centred on the capital, Leh. As a result, many people from rural Ladakh migrated to Leh in search of jobs and educational opportunities. However, none of us expected our world to be turned upside down in the manner that COVID-19 has done. Many people have now started appreciating that rural life is more sustainable and fulfilling than life in urban areas like Leh. I have heard many people announcing that they now intend to return and stay in their villages for longer periods each year to practice farming, nurture plantations, and irrigate fields.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an important wake up call. It has helped people evaluate their lifestyles while appreciating the importance of rural life and underlining its sustainable nature. It has also forced people to realise the need for sustainability in an unpredictable world. The realisation of the fickleness of current frameworks is probably one of the biggest lessons of COVID-19 for Ladakh. It is also an opportunity to help people value the importance of happy and fulfilling lives over one based on earning money. In my opinion, the UT [Union Territory] Administration should use this opportunity to push for a more sustainable form of development for Ladakh in the wake of COVID-19, with the rural economy at its core.
This post originally appeared in the Ladakhi newsmagazine Stawa.
Photo by Tsering Stobdan.