Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fleeing to the forest

Refugees hiding deep in the forest near Andhra Pradesh's border with Chattisgarh.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." Many Americans have used this argument to justify the lax gun laws of the US - after all, how will the patriots bring down the tyrants if they have no guns. Edward Abbey, the great prophet of the desert southwest, argued that wilderness was just as essential. It was in the wilderness, in the places beyond the regular paths of ordinary humans, that the patriots could hide, bide their time, and build up their forces.

The history of attmpts to hide in the great American wildernesses, however, leaves something to be desired. The Apaches and the Lakota - and many others in the 19th century fled to the wildernesses, but they were hunted down and died out. Gangs of outlaws still roam about the desert in cowboy movies, but by the dawn of the 20th century, in North America at least, that the days in which wildernesses could provide shelter beyond the reach of formal governance were over.

In his recent book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Southeast Asia, political scientist James Scott expands on this idea. He argues that, while the conventional history of Southeast Asia is one of empires that dominated the fertile rice-growing valleys and fought amongst each other for wealth and for slaves, the history of many of its people consist of fleeing the slave-makers in the valleys, and adopting lifestyles in the steep and thickly forested mountains that would make them resistant to capture, enslavement, and political domination. Their agricultural practices, which favored shifting cultivation and hunting and gathering, insured that they could easily flee from invaders, and not fear starvation due to the loss of stored grain crops. Their religions and languages also adapted to a life of shifting resistance. Ultimately, Scott argues, the ethnic categories we have inherited, which distinguish between the civilized men of the agricultural plains, and the wild men of the hills, are based on political strategies. It is not that the hill-men are primitives who never adopted the ways of settled cultivation, but rather that the hill-men are refugees from the process of state-making and civilization-building, whose cultures developed in response to the oppressive nature of the early state.

While Scott's synthesis is original and based largely on his reading of Southeast Asian history, he freely acknowledges his debts to many other historians of both Southeast Asia and other regions, who have pointed out how ethnic categories grew out of political responses to empire. Sumit Guha, an Indian historian, for example, has made the case (in his book Environment and ethnicity in India, 1200-1991) that the people who we call "tribal" in Central India today are not fundamentally primitive peoples whose primitive ways of life reflect their longstanding, unchanging residence in the area, but are rather people whose ethnicity itself was shaped over the last several centuries by their continuing resistance to empires - Mughal, Maratha, and British, which forced them to adopt the "primitive" ways of the hill-man so that they could hide in remote forest tracts.

I had the good fortune to meet James Scott when he spoke at Indiana about a year ago. I asked him if the communes and radical collectives that I knew from the rural hills of New England, Northern California, Oregon, and southern Indiana were the modern analogue of these primitive hill-men. Scott told me that, as he had said in his book, his argument did not apply to the period after the end of World War II. He said that at this point, the power of the state had become so pervasive that there was no possibility of sustained flight. He gave examples from modern South Asia (the Vietcong spring to mind, but Scott, being a regional expert, had more complete examples to discuss) of groups that had fled to the hills, but were ultimately destroyed by the superior firepower of modern armies, coaxed into returning to the state by promises of participation in new urban wealth, or, in the case of the Vietcong, succeeded only to harness themselves to the state machinery.

Regardless of Scott's arguments about the overwhelming power of modern governance systems, there are still people hiding out in the forest. Their complicated stories can teach us alot about the possibilities for freedom and stability in modern societies.

A few mornings ago, I set off to meet a rural health worker named Haneef. My research assistant and I were staying in a small coal-mining city in Andhra Pradesh near the Chattisgarh border. We had meet Haneef a few days before at the offices of the Integrated Tribal Development Agency in a nearby city. The Tribals, or Adivasis (meaning original inhabitants), are a diverse group of peoples who together constitute a little less than 10% of India's population. As the name implies, they are said to have been the original inhabitants of India, although such theories about the origins and peopling of India are highly speculative and deeply controversial. They are distinguished today, however, by the poorest indicators of human development of any identifiable group in Indian society - poorer even than the former untouchables, now generally known as Dalits (oppressed) or scheduled castes.

In an attempt to address the "backwardness" of tribal people, the government of Andhra Pradesh many years ago set up a series of Integrated Tribal Development Agencies in the tribal areas of the state (similar exercises were conducted in many other states). The idea is that development assistance to the tribals will be facilitated by a coordinating agency that oversees all development programs in the tribal area. There is little evidence that the existence of the Agencies have done much to help the tribal people - by reputation the office is staffed by cast-offs from other administrative agencies, and headed by a junior official - just out of training in the elite Indian Administrative Service - who lacks the skills and experience to make things work - that is - if his urban background gives him any interest in the problems of rural development in the first place. I met the Project Officer. He lives in a large air-conditioned bungalow in the back of the office complex, and when I arrived, the sprinklers were watering the lawn, and a driver was washing one of his 3 brand new (government owned) SUVs. In the office, I met a man who looked like he might have just walked out of an IU fraternity. He wore a tight t-shirt with a complicated rock-band style decoration on it, blue jeans, and his thick, gym-toned muscles bulged out of it. His watch band was gold. He couldn't have been more than 25 years old, and he could have walked straight out of an IU fraternity. Among other things, I asked him if he could introduce me to any NGOs working with tribals. That was how I met Haneef.

After a short conversation, Haneef suggested that he could take us to the field to see his work. He said he was a RMP (I think this stands for Registered Medical Practitioner - it means some kind of low-level health worker), who had been working for many years in tribal areas. He and his colleagues doing similar work had formed an organization to support their charitable work, and they had cooperated with groups like Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights Watch. A government holiday was coming up - Shivratri - and since I study the government, I knew I would have little of my normal work to do. I asked Haneef if he could take us on that day. Speaking like a brave Gandhian, Haneef said that a service worker takes no holidays - presumably as a Muslim he was not planning on celebrating the Shaivite holiday.

The village where Haneef wanted us to meet him was about equidistant from his home and the city where we were staying. To get there, Haneef suggested that we could take a bus, but after inquiring at the bus stand, we found that bus service to that village had been stopped. Apparently there were many share autorickshaws heading in that direction, and the people at the bus stand helpfully told us which street corner these autorickshaws leave from. If you've ever travelled in india, then the autorickshaw will be familiar to you. In urban areas the autorickshaw is the standard private taxi-type vehicle - it is a 3 wheeled vehicle, usually run by a small (and very dirty) 2 stroke engine. The driver sits in front and uses controls that are similar to a motorcycle's controls, while the seat in the back accommodates 3 passengers, plus some room for luggage. Auto drivers (at least the honest ones) charge rs. 10 (25 cents) per km, most of which goes to gas and maintenance of their vehicles. In the rural areas, however, the auto is transformed into a bus with essentially unlimited seating. 4 people can squeeze into the back seat, while another four can squeeze onto the railing facing the backseat, and 3 can squeeze in next to the driver in front. Another can sit on the outside railing - and sometimes you'll see 3 men hanging off the running board in the rear. It isn't comfortable, but it does mean that people who live far from bus routes and are too poor to afford a motorcycle can get around. Our auto never got that crowded, peaking out at 9 passengers.
crowded autorickshaws, waiting for a train to pass.

After an hour's ride through countryside we could barely see between the stuffed in bodies in the auto, we arrived in the village. It was now midday, and while summer is just beginning here in India, the blazing midday sun was crippling. I sought the shade of a pipal tree. Almost immediately a number of boys from the village gathered around us. In these circumstances it is tempting to say that I attract attention because I am white - but my sense was that the villagers were as curious about my research assistant as they were about me. In a remote village, strangers attract attention, regardless of their alien characteristics.

We called Haneef (this may be remote rural India, but in a nation with 600 million mobile phone subscribers, it isn't easy to find places without a mobile network). He told us he was doing some work in a neighboring village, and we could wait for him to come, or we could see if we could catch an auto headed in that direction. We soon found an auto going in that direction. Apparently someone was planning a party, as the auto was loaded with boxes of liquor and beer bottles. We sat on top of the boxes, our heads bent down to avoid colliding with the roof on the bumpy road.

We found Haneef waiting for us on his motorcycle by the side of the road. My assistant and I squeezed onto the back of the motorcycle, and we drove down a narrow paved side road.
For a couple kilometers we passed through intermittent fields of cotton and scrubby forest. Cotton - the chief cash crop of this region - is an amazing plant. These dry upland fields have no irrigation, and the last rains ended 6 months ago. The cotton plants don't look as lush as they did in October, but they are still pumping out tufts of white threads. The fields were obviously cut out of the forest recently - if you look carefully at this picture you can see a teak tree sprouting up from its stump right in the middle of the cotton field. The people of this region traditionally practiced podu, or shifting cultivation in these uplands. This practice, although it sustained people for thousands of years, has always been deplored by foresters (who valued forests for the timber they produced, not for the fertile soil they created), who succeeded in having it outlawed more than a century ago. Before roads were built, however, the presence of law enforcement in these villages was weak. More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, this area was controlled by Maoist insurgents known as the People's War Group. The Maoists actively kept the foresters from enforcing their laws in the remote areas, and supported encroachment of government lands by the poor.

In the early part of the last decade, the Andhra Pradesh government adopted a more aggressive stance towards the Maoist rebels, and successfully drove most of them over the border into neighboring areas of Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, and Orissa states. The Maoists consolidated their hold over the dense remote forest areas across the border (to give you an idea of what this means, you might read this highly favorable article on the Maoists in Chattisgarh by Arundhati Roy). In 2005, the state of Chattisgarh began sponsoring a citizens militia to counter the Maoists, and the forests erupted into violence. The citizens militia, with support from the police, would occupy the villages in the daytime, persecuting and executing suspected Maoists and their cooperators, while at night the Maoists would occupy the same villages, doing the same to the suspected police collaborators. Haneef was taking us to a village of people who had fled the conflict, crossing the border into Andhra Pradesh. Indians love to use acronyms, so Haneef told us that they were IDPs (Internally Displaced People), but a simpler term might be refugees.
The village was strikingly different from the neighboring villages we had come through. I would never say that those villages were well-off - the people were obviously of limited means - but the electrical lines running from house to house, the stores selling biscuits and sodas and sim cards, and the government buildings - school, village hall, bus stop - all indicated some level of disposable income. Cows and buffalo roamed the streets. Even if many of the houses in the village were mud huts with thatched roofs, they were large and well built, and the village centers were invariably populated with a few substantial brick and mortar buildings - signs of the beginnings of some rural prosperity.

This village, however, had no sign of any services. The houses were tiny huts made of small trees stuck into the ground. There were no cattle, just a few chickens pecking in the cleanswept dirt surrounding the home. The surrounding forest loomed in close around the village.

It being the middle of the day, few people were home. Most of them spoke none of the 5 languages my research assistant knows - they were Koya speakers - but there was one man who spoke some Telugu, and Haneef knew a bit of Koya, so we sat down on a small woven cot under the shade of a small open hut, and started to converse.

Koya women and children - refugees from conflict in neighboring Chattisgarh - in front of their home. There isn't any scale in any of these pictures, but as you might expect, these people were all very short - indicating their poor nutritional status.

They told us that the residents of this village - about 20 households - had always moved back and forth across the border - coming to Andhra Pradesh seasonally to look for work picking chillies in the valley of the Godavari River, and returning to their farms in Chattisgarh during the rains to plant their own fields with rice. In 2006, concerned about the conflict, they decided to stay in Andhra Pradesh. At first they settled in an area inside the forest, but after a couple of years, Forest Department officials came and burned their homes. Haneef's organization, SITARA (Society for Integrated Tribal and Rural Action), had helped feed them after their homes were destroyed. In 2008, they established the current village, on land which they claimed belonged to the Revenue Department, and was thus fair game for establishing a village. They had no agricultural land here in Andhra, and had left their livestock behind in Chattisgarh. Here they made their living as casual agricultural laborers - picking cotton in the fields of the neighboring villages. It is a fragile existence. Up until recently, they had received no assistance from any sort of formal sources, but recently, with the help of volunteers from SITARA, they had obtained temporary ration cards, entitling them to purchase limited amounts of basic supplies (rice, dal, sugar, kerosene) at highly subsidized rates.
Typically when a few men show up in an Indian village, it is the local men who do all the talking. This young woman - who looked like she might be 15 or 16 - came out of one of the huts, and spoke confidently to us about the situation in the village. I was surprised. I later found out from Haneef that she was visiting her sister here, but lived in another refugee camp closer to town. Unlike most of the children in the camps, she had attended some school, where she had learned to speak Telugu. Now she was an active volunteer with Haneef's organization, helping the other refugees obtain government services, and encouraging the families to send their children to school.

Haneef suggested that we could return here later, but first we should visit some other villages. Again, my assistant and I climbed onto the back of the motorcycle, and we took off, driving back to the main road. I wrapped a light cotton cloth around my head to protect myself from the blazing sun and dust.
After several kilometers, we turned down a one-lane dirt road, which we must have followed for half an hour. The road wound through a fertile valley, bounded on both sides by low forested hills. Most of the fields, such as those in the picture above, were old paddy fields, the rice straw now stacked in great piles to provide feed for the cattle during the dry summer. In some places we found fields of cotton and toor dal - toor dal or pigeon pea is the most commonly consumed bean in this region, and the local varieties grow like small trees - I saw bushes that were 10-12 ft high. In a few places, we saw irrigated fields where the year's second crop of rice was growing, a vibrant electric green against the arid backdrop of greys and browns.

As we drove Haneef told us that many of the refugees from Chattisgarh, like the people we had just met, had formerly been seasonal migrants to the area. The internal borders of India are porous, and both sides of the border are occupied by Koya speakers, although by some accounts, the Koyas of Chattisgarh are not recognized as tribals here in Andhra Pradesh (as the tribal identity is based on place, the government only recognizes people as tribal if they are living in their supposed ancestral territory). When the conflicts began, seasonal migration turned into settlement. Haneef also told us that many of the refugees people who had actively opposed the Maoists. Since the Maoists lived in the forest (where they can hide from the police), they are able to prevent their local opponents from accessing forest produce. Gathering forest products is one of the main livelihood strategies of the poor, and so, according to Haneef, it is the loss of access to forest products, as much as the violence, which has driven the people to move. Of course, here in Andhra Pradesh, the migrants are invariably suspected of being Maoists, fleeing the Chattisgarh police.
One village seemed to be celebrating the holiday with a big volleyball tournament.
The road was not in very good condition, and at times we had to get of the motorcycle to cross ditches or fallen trees. Past a final village, and the road narrowed to little more than a path, as it wound around a reservoir, where ghostly dead trees stood in the drying mud at the edge of the dwindling water. Now we entered the forest, and the path wound through the trees, and then widened out to another village.
The situation here was similar to what we had found before. Few people could speak to us in Telugu or Hindi, and we had to rely on Haneef's translations from Koya. The village, however, seemed slightly more stable - many of the homes were roofed with tiles and had proper mud walls. The villagers told us that some of the residents had come to the area in 2005, and had been able to obtain proper ration cards. They have moved to this site in the forest because it is remote enough that the Forest Department officials will not bother them here - as I myself have seen, forest officials are reluctant to venture beyond the main roads into the interior of the forest. They are free, it seems to cut the forest for their agricultural fields, and sell the resulting timber in neighboring villages. They are also engaged in gathering non-timber forest products - of the kind that were closed off to them by the Maoists back home.

A Koya family - the girl is grinding a chutney out of chilies and tomatoes.

The mother of the same family.
Tamarind drying in the sun. Their village site is surrounded by old tamarind trees, which implies that it may have been a village in the past, as Tamarind is native to East Africa and only partially naturalized in India.
Another family.
A man weaving bamboo to create the cover of a drum. The drum was to be made out of a 3 foot long log, which had been completely hollowed out.
Brooms made of wild grasses drying on the rooftop.

Haneef told us that there was another village over the other side of the mountain - he thought it was 10 km away. He had never been there himself, but then he suggested that we go there.

oon we were again driving down a narrow path through the forest.
We soon came to the Podu fields created by the village we had just visited - clearings of a few acres, where trees were being felled, logs cut and squared roughly by axe to be sold in the local (illegal) timber markets. Nothing was growing, but in the rainy season, the villagers will grow crops of local varieties of millets and dals, the core of their subsistence economy.
The going was rough - in fact, the path was barely passable by motorcycle, and repeatedly, My assistant and I got down to let Haneef steer the bike across treacherous rocks as we climbed the hillside.

By now the air was cooling - it was 3 pm, and the heat of the day was gone. We realized that we couldn't continue on the motorcycle , and so we stopped to rest in the shade, while we waited for some walkers we had passed to catch up with us. A cool breeze was flowing through the forest.
When they arrived, Haneef tried to talk to them. They spoke no Telugu or Hindi, and were drunk with the liquor they had purchased after selling their wares in the nearby market, so it was difficult to find out, but Haneef was able to learn from them that we were only about a 20 minute walk from the village. We followed the path slowly downhill, running parallel to a ravine. The ravine was full of mango trees, and we were level with their tops, so we could see the spikes of small white flowers rising out of their branches.
As we rounded a corner, we heard noise. I was a little nervous - we were deep inside of a forest known for tigers and Maoists. We then saw about a dozen men walking slowly towards us, pushing bicycles. Each bicycle had one or two large logs strapped to it crosswise. Many of the logs looked to be 12x12 or larger, and were roughly hand squared with an axe.
Here is a closer view of the bicycle transport of heavy logs. We later found out that each one of these logs might fetch rs. 400 or 500 (about $10) in the illegal timber markets in the nearby villages. This is a substantial sum - 4 or 5 days wages for a typical male agricultural laborer. But it will take these men most of the day simply to move the logs to the market - not to mention the work of felling the large trees and squaring the logs using small axes. The work is illegal. Of course, it seems that Forest Department officials are unaware of the remote villages popping up (I'm not certain exactly where I was, as I had no detailed map of the area with me, but I'm fairly certain this entire forest was inside of a wildlife sanctuary). As I side, forest officials don't like to venture of their motorcycles into these remote areas. On the other hand, they do monitor forest cover at the head office in Hyderabad by purchasing detailed annual satellite imagery. But regardless of the threat to the remote villages, bringing timber to markets has its own risk. If the forest officers are doing their job by the books, they will confiscate any timber that is not accompanied by a proper transit permit (timber felling in India is only permitted as per working plans sanctioned by the Government of India, and given the generally poor state of forests in this region, the local working plans do not include any felling). In reality, however, the forest guards are more likely to take a substantial bribe - perhaps half the cost of the material - than they are to confiscate.

The men told us that they had run out of rice at home, and so now they were taking logs to sell. Sure enough, when we were returning, we found the same men making their way back to the village, with sacks of rice on their bicycles.

As we descended the hill into the ravine, we started to see cattle and goats moving in the thick, streamside forest. Although many streams have dried up by this time of year, this was a good stream, and still had a small trickle of water in it. Across the stream, the land rose slightly, and then opened out into a large clearing. We could see a small village, up against the forest on the other side of the clearing, and beyond it rose another range of hills. In the immediate foreground, we saw a young woman and a couple children standing in a pool of mud.
We walked over to the mud puddle, and found that the woman was drawing water out of a hollow tree, which had been driven into the ground. I looked down, and saw that about 5 feet down, there was water that at least was not brown with mud. Haneef told me that when he does his medical work in these refugee villages, he primarily treats 3 diseases: Malaria, Typhoid, and Scabies. It did not look like he approved of the water in the tree well, and I noticed that neither he nor my assistant drank any water while we were in the village (and in an usual twist on Indian hospitality, we were not offered any water or tea. This in and of itself is highly unusual). Haneef asked, and we found out that these children were not in school - in fact, none of the village children had attended school for quite some time.
We followed the young woman through a grove of trees - the underbrush had been cleared and it looked like some crops had been grown there during the rainy season - we crossed some open land - where we saw stumps of large trees, and next to them, the boles of trees in various states of being cut into proper beams that would be sold to the market, and saw where the villagers had built a 5 foot high dam to impound the water of a seasonal stream - an impressive work of collective effort.
The water behind the dam was now no more than a puddle, where the buffalo and cattle gathred to drink. Then we came into the village.
One of the striking things about this village, and indeed all 3 of the refugee settlements we visited - was its cleanliness. Every inch of the courtyard was swept clean. Arundhati Roy, in the article I linked to above on the Maoists of Chattisgarh, made a similar comment about the cleanliness of the forest villages. She interpreted this as a sign of some kind of moral superiority amongst these remote revolutionaries. Being less prone to totalizing morality than Roy, I think the cleanliness of the village is not a result of some high moral virtue, but rather the result of poverty and remoteness: these people simply can't buy the kinds of plastic items that float along the roadside in the typical central Indian village. Still, there seemed to be something beautiful about life in this simple hand-made homes, surrounded by rolling hills and wild forests, in a place so remote that the Forest Department would never come and chase you out for encroaching the forest land.
We sat down in the front porch of one of the huts, where Haneef proceeded to open his medical equipment bag, and disabuse me of any feeling of romanticism I might have had about life among a community of subsistence agriculturalists deep inside of the forest. The first patient was a sturdy young boy who looked like he might be about 12 years old. He was leaning on a bamboo staff, and limping. Haneef couldn't give him a clear diagnosis using the tools he carried in his small handbag, but he reported that the boy's diastolic blood pressure was unusually low. He gave the boy some painkillers and, as with everyone he treated, some chloroquine (an anti-malarial drug which is no longer recommended for travelers to Asia, as resistant strains are apparently widespread - if anyone has further information on this, I would be interested). The boy understood only a small amount of Telugu, and Haneef tried to communicate to him that he should go to the Integrated Tribal Development Agency hospital in Haneef's hometown - a 3 hour journey if you own a motorcycle - it will probably take the boy a whole day - to get examined by a specialist. Haneef asked whether the boy - or his peers were in school. Apparently some of them had gone to school a while back, but had returned to the village after a month or so.
Another man - the small man who'd drunkenly failed to give us directions earlier - complained, using signs, of aches and pains all over his body. I wondered if this was due to a health problem, or due to a combination of heavy labor and alcohol, which he may have taken simply to ease the pain. 2 women's upper bodies were covered with sores - scabies, said Haneef. It could be treated with some antibiotics, but he emphasized that regular washing was the best treatment. The villagers do have a year-round water source in the tree-trunk well we'd seen earlier - but it is a long way to carry all of your drinking, cooking, and washing water.
A younger boy came over now, also limping and leaning on a bamboo staff. A small cut on his toe was deeply infected - the kind of sickness that simple washing could prevent. Haneef gave him some antibiotics, and told him to wash the wound regularly.
Villagers gather round to watch Haneef give medical care.

We found that a man from a nearby village was visiting today, and as an Andhra Pradesh resident, he could translate between Telugu and Koya. He was carrying a large axe, and was interested in the prepared beams that were sitting on the edge of the village, so we surmised that he may have been a professional timber smuggler, visiting his sources. My assistant noticed that there were no old people in the village, and so asked the man what he knew about the old people. We learned that the people who had settled here were actually from central Chattisgarh. They had been landless there, and so had moved south into the forests of southern Chattisgarh to make a living collecting forest produce. The Maoists had then driven them out, and so they had come to settle here. The elders who were not strong enough for such arduous journeys had stayed behind in their native villages.
There were many small children running around the village. Most were naked, and appeared to be poorly nourished.

It was getting late, and Haneef suggested that it was time to leave. We walked back through the forest to his bike, and then drove back. As we went, we overtook some of the men who were still transporting their timber to the markets. They were resting by the reservoir, and one was fixing a flat tire. Looking at the landscape of dead trees in the reservoir, and the small hungry men bringing their dead trees to market by the most laborious contraptions, I realized that I was viewing a great metaphor for what has happened to India's forests.
When I got home my mind was still abuzz with the images I had seen. I have been to alot of very remote parts of the world - most notably the southern part of the Peruvian Amazon and Northern Ontario - but I had never met people before whose lives were so divorced from modern industrial civilization. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I'd ever been to a place before with so little electricity. Even in the Amazon, I remember people watching soccer matches on battery operated televisions. When I arrived in a remote Cree village on the edge of James Bay, after paddling down a river in a canoe for 14 days without seeing a soul, I found that nearly every resident of Fort Albany owned an F-150 pickup truck (although there were only 5 km of road to drive them on). But it would be a mistake to think of these people as primitive. They were living this primitive and extraordinarily difficult life precisely because they were refugees from another society. And it wasn't merely Maoist violence that had driven them here - in fact, their native villages were largely unaffected by the Maoist violence - it was in the places that they'd migrated to in search of economic opportunity that they'd run into trouble with the Maoists. They also said that they might go back if things got better there.

Haneef's organization is working to help the internally displaced people, but as he readily admitted to me, they mostly work with the people who live near roads. There isn't a whole lot they can do to help the people who choose to live way out in the jungle. These are the people who, to return to James Scott, have sought out being ungoverned. I would distinguish them sharply from the violent Maoists, who are using the forests to hide out as they prepare a campaign to replace the negative aspects of the Indian state with their own version of power and authority - one that, to judge from the history of successful Maoist revolutions elsewhere, would be far more violent and oppressive, at least in its initial stages, than any of the very real failings of democratic India.

Narratives about economic and political oppression in rural central India to portray the villagers as the helpless victims of a massive violent and oppressive political system. This is the narrative you will find in Arundhati Roy's recent writing, linked above, in which she portrays the Maoist revolutionaries as valiant fighters against a massive oppressive system called the Indian State (and in Arundhati's case, globalization and America too). It is also the narrative of writers such as P. Sainath, who look not to the Maoists, but to the Indian state, as the potential source for alleviation of these problems. This is also he narrative you hear from the officials of the developmental state, who propose "development" as the way to defeat Maoism, and propose massive schemes for the building of roads and industrial facilities in the rural areas. A forest official I spoke to recently was accused of being a Maoist by one of these developmental officials because he had spoken out against the illegal diversion of forest lands to industrial use in a remote area.

Sadly, all of these perspectives miss a few important things about life in rural India.

The first is that the character of people's lives is rarely shaped by grand narratives, but by everyday circumstances. As Anirudh Krishna's work on pathways into and out of poverty has shown, it is often the little things that count. Krishna's surveys in Andhra Pradesh located few people who had directly benefited from the massive scale government spending on "development," which, as is well documented, largely benefits existing elites. People escape poverty not when there is a fundamental change in the relations of society, but when improved access to irrigation and credit, or an opportunity for a low-paying job in the informal sector in a city, give them a little bit more income. They more often fall into poverty because of minor illnesses that keep them from working than from massive scale war and violence. The violence in Chattisgarh is terrible, but it is worth putting it into perspective. In the worst years, independent estimates have placed the death rate due to the Maoist conflict in Chattisgarh at around 350 people in a population of 20 million. By comparison New York City, the safest large American city today, has a murder rate of around 500 people among only 8 million residents. In 1990, at the peak of the crack cocaine epidemic, there were 2250 murders in New York. And in fact, among all of the refugees I met along the border, none had personally experienced violence as a result of the Maoist conflict. The Maoist conflict, however, combined with persistent poverty and lack of opportunity, had pushed them to seek out greener pastures in a nearby area.

The issue of everyday circumstances also has a bearing on the kinds of solutions that help people. The Maoists argue that Indian society is fundamentally corrupt and needs to be overthrown. Their chosen solution, the launching of an armed rebellion based in the poorest regions of the country, appears not only to have little chance of success, but also to have substantially worsened life for many of the most vulnerable. The Indian Government, by contrast, is preparing to throw an increasingly large pot of money at the poor districts in the name of development. As I have mentioned, much of this money goes to benefit a relatively small elite, and little of it has the intended effects on the rural poor. Both of these are totalizing narratives. In order to achieve revolution (in the Maoist worldview) or development (in the developmentalist worldview) it is necessary to sacrifice everything. Thus, in the name of development, the Indian government is promoting streamlined environmental reviews for industrial projects in Maoist-affected districts - ignoring the fact that it is the rural poor who are most dependent on natural resources, and least likely to benefit from industrial development.

As I hope to write more about, there is, however, an alternative worldview that, if not so coherently expressed, is still actively shaping local life in India. This is the worldview of ordinary people like Haneef, who are devoting their lives to bringing improved health services to the disempowered, and serving as brokers in bringing existing state services to the rural areas (Krishna's work shows that the single most powerful anti-poverty intervention in most parts of the world is likely to be the provision of reliable, affordable health care). It is also the worldview of the confident girl we met in the first village who is going to school, and volunteering her time to help her fellow tribal refugees negotiate through a complex government system. In this worldview, there is no single Solution, but many small solutions. While Government can play a role in facilitating these solutions, they, by necessity must be co-produced by the people themselves.

It would be easy to portray the refugees - particularly the very impoverished people I met in the remote 3rd village - as helpless victims of a failed state and a violent revolution. They are certainly victims, but their lives show an incredible amount of resistance and positive force. Escaping the poverty and violence of their homes, they are attempting to start anew in a new place. The Forest Department will surely see them as encroachers in a valuable wildlife sanctuary. The new place is not particularly promising. But if we insist on seeing them only as victims and encroachers, we will miss a fundamental aspect of the human condition - the ability for reinvention. My great grandparents came to America as economic and religious refugees, and my own parents fled the violent collapse of New York City (which as I've mentioned, was far more violent than contemporary Chattisgarh) to make a new life in rural Western Massachusetts. I don't sit around proclaiming my victimhood - instead I celebrate the fact that these flights led ultimately to a better life for our family than we could have ever achieved as Jews in Poland. Seen in this light, the question ceases to be - how can we succor these poor victims - and becomes - how can we aid these victims in taking advantage of their new situation in order to create better lives?

I will now return to the puzzle I began with. As you may remember if you've made it this far through my writing, I asked James Scott if the radical communities I knew from the rural US were analogous to the ungoverned hill people of southeast Asia. I already said that Scott said that his arguments were probably not applicable to the late 20th century. But I left out one important piece of his answer. The histories of the communities I know well in the rural US are definitely the histories of people escaping oppressive political and social situations. For example, many of the communes I know from southeastern Vermont were formed in the late 1960s from a mixture of anti-war and civil rights activists and gay people, all of whom were facing significant police repression in Boston and New York. When they moved to a run-down old farm on rocky land in rural Vermont, no one bothered them anymore. In fact, they emerged to become leaders of a revitalization of the poor rural communities they had moved to. Scott told me that governance in the US (and probably in Europe and some other fairly developed countries) differed fundamentally from governance in many developing countries because while governance - even pro-developmental, democratic governance - in developing countries sought to remake citizens in a new mold, governance in the US facilitated the ability of people to express and create a world that they wanted.

Scott's comment was an offhand response to a poorly formed question, so I would not take it as a literal truth, but I think it raises some interesting questions: How can we create a governance system that facilitates people's best impulses, without forcing them into predetermined social roles? And in light of numerous recent corruption scandals in India, we might also ask, how can we create a social system that funnels people's energy in socially constructive directions?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Forrestcast: Intercontinental Locational Instability

I've been putting together some plans, and people have started asking about them, so I thought it was time to publish them. As the title implies, I'm going to be moving around alot over the next 6-8 months. This is not really a change: I've already been moving around alot. What is a change is that it seems I will be less in rural India and more in the US.

Brief Summary: in India until 23rd March, in Bloomington from 24th-29th March, in Boston 29-30th, meditation retreat from 30th March-10th April, at parents' house in Amherst from 10th April-23rd April, in NYC on 23-24th, back to Bloomington on 24th night. In Bloomington for May and June (probably going to a conference in Madison in early June), back in India in July/August, back in Bloomington for 2011-12 academic year. Probable trip to California to attend a wedding at some point.

See below for the details:

Right now: I'm in Nagpur, at the office of Shodh, one of the main organizations that has been helping me with my research. One of the reasons I am here is I had stored a large number of books and files here, which had to be shipped back to the US. This was a rather entertaining experience, which you can read about here (this is a link to a website for Indian travellers and expats living in India - I thought my information would be useful to them).

On Monday night, the 14th of February, my research assistant and I are taking an overnight train to Khammam - a city in Andhra Pradesh. I will be studying a forest division in Khammam District as the 8th and final division in my dissertation. I expect to be in Khammam approximately 3 weeks, after which I will return to Hyderabad - on approximately March 7th. There is a chance of a short diversion to re-visit some friends I made while doing fieldwork in Adilabad, but no promises at this point.

In Hyderabad, I have a bunch of follow-up interviews to do with some senior policy-makers, and a few NGO type people I still need to meet. I also have more books that need to be shipped from there.

I leave Hyderabad on the night of the 17th of March - on an overnight train to Nagpur, where I will spend the Holi holiday with the friends I've made in my stay here.

On the night of March 20th, I take yet another overnight train to Delhi. I will be in Delhi for just 2 nights and 3 days. I have some final wrap-up kinds of work to do before I return to the US, and some friends to visit.

I'm flying out of Delhi on the night of the 23rd - my plane leaves after midnight so technically speaking, it is the 24th. I'm flying non-stop to Chicago, and then connecting to Indianapolis, where I arrive at 10 AM on the morning of Thursday the 24th of March. If anyone is interested, I would be really excited about getting a ride back from the airport, and will most likely need some help doing things like reconnecting the phone and internet in my house, getting some food (I no longer own a car), and readjusting to life in America.

Some people have been asking me if my return at the end of March means I've finished my fieldwork sooner than expected. I think when I left the US in May, I was telling people that I would be coming back between March and August, but I was never very sure how long fieldwork would take. Fieldwork has gone well, and I was able to meet with members of my research committee in January when they came to Hyderabad for a conference. At that time I explained to them what work I had accomplished, and what remains. There is always more work that *could* be done, but they advised me that the work I was planning to complete by the end of March would be sufficient.

There is more follow-up work I will have to do, but there are a few reasons why I think this work would be better accomplished on a follow up visit during July/August than by staying on in April and May. The primary reason is that April and May is summer in my study region, and summer in central India is notoriously hot - temperatures regularly top 120 F, and rarely drop below 90 F, even at night. My Indian friends tell me that it is impossible to work effectively in this heat. I'm from New England, and I think it is hot here in winter when everyone else is shivering and complaining of the cold. I'm not confident I'd make it when it is 120 degrees every day. I find the rainy season in central India - July and August - to be really quite pleasant - warm and wet, but not too hot, nor too wet. So I'll be much more capable of completing the necessary work in the rains than during the heat. A second reason is that I want to take the time to organize my notes, review what I've learned, and start some writing, and then come back and have an opportunity to present some preliminary results and ask questions about the missing pieces. A third reason is that my research visa expires on the 25th of March. While it appears that it isn't impossible to renew, it does sound like a big hassle, and thus, it seems to make more sense to go back to the US before the expiration, and get a new visa for my next trip.

I think that readjusting to life in the US will be difficult, but there are actually 2 adjustments. One, which I've done a couple times now, is the adjustment from India to the US - which are obviously extremely different cultures and societies. The second adjustment is from the life of a wandering field research to the life of a stationary writer. To be honest, I think I need to get away from the subject for a little while before I can sit down and start writing and organizing. For this reason, I've decided to take a break from research and go on a 10-day Vipassana Retreat, at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, MA. (For those who want to know more about why I do this, perhaps this excerpt of an essay by my father will help clarify). On the way there, I will be stopping in Boston to visit my college housemate David & his family on the 29th of March. David is a PhD student in Anthropology at Harvard, and lives somewhere in the Cambridge area, so if you are around there and want to try to meet up, let me know. The actual meditation course runs from the 30th March until the 10th of April.

After the meditation course I'm going to spend a couple weeks with my parents - probably mostly in Amherst, but maybe also in Guilford. My parents' house was affected by a major natural disaster last spring: some kind of a microburst knocked down every tree on their property. The beautiful old maple tree that shaded the south side of the house collapsed onto the garage (thankfully it didn't collapse on the house!), and the result is a landscaping nightmare... and damages estimated around $50,000. I think my parents could use some strong hands to help move some dirt around and plant some new trees, and I know I could use the discipline of some heavy physical labor. If you're around Western MA in mid April and want to hang out, I might try to rope you into helping out.

I plan to return to Bloomington on April 24th, stopping the night of the 23rd to visit another college friend, Jenny, in Manhattan. If you're in NYC and want to meet up, let me know.

The plan is to stay in Bloomington all of May and June, and write. There is also a garden to tend, of course, and I've volunteered to open my garden to visitors as an educational practice on Thursdays in May from 4-6 pm, in association with the Bloomington Free Skool's spring classes. I'm also planning to attend the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management in Madison, Wisc on June 4-8.

At some point in July and August I will be back in India. At a minimum, I will be presenting preliminary results to known audiences in Hyderabad, Nagpur, and Delhi. There are possibilities elsewhere, and I am likely to revisit friends I've made in a couple of my field sites. The duration of the trip is very much up in the air, as are the full countours - there has been talk, for example, of a trip up into the Himalayas, which I'm still open to, but I think I've decided it is not a priority. I'd like to go visit Sean who will be at Dhammagiri again (even though I know it is very wet there in the rainy season), and I might try to sit another 10-day course there or at the lovely center in Nagpur, or maybe even in Hyderabad or at Nagarjuna Sagar, if I can find the time.

Some of this depends on weddings. There are rumors of weddings being planned in California. It has been a long time... but there is at least one I've heard about that I really am going to try not to miss. If I can make it to the West Coast, there are many folks I'd like to visit. Timings, though, are yet to be announced.

I'm planning on being in Bloomington for the entire 2011-12 academic year. I've got 1 year of fellowship support remaining, and my aim is to complete my dissertation during this year. Since this is the last year that I've got a guaranteed fellowship (I had 5 years so I can't complain), I will also be looking for a new situation. If you've got any ideas, do keep me informed.

Summer & fall 2012, and beyond: Error: File 404 not found.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


In the early morning, I am riding down a narrow dirt road running through farm fields in an old Forest Department jeep, without seatbelts, shocks, or a proper door. Because I am an honored guest, I am sitting in front, next to the driver, a backpack with a notebook, camera, and water bottle crushed between my legs and the front of the vehicle (so it doesn't bounce out). On the benches in the rear of the jeep sit two forest officers - first is an older man who has spent his entire career with the department, at the lowest rank of the administrative hierarchy. Although he might be in his mid-50s, he looks strong and lean, as if he had spent a career outdoors. He stays alone in a small town here, at the edge of the area of forest he is responsible for. In our brief discussion in the early morning, I did not find out if he, like many such officials, keeps his family in some larger town in the region, seeing them only on weekends and holidays. The younger officer is a recent college graduate. He has entered the ranks of the service a step higher than the older man, and for the last year, he has been the man's boss. He has a wife and 2 little girls, who live with his parents in a town about 160 km away - a four hour journey by bus or motorcycle. Because of his education, he speaks some English. The driver is 20 years old, and tells me that he recently completed his 10th grade exam. He is from a village not far from here, and has been working as a driver since he was 14. He complains to me in Hindi that he has been hired only as a private driver on a contract basis, and thus gets paid only a quarter of what a regularly employed government driver would receive.
Out of the mist appears a caravan of 12 bullock carts. Men drive, or sit huddled on the back on a pile of rice straw, wrapped in shawls to keep out the morning chill (to a New Englander, it does not seem cold, but still, the temperature is only about 60 degrees on this late December morning, and the rest of their clothing, lightweight cotton, is designed more for the blistering hot summer than for the chill of winter). The jeep halts, and the officers hop out to discuss with the drivers: Where are they going? To the forest... to collect firewood. The officers remind them that they should only collect dead wood, and not fell any living trees, and we drive on.
At the edge of the forest, we find the remains of an attempted encroachment. Farmers from the local villages are desperate for land. There is a strong correlation between the presence of forests and the existence of severe poverty in India. Is this a causal connection? It is hard to say, since local conditions are so variable. But the landless poor - and those who have a little, but not enough land, often look to the degraded forest at the edge of their village as a source of new farmland.

This is not a new phenomena: for centuries, Indian governments encouraged the clearing of forest land for agriculture. Agricultural land could be taxed, increasing the treasury. Forests were a source of wild beasts: tigers and leopards ate people, while elephants, boars, bears, and troops of monkeys destroyed crops. Forests also provide a refuge for bandits and rebels. From what we can make out about the shape of forests prior to the British empire (which brought much more systematic record-keeping), the forests contracted when peace and economic growth encouraged the growth of agriculture, and expanded again when war and economic collapse wreaked havoc on the agrarian economy. As recently as the 1960s, the Government of India was still eager to give away forest land to farmers as part of its efforts to free India from dependence on imported food grains. This has changed, and the new emphasis is on forest conservation.

These farmers have built a watchtower in their field of Jowar (sorghum - one of the grains traditionally cultivated and eaten in the semi-arid rainfed agriculture of central India). At night they will sleep their, keeping watch for boars and other wildlife who may come from the forest to forage on their crops.

Who cut the trees in the picture above? It is possible that they were cut by villagers eager for farmland, but it is equally possible that they were cut by organized groups of timber harvesters. This particular area was severely affected by India's Maoist rebellion for about 20 years - ending a few years ago when police pressure pushed the "Naxalites" across the border into a neighboring state. The Maoists, I am told, encouraged encroachments and logging, and beat and killed those forest officers who opposed them. Forest officers are also not always innocent in such works. These forests are in the central Indian teak belt, where a single good-sized teak tree can fetch upwards of $1000 in the markets. With this kind of money, smugglers can afford some bribes.

I haven't written much about my work in this blog. In fact, it is somewhat of a struggle to maintain the blog. Although I have a cellular modem, internet speeds in many of these places are too slow for uploading pictures, and the work schedule keeps me busy. Most days I'm out in the field, with the forest officers, observing their work, or interviewing NGOs, villagers, and other government officials who interact with the forests. I travel almost constantly. After a long day in the field, I come home and type up fieldnotes, recording my experiences of the day so that I can draw on them when I write up my research, and labelling my photos. I'm averaging over 5000 words/day. Sometimes, riding the bus, or meditating in the morning, my mind catches hold of an idea, and I start composing an essay on what I am learning. I try to put these in my fieldnotes, and imagine putting them out in the world. But in the constant dialogue between theories and evidence called fieldwork, I am constantly rebuilding my ideas, challenging them, or confronting new circumstances. My findings are preliminary. What kinds of preliminary thoughts and findings can I write about on a public blog? These thoughts and findings are meant to be the subject of research papers and books, eventually, and I'm erring for the moment on the side of saving them for more polished works. In the meantime, I'm trying to share with you - my friends who read my blog - some of what it looks and feels like here.

As everywhere in the world, forests are protected primarily by their remoteness.
Sometimes I spend hours riding on incredibly overcrowded, rickety State Transport busses to reach my destination. The major roads are 1 lane wide, paved, with dirt shoulders, so on those occasions where we pass another large vehicle - a bullock cart making its way from the village to a farmers' field, a truck carrying cotton to market, or a car carrying a government official to inspect a new road - we swerve off onto the shoulder, and the bus seems to hang perilously over the roadside ditch. Then the great diesel engines fire, and we are up again, on the cracked and broken tarmac. We stop in a small town, and a crowd of 50 villagers push and shove to get on the bus to return from the market, while another crowd of 50, already on the bus, push and shove to get out.
Village squares are decorated with statues of heroes, and you learn something about the village from the statues. Ambedkar, the great leader of India's Dalits (or untouchables) and the author of India's constitution, is almost everywhere - a short fat man, one arm outstretched, the other holding the constitution. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism at the end of his life, and his statues are often adorned with Buddhist imagery. In the wealthier upper-class towns, you often see statues of more recent political leaders - such as Andhra Pradesh's YSR Reddy, the popular chief minister who died in a helicopter crash a year ago. In the forest areas, you sometimes run into more obscure heroes. This man is Kumram Bhim - a leader of the Gond tribe who organized his people against the Nizam of Hyderabad to demand rights to "Jell, Jungle, Jamin" (land, forest, water). He was killed in 1940, but his memory lives on. I'm told that in the more remote villages, you can also find statues of the Austrian anthropologist, Haimendorf, who was sent by the Nizam in the 1940s to study the conditions of life among the Gonds, and try to improve their situation.

A friend I have made through my research, an activist with a deep commitment to working for the poor and downtrodden, told me that every place in India has its own indigenous history of resistance, political protest, and the creation of alternatives. In some places, I see the footsteps of Gandhi and his followers, who taught non-violent civil disobedience and village development. Gandhi's organizing principle was "Swaraj" or self-rule. Modern nationalism interprets this to mean freedom from the British, but if you read Gandhi's work (Gandhi published a newspaper for much of his adult life - his collected works run to over 90 volumes), you find a more complicated view of swaraj, which emphasizes self-government, as well as personal growth and development. In other places I see the footsteps of violent suppression of the downtrodden, as well as violent revolts by peasants and forest dwellers demanding rights, land, and lower taxes.
In the era of forest conservation, how can the forest land near villages be "conserved," when the villagers depend on the forest for their firewood, the timbers to build their wall frames and roofs, the bamboo to build their walls, the poles to grow their beans on, the thorny bushes to fence the goats out of their fields, the wood to build their carts and tools, and perhaps most importantly, the fodder to feed their domestic animals (who in turn, provide them with manure to fertilize their fields?). This has been a major struggle of the last few decades of forestry in India, and it is by no means certain that adequate solutions have been found to address the problem. Perhaps, some think, if the villagers had more means of livelihood, and earned some money from the intact forest, they would more carefully regulate their own use, and also serve as a bulwark against the organized timber smugglers. In the picture above, the tribal department has provided the villagers with eggs of silkworms, and the forest department has made an arrangement to allow a group of villagers to grow silk worms on the Terminalia tomentosa trees in the forest surrounding the village. The silkworms are thick and fat, reminding me of the I used to pull off tomato plants in Maine.
By stereotype, the villagers living near forests are "tribals" or "adivasis" - people who claim to be indigenous to India, and to have long historical relations with the forest. The reality is often more complicated. This lovely village was settled by Hindu refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in the 1960s.
Unlike the pattern typical of villages in the region, where houses are densely packed together in a small settlement, surrounded by large agricultural fields, the Bengalis plant trees and extensive vegetable gardens around their homes. Approaching this village, I thought I was driving into a forest, but instead found myself in a village shaded by tamarind, banana, neem, banana and drumstick trees. I suppose I could learn from these people that climate is not completely deterministic - I had imagined that the lack of trees was due to the arid climate, but the Bengalis showed me that the lack of trees was due to a cultural conception of what a village is.

Incidentally, one of the amazing things about India is its linguistic diversity. The Bengali refugees are poor and uneducated, but every one I met spoke at least 3 languages - their mother tongue, Bengali, the language of the state they now live in, Telugu, and Hindi, the national language.
I have already mentioned Jowar - one of the many varieties of millets grown in central India. In my experience, they are all rich, flavorful, and nutritious foods, but they are suffering a fate similar to the scorn that European derived cooks once felt for peasant foods like rutabagas, turnips, and parsnips. I am told that people would be ashamed to serve a guest - especially an honored guest like me, a foreigner, such lowly foods. I am stuck eating decent, but somewhat bland and boring white rice. Jowar is also grown - as in this picture from my research assistant's family's farm - as a fodder crop, mixed in with various legumes.
Ripe jowar stalks, ready for harvest.
Perhaps the most widely planted crop in the arid lands of central India is a remarkable legume called Toor or arhar dal in Hindi (English names include red gram and pigeon pea). A native plant to India, toor seems to have the ability to thrive in the driest and least nutritional soils, producing abundant protein rich seed, used to make dal - including the famous sambar of South India.
Toor in bloom. Toor is widely interplanted with cotton, the region's primary cash crop. Of course cotton is grown widely in the US, but not in places I had visited previously, so I find myself fascinated by the amazing tufts of fiber this plant produces.
Cotton being brought to market in a village's weekly market day:

Once the cotton is sold, the villagers have cash to buy clothes, spices, plastic sandals, and vegetables. Strangely, the vegetables come from traders who go to the city to buy them - farmers markets as we know them in the US are rarely found in India, and the ladies selling their vegetable wares in this market are traders, not farmers (this has always struck me as an opening for a different kind of business opportunity for the rural farmers).Eggplant is one of the few native vegetables of South Asia to spread widely outside. The eggplants are very diverse, and some are remarkably beautiful.
These are Jujubes, a fruit that grows wild on the margins of fields and villages, as well as in cultivated orchards. They taste somewhat like plums.
Crossing the Pranahita River on a ferry boat:
My essay so far might give off the misimpression that forests are used only by villagers. Forests are also used by industries. Teak is native to central India, and central Indian teak is still considered to be of the best quality (although I've learned that many Indian furniture makers have turned to teak grown on plantations in west Africa and Malaysia, due to domestic shortages and high prices). Bamboo is also used for paper making, as at this giant factory:
The man with the hard hat is my research assistant's brother, who works in a junior engineering position in the Sirpur Paper Mills in the town of Kaghaznagar (translation: paper town). Kaghaznagar is a stop on the main railway line, where you cover your nose to avoid breathing in the belching sulfurous plumes. The town itself is a mixture of orderly quarters occupied by the thousands of company employees, and rickety slums where the rest of the towns' residents live. You can walk from the mill to the bus stand at the far end of town in about 20 minutes.
My research assistant, shown here with one of his nephews, grew up in a small village about 5 km as the crow flies from Kaghaznagar. During the dry season, you can wade across the river, and reach the town relatively quickly, but during the rainy season, it is necessary to detour about 15 km around to reach the main road.

I have been reading Anirudh Krishna's fantastic new book, "One Illness Away: Why People Become Poor and How They Escape Poverty." Krishna did some of his field research in Andhra Pradesh, in a district near to where my assistant grew up, and found that few people in such rural villages aspire to, or attain, anything beyond the lowest levels of employment outside of their village. People may become village school teachers, or police constables, but few become high level professionals. Ramdas, my assistant, seems to be an exception to this pattern - he is currently studying for his MPhil in economics at a reputed institute in Hyderabad, and hopes to do a PhD studying sustainable agriculture.
Ramdas and 2 sisters-in-law shelling beans.
Although Ramdas' family belongs to one of the Scheduled Castes (the modern government term for the former "untouchables" or dalits), they are descended from the first settlers of this village, who arrived here 70 or 80 years ago. His grandfather owned over 40 acres of land, and was quite wealthy by local standards, but they sold alot of land to pay for medical care for his grandmother (Krishna finds that healthcare related expenses are one of the primary reasons that families fall into poverty - hence the title of his book - One Illness Away). They are fortunate, in that they still own 17 acres, making them still one of the wealthiest families in the village. Ramdas is the youngest of 5, and his eldest brother, the one who works in the paper mill, encouraged him to pursue higher study. Few other people from his village have achieved as high levels of education as he has.
Of course, this does not mean that they lack talent. More, it would seem that they lack opportunities and information about how to pursue them. Consider the young friend of Ramdas who painted these pictures of the Buddha and Ambedkar on the walls of his home. He has quite a talent for painting, and I've seen similar paintings for sale for 1000s of rupees outside of the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. But how is a poor boy from Central India to reach those heights?
Ramdas' sister-in-law embroidering her sari.
The women of the family gathered in the courtyard in the evening.

One would like to think that in the future talented people from these villages would have the opportunity to make a better and more secure living, and to be free from the pressing wants of real material poverty. Not only their lives, but that of the rest of the world, will improve when their talents are able to reach full potential. On the other hand, it seems to me from my glimpses of life in these homes, that there are aspects of their lives that ought not to be lost. Children grow up surrounded by loving family. Neighbors respect each other, and people live lives that are orderly and predictable. They are embedded within a rich culture, one that is not merely "traditional" but also reinventing itself in response to a modern time with television sets, the spread of Buddhism among the scheduled castes of the region, etc. They eat healthy homegrown organic meals, and work hard with their hands. It is not that poverty is beautiful, but rather that in escaping poverty, I would hope that they will not lose sight of the things of value in the communities in which they came from. There is nothing perfect about the lives of the wealthy - be it in Hyderabad or in Bloomington, so perhaps our lives can also be enriched by what people who come from these villages have to teach us.
A couple of very hyperactive nephews.
A Bengali family returning from their fields by bullock-cart at dusk.