The Changing Face of India

The Pathanias, my new neighbors since February, are two of the most simplistic and homely people I’ve ever met.  Gargiji, once a Hindi school teacher, always exudes a loving presence about her and  Mr. Pathania, a former chemistry teacher, carries with him a confident, yet gentle, demeanor.  They’re now retired and have dedicated their time to their beautiful gardens.  Lettuce, green peppers, cherries, papayas, tomatoes – you name it and it is there in the yard.  When they take a break from the gardens in the evenings, Sarah and I often talk with them and learn from their perspectives.  On one of these days, we began talking about Sidhpur and the Kangra Valley as they remembered what it used to be and the changes that came about.  It was a story that I imagine is all too common across India as globalization and urbanization become rampant.

The Pathanias, as with many people their age, have a romantic notion of what life used to be.  Their house, which is now surrounded by apartments on one side and the main road on the other, had nothing nearby but fields when they first moved here in 1977.  No roads, electricity, stores, or neighbors.  The larger area, which is now filled with well-paved paths and bustling villages, was just as desolate.  Mr. Pathania, as if startled by the fact himself, widened his eyes as he told us about the dirt road from Yol to Dharamsala which sparsely contained 1 or 2 houses when he was attending school in 1965.  Today, it’s a 20 km tar-filled stretch with crowded markets and villages.

Despite the lack of infrastructure, the district itself was quite well off.  Gargiji fondly talked about the area having the richest panchayat in Himachal Pradesh due to the slate mining companies that were set up near the mountains.  “They used to export slate to England,” Mr. Pathania told us proudly – altogether  different tone than when he talks about slate exports now, which are largely to China at a significantly lower price.  Over time, though, unregulated mining led to many of the companies being shut down.  After closings, people switched into other industries, whether that was agriculture or small businesses, and the amount of money in the work decreased.

Despite the downturn of the slate industry, the area has undoubtedly developed in many good ways, with access to roads, regular electricity, and water systems.  As the Pathanias talked about the beauty in the life then, I couldn’t help but wonder about the beauty in life now.  The small household farms, the small-scale economy, and the diverse communities in the area all paint a picture of a quaint and almost idealistic town to an outsider like me.  However, as the valley grows bigger and becomes more populated, I can only imagine what kind of changes will take place in 50 years from now.  Will the government be able to manage the trash which is slowly flowing into the streams?  Will there be waste management system in place that doesn’t lead to polluting the river?  Will the Tibetan communities and Indian communities in the area create their own separate enclaves or positively interact with each other to share their cultures?  How will minorities such as Muslims, who were driven out due to violence during the partition, find a space within civil society?

All these questions are all too relevant all across India, and part of the developmental challenge lies on local and state governments.  Unfortunately, people like the Pathanias have had experiences which have led them to lose faith in the political system.  They recite the words of the Anna Hazare movement – the government is all too corrupt.  With urbanization and more importantly, globalization, how will governments and individuals cope with the challenges that lie ahead?  I definitely don’t have all (or any) of the answers but would love to start a discussion on this.  So if you’ve made it this far into the blog post, congratulations and comment away!

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