The United Nations Over-Development Program

I have been briefly travelling with 17 MSW (Masters of Social Work) students who’ve come to visit to better understand the Narmada Bachao Movement.  It was great to see a core group of young people who instead of engineering, computer science, or medicine, are interested in doing social work within India.  However, they too appear to be in the throes of “metrics for success,” how to raise GDP while lowering mortality, poverty alleviation, the miracle of education (send them away to school!) and other mechanisms of “sustainable development.” 

We took a trip entailing a long jeep ride, then boat ride, to Bhaadal which is a “submerged” village – a village that has lost land because of the large dams on the Narmada.  These photos chronicle that visit. 

On the way, one of our vehicles broke down.  Thankfully, we were next to a few houses and the bhai living there pulled out chairs and cots for us to sit and wait while others went for help.  He was kind enough to water and feed us as well!  And one of the students asked me, what do I think development should look like. 


|we take matters into our own hands and start walking to where we’ll catch the boat|

Travelling through rural areas, in India, Mali, Mexico, I am constantly struck not by the lack of resources, poverty or dirt – as others remark to me time and again.  I am floored each time by how much people in rural areas know.  About conserving water and energy, showing hospitality, inventing solutions, patience – and most definitely enjoyment!  About how the “developed” world is at such a disadvantage with us chasing our tails over money, living soft lives that take us away from our bodies and our resources, and constantly looking at each other and ourselves, comparing, wanting more.  Because we can.  Finding reasons to spend, expend, and pretend more.  We have so much in our western lives – just the luxury of a sink and tap is less than most.


|finally on the Narmada – almost still because of the Sardar Sarovar Dam|

In these villages and with the NBA folk, there has been a pace, a culture of letting things take their course instead of making them happen.  Just like the Narmada should be.  To me there are many more things going right in these villages.  Expending effort in order to use our most precious resource, water, makes people so conscientious of it’s use.  Expending energy to visit a neighbor in walking or biking encourages lingering a longer time and receives in turn a hot cup of chai.  The mentality not of scarcity, for there is much water in the river, but of valuing, relishing, sharing.


|one of the few remaining corn fields in Bhaadal|

What has gone so wrong in my own country that we have created systems and a culture that enable us to take so much from the world precious reservoirs and cheapen it?  Development should not be about monetizing the bottom of the pyramid and turning poor people into consumers like us.  Single-serve plastic shampoo packets for 3 rupess replacing naturally replenishable and biodegradable buttermilk is NOT progress!  The result is that where there once were naturally decomposing clay cups and plates made from leaves, rural areas are now littered with plastic bags and cups .

In Narmada valley, the dams have destroyed rich agricultural land, while there is a policy to encourage the agrarian economy.  We continue to transfer “technology” from the global north to the south, and lose our most vital knowledge – that which will sustain us well beyond exhaustion of fossil fuels and minerals.  Development should be the transfer of practices and culture from the global south northwards.  THIS is the real challenge – convincing our apathetic, gluttonous selves that we must consume, purchase, use less.  That being human is diminishing while accomplishing.  To strive in decreasing our footprints instead of increasing our net worth.  As do-gooders support and flock to work in Africa, Asia, Latin America to help our fellow humans (to hopefully improve their health and livelihoods so that they are not displaced by “progress”) how many are working with the minority that uses 75% of the world’s resources?  Why isn’t there a United Nations Over-Development Program to address development that has gone out of control?  Our framework on sustainability has to change, as does our understanding of sanitation, success metrics, what is enough, and to what end. 


|observing the solar water heater in the higher, relocated Bhaadal|

The extraordinary fact of NBA is that it exists to enable rural life to exist.  First to ensure “progress” and “government” gets out of the way of rural peoples’ path to self-determination, and second, to listen.  As development brings big dams and inculcation into an upwardly mobile society through formal schooling, NBA is asking another question: what do the rural communities need to stay put?  In particular, what do the Adivasi peoples of the valley, those who have had the least power and voice in this process, want as a community? 

We had the opportunity to see this first-hand in a village that has had most of it’s agricultural lands submerged by the Narmada reservoir.  And the answers, to begin with: a livelihood that allows their culture to continue, schools that teach their own language, culture and politics in addition to “coping” skills (i.e. Hindi, Civics, etc.).  A life rich enough that the young folk care to remain and are not forced to flee the rising waters for a running tap.

In that vein,  Jeevanshala is a system of schools set up by NBA to address the huge lack of education in Adivasi areas.   Some interesting background viewing:


|Bhaadal Jeevanshala students singing|

And a song, recorded from the children of Bhaadal’s Jeevanshala.  The song, Zindabaad, is about the beginning of the unrlenting struggle for indigenous people’s rights to self-determination and natural resources. 



About v*

I live, work, and play in Oaktown CA. I have a deep interest in how people's movements germinate and grow, which was the impetus for the travel blog, Moving with Medha. Now, my head is in creating healthy people and communities. A broad net, but a fun one to bounce in.
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