By Adam Brock
Nestled in a verdant valley in the lower Himalayas, the remote Indian village of Kanda seems, at first glance, to have barely changed in centuries. The hillsides, mainly given over to terraced rice paddies, are dotted with stone farmhouses, Hindu temples and patches of forest. The glacial streams that provide the village’s water are free of pesticides, mine tailings, or contamination by pathogens. It all feels eerily dreamlike, a living incarnation of some myth of India’s rural past.
But then a Bollywood song begins to blare from a pair of tinny speakers. A closer look at the ice-blue stream reveals a trail of discarded biscuit wrappers, and as the sun sets, the valley becomes a necklace of incandescent lights, blocking out what would be a spectacular night sky. Indeed, my very ability to observe this lifestyle firsthand betrays the inevitable truth: Kanda, like everywhere else on Earth, is engaged in a dialogue with modernity. Consumer goods from the village market, pop-cultural ideals intercepted from TV and the internet – and, yes, the occasional well-intentioned western volunteer – have all worked their way into the fabric of daily life here, and there’s no turning back. The global economy, and the promise of affluence it brings, hangs in front of Kanda like the moon: mesmerizing, but astronomically distant.
For the last 25 years, Kanda resident Jeevan Verma has been working to bring that promise a little bit closer. Through his volunteer program, the Rural Organization for Social Elevation (ROSE), Verma has initiated a number of programs to guide Kanda’s development in an equitable and sustainable manner. Since it was founded in 1981, ROSE has constructed hillside roads to resist erosion, rebuilt homes for the village’s poor, and promoted permaculture techniques amongst local farmers. Currently, Verma is building a farm shop to sell tools to his neighbors at a fairer price than they can get at the market, and when that project’s finished, he aims to start a goat breeding business to give Kanda residents access to valuable sources of income and nutrition.
In many ways, Verma and his program are a model for how rural sustainable development can work in the Global South. Rather than relying on corrupt and inefficient large-scale aid programs, Kanda, thanks to ROSE, is taking the forest green route: solving local problems with local knowledge. Yet for all of ROSE’s accomplishments, it remains to be seen whether it can provide Kanda’s residents with the means for self-sustanence implied in its name. Thus far, Jeevan hasn’t been able to figure out a way to leverage outside money to produce a reliable source of income; instead, he relies on program fees and donations from volunteers to keep things running. The goat breeding program will give ROSE another shot at self-reliance, but for now, the program’s fate remains at the mercy of generous westerners.
Even if it was self-solvent, it’s unlikely that ROSE could ever solve all of Kanda’s problems. As in the rest of India, the population growth here is exponential, which means that the limited land available for cultivation is continually being divided into ever smaller portions. And for every needy family Verma is able to assist, there’s ten more that lack proper nutrition or sanitation.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Kanda’s future, though, comes from the potential consequences of its success. As its residents begin to emerge from a subsistence lifestyle towards one of increasing income, they’re afforded ever more opportunities for dialogue with the outside world – a world which, at the moment, has little to offer in the way of guidance. The challenge for Kanda, and indeed the rest of the developing world, is to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that development can bring, while steering clear of the disastrous cycle of consumption that the overdeveloped world has become caught in.
It takes the careful guidance of a million small-town leaders like Verma, and the targeted technical and financial assistance of westerners involved in the regeneration. But when programs like ROSE succeed, they send a message that’s impossible to refute: truly sustainable development is possible. There is a middle path between the cycle of poverty and western-style reckless consumerism. If Jeevan Verma is successful in navigating that path, he might find that he won’t be seeking advice from westerners – he’ll be giving it.
Image credit: ROSE