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Subsidizing despair

September 19, 2009

Dorn is 35 years old, but he looks at least 50. He sits on a boulder at the edge of the road, black with grime, his clothes’ original colours no longer discernible. Behind him, his four friends are washing in the freezing mountain stream. Dorn points out the thin wooden lean-to that he lives in with his family. The shack on a dusty strip on the edge of Leh is woefully inadequate for the harsh night ahead, let alone the winter. It looks particularly poor next to the traditional Ladakhi houses with their cosy mud bricks and reliable stone foundations.

The tragedy is that Dorn has chosen this. He is a member of the Khampa tribe, a nomadic people who have roamed the high altitude valleys of the Himalayas for centuries. His village, the highest permanent settlement in the world, is about 150 km from Leh, but he spent most of his adult life roaming with his yaks and goats across some of the most desolate and beautiful mountainous landscape there is. He was comparatively rich – the pashmina wool from his goats could be traded for everything from grains to gold in cities in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China.

Development changed this. First the roads came, then the airport. Then tourists arrived – lots of them. The first ones Dorn saw arrived in trekking groups. They had new clothes and watches, flash cameras and seemed to spend a lot of time relaxing. Then he saw tourists in Leh, when he came to the markets. Everyone who traded with tourists was growing rich, he noticed. Ladakhi boys started to have motorbikes and different clothes. They had stopped toiling in the fields with their families and were working in restaurants and bars. They had a lot of money in their hands. Water flowed in pipes and didn’t need to be collected from the spring. Food could be bought, not gathered and harvested.

The nomadic life is hard. It seems a little crazy to be working so hard when there is easy money in Leh. Thus thought Dorn. Five years ago, the extended family of 50-60 people sold their animals and moved to Leh to seek their fortune. They are not the only new migrants. Government subsidies have made it cheaper to buy barley and other grains from 1000s of miles away in India, than to buy that grown in local villages. The government supplies everything from food rations to subsidised house and waterway maintenance – it is now unprofitable to work the fields near to Leh. Instead, everyday more and more people arrive in the town seeking work. A few make good money; most, being unqualified for anything other than what their upbringing prepared them for, end up in low-paid unfulfilling jobs, like labouring, far from their robust support of their community.

Dorn works in road building. It’s dirty, backbreaking and hasn’t made him rich. In terms of money, he is wealthier than before, but in every other aspect he is far poorer. “We are planning to return to the old life, but it is difficult to start again without our animals,” he says. “This year we will go back.”

The transition from a nomadic or agrarian life to a modern urban society is painful and difficult, whether it takes place over 200 or 20 years. But as we are discovering from the crowded, unsustainable cities of the West, to the poverty struck, polluted cities of the South, the global economic model that prioritises profit and financial growth over human satisfaction and personal or community growth is deeply flawed. I hope Dorn does return to the life that made his family happy, in which he has a valued place in his community. Luckily for him, the fashion for pashminas doesn’t seem to be dying yet.

Anyway, enough philosophising on the good life. Tomorrow we drag our unfit carcasses up a hill or two, camping in the mountains for a few days looking for snow leopards and wolves. I’ve packed my dad’s thermals, rated for the Arctic, Nick’s packed his survival essentials including variously sized knives, a knife sharpener (and its leather case), a compass….

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