Beyond the refuge of numbers
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 20: Cities on the Edge
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Robyn Davidson
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Robyn Davidson's biography and other articles by this writer
The human mind, when faced with the need to calculate figures higher than, say, the fingers of two hands, abstracted numbers from the immediate and sensual to the colder, more distant realm of statistics. When people become statistics, our fellow feeling is replaced by the merely cerebral, and responsibility for their wellbeing is shifted on to the state. Statistics protect us from having to bestir ourselves.
I could quote all kinds of figures about internal migration in India. I could rattle out statistics about rural poverty in and exodus from the Kumaon region of the Himalayas, where I live for three months each year. I could say that grazing is five times higher than the carrying capacity of the land, that the depletion of forest is about four million cubic metres per year, that only a quarter of the Central Himalaya is now forested, that sixty-two million Indians live in city slums, that Nepali workers migrating into India send back five hundred million dollars a year ... and so on.
You, the reader, might well feel concern, might even have opinions about what effects such migration is having – will have – on the political, moral and ecological shape of the world. But you won't feel empathy. Those millions and millions of ecological refugees living in tiny plastic and cardboard huts crammed along canals full of steaming shit and garbage and dead dogs and pestilence in Bombay might as well be a different species. That is until you know one or two of them and hear how they got there, why they went there and how – foul though the place is – it offers more opportunity than where they came from.
Sixty-two million of them.
I'M NOT A SOCIAL SCIENTIST. I'm a writer. There's not much I can do for the sixty-two million. But it might be useful to describe the lives of a few representative peasants in the Kumaon, for whom the spectre of migration to the burgeoning city is ever present. As chance would have it, I am positioned between them and that spectre: I provide them with employment – the only local employment there is. I employ as many as I can. The wages are small, though acceptable by Indian standards. Chandrawallab the gardener. Bippin the housekeeper. Keshav's wife. The Nepalese labourers. Bippin's wife. Bahadur, whose job it is to look after my dogs.
First I must introduce the landscape. It is sublime, and not only to outsiders like me. The snow peaks along the horizon, hiding Tibet, are where the gods and goddesses live. Here in the ‘foothills', at seven thousand feet – high enough to feel some physical effects of altitude – we are close to those great ones. Sublime. But it is a woefully difficult environment for subsistence agriculture which is the only other income-generator around.
The farms are small, hand-made terraces radiating down precipitous cleared slopes. The weather is harsh – freezing winters, hail in spring, dry summers, a late summer monsoon which washes soil down into the river far below. Deer, monkeys, bears and wild pigs compete for the crops. A lot of the original oak from this area was taken by the British during the world wars. They replaced it with pine, which dries out the soil and inhibits native species. Domestic animals graze in the forests and eat any young oak, which is highly nutritious but slow growing. Seedlings don't stand a chance against desiccation and over-grazing.
Women range all day through the remaining forest, cutting wood or gathering huge bundles of grass and leaves for their animals, which they carry home on their heads. Their work is backbreaking; they age quickly. They are in poor health anyway due to poor nutrition. Nevertheless, they choose to have several children, despite the government's advertising campaign promoting the benefits of only two. Some of the women have been educated at the little local school for a couple of years. Most have not. They have to begin their foraging quite young; they are out most of the day, scaling the slopes, lopping or chopping trees. The work is dangerous. There are accidents. They fall, or are bitten by snakes or attacked by bears.
The peasants are aware that they are responsible for their forest disappearing, but they have no choice. If they do not chop wood, how will they cook and stay warm? If they do not carve out new fields from the forest, what will their sons do? If they do not have plenty of children, who will take care of them when they are old, or provide the labour needed when the crops are ready? Plenty of children die, after all. If they do not snare the leopards, or poison them, the leopards will prey on their goats. With the loss of forest goes the loss of game, and that makes for hungry leopards. There is no safety net for the peasants here. One stroke of bad luck and total ruin is their fate. Here, poverty is the cause of ecological catastrophe – not ignorance or greed.
So soil erosion, deforestation, overgrazing, landslides, floods, siltation, decreasing soil fertility, drying springs, low literacy, high infant and child mortality, malnutrition, rapidly increasing population, expansion of agriculture into forest and marginal lands, changing climate, loss of wildlife, loss of plant diversity, lack of infrastructure like roads and hospitals, useless and corrupt governance, ruthless and corrupt logging companies, poaching, primitive farming technology, inability to compete with big commercialised landowners, inability to participate in the market economy, unemployment, closing of trade border with Tibet. Kumaon has it all.
On a typical farm, a family can hope to get two square meals a day for only four months in the year. For the rest of the year, men go to the towns and cities to look for work. And sometimes women do too.
THE FOUR HUNDRED ACRES on which I live is regrowth native oak – one of the few patches of it remaining in the region. The friend who owns the property and I, have managed to keep the forest intact. No woodcutting is allowed here; no farm animals are permitted to graze. The women are invited to cut grass once a year, but they cannot lop and destroy the trees. At first they considered us an impediment to be got around. But when water began to flow back into their springs, the policy was accepted.
The house I live in is like the peasants' cottages only in that it is constructed of local stone. There the similarity ends. My house boasts a solar heated pool. Vast glass windows and oil heaters to warm the rooms. A limitless supply of diesel for the generator. Water is pumped up from a spring.
To reach the house from the nearest road, one must climb through a kilometre of forest along a rough path. One must hire ponies and men to carry luggage and provisions up to the house. Along the way, one might pass Nepali porters toiling up the track, little men with huge calf muscles, balancing six metre steel girders on their heads for renovations to the house.
It took me a long time to get used to this sort of thing. Indian servant culture goes against the Australian grain, steeped in ideals of egalitarianism. At first I treated all the staff as if they were my social equals, which embarrassed and confused them. Now I have learnt proper reserve.
Nevertheless, I love some of them, and flatter myself that they care for me. I love them like family. A feudal family, held together by bonds of fealty, mutual dependency and respect, and stable as a pyramid. Sahib (the owner) sits at the top. Memsahib (me) sits with him, but slightly lower. After that comes the staff: Rajput (retainers) then local men, all the way down to the Nepali boy.
How could one not love Chandrawallab? He's an eccentric, highly intelligent man who cries easily, drinks too much and is a figure of fun to his neighbours. He's close to the top of the pyramid because he has worked for me for almost twenty years, first as a stonemason, then as a gardener.
Ten years ago he left without explanation. I sent messages to his home, asking him to return, telling him that if the work was too heavy for him he could employ a helper. Several helpers. But he didn't come back. A year or two passed and I more or less forgot about him. Then one day I was heading down the track, on my way back to London. A group of men surrounding another man on a horse were coming up the track towards me. At first I didn't recognise the yellowy grey skeleton, wrapped in blankets, sweating and shivering in the saddle.
‘Chandrawallab,' I said. ‘What on earth has happened to you?'
He burst into tears and touched my folded hands – an intimacy he would never have permitted himself had he not been close to death. He'd been seeing a doctor in a town two hours' drive away, for many months, but was steadily deteriorating. I turned him straight around, and took him back with me to Delhi on the train. There he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
He survived. He slowly improved. He came back to work in the garden. And then, as often happens in these hills, there was a financial catastrophe. Chandrawallab had borrowed money during his illness, from a money-lender, using his land as surety. But some cousin/brothers had grabbed some of that land while Chandrawallab was incapacitated and, as he'd had no income for two years, there was no money to pay legal fees or bribes, and now he couldn't pay back the interest, let alone the principal. He stood to lose what was left of his farm – which would leave Chandrawallab and his family entirely destitute.
So my friend and I gave him the money, with the understanding that it would be taken out of his wages, a process of repayment that would extend well beyond his lifetime and ours. Consequently Chandrawallab now feels that he cannot do enough, ever, to repay that kindness. Sometimes he weeps when he thinks of it.
He doesn't speak English, but he has taken the trouble to learn the botanical names of flowers. Each week he garlands the house with floral tributes from the garden. He rings me sometimes from the house phone to tell me how the clematis is doing, and what colour the poppies are.
Tuberculosis is quite common up here, as is HIV/AIDS. Children are infested with worms. Women have iron deficiencies and gynaecological problems. There is a government hospital in the village, but when doctors take the trouble to turn up, they often give their patients short shrift. There is no medicine in the pharmacy. The medicines have been sold on the black market. Government doctors tend not to like it here. They consider it a punishment posting. They can't make much money up here in the sublime.
It's the same at the government school. Teachers often don't attend. Anyone with the resources will send their children to private schools.