A week before the announcement of the Janata [public] Curfew slated for March 22, 2020, I spoke with a 43-year-old close relative in her village in Leh, Ladakh, by phone from Delhi. Around that time, the news of rising infections from the novel coronavirus coming in from China, Italy and Iran were ominous. Ladakh had been reporting positive cases since March 6.
Speaking authoritatively, a malaise that educated people tend to suffer from when speaking to “uneducated” people, I advised her to stock up on rations. While dispensing this advice, I forgot that I was talking to a member of a traditional Ladakhi household. My relative lives in her husband’s ancestral house, inherited by him according to Ladakhi customary norms. In Ladakh’s villages, the location of traditional dwellings is carefully considered because cultivable land is very scarce. Of the 45,100 square km area of Leh district, only 103.19 sq km – or just 0.22% – is cultivable. Dwellings are thus situated huddled together like penguins on slopes rising up from agricultural land below.
Further, during Ladakh’s extended winter, temperatures can drop to a merciless -20 degrees Celsius. That limits the agricultural season to the five summer months. Against such odds, Ladakhis not only survived, but prospered. Wheat, barley, local pea, mustard and karze (a lentil) were grown on the scarce land. These were supplemented by apricots, walnut, wild vegetables and fruit like lachu. For clothing, Ladakhis used livestock to produce wool.
Hence, Ladakhi villages until recently were shining examples of Gandhian self-sufficient communities, as the “real things”, like food and clothes that Mahatma Gandhi referred to, were produced at the village level. Ladakh, however, was not an isolated Shangri-la. People’s needs were supplemented by a thriving trading culture, as Ladakh was the knot that connected Tibet, Central Asia, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. Yet trade existed to fulfill the needs of the Ladakhis, not the other way round.
Thus, when I told my relative she should stock up, she nonchalantly said that they had three months’ stock of barley and wheat flour. Besides, she added, she had access to public distribution system (PDS) rations. Moreover, I knew that she still rears cattle for milk. Her words were a grim reminder of how dependent Ladakhis of my generation have become on long-distance trade for our basic needs.
It reminded me of how young Ladakhis were educated and then moved away from our villages, our culture and agriculture. While our elders were tending to the barley maturing in the fields, we were mugging up facts about photosynthesis in classrooms. When the roasted mix of barley and peas was being taken to the water mills to make flour, we, in our clean Western-style school uniforms, were probably learning that the capital of Australia is Canberra, not Sydney.
And yes, learning about Canberra did help us go places. Today, Ladakhis are working in Saudi Arabia, Japan, the United States and different parts of India. Outward migration of Ladakhis is a serious issue that needs more research. But more importantly, education and development – de-contextualised from our Ladakhi roots – pulled and pushed us into the modern economy, which came with the promise of greater levels of well-being. However, the integration into the modern economy de-skilled and de-cultured us, turning us into invisible cogs in the wheels of the economy – as education migrants, labourers, tourist guides, trekkers’ helpers, taxi drivers, fuel pump attendants, clerks, security guards, etc.
Now, Ladakhis exist for the economy, not the other way round. In the process, a way of life attuned to human and ecological well-being has been eroded. That is why, now, Ladakhis are using precious agricultural land to build hotels, guest houses and modern houses. This has made us massively dependent on the global economy to fulfill our basic needs. Today, the coronavirus has exposed us to the vulnerabilities of globalisation. Ladakhis dependent on tourism are staring at the prospect of meagre earnings for years to come. Those who have taken loans to buy a taxi, to build a guest house, to start a café, etc, will be under even greater duress.
Rayagada, 2,700 km away from Ladakh in southern Odisha, is another tribal-dominated area I know intimately because of my research work there. I lived for a year in Damini, a Kondha Adivasi village. Rayagada comes under the fifth schedule of the constitution, which provides for the protection of tribal land. Yet more than half of Damini’s land is owned by Telugu-speaking traders from nearby towns.
The Kondhas of Damini grow their own food, such as mandiya (finger millet), paddy and kanga (pigeon pea). Cotton cultivation, introduced a decade ago by Telugu-speaking money lenders, and a eucalyptus plantation promoted by JK Paper Mill in Rayagada, encouraged tribal people to grow these crops instead, and their increased cultivation are slowly eating away the share of land under traditional food crops. Yet, despite the alienation of much of their land, not a single person in Damini is sleeping on an empty stomach during the nationwide lockdown that ensued after the Janata Curfew. Like my relatives in Ladakh, they too have stocks of their food crops to last them till July. Moreover, the Kondha’s food security is further ensured by the forest fruit and wild vegetables they harvest.
However, not all of their fellow Kondhas are so lucky. Many are stuck in major cities due to the lockdown. I spoke to Pomila from the Lachika clan of neighbouring Gurotli village. A migrant construction labourer, she is stuck in Hyderabad with eleven other Kondhas from Rayagada. I am sure many such migrant tribal labourers stood to wait for buses and trains at Delhi’s Anand Vihar bus terminal and Mumbai’s Bandra station.
Ladakh’s administration has done a good job in containing the spread of the virus. At the time of writing, there are only four active cases in the union territory, while no positive case has been reported from the tribal belt of Odisha. We should be cheerful about this achievement.
But the current unprecedented crisis must prod us to reassess post-pandemic tribal development policies. Should these be only about conventional development, which is making Adivasis dependent on non-local factors, and hence less autonomous? Or should policies that facilitate Adivasis to “develop along the lines of their own genius”, as Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, take centre stage? The latter policies lead to local production of the majority of the needs of local residents.
To paraphrase Gandhi, if the tribal people have control over the real things (food), all else will follow. To have control over the real things, however, tribal people should ask what philosophers Anup Dhar and Bhavya Chitranshi ask: “What if the ‘rural’ is the future, and not the past?”
This post originally appeared in The Wire.
Photo: Alex Jensen, Threshing in Ladakh
Thanks for your good essay.
It’s a very good essay.
But I just want to request the author to acknowledge the difference between “education” and “literacy”.
Because a lot of people interpret it as the same.
An “illiterate” rural person may still be more “educated” in life than a “literate” person living in a city.
Probably that’s one of the points that even the author wants to communicate through this essay.
So if the author would like, he might as well want to add the point to the essay as well.
Local Futures says
Padma would no doubt agree, though the distinction he might make is between “education” and “schooling”. You can get deeper insights into Padma’s thinking by watching his talk, “Schooling and the Ladakhi Worldview”, from our Economics of Happiness conference in Ladakh last year.
Of course I’ve been dreaming of settling back in a hamlet/village; born in 1969, I was raised between a mountain village and a vineyard hamlet in the seventies and I have still bright & vivid memories of washing clothes in the open air with my grandmother in the washing fountain next to the cows sipping fresh water in the same place, at the back next to us with birds and dogs and many more beings… The water was energizing at that time and we walked hamlet to hamlet peacefully….Since 2015, I’m striving to find a solution in an ecovillage but there is no position available unless I have 40000 euros in savings or else (as requested)…..There should be a way of balancing the elements (I’m 100% positive in one’s body and one’s environment) and i’m aware that Mother Nature and Father Sky will request us (human beings) to STOP many habits. I’m raising a child and this is the time to doublecheck what is transmitted through all the institutions. In the eighties, i was asked to behave like a neo-liberal employee and then employer. The ‘modern chapter’ could have been closed in the first years of this 21st century but it did not happen. Let’s keep one’s eyes, ears and heart open to fresh insights….I am far from my family’s hamlets and I don’t have the money to travel back there….Let’stay open!
Greg Horrall says
A very nice essay to guide us in rethinking the modern economic way of life, and the final question is one of the most critical “to be, or not to be” questions for the future of homo sapiens.
Some questions I have for Prof Rigzin
What are the products now being imported by Ladakhis, the things I guess Gandhi would have called “unreal things”? (the things they want but can’t make locally…modern textile clothing, highly processed packaged foods, refrigerators, electrical/electronic devices, automobiles, motorcycles, etc…to use a metaphor from the film Avatar: the “lite beer and blue jeans” that the Na’vi did not want, but that we humans definitely do want.)
Isn’t it the desire of Ladakhi people for such things the very thing that’s been driving them to jeopardize the continuation of their traditional culture?
Can the desire for these things be neutralized, kept from growing or limited to a much smaller set than now? How?
If not, then doesn’t it seem inevitable that the erosion of Ladakhi culture will continue?
My tendency nowadays is to think that the only hope for us to return to traditional, local, sustainable ways of life is to have a total collapse of the modern way. Since our current global economy is already running at well beyond source and sink capacities, we may just be headed toward that. On the other hand, it’s also still possible that we will make a smooth enough transition to next paradigm techs that will enable “progress” to continue toward some kind of techo-utopia (think Star Trek). No one can really say which way things will go, but it sure looks best to me that we take the road of no more “progress”, and returning to traditional ways. I just don’t believe we’re going to get there though without collapsing and being utterly stopped by resource limits from trying to continue down the road to our Star Trek fantasies.
I am a student, not a professor.
I see my role as someone who is creating spaces for rearranging desires. By telling othered stories, or maybe working on alternative livelihoods in future. This is a process, a long, long process.
The essay may convey that there is a dualism consisting of modernity and tradition. In reality, the binary does not exist. Modernity and tradition is folded into one and plays out in a very complex way in Ladakh and elsewhere. It in this complex reality, that we should try to create spaces for alternatives, .
Hans Sipsma says
Well said Padma, it will guide my thinking towards a sustainable future.