Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mountaintops, hormones, and sustainable development: the worst blogpost title of all time

12:23, 12/10/12

I’m having trouble keeping promises to myself, that I would be consistent in blogging.  But for the record, the last three weeks have been a blur, with hardly a spare moment.  And it’s been awesome.

In the last three weeks, for starters, I had two major “mountain-top experiences” (no, neither of them were literally on mountain-tops.)  The first of these was the Taj Mahal.  The best way I can describe its majesty is that a photograph will never really capture it.  The second mountain-top experience was in the desert: last weekend, a few friends and I took camels into the Thar Desert (on the border of Pakistan) and slept out on a sand dune.  I think sand dunes must be some of the most underrated beautiful places on Earth.  

In the last three weeks, I have done a lot of learning.  I’ve read about Gandhian economics; gender and how it relates to development; and I’ve gained a much deeper understanding of how resource extraction affects the voiceless in society (i.e. mining for metals to make aluminum or building dams displaces thousands of forest-dwelling indigenous people.)  My group also took our second educational excursion, in other parts of Rajasthan.  First we went to Bikaner, where we learned about a local NGO that supports desert village communities.  We also went to an all-girls’ college--or, as I might call it, a “hormone haven.”  As one of two men in an endless sea of man-deprived young women, I naturally became a target of unspent affection: over a few hours, I was interrogated on who I thought was the prettiest of the Indian girls, pressured into singing for a group of sixty-some girls crammed in a small room (I chose “Daughters” by John Mayer), and subsequently pulled in multiple directions by at least a dozen girls who desperately wanted one picture with the tall white American guy to show off.  Exhausting as it was, I won’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy the attention.  

The most compelling experience of the excursion, however, was a visit with recent migrants to India from Pakistan, people we call “stateless citizens.”  Because they were Hindus, they were treated as second-class citizens in Pakistan, so they traveled to India where Hinduism is the dominant religion.  But coming from Pakistan automatically makes a person suspicious in India-- even though they were Hindus, the migrants were still treated as second-class.  Living in a large settlement on the outskirts of Jodhpur, most of these people have been unable to obtain Indian citizenship.  One great organization has helped 30,000 migrants obtain citizenship over the last forty years, but much work is left to be done.

What struck me the most about the experience was the power they assigned to us.  We, a group of wide-eyed American undergrads, were simply there to study; yet by the way these people asked us to advocate for them, you would think we were diplomats.  This seemed inappropriately excessive to us at first; but as soon as we thought from their perspective, it all made more sense.  In the eyes of these people, who have never had a political voice, much less personal agency, we really were powerful.  I still don’t have much power to change their situation.  But, I have learned, I have more powerful than I’d like to believe, by the simple virtue (luxury?) of my citizenship and the freedoms that accompany it.  

This last week, I’ve had some of the best lectures of the semester so far.  We’re finally getting to the specifics about sustainable development: we’ve read about the Washington Consensus, urbanization, economic liberalization, and the many dangers they pose to the natural environment and voiceless groups in society (i.e. indigenous peoples, the extreme poor, religious minorities, rural people, etc.)  Without getting too specific, I’ll say that I’m beginning to see more and more relationships between complex issues like socio-economic disparities, refugees, resource extraction, water usage, urbanization, population dynamics, agriculture, biodiversity and wildlife, multinational corporations, international political agreements, and a variety of others.  I feel enlightened and helpless, wise and clueless, at the same time.

On a related thought, here’s another important realization I’ve made: no matter how much I learn about India, I probably still wouldn’t be as competent in understanding the needs/desires of Indians as any Indian could.  Of  the many NGOs in India I’ve visited, and I have not seen a single NGO worker who wasn’t Indian.  On the other hand, I’m realizing that the complex issues I’m grappling with in India also exist in the United States.  I used to think that the world’s biggest problems-- the ones I wanted to face-- were in developing countries.  Now I know I thought wrong.  So, conclusion: maybe I should work on issues in the United States, where I have a more innate understanding of the culture and the needs/desires of the people.  (Not to mention: I’ve also learned that I’d have a rough time spending my life half-a-planet removed from my loved ones.)  But I would like to spend some time helping in other parts of the world, too-- it’s not as though I can do nothing.  Anyway, we’ll see.

In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be finalizing arrangements for my Independent Study Project.  My topic is set: I’ll be comparing the advantages and disadvantages of industrial and traditional agriculture.  I hope to draw conclusions about how India can provide food for its 1.2 billion people without cost to the natural environment.  To start, I’ll be spending at least two weeks in early November in the state of Punjab.  A particular organization has offered to take me all around the state, facilitate interviews, and even provide me housing!  Then I’ll head across the country to the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim, where I’ll observe some traditional terrace farming, chill out, and write my 30-page paper.  Everything will wrap up on my birthday, December 1st.  Should be great!