Its almost black and white, this photo. But nothing in life is black and white…
There she is, my wife Kaaren, like a surfer on a wave of windswept snow as the ice cliff at the leading edge collapses into a jumbled pile of frothy debris. At 5100m on Shinko-La on our way into the Zanskar valley in Kashmir she's a tiny dot of humanity sewn into the seam between spherical sky, smooth snow and sharp black rock. Iconic unspoilt wilderness, right?.
Wrong! When we last crossed Shinko-La we threaded our way up on little trails over three days. Four years later bulldozers have eaten through the rocky landscape, over the pass and half way down the Zanskar valley to Kargiyak. Still covered by metres of snow the road they left will open only in September. Last year the first cars in human history arrived in Kargiyak. Next year the hungry yellow caterpillars will chew inexorably on through to Padum and Kargil dragging telephone lines and an internet cable with them. This year our friends' 9 year old became seriously unwell. Getting out involved walking then putting him on a pony to get to iv fluids. Next year a trekking group will be able to call a taxi. Two years on long-haired Westerners will be taking Enfield motorbikes through, stopping for beer at iconic Zanskari villages. Development’s a-comin'.
Zanskari locals are delighted about the road. Many villagers told me how much easier it will be to get in winter supplies and get people out to hospital. “Business opportunities will come” averred Tenzin, a 26 yr old who studied far away but is back now with his MBA. He and I both see guest houses, shops and adventure tourism- paragliding from Shinko la perhaps. We both see tourist dollars, but his opportunities are my fears. I also see what perhaps he does not- now that Shinko- La is no longer a bulwark against modernity his Zanskari way of life will be inundated and homogenised into the rest of India, the rest of the world.
A week after Shinko-La we were in Leh, once a mosque studded remote town in Indian Kashmir. On our first walk we threaded through winding back streets where bearded muslim youths were coaxing naans out of tandoors just as they always have. Then suddenly we popped out into a spacious paved mall with manicured trees and lined with shops selling pashminas, singing bowls and Himalayan rock crystals. Some had neon signs, many took Visa cards, few had local owners. This was more International airport than Himalayan village bazaar. On that first foray a man greeted us at his shop door, averring he was interested in relationships not money. He had just flown in from his home in Newcastle, he diagnosed our spirits from our faces (and offered us gem-stones to match), gave us tea, told us of his shops in Goa and Singapore, let his underlings unfurl carpets in front of us, gave spiritual instruction on the phone to a follower in Australia, repeated that life is relationships not money and swiped Carol’s credit card through his scanner. She had her Kashmiri carpet and her 9-year old Peter was well. The whole transaction was a crystallization of Tenzin's choices, perhaps.
What do I think?. Sure, I lament the erosion of wilderness, the taming of land, wild mountains chained to roads, but what right do I have even to an opinion? I do not endure long Zanskari winters nor see my cattle, my children even, die of treatable diseases. I do not walk three days to buy essentials. Dogma says development decisions must be locally owned. Yet maybe I do have something to offer. Somehow my wider experience perhaps privileges me to a vision of the future that locals do not have.
Like the locals I see advantages to entering the national, even the global economy but also costs. The quirks of a culture co-evolved with the land will be homogenized out of existence. Phugtal monastery, impossibly nestled eerie-like in Zanskar cliffs where monks pursue archane rituals and instruct young boys in the same, will become a relic. Gompas may survive but just as tourist showpieces not living expressions of a culture’s relationship to the land. Itok our horseman invited us to his house one evening. His lower rooms where cattle live were heavy with ruminant breath and the smell of dung, then we ascended rickety steps and sat around a tandoor with his wife and family in the dark. She served chai and yak panir (delicious!) as she made mo-mos, fingers mindlessly shaping dough in patterns absorbed by a little girl around her mother's tandoor long ago. She served them steaming, flavored with a real human connection. Perhaps when tourists start coming she and Itok will make a western toilet, open a guest house and sell the ubiquitous Maggi noodles (so much easier) seasoned with good business skills. By then “horseman” may be a dying profession as motorbikes and Mahindra jeeps advance. Even snow might become just clinging remnants as climate change advances, relics of how it used to be. Ah, we lose as well as gain in development’s homogenisation! In a not-too-distant future when humanity is trying to carve out a niche in the crumbling cliff face of a warming biosphere there’ll be fewer unique human solutions to draw on, fewer people who remember other ways of doing things.
Nothing in life is black and white. Undoubtedly development brings benefits but also insidious costs.. Who decides which trail into the future to follow, how and by what criteria? Important questions for anyone involved in development, for any community we work with. The default - almost universally taken- is to let economics choose. One role for development practitioners is to inform and empower people to actively make deliberate development decisions, really ask "Where do we want to go? Why?" The next step is to enable them to make real those informed choices.