Progress and modern Ladakh

One morning during breakfast, my family started talking about new policies of the government towards the idea of ‘progress’ to ensure road connectivity and freshwater pipelines to every house. These ideas are now regarded as basic necessities. I agree that these facilities make life comfortable, save time, and make life more ‘productive’.
However, it also made me wonder about the direction in which we are heading—as individuals, communities and as a country. We generally do not critically question the mainstream system, its priorities and its short and long-term impacts. Most of the structures we create and cherish are modelled on the West but is this always a wise idea? We have seen how Western countries are desperately struggling to find answers to the negative social and psychological impacts of ‘progress’. They are now struggling to change direction, to make the planet more live-able.
I can understand the comfort of ignoring these questions. However, they are now becoming too uncomfortable to live with, especially in the context of the pandemic and its social and economic impacts, rising temperatures and natural disasters. In some way, each of these crises is the result of our so-called ‘progress’. These days everyone is talking about how warm it is in Ladakh (for a change) during October. This suggests that people are aware of global warming. But are we making a connection between ‘global warming’ and ‘progress in the modern world’?
This reminds me of my mother complaining about the impact of westernisation in our culture. Perhaps she did not realise that most of what we are consuming on a daily basis is not produced in Ladakh. In fact, we don’t even know where and how these things are produced and transported. Our culture and traditions are rooted in our community and from our connection to the land where we grow our food. As we replace our food, clothes and building materials with mass-produced products, it is not surprising that our culture has started to suffer.

This realisation has left me feeling directionless and helpless for not being able to grow my own food. It has also encouraged me to re-learn basic skills and knowledge that previous generations took for granted.
I am concerned not only about the tangible impact of this growing global mono-culture on what we eat or what we wear and our lifestyle but also about the growing psychological differences that I see between different generations with regard to our relationship and attitude towards each other, the environment and other living beings.

There has been a shift in mind-set from concern for the common good towards the need to be independent. We do not realise that the capacity of money to fulfil our needs remains hollow. Change is the law of nature but it doesn’t have to be towards destruction of the harmonious ways in which we have lived with nature and each other.
The construction of new buildings is supposed to be a sign of progress. Yet, it’s disheartening to see concrete structures being built on grasslands, pastures and wetlands that once provided fresh spring water and grass for our livestock. This will have long-term impacts on our society and on us.
Similarly, modern technology and connectivity are very useful in accessing medical help, increased mobility and modern education even in remote areas. However, this is a double-edged sword. The same processes also introduce the pressures of global competition and monetary acquisition to feel happy. In time this conditions people to become more self-centred, greedy and eventually become isolated from each other. In a place like Ladakh, I believe it’s still not too late to find a balance between traditional ideas of inter-dependence and modern emphasis on individuality. Is it possible to find a paradigm of ‘genuine progress’ that is about well-being, health, contentment and true prosperity rather than one that is built on competition and endless consumption?
In the context of the novel coronavirus pandemic, more people seem to be inclined to act. Many people have now started talking about localisation and young entrepreneurs have started making an effort to spread awareness and promote alternatives that are sustainable and locally-produced. I hope to see more people understanding the need to change the trajectory of development and rethink fundamental priorities. We are now running out of time for the planet with mounting ecological and social crises.

Photograph and text by Kunzang Deachen

Kunzang Deachen holds a master’s degree in commerce and is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in Anthropology. She works with Local Futures where she spreads awareness of the opportunities that localisation can bring in this modern era.