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Interview: Helena Norberg

Interview: Helena Norberg

Endangered Ladakh
Search Ladakh on Google. All your search page will contain are a host of travel and tourism websites that offer lucrative packages for an exotic vacation in the region. This explains how consumerism has managed to push Ladakh into an abyss of alienation.Since the time the Indian government started promoting tourism in Ladakh in 1974, the region has served as a punching bag for various experiments including globalisation. Helena Norberg Hodge is one of the first foreigners to have visited Ladakh soon after it was opened to outsiders. She is the author of Ancient Futures: Learnings from Ladakh, which together with an award winning film of the same title has been translated into 30 languages. In her numerous groundbreaking projects on development in the Tibetan plateau she constantly emphasises how global consumer culture is breaking the local economy and marginalising the region. In an interview with Neha Dixit, Helena talks about how urbanisation and centralisation are usurping the self-esteem of the Ladakhi people.

The consistent theme in all the ‘hands-on’ projects you have been running since 1975 has been to shift direction away from dependence on the global economy. Why? When globalisation came to India with the MNCs, 90 percent of the population in Ladakh was in effect told that farming is ancient and obsolete. Psychological pressures to abandon farming started building up and suddenly it was called a relic. Ironically, more than half the population practiced farming here, still it was seen as derogatory. It’s like pitting the people against an anti-human ideology and herding them into a situation where people have to fight for jobs that are artificially created. We attempt to ward off situations like these.
In your book Ancient Futures, you have attributed this change in attitude to the intensely centralizing forces of the present global development model. Can you explain?There is a myth propagated by the West that the future lies in technology and urbanization. Hence, industrial agriculture is being promoted as something that is more efficient than farming. But the truth is that it’s based on petroleum and subsidised water. It’s responsible for unemployment and the yields are far much lower than farming. As a result, monoculture planting is taking shape all over the world. In this set up, the same seeds are produced for all kinds of soils, which lead to the destruction of the agricultural capacities of the seeds. Thus, the same food is produced for both animals and human beings. Basically the idea behind this kind of farming is to produce for export and not for your own consumption. I am talking about this centralised approach, which does not respect diversity and ecological balance.
How do you see these forces working in Ladakh?
See, the PDS system in India based on the wheat and rice model – a boon for Punjab and Haryana – which is destroying the old self-sustaining agricultural system in Ladakh. By bringing subsidised butter, wheat and rice from the other side of the Himalayas to Ladakh it’s discouraging the growth of local varieties of wheat and barley, the principal crops of the region. Unbalanced and distorted subsidies are not only breaking the small farmer’s economy but also eroding their cultural self- esteem. Instead, a decentralised system should be set up that encourages a local food movement. This kind of localization will stop both artificial strangling of both human jobs and human health and help in linking small businesses so that a small baker or a shopkeeper can survive. Moreover it will also help in preventing urban sprawl.
Doesn’t it run into a danger of turning into a type of economic isolationism?I’m talking about an ecological and psychological balance of localisation. Decentralising business does not mean dismantling. Instead it will employ more people and yield more incentives. Economic localisation will help in freeing Ladakh from an over-dependence on the global economy and invest in its own resources to produce a significant portion of the food, services and energy for the local consumer. For example, increased use of solar ovens, green houses and hydraulic water pumps will reduce Ladakhi’s dependence on imported and expensive fuels. What will follow is deeper self-reliance and contentment among people.
But rural youths have some aspirations that agriculture can’t fulfill.Part of it comes from the romanticized view of the West. When children in Ladakh were exposed to modern media and western education, they started comparing themselves to some western role models with whom they couldn’t relate to in any way. As a result, their sense of identity started getting diluted. They started feeling inferior in terms of their food, skin colour, language and architecture. Moreover, a western urbanised education system was introduced which was not only alien but also highly unsustainable. The children could not relate to the lessons that were taught in school. For example, as a part of Ladakhi culture, people dont throw anything away. Everything is put to use. But due to the influence of western consumerism, the children now see it as a sign of poverty. They are discouraged from using their local language, Bhoti. Lack of exposure prevents them from gaining a critical insight to realise that they are far more creative and skilled than their western counterparts.
But the resources available in Ladakh are still inadequate.
See, in India, people are more aware that they are being developed as compared to the West where development takes place silently without involving people. It’s seen as progress that happens by itself and is eventually termed evolution. Children are being lost to Second Life, where they buy virtual reality on Internet. They imbibe a feeling of arrogance and presume that they can move houses with a click of a button. Everything is perfect, hence there is no creativity, no chaos, no failure and hence no learning. However, in India, essentials like music and dance are still there to connect people. Children here still splash water on their paintings, get disappointed and above all feel.


Sep 01 , 2007
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