Since my last post, I’ve become much more settled into my new home in the Rishi Valley, and I have also enjoyed reading about all of the other fellows’ experiences. The contrast between the tales of city life and my relatively quiet, solitary existence is striking. In general, I’m much more of a city person, and sometimes I find myself wondering whether I’m missing out on some essential part of the Indian experience. But the bustling, crowded chaos of India’s cities is but one facet of a country full of contrasts, and the rural hamlets that fill the expanses in between the booming metropolises present their own distinct flavor of India. The rural backdrop for the research I am conducting during my fellowship has been described as follows, by the Indian philosopher who founded the Rishi Valley School:
“You do not know how beautiful this valley is. This is real India: unpolluted, simple, clear skies, lovely trees. And the most beautiful ancient hills in the world surround you. It will be a pity to leave this valley just to become like everybody else.”
– Krishnamurti, Rishi Valley Talk with Students, December 1972
Though the valley retains many of the picturesque qualities described by Krishnamurti, the reality is that its ecosystem is extremely fragile and suffering from severe resource degradation. The introduction of bore wells and the shift from rain-fed to irrigated crops in recent decades have depleted groundwater aquifers faster than the paltry annual rainfall can recharge them. Furthermore, the increasing demand for water has been met by a decrease in the already constrained supply – recent years have seen changes in rainfall patterns, in terms of both timing and frequency. In addition, the widespread adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has degraded the soil fertility, and use of these inputs has brought negative health consequences for the farm laborers who are exposed to them on a regular basis. It is this setting which frames our research into the linkages between changes in this ecosystem and the well-being of the marginal populations whose health and livelihoods are bound to the health of the land.
In the past month or so, work for my project has begun in earnest, and to set the stage for my research, my mentor and I decided it was best to start with informal discussions in select hamlets. While we will be able to access household survey data collected for another project in the area, we wanted to supplement the quantitative data with qualitative contextual information. Our hope was that by having these preliminary conversations we would get more nuanced accounts and perhaps even information we wouldn’t have thought to ask about in the first place. In particular, we sought out the village elders, engaging them in conversations tracing livelihood activities and practices from the past to the present, with an eye to the future. What crops did they grow in the past, and what were their traditional practices before the advent of irrigation and chemical inputs? What were their primary sources of income? How and why, in their opinions, have they moved away from these practices? Can some traditional practices be reintroduced into current livelihood activities?
A number of patterns were apparent from our first batch of meetings. While many answers were consistent with the anecdotal information drawn from experience working in the communities over the past several years, several new insights emerged that even my mentor had never heard before. On one hand, we were not surprised to hear that the crop varieties that were planted in the past were quite different from those planted now. In many cases, traditional crops were entirely rain-fed and planted according to a traditional agricultural calendar that was in sync with local rainfall patterns, dictating when to sow and when to harvest. Furthermore, livestock breeds were also indigenous, meaning they were less susceptible to disease than the exotic breeds that have since been introduced. Unsurprisingly, many changes came as the Green Revolution rippled through India, reaching this region by the 1980s, bringing irrigated, chemically-dependent, high-yield crop varieties.
However, many of the elders with whom we spoke also took on a reflective tone about the impact of these changes. They said that in the past, they had very little income, but their health was far superior to what they see in their communities today. Previously their land was used to grow food chiefly for consumption, and we suspect the highly nutritious indigenous crops and absence of chemical additions were contributing factors to their health. Now that their land is dedicated to high-yielding cash crops (e.g. rice), income is much higher, so by that metric, they are better off than in the past. But at what cost? One elder made the comment that they have more money now, but they spend all of their extra money dealing with their health problems! In addition, the amount of water required to support these crops will not be sustainable in the long term, highlighting the need to modify practices for the sake of both health and livelihoods.
In a particularly poignant moment, one of them took full responsibility for these changes and the unintended negative consequences. As the hybrid, high-yield, short-duration crops became available, he said that they got greedy and shifted away from the traditional crop varieties. At the end of the meeting, as my mentor translated, he turned to me and said that he “would speak very nicely to me if I spoke to him in Telugu” and that he was very glad that I was here. The last part was a bit humbling. Many days I still struggle to articulate to others (and myself) how the research I am planning can have a direct benefit for the communities, so to find my presence to be so welcomed was touching.
As for my Telugu, it is progressing slowly, but surely. As with the various other languages I have studied over the years, I am also getting a much better appreciation for the idiosyncrasies of the English language in the process. In a recent lesson, my teacher took a welcome detour from the day’s focus on Telugu prepositions to phrases that don’t translate directly from English into Telugu. One example was the tendency, in English, to refer to a friendly greeting as a “warm welcome”. Laughing heartily, he said, “But a warm welcome is only good if you are from a cold country! In a hot country like India, you want a cold welcome!!”. Accordingly, the appropriate phrases in both Hindi and Telugu reference something akin to a “cool reception”. I was reminded of this linguistic quirk as I jogged to an intersection known as the Mouth of the Valley the other day. The clear day that greeted me as I began my run rapidly gave way to ominous clouds, and soon enough, the light rainfall typical of this season. It had gotten quite hot by that time, so the rain was delightfully refreshing. In response to this “cold welcome” from the Rishi Valley, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “I’m glad that I’m here, too.”
(Photo: freshly harvested foxtail millet, a traditional rain-fed crop of this region)