Thursday, 20 February 2014

Losing Ladakh, Losing Tradition

In the light of Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge

Tourism can be a scandal. It can lead to destruction of not only land but cultures and sacred traditionsIt can ultimately create, rather than cure unemployment. It can, especially when unregulated, open up Pandora's box that are not foreseen by planners. This is one of many other important theses of the greatest book written on Ladakh ( Is it not ironic that one of our tourism ministers has been from Ladakh in the past? The sordid side of tourism – in the name of development we can turn sanctuaries of spirit into deserts where even devils would not dare to tread – is not kept in consideration.) The book, that every Kashmiri who is concerned with development discourse, tourism and identity of pir-waer should read, argues quite lucidly and brilliantly many theses that almost all of us would intuitively consent to.
It also argues the importance of Ladakh culture for the world that has severed ties with tradition.
 First, a few points about the author Norberg-Hodge. About the author it may be noted that a linguist by training she was the first Westerner in modern times to master the Ladakhi language. And has for almost two decades spent half of every year in Ladakh. She has been committed to protection of culture and environment of Ladakh against the onslaught of modernization. She is a recipient of 1986 Right to Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize. She served as Director of the Ladakh Project, which she founded in 1978 and its parent organization, the International Society for Ecology and Culture.  About the book I note the comment of the Guardian reviewer: “‘Everyone who cares about the future of this planet, about their children’s future, and about the deterioration in the quality of our own society, should read this book.'’ The Dalai Lama has written the foreword to the book. 
As Hodge notes, the region had been protected from both colonialism and development by various factors including its lack of resources, its inhospitable climate, and its inaccessibility. Thanks to the decision to open the region to tourism in 1974, concerted efforts were initiated to develop it. She compares sudden influx of tourists to a sort of invasion by aliens and notes how money became all important in a culture where it had little use, except for luxuries for certain people. It was not easy to make traditional people greedy as notes the statement of Development Commissioner that efforts to make people greedy to pave way for modernization or development needed to be made and were made. Until now Ladakhis would not exchange local products for even hefty sums but as the power of money became known and greed was instituted people sought tourists to fetch money. “During my first years in Ladakh, young children I had never seen before used to run up to me and press apricots into my hands. Now-little figures, looking shabbily Dickensian in threadbare Western clothing, greet foreigners with an empty outstretched hand. They demand “one pen, one pen,” a phrase that has become the new mantra of Ladakhi children” (p. 62) .
We can only note a point or two that the author invites us to take note of. She describes one aspect of traditional Ladakh in these words:
In Ladakh I have known a society in which there is neither waste nor pollution, a society in which crime is virtually nonexistent, communities are healthy and strong, and a teenage boy is never embarrassed to be gentle and affectionate with his mother or grandmother. As that society begins to break down under the pressures of modernization, the lessons are of relevance far beyond Ladakh itself. Where we would consider something completely worn out, exhausted of all possible worth, and would throw it away, Ladakhis will find some further use for it. Nothing whatever is just discarded. What cannot be eaten can be fed to the animals; what cannot be used as fuel can fertilize the land. Ladakhis patch their homespun robes until they can be patched no more. When winter demands that they wear two or three on top of each other, they put the best one on the inside to keep it in good condition for special occasions. When no amount of stitching can sustain a worn-out robe, it is packed with mud into a weak part of an irrigation channel to help prevent leakage.
Virtually all the plants, shrubs, and bushes that grow wild, either around the edges of
irrigated land or in the mountains — what we would call “weeds” —— are gathered and serve some useful purpose... The soil in the stables is dug up to be used as fertilizer, thus recycling animal urine. Dung is collected not only from the stables and pens, but also from the pastures. Even human night soil is not wasted. In such ways Ladakhis traditionally have recycled everything. There is literally no waste. With only scarce resources at their disposal, farmers have managed to attain almost complete self-reliance, dependent on the outside world only for salt, tea, and a few metals for cooking utensils and tools.
The conditions today in Ladakh are well known and I need not comment. The difference between traditional relationship centric and modern money centric or market driven economy and culture is thus stated:
In the traditional culture, villagers provided for their basic needs without money. They had developed skills that enabled them to grow barley at 12,000 feet and to manage yaks and other animals at even higher elevations. People knew how to build houses with their own hands from the materials of the immediate surroundings. The only thing they actually needed from outside the region was salt, for which they traded. They used money in only a limited way, mainly for luxuries.
Now, suddenly, as part of the international money economy, Ladakhis find themselves ever more dependent—even for vital needs—on a system that is controlled by faraway forces. They are vulnerable to decisions made by people who do not even know that Ladakh exists. If the value of the dollar changes, it will ultimately have an effect on the Indian rupee. This means that Ladakhis who need money to survive are now under the control of the managers of international finance. Living off the land, they had been their own masters (p.66).
For centuries, people worked as equals and friends—helping one another by turn. Now that there is paid labor during the harvest, the person paying the money wants to pay as little as possible, while the person receiving wants to have as much as possible. Relationships change. The money becomes a wedge between people, pushing them further and further apart (p.67).
Noting that while in traditional economy life was lived at a human pace and everyone could afford to be patient, “the modern economy turns time into a commodity— something that can be bought and sold—and suddenly it is quantified and divided into the tiniest fragments. Time becomes something costly, and as people acquire new “time-saving” technologies the pace of life only gets faster. The Ladakhis now have less time for each other and for themselves.”
The story of modernized Kashmir is not much different. Our traditions and culture and the values that have sustained us for millennia are fast disappearing. Is the development costing  us our soul? When will we debate development discourse and  such associated things as costs of tourism? Where is the frugality in a culture that increases dishes in wazwaan every year? Why worry for loss of respect for elders or loosening of family values if we have chosen to modernize? I ask all those who advocate development to take a look at the Ancient Futures and write a counter-narrative if they have any.

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