Although brought up in the metropolitan bustle that is New Delhi, I have always had a strong connection with my maternal ancestral home of Rasmai (a village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India). Frequent visits to my village nurtured within me a love for nature and my attraction towards a simpler, less materialistic life. In Rasmai there was no TV or telephone, electricity came for a few hours, if at all. In Rasmai we had no restaurants or ice cream vendors, no shops and certainly no Coca Cola. But we did have walls lined with bookshelves, we did have endless paths to take walks on, we did have a spirited canal where we’d fish (unsuccessfully) and we did have a tube well where we’d jump in for a quick bath.
|Rasmai, my ancestral village|
My childhood was aglow with long walks with my grandfather, a retired forest officer, who passed his wisdom on things ranging from the call of a partridge to how to graft mango saplings. Ever-youthful, and a pioneer in his own right, he indulgently allowed me to shadow him as he experimented; one year it was drip irrigation in the lime orchard, another summer it was wine making, a few winters we kept bees and another year we had a bumper harvest of lettuce, a crop unheard of in rural India at that time. From him I learnt to not shy away from dirtying my hands, ‘from dust unto dust’, he’d demonstrate, plucking out weeds from the fields and allowing them to decompose into manure. I learned how a farmer’s fortunes are dictated by the vagaries of the weather. I learned that to be a woman in rural India is a constant struggle. And I learned that there is wisdom to be found if one is ready to observe and listen.
A whole new learning curve
After completing my undergraduate degree in Botany, I went on to complete a masters in Natural Resource Management. This phase of my life opened my mind to battles being fought all over India: deforestation vs. mining, shrinking habitats and animal poaching vs. forest rights of indigenous communities, farmers applying pesticides vs. environmental activists condoning organic farming. I revelled in this assault on my senses. Yes, I felt uncomfortable, I often felt helpless, but I was stimulated by the discourses swirling around me and this helped me articulate what I wanted to do next.
After my degree, I chose to work with an NGO called Pragya. Pragya works with indigenous communities across the Himalayas (from Jammu and Kahmir in the west to Arunachal Pradesh in the east) promoting ecological conservation and sustainable development for these geographically isolated populations. I worked on projects aimed at watershed management, medicinal plant cultivation and livelihood diversification and these enabled me to spend months in the field, travelling to remote locations, often trekking for hours, and interacting with people directly dependent on natural resources for their livelihood. Some villages had no electricity. Others had problems of diminishing water resources. Some places saw youngsters migrating to urban areas in search of jobs. Mountain communities in India are marginalized from mainstream politics and as a result have suffered the consequences of unequal development. They have not benefited from the success story of India\’s economic boom. In spite of the vast sums of money being spent by the government on watershed projects and infrastructure development, economically viable and environmentally sustainable development is still a far off goal. I spent nearly two years in this manner. It was an invigorating yet somewhat challenging experience.
Feeling ill-equipped and restricted by my inability to help and contribute in a meaningful manner, I decided to
|Field work, Rajasthan|
start studying more about inclusive development. Which led me to take up a PhD in the UK. Here, my research looks at how farmers in Rajasthan are vulnerable to water scarcity and climate change and what they are doing to cope with it. For this, I recently spent 10 months in southern Rajasthan, interacting with and learning from tribal farmers. Again, I was confronted by the story of a farmer and his constant struggle with the weather to eke out a living. Having travelled extensively across different landscapes in India, what I have learnt to be universal is that the rural life is not easy and there is no beauty in poverty. However, for the willing, there are lessons to be learnt and that is what draws me.
My interactions with the less-privileged have made me value the luxuries I have had. Of a sound education. Of not having to be restricted by my gender. Of being free to choose and live as I wish. These learnings contribute to my person constantly. Which is why I believe travel is as much about learning about the outside world as it is learning about oneself.
First published on The Mindful Word.
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