Something interesting happened to me this past month: I became a digital migrant. At some point on January 25 or 26, a large avalanche/landslide struck the area called Shiatan Nallah near Zoji-la. There had been very heavy snowfall throughout the region, which caused a succession of avalanches throughout J&K that week. Some of those avalanches were fatal and caught national attention, particularly when 15 Indian soldiers were killed in one event in Gurez, Kashmir. (To be clear, I was never in any danger. I was many kilometers away from these events.) Such events are common in Ladakh, but this year’s snowfall has been exceptionally high, 250% higher than usual in some parts of J&K.
Unfortunately for Ladakh, the Shiatan Nallah avalanche/landslide also destroyed the fiber optic cables that connect the entire region to the internet. Because of the high snowfall and the inherent danger of moving repair crews and trucks into the mountains, BSNL has opted to wait until the roads officially open again in the Spring to begin repairing the cables. This put me (and my Fellowship) in an interesting position. Since a lot of my work requires the internet, it would seem that I was out of luck. Fortunately, AIF has been immensely supportive. They made arrangements for me to fly out of Ladakh to New Delhi, and then move to the city of Dehra Dun in the hills of Uttarakhand. I’m now working from the AIF state office here, which houses staff from the MANSI and DE programs. Needless to say, it’s been a rollercoaster.
All of this got me thinking about the nature of connectivity and what it means for development. Obviously there is an immense amount of development money directed toward telecom infrastructure, and I believe that this is generally money well spent. One of the things I was hoping to do with the Himalayan Homestays program was to introduce a more rigorous bookings and reservations system so that travellers could firmly depend on their bookings and the business owners could plan for guests more effectively. This planning hit a wall, unfortunately, when I found out that about 3 out of 5 Homestays are operated in villages that don’t have phone connections, let alone data and internet networks. I dove down a rabbit hole of trying to find alternatives for a little while, and then gave up. (Satellite phones are incredibly expensive!) Unfortunately, that means that some of the improvements I was hoping to plan will not be possible during my Fellowship.
It has also been startling to realize that the Ladakh region is largely powerless to demand such things as phone networks and more reliable internet. In an event of a market failure like this, I intuitively expect government to step in and make up the difference. Two things are missing, though: widespread and loud-enough demand from consumers, and political will from governments- local, state, and central. Ladakh’s extreme isolation contributes to both.
Here’s an anecdote I’ve heard more than once since going to Ladakh: “For every 10 rupees the central government spends in J&K state, 7 go to Kashmir, 2 or 3 go to Jammu, and if there are any left, they come to Ladakh.” I cannot verify the truth of such a thing, and wouldn’t even know where to start, so rest assured I don’t take it as fact. What such statements tell me, however, is that at least some Ladakhis feel ignored by the government. The unfortunate reality is that such sentiments are true enough in themselves to cause damage. People judge their own circumstances on a curve.
So, yes, I believe Ladakh deserves better communications development, and many Ladakhis agree with me. With far more clarity than I had six months ago, I see that such large-scale, capital-intensive developments, often derided by some thinkers as “capital-D Development”, are the enabling factors for an explosion of creativity at the local level. At a very granular level, I now understand that mainstream development entails “approaching the norm,” and becoming more like it (for better or worse). Sustainable development, as I see it, means approaching the norm and *very selectively* becoming more like it.1 There is nothing incoherent to me about a people choosing to allow, for instance, greater communications infrastructure to be built in their region, and still maintaining their more traditional methods of relating to the land.2 Unfortunately, those decisions are often not up to them. THAT is the failure of capital-D Development.
My point is that without the capital-D Development, lowercase-d development is often impossible. My colleagues at SLC-IT cannot pick up the phone and call most participants in the Himalayan Homestays program, for instance. Without that connectivity, they cannot introduce rigor and professionalism into the program. Without being able to reliably guarantee that a reservation will be honoured when the trekker finally arrives at the Homestay, the program struggles to compete with some of the smaller, more nimble private operations. And thus, a perfectly well-intentioned program sometimes bumps into problems that would be easily solved with better connectivity. Now, the Homestays program is more complex than I’ve painted it here, but I hope the idea is clear: the world norm is one of greater communication. Information is a currency, and digital connections are the markets. Anyone without access to these markets is at an immediate disadvantage in any situation that requires dealing with the rest of the world.
Yes, there is plenty of danger in the normalization process. The danger is cultural loss. The danger is loss of tradition, and all the meaning that tradition carries. I’ve written about this here. And of course, if the norms are overwhelmingly violent and destructive, then thinking about them from a perspective of sustainability will not do much good. However, there is plenty of good in the mainstream, both technological and cultural. Finding it just takes some discernment.
One thing seems more certain to me now: isolation isn’t a virtue in itself. Isolation can produce interesting and beautiful effects, as we see in the simultaneously austere and rich traditions throughout the Himalayan region. However, isolation can also insulate a people from change, right up until the moment that changes force their way in. At that point, the changes are too big and happen too quickly. I’ve witnessed the effects of that in Ladakh; see this post. The region has been struggling to “catch the bus” ever since.
I’ve learned a lot from my little transition to Dehra Dun. I am getting the chance to experience life closer to the Indian mainstream. There is much to love about it! I will transition back to Ladakh when the internet is restored, but I intend to make the most of this change in the meantime. Let me leave you with an interesting thought from one of my favorite authors.
“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”
-Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Vintage Books: London, 2004.
1. The selection process should be deliberative, democratic, and with a mind toward balancing social, environmental, and economic health. I believe that sustainability is a process far more than it is a goal.
2. The solar-punk in me thinks it would be so cool to plough a field with your yaks, while wearing traditional hand-made woollens, then come inside and browse the internet with speedy broadband.