Lucas McKinnon : India

Reflection #1:

It has now been over three weeks since I left home. Three weeks since I last had food that did not make my nose run, or did not make me fearful of unrequested bowel movements, and over three weeks since I’ve spoken to someone whose first language was English. But, really, three weeks is not that long. And yet it shouldn’t be discounted as something insignificant for a twenty-one year old, or at least parts of him: his stomach, his immune system, his emotional health, his psychological disposition, his ideals and vocational hopes. These things can change with incredible swiftness. What is also amazing is how easily they can stay the same.

Since landing I have worked in a sector of development I rarely considered, one that I believed was mostly common sense, manipulated every so often by politics and ego. This is the sector of management, planning, and coordination.

I don’t intend to disparage the profession. On the contrary, I aim to do the opposite - granted the professional involved lives up to what this occupation requires.

I’ve found that a failure to adequately assess a given situation – in my case, it is the flood-affected region of Uttarakhand state in northern India, though it could be anything from the spread of HIV/AIDs to the development of permaculture projects – can and often does result in a failed attempt to solve the issue at hand. Without a guiding principle or outlook, development projects are doomed to failure. Just the same, and maybe even more dangerous, an outlook that is inappropriate given the setting but left unquestioned can wreak untold damage in the present while making future development projects unnecessarily difficult or near impossible.

Let me give you an example. Thus far I have been working with a Mr. Puthumai Nazarene, the UN Disaster Management Team (UNDMT) director for Uttarakhand state, and have mapped the locations of hundreds of schools (primary, upper primary, and high school) within the five most affected districts. The final maps list the district, village name, school type, latitude and longitude, what type of damage, and what organization (NGO or private) has signed to sponsor the school’s reconstruction. This amounts to quite a lot of data, maybe even some information that is not needed by organizations or the Government of India when trying to implement relief or reconstruction projects. The data must therefore be presented in a manner that is intelligible to a host of different people: government officials, NGO workers, private sector and construction workers, and rural farmers all have different and specific needs when it comes to information. They will be using it in different ways, so this makes sense. Where the “guiding principle” of the development work comes in, then, is at the point of deciding what information should be collected, under what specifications, with what timeline, and in what way it will be presented – these will all impact the nature of the work and could mean a difference between sustainable projects of capacity- and resilience-building, or projects that are done unsystematically and leave the affected in a position of need, unable to carry themselves out of the disaster which is, ultimately, the only way to remain outside of it.

I have had an interest in India for years, especially with respect to its agricultural sector and the connection between sound ecology and sound human health. I have taken the perspective, common among medical professionals, that the first five years of a child’s life carry huge importance and serve as the foundation for the health and wellbeing of future generations. If there is a disconnection between a people and their land, be it in access or misuse, this will manifest in poor health for all. This overarching perspective I have carried with me as an undergraduate, but not until recently have I witnessed its reality, played out in the lives of real humans and not simply theories.

Two days ago I had the privilege of meeting Vijyani in the mountain village of Ghat. The air was the clearest and cleanest I have breathed since arriving. No sounds of horns plagued this valley. All that was heard besides the soft talking of my hosts was the river washing stones, birds chirruping, and the light clinking bells of water buffalo. But Vijyani and her people lived in poverty. There was no denying that. And the outcomes of their lives demonstrate this unfortunate truth.

Due to climate change, this vulnerable region (I have heard it called the “third pole” of our earth, for it is home to many glaciers and is responsible for maintaining a steady global temperature) is suffering. Irregular weather patterns and hydroelectric plants, which divert streams to fuel the energy needs of the behemoth Delhi, have increased soil erosion, and the loss of nutrients and biodiversity. The people overharvest trees, one of their only sources of fuel, and the land becomes even more unstable. Flooding wipes away indiscriminately swaths of arable land, homes, livelihoods, and people. Sons and daughters seek better opportunities, and the cities offer a hope that is strong enough to momentarily outweigh the hardship. Whole generations leave, fight poverty, and learn to consume more; the earth warms, old ways of living are forgotten and lost. Because everything is related, the cycle continues.

Vijyani has two children, one five and the other two. She was paralyzed from the waist down a few years ago while cutting high branches from a dead tree, needing the fuel that is now sparsely available and must be obtained in increasingly difficult ways. Her husband is a day laborer, working mostly on the roads that are washed away every rainy season. The group I was with, leaders of a Catholic social service society, gave her a wheelchair – her first, though she has been paralyzed for years. Living on the top of a mountain, an hour walk from the nearest town that she can only be carried to, this device is can be used only inside her home. She is twenty-six years old.

Living and working in India these past few weeks has been what I can really only call an endless flux of paradigmatic shifts. My awareness is centered, focused upon a specific life, or on the face of a single person – then, suddenly, I am hurled into a different world, and I see not individuals, but movements of economy, resources, culture, and time. I am learning, slowly, to find balance and garner understanding from this constant movement. I am learning that perspective counts for so much in development, and those with resources, privilege, and skill cannot stay unwise to this fact. We are working on something far more important than ourselves, which means we must often step outside the parameters of one’s self. I remain hopeful, aware, and open to the needs of the present as my stay advances. 

Reflection #2:

After returning from Kotdwar in early February, I took up my work in Dehradun, again focusing on mapping in various ways the extent of the damage wrought by the cloudburst in June 2013. The work was sometimes tedious, but the final product was fulfilling; its reception by NGOs, the Government of India, and interested Indians (kind and courageous enough to talk to me while I eat alone at the restaurant across the street that I frequent daily) demonstrated the significance of works that illustrate their findings simply and intelligibly. I believe, if not directly impactful for this particular disaster, projects like this can show their efficacy and be used in the future, when our climate is even more erratic, the population is larger, and the need for skilled coordination in times of emergency is all the more necessary.

I spent the last week in Rudraprayag. Six hours from Dehradun, this district was one of the most heavily affected regions. Follow along road from Rudraprayag and you will reach Kedarnath Temple (I recommend searching for photographs of this region – they are sobering reminders of humanity’s still-vulnerable presence in the natural world).

I made field visits to an abandoned village, which my host at the time, Praveen, hopes to transform through a process of de-urbanization and reintegration of rural peoples back to the land they were forced to leave for lack of opportunities and natural and manmade disasters.

I visited a rural primary school, shared chai with the school headmaster, and on the headmaster’s request gave an impromptu speech of hope and thanks to the children. Sitting crouched on the dry dirt where their classes were held, they giggled and looked away. Partly because I spoke in English, partly because I was desperately in need of a haircut and they all knew it.

In their almost incomprehensible totality, these experiences have taught me the unquestionable need for expertise in the diverse worlds of international development. I did not really expect to leave India with the determinacy I now have, the vision I have for myself and the small but significant role I can engage with as I continue my education. Working in coordination projects through the mapping I’ve completed these past two months point to the need for projects and professionals that reach beyond good intentions. It is in this light that I have found myself driven to studying and specializing in restorative agricultural techniques tailored to the most vulnerable geographies and people. I see my approach to preventative global health must begin with hands dug deep in the soil and unpleasantness of the world, but with a skill and focus that is not overwhelmed by the near impossibility of the troubles that we face collectively. It is only by cultivating the ground directly before us that we can begin to justifiably move forward.


Also ... Here is another story I wanted to share:

When evening sets in Rudraprayag you can see men climb to their rooftops where they handle obscured contraptions in the half-light. Moments later they are looking up, fists clenched and eyes narrowed. If you follow the taught lines held between their fingers you can see hovering out in the echoing winds kites dipping in all directions.