Tete-a-tete with a Maverick - Part II

Venky: So when did you begin with Journeys With Meaning ? How did it begin?

Vinod:  My three colleagues, who were working with me in Phase V, got busy with their own lives. They had to move on. We chose to close Phase V down after working together for seven years. I started something called Signposts, where I continued to work with young people and expose them to the ideas of Ecology, Systems Thinking and Identity. Earlier, we used to do two or three day workshops in the city for colleges, reaching out to about 100-120 people . After few years, I realized that we weren't having much of an impact. There would be very few people who would really get what we were trying to say. Interestingly, Abhishek, who is the organizer of South Asian Youth Conference, attended the very first workshop we conducted. Others would come there and attend the workshop, as they were asked to, by their colleges and then would go back to their routine lives. 

I figured that one of the things I wanted do a lot was travelling.This was about four years ago. I ended up going to Ladakh for a conference on Localisation, organized by International Society for Ecology and Culture(ISEC). Helena Norberg Hodge, who founded this organization was the first westerner to get into Ladakh and learn the language. She spent about 30 years working in Ladakh. She, being a linguist, was the first one to learn the language and speak it fluently. She learnt how they lived in a sustainable way for hundreds of years. She realized that the rest of the world could learn a lot of lessons from the way Ladakhis had lived.

So they were organizing a conference on localization. While they weren't against globalization of ideas, culture, they were  very much concerned about globalization of the economy which led to large scale destruction of local economies. They proposed that we need to get involved with communities locally, and strengthen our local economies. 

Today it is entirely possible because of the internet.  As feedback loops are shorter, we can learn from each other quickly, taking advice from others who have tried it all. The place  and the conference sparked this thought in me that why don’t I organize trip around these  issues. Because people wanted to travel and also learn about these things. Moreover, I wasn't keen on doing  workshops around the city. 

VenkyIn city, you are trying to tell the truth amidst bunch of lies!

Vinod: You are right! One of the primary motivations for me was, I didn't have to talk much. If I was talking about climate change, for example, I would just take them to the glacier and they could see what was happening.  Seeing what’s happening is much stronger than hearing somebody talk or hearing a power point presentation about it. I started offering trips to places like Ladakh, Kashmir. Ladakh, because of its ecological context and I could draw out lot of lessons about Systems thinking and sustainability from the way Ladakhis have lived and also how they are being impacted by tourism. There is a lot of irresponsible tourism that’s happening there. 

Venky: Isn’t it prevalent in every other tourist destination? Anything pertinent to Ladakh?

Vinod: Ladakhis' primary crops are wheat and barley. But today, almost every Ladakhi eats rice. A lot of farmers have stopped growing food as they get more income from tourism. Everybody has a travel agency, or a restaurant or guest-house. It has become a preferred mode of employment over there. This was also affecting the way they were living the rest of the year. As a society hemmed in by very harsh weather conditions, they have a growing season of four months from May to September.
Photo taken by Vinod at Ladakh
Traditionally, they would use these four months to grow everything they needed for the rest of the year.Water would only be available at this time as glaciers melted during this period  They would work very hard. And then, they would sit back and enjoy for the rest of the eight months. They would sit at home, get married and have children. That balance was being affected. Since the growing season was used for tourism,  they didn't grow enough. Which means they would have to import food for themselves, which needs money. 

So you can see the whole vicious cycle here. Ecologically speaking, you would need roads and other infrastructure to deliver the food. Every year, I  see, at least fifteen new guest houses and taxi stands, with more and more people coming in.

 With 3-idiots movie popularizing this place, thousands of tourists want to go there. While I am okay with the idea of people travelling, it’s quite sad to see tourists going there and wanting the exact thing they had back in the city. In a high altitude, desert environment like Ladakh, it’s a crime, in my opinion, to have guest houses with western flush toilets. It is  a desert out there. You cant keep flushing 20 litres every time you use the toilet. Imagine 50, 000 people going and doing that. Water is wasted and flushed back into the Indus, which is the main source of drinking water.  

Traditionally, Ladakhis had their own dry compost system, a two storied toilet structure, where you would shit at the upper storey and it is covered below with saw dust or sad. It would be left lying there for a year until it decomposes, which would act as a fertilizer for next year’s crops. It’s a closed loop system, with no water wastage. It worked fine for several hundred years. 

Until, tourists came and demanded western flush toilets. Now, every guest house has  a western toilet. Also, 50,000 people come and have two liters of mineral water a day. Imagine the amount of waste that gets generated. Nobody is going to carry it out of Ladakh. Its just going in and will be dumped somewhere.

Venky: While you said that you were okay with the idea of travelling, I am reminded of what E. F. Schumacher talked about the problems of being footloose in his classic Small is BeautifulWith the human propensity to travel and explore, no place is left untouched, including the moon and outer space.
Vinod: Also, Wendell Berry, American naturalist,  has written something interesting about travel in his poem, Air and fire. He says, If you feel a sense of rootedness towards where you are, then you would have no urge to travel. If you really love the place where you live, where you totally feel connected, and this is something I do notice in our society. We are so disconnected from where we live,  our society and ourselves. Therefore we have the urge to find it elsewhere. Because we aren't getting it where we are. That’s why we travel.  Another reason, may be, we think, if I go to this place, may be, it will be quiet or beautiful enough. 
Which again brings me back to the localization. We need to root ourselves in our communities better. If we had better relationship with our neighbors, if we are connected with the land, if we are involved in growing food, why would we need to runaway from there and go somewhere else.  We may still want to travel,  meet friends, relatives and explore new places. But it may not be a deep urge to run away. I experience this in a city. I can’t stay in a city for more than two months. This was another reason to begin  Journeys with Meaning.

Venky: You also started organizing trips to Kashmir also. How did it begin?

Vinod: Kashmir was connected to the identity issue. I was interested in looking at how our chosen identities affected the way we interacted with other people. When I first went to Kashmir in 2002,my kashmiri friend would ask “Are you coming from India?”.   I would be enraged. Then I realized that they weren’t saying this with malice, with any desire to provoke. It was what they perceived to be the truth, that they were a separate nation. It made me ask: Why I was being so defensive about it? When I realized that I could have 20-30 different identities at any given point of time: I am an Indian, South Asian,  male above 5 feet five inches,  etc,I could fit myself into any of these identities, why just Indian?

Venky:We’ve bought ourselves into the whole idea of nationalism without really questioning it. 

Vinod: Yeah! I had this little epiphany over there that I wasn’t able to listen to what they were really saying.  I was very angry and wanted to defend. Then I asked myself: What would happen, if I choose to ignore this identity for a while? What if I choose a slightly wider perspective, being a global citizen? What if I listen from that place? What happens then? When I did that, I was able to listen to them. They  shouted and ranted and abused against India. They had their reasons for it. They had experienced a lot of violence. I had no desire to defend. 

At first, they were able to empty their feelings out. Suddenly a beautiful space opened up,  where we could have conversations about India, Pakistan and Kashmir.  They didn’t see me threatening in any way. We could share our thoughts, without trying to convert the other. That made me realize, maybe,  we need more of this to happen. More youngsters should experience this. My concern was, as Indian citizens, we support our government with tax money, Huge chunk of it goes into defence. We don’t even know why we are supporting it. They just told some story and we believe it.

Venky:They need that story to fund it.

Vinod: Yes...Once you go there, talk to people, and understand why they are being the way they are, you realize that may be this isn't a good idea. We could be spending the money in building the bridges, instead of fighting with each other. Soldiers aren’t happy. They aren’t happy. Nobody is happy. What’s the point of it? 

So that’s why we started doing this: talking with people to understand how they feel about it. I encourage my group members to not talk, but just listen. At the end of the day, we have a conversation together and see what comes up. If there are any feelings of anger, express it. 

Can u do it with an awareness that you are not just an Indian, but many other things? People realize that they can consciously do this at any point in time.  They can choose to switch off an identity for a brief bit and look at it from another perspective. We also started doing trips to North-East where we look at Ecology and Identity. 

Venky: Isn't Arunachal Pradesh one among the biodiversity hot spots?

Vinod: You are right! They have also been  affected by insurgency and identity politics for several years. The Khasis in Meghalaya don’t consider themselves Indians. While they are, politically, If you ask them their  identity. they would say only Khasis. 

I also started organizing trips to organic farms, which helped me ask everyone: Where does your food come from? I read a beautiful blog by an American girl, who started growing food in US because of recession. As money became difficult to come by, She decided to grow at least part of the food. She wrote about growing radish. It took her 28 days to a point where she could consume it. 

 Just the process of growing the radish made her realize that she couldn't just a take a bite and throw it away. Because she had invested 28 whole days in nurturing it from seed to the plant. It made me realize that when we don’t grow our own food, its so easy to take a bite and, if we don’t like it, throw it away. How many of us do that everyday? 

When we go to a farm, we spend time planting and harvesting crops. We also make sure that  we cook one of the meals during the day, to understand how much effort it requires. Often don’t cook for ourselves. Many of us have maids, or, may be, parents cooking for us. Therefore, there is no direct connection

Cooking involves everything from going to the garden to picking the right vegetable to cleaning it. As  we are in the farm, we do it in an eco-friendly way, We use the ash from the morning fire to wash the dishes. And that water would go into the plants. 

Venky:  It's a cyclical process!

Vinod: Yes.  Participants get to see how nothing is wasted. Everything is designed in such a beautiful way. We talk to the farmers. He takes us through different seasons, why they planting at the time they do. They talk about companion planting. They plant two kinds of plants together. Birds can come and sit on one crop and they can eat the insects that come on the other crop. Or you plant something like a plant which helps you to figure out how much water is there in the soil. 

Venky: I've learnt from a farmer that they use Crotons for this, with its surface level roots beneficial for us. 

Vinod: It clearly shows how systems thinking works. We can view these relationships which are understandable. I read this statement in a book sometime back. 

When you see a problem, the traditional way would be, for somebody to react immediately and say, "Don’t just stand there. Do something" Systems thinking tells you to do the exact opposite. "Don’t just do something. Stand there". Move away from the problem. Take some time to look at the overall context. Take a bird’s eye view of it. See all the connections and relationships and you would realize that, where do you think the solution is required, is not the real point of intervention.  

 You might have to do something elsewhere. Just one minor tweak  and everything falls into place. Let nature tell you what’s going on wrong where. Then, you can just modify it and things fall in place.