I abandoned my chronicle in the middle of March. I got a flu with a pretty high fever and a lot of coughing during a somewhat misguided trip to northeast India after my stay in Orissa. I made it back to Delhi, to the nice friends that I wrote about in another post (see previous post, “Broken Tooth”). There I was fed and nursed out of the fever, but it took a long time to feel like traveling again, let alone writing about any of it. Finally I decided I was up to an all day journey by train and taxi to a town in the hills of Uttarakhand.
I have circled back to a place I visited early in my acquaintance with India to see what has changed: in me, in other people, in the place.
I had the notion back when I began the project that led to Dirty, Sacred Rivers that I should go to the source of the Ganga, the Gangotri glacier. I don’t know what I expected, maybe something more like what I had experienced when I went to other and equal sources of the Ganga: the Khumbu and Ngozumpa glaciers in Nepal. One difference: no road goes anywhere near the glaciers in Nepal. Another, they are situated where Tibetan Buddhists live, so few Hindu pilgrims come up that far. On the way to Gangotri I saw dozens of pilgrims, maybe hundreds, and it wasn’t even peak pilgrimage season.
But that’s not the place I circled back to after resting in Delhi.
Back in 2007, on my way to Gangotri, I visited Almora, a town in the northern state of Uttarakhand. There I met Lalit Pande who directs an organization called Uttarakhand Environmental Education Center (UEEC). I had heard about him from a fellow Fulbrighter who lived for a time at the center and worked with him and his wife, Anuradha. Their chief aim is to help villagers throughout the Kumaon and Garwhal districts of Uttarakhand establish income-generating projects ranging from horticulture to tailoring, as well as to adapt successfully to the changes brought about by road construction in the region as well as to the shifts in climate. Finding new sources of water is often an attendant concern. They also promote early childhood education centers and work with women to enable them to generate income independent of men, which leads slowly to shifts in family structure.
I was interested in meeting Lalit and Anuradha Pande again, and I also simply wanted out of the Delhi area—to be in the Himalayan hills. I found a somewhat discouraged Lalit on this visit, a little over a decade since our first meeting. Philosophical, curious and questioning—never taking an easy answer for anything—he seemed far less optimistic than when I first met him.
He says he isn’t seeing enough change in people’s lives in rural Uttarakhand, especially women’s. And he feels their hearts are no longer in the small projects that can be pursued in their villages because they offer little opportunity for much beyond a slightly enhanced income. He’s not sure people even know what to want anymore, where not that many years ago he saw them feeling productive as they experimented with new crops, made ponds to capture rainwater, established small snack and vegetables stands along the road.
His mistrust of development—development with a big D—is almost total. The development industry wants quantifiable results, wants to get poor people to do what it says is good for them. And if development experts see something that’s working in one locale, they want to scale it up and spread it around this vast and still impoverished country despite vast differences in terrain, climate and culture.
I wonder if they and Lalit aren’t the same in one respect: impatient for results. But he says when he has questioned or criticized what he sees happening, noting that it doesn’t fit at all with what the people being helped really want to do with their lives, he gets shunned and not invited back to meetings in Delhi.
Lalit said the same thing I heard from others who work in grassroots development efforts, that financial support for organizations like his has shrunk—especially since the BJP/Modi government took power. They are seen as anti-development, subversive, to the extent that their approaches to development don’t favor more big dams, prefer less industrial, green revolution agriculture, don’t want to increase exploitation of coal or groundwater. It seems ironic for them to be marginalized in this way, as they also are trying to promote growth and business, just a less flashy kind.
Smart phones are ubiquitous here in rural Uttarakhand now, which they were not a decade ago. Literacy is virtually 100 percent here, remarkable for rural India. People in these villages north of Delhi now see what people in the city have, and even what people from here who go to the city have, and they want more for themselves: more things that they can buy, and things to do. They don’t want their children to stay here and live the same lives they have lived.
There are “ghost villages” throughout the hills, while people from the choked, hot city want to come here to escape. I saw what looked like condo developments along the winding road on the way up from Kathgodam (the end of the rail line) to Almora. And then on the way back down—when our driver took an alternate mountain route during an intense downpour because he thought the main road might be blocked by a landslide—I saw even more of that sort of construction. Clusters of cottages and hotels are creeping up into the hills above Kathgodam. The future seems to be weekend and summer tourists from the city.
Lalit’s wife Anuradha seems more optimistic, acknowledging that change is slow, and that small shifts in attitude, in peoples’ confidence, in aspiration and awareness —especially for women — can make a difference. She is quieter than her husband, less inclined to big philosophical questions, very focused on the day to day work of training and sharing ideas. She keeps him grounded, he admits. She was educated in Uttarakhand, while Lalit went to boarding schools and then to Purdue for an engineering degree before eventually finding his way back to his father’s ancestral home. His father rose quite high in government service before retiring, living throughout India and in Delhi depending on where he was assigned. Anuradha has even stronger roots in the region; her family has an apple orchard in the hills as well as land in one of the towns.
So what will happen here? Will the population continue to shift, more and more young people migrating to the city for education or for jobs that bring cash? Even if it’s it not much money, it is cash, not just the food a family can grow to feed itself and maybe sell locally.
While I was staying at UEEC’s small, pleasant campus in Almora, I sat in on an all day meeting. About 20 men and women from villages near and far came to talk about their work. I didn’t understand much, of course, as they were all speaking Hindi with dashes of the local Kumaoni. But at least I could look at some photos because several of the men gave lengthy power point presentations, and Anuradha translated for me from time to time. Presenters showed greenhouses being constructed for growing off-season vegetables, and the building of a pipeline to bring water from a stream.
The first presentation was from a man who had come with his wife and son from a village south of Kedarnath—one of the four main Hindu pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand. After a severe mountain flood in 2013, which destroyed much of the town and surrounding areas, he decided he wanted to try growing some fruit trees that had not been grown in the area previously. The weather is warmer now, and even at 10,000 feet apple, citrus, and guava can be grown. He reported that he had begun teaching other people in the village how to establish saplings. He also makes drinks to sell locally—made both from rhododendron flowers and from the lemons he grows.
Each day I was in Almora there was an unseasonal rainstorm. This was delicious to me after the dryness of all my other destinations and Delhi’s heat, but it was not a good time for the trees, which were blooming. The area usually gets a winter monsoon, while the drier parts of India typically only have the summer monsoon. But this year, the hills got very little rain in the winter, so it was welcome in one sense but badly timed for the trees.
Tiring of the long presentations that I couldn’t understand, I left the meeting for a while and returned to finally see some of the women’s presentations. Theirs were shorter, without the powerpoints, but still gave them good practice for leadership. One woman who talked longer than the others reported on growing mulberry trees—they provide animal fodder and nice berries as well. I wish I could have understood more, especially about any of the water projects. But I liked seeing that people were responding to each other, talking together.
After lunch, I gave a short presentation at Lalit’s request. He translated. I mainly talked about Kathmandu’s traditional water system and comparable ones I had seen in India—the many ingenious systems that preceded big dams and reservoirs and canals (and in some places are being revived). They all operated on the same principle, which was to harvest as much of the monsoon as possible to keep water supplied year round through springs, ponds and stepwells. People in the group said they have always employed similar methods here.
The people gathered looked neither rich nor poor to me. Some men wore jeans and light fleece jackets, clean and casual. Women had on simple kurtas and sweaters and scarves: nothing elegant, and not carefully matched, but nothing that bespoke great poverty. Yet Lalit says they are poor, and they come to the meetings in their best clothes. In this they seem the same as people everywhere.
Lalit mentioned that one development specialist had told some villagers they ought to come looking more poor and unkempt to meet aid organization representatives, because they were looking too prosperous. I don’t know if this is something common or just an anecdote that Lalit had on hand. I buried my face in my hands and groaned when he told me this. In response to my comment that no one here looked the way so many people in Bihar do, Lalit said that is why all the money is now going to places like Bihar. Uttarakhand could still use help, but aid is going to more desperate places—like the flood-affected region of North Bihar that I wrote about in my book.
And in any case, aid isn’t the answer—at least not in the form of handouts, or giving “the poor” things that their city cousins would disdain and saying “here, this is good enough for you.” People aren’t that dumb. So if handouts aren’t the answer, according to many people whose opinions I think are valid, what is? Lalit wrestles with this. I wish more people in power would wrestle with the subtleties of the problem more, but there’s a tendency to want solutions that will work quickly and change a lot of people’s lives at once. And give credit to the government and NGO people who launch them? That’s pretty much been the approach to toilets. Various iterations of toilet building have been launched in India in recent decades, including the current Swacch Bharat initiative under Modi. He began this one because the earlier efforts did not succeed, largely because no one talked to the people beforehand to see what they wanted and what they might use.
Scale up, build, make a count, move on.
Backing up to my travel challenges—the first challenge about getting myself up to Almora, once I got to feeling better, was simply how to get to the train station in central Delhi for a 6 a.m. train from the isolated place where I was staying with two Nepali women, Snehi and Kanchan (introduced in “Broken Tooth” post). I couldn’t order my own Uber or Ola because I didn’t have a smart phone with an Indian sim card. Kanchan, who had been getting my Uber rides to the airport or the dentist, was up in another part of the hills herself for her job and out of internet reach. Her mother, Snehi, had recently gotten the Ola app (similar to Uber) put on her phone, but her phone had quit working earlier in the week, and sometimes drivers didn’t want to come all the way out to where we were. But we managed somehow, ordering the Ola to come at 4:30 the next morning before we went to bed at 10. We expected it would take at least 45 minutes for me to get to the station and that the driver might be late.
We were both amazed when he actually arrived on time. He drove so fast he got me to the station in half an hour, even through traffic (yes, there is traffic in Delhi at 5 on a Saturday morning.) In the very heavy traffic of the “freeway,” he drove so fast and aggressively, Hindu devotional music playing loudly on his radio, that I was sure he was on some sort of drug. I sat rigid with fear in the back, hoping not to die in India.
The driver dropped me off outside the security barriers of the train station—a station that handles half a million passengers a day—whereupon a handsome young porter in a red shirt with his official armband asked if I needed help. I did. The New Delhi Railway Station is huge. Sixteen platforms. My small duffel and backpack were more than I felt like carrying. He knew which platform my train would leave from and that the assigned platform had changed. He would find the correct car and seat for me. I have done these things on my own in the past but often with confusion. Easier to pay a couple hundred rupees and get help from an expert.
As we waited on the platform for my train to pull in for loading, he told me in English that was fully adequate for the conversation we were having that he was from the nearby state of Rajasthan, from a village of 5000 outside the capital city Jaipur. He comes to Delhi about half the month, goes home to the family farm the other half. He is 25, has a wife and a little girl and a baby boy, parents and buffalos and a water source. I saw photos of all these, including an irrigation canal. He described his day in Delhi. From 3 am to 7 am he worked at the station. Then he went to his room to rest. Then back to the station for another shift. I didn’t quite follow the schedule he was describing, but guessed that he worked during peak times, or maybe the porters traded shifts. He said he had been doing this for about six years. I wondered if he would rather stay at the farm in Rajasthan all the time if he didn’t need the cash to support his family. Or maybe in some ways he likes the stimulation of his time in Delhi.
I thought about him when Lalit was telling me about villagers wanting more, no longer content with their rural lives, that Delhi seemed to offer excitement, things to buy.
A young man who works for Lalit’s organization—he started working at UEEC soon after my first visit in 2007—took me to an old spring that I wrote about in my book. Its gate was open then, now it’s locked, though you can reach in and scoop up some water to drink. The young man is named Kailash, like the mountain in Tibet sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. He said he comes to the spring often. There is small temple next to it.
Kailash is from a village about 100 kilometers from Almora. He said plenty of people who once lived in Almora have now moved to Delhi. And many villagers in the region have moved into Almora, confirming what Lalit told me about “ghost villages” throughout the hills.
The changes I saw and heard about made me feel sad. The restoration of old springs and traditional water management that seemed on the rise ten years ago now seems precarious. The idea of more people flooding into Delhi is kind of terrifying. There are 19 million people there already.
For four days in Almora I could breathe and relax. Delhi makes me anxious a lot of the time, even when I’m not in a taxi with a maniacal driver. I stayed in the same room I stayed in a decade ago at the UEEC campus, which I remembered fondly. Windows on two sides looked out over green hills and I could see the activity in homes staircased down the town’s slopes. The air was especially cool and fresh after the rain. I could cuddle under the covers with a book. I could concentrate enough to read, something I hadn’t been able to do in weeks of traveling, being sick, staying in Delhi. The hill town had its share of honking horns during part of the day. But still, it felt human.