One unique thing about Vinod's "Journeys with Meaning" are visits to civil society organisations working in Ladakh on disability, promoting Ladakhi culture, encouraging debate on the effects of globalisation and integration with the world. On our first day in Leh, we made a visit to one such organisation-the Women's Alliance of Ladakh (WAL), http://womenallianceladakh.org/.
"The Women’s Alliance of Ladakh was set up in 1991 with the twin goals of raising the status of rural women and to strengthen local culture and agriculture. Since its inception the WAL membership was swelled to over 5000 women belonging to over 100 villages from all areas of Ladakh." WAL was set up by ISEC (International Society for Ecology and Culture). Helena Norberg Hodge set up ISEC to "promote locally based alternatives to the global consumer culture". ISEC organises regular documentary screenings at Women's Alliance office (a mention in the Lonely Planet brings in almost every foreign visitor). We saw one such film-"The Economics of Happiness". The film showcased how modernisation and globalisation is taking people away from their local culture, food, traditions and sustainable practices and making them destructively competitive, greedy and environmentally unsustainable. Ladakh was the focus and the opening of Ladakh to the outside world in 1975 led to a cycle of problems which it is still grappling with today. Watching TV and foreigners, Ladakhi people get a romanticised vision of the western society and start looking down upon their own culture, habits, and ways of living. No Ladakhi youth wants to go back to farming and most want a big job in the city with lots of money and all the material comfort money can buy.
Since ISEC is an international society, most expert opinions were non-Indian. The only expert Indian voice was Vandana Shiva. Unlike other anti-globalisation films, this one made a special mention about the government regulations from the small entrepreneurs. However rather than argue for their decontrol, the film argued for increased control over the MNC-the demon which is deemed responsible for all of the world's problems. The film made decisive generalisations about the negative impact of globalisation-unhappiness, destruction of the environment, loss of community. Not many Ladakhi's were interviewed in the film, it did come across as a western perspective of the Ladakhi problem. Another great feature of the film were the best practices shown from across the world which showed that alternatives were possible. We had quite a robust debate after the screening where Parth and I challenged some of the premises on which the film was based. Our "policy" minds quickly made the jump from the assumption to the typical resultant expected behaviour or policy.
Intrigued by the film, I read Helena's book-"Ancient Futures" which documents the Ladakhi culture and its attack by the outside. She has done tremendous work in understanding the cultures and transcribing the Ladakhi language-the folk songs. I found the first part absolutely fascinating. How the Ladakhi's organised themselves, how they settled the occasional dispute, how they managed with their resources, how the people depended on the tradional healers, astrologers and oracles, how they chose the extent of their interaction with the outside world (they traded mostly for jewellry, salt and tea). They had village councils with representatives (one per ten households). They had groups of families that worked for each other in times of need. The fact that there are formal words for such groups in Ladakhi shows the organised nature of such processes. Their variable marital systems of polyandry, polygamy and monogamy depended on the need of the day and the resources available.
The book argues that the population increases in response to the perceived expanse of resources. Therefore as Ladakhi's came to the towns from the villages, they had more children than they would have had, had they stayed back. In the village the children born were in proportion to the resources available. (I was confused about this. In the older days, how did they "plan" their children. Were contraceptives available? Helena says that Ladakhi's are not sexually repressive, so hence it would seem that they were not very judicious when it came to fulfilling this desire?). One more interesting thing is that the children learnt from everyone, everywhere. Formal peer schooling has destroyed this. Also teaching is in Urdu or English and all the textbooks carry the same homogenized content developed by an educationist in Delhi. Many students cannot relate to this and hence had failed. SECMOL, another excellent organised, has created Ladakhi relevant textbooks and is running a school for helping children recover and re-enter the system. Another interesting point was that when government came in the picture and started development projects, the locals did not take ownership of these as they didn't regard these their own. Many such projects fell into disrepair as a result.
But one cannot ignore the realities. The smoke, pollution and noise from all the jeeps and cars storming in Leh. The ugly modern buildings that are overtaking the aesthetic and functional Ladakhi houses. The growing popularity of the alien packaged foods versus the traditional alternative. Food is flown and driven in from all parts of India and the world and subsidised so that the local foods cost more than the imported ones. Yes, we could not deny these consequences of integration. But what about the choice of the Ladakhi's themselves? What if they want the imported butter? What if they want to wear jeans? What if they want to travel beyond their land? Our conversations with the Ladakhi's suggested that they want the tourists. The tourists made them look proudly at their own culture. The Budhhist and Muslims don't fight in summer in front of tourists for fear of loss of revenue. Interestingly, Dalai Lama in his forward to the book writes, "No matter how attractive a traditional rural society may seem, its people cannot be denied the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of modern development." How does one balance the inherent human want for exploration and adaptation with the unpredictable and conflicting consequences that come with it?