Sitting cross-legged on a woven carpet, I discussed the weather with a group of elderly men in turbans. Goats and cows wandered across the sand behind me, and several curious children peeked out from the doorway. The sleek black MacBook recording the conversation seemed drastically out of place.
Earlier this week, I headed into the Thar Desert to conduct a series of focus groups about climate change. The people who participated in these sessions were mostly older men and women who had spent the majority of their lives struggling to make ends meet in the unforgiving desert environment. The men wore simple white kurtas, while the women wore flowing, brightly colored saris. Their faces bore the toll of many years of heat and drought, but they also showed inextinguishable sparks of energy, vitality, and humor.
While my research hasn’t yet produced any conclusive results, one fact became abundantly clear during the focus groups—rain is everything. People’s livelihoods, health, and well-being all depend on strong rainfall during the monsoon season. In my life, the only things that depend on rainfall are trivial. Should I go outside? Should I plan a picnic? Should I bring an umbrella? But in the Thar, the issues are much more essential. Will the crops grow? Will I have water to drink? Will I be able to support my family?
The lack of resources in rural villages is astounding. I held one focus group at a government school, which was within sight of a nearby air force base. My computer was running out of battery after a full day of recording, so I asked if there were a place to charge it. My translator told me that the school didn’t have electricity. Looking out towards the air force base, I saw power lines leading to a long, flat building. The same government that had built a high-tech facility capable of deploying a fleet of fighter jets to Pakistan couldn’t put a single light bulb in the school across the street.
I recognize that two entirely different government entities were responsible for the school and the base, but still, the contrast was striking. Despite the inadequacies of local government, many focus group participants focused on what the government had accomplished rather than what it hadn’t. Within their lifetimes, most major roads had been paved, many villages had gained electricity, and one of the largest artificial waterways in India, the Indira Gandhi Canal, had brought a reliable source of water to some of the driest areas of the Thar.
The government has made similar improvements in urban Rajasthan. Last weekend, I met an English teacher named Mr. Christie. He originally came from Barbados but had lived in Jodhpur for over two decades. I was excited to meet another foreigner living in Jodhpur, because there aren’t many of us. Mr. Christie is the only foreigner I’ve met who’s been here longer than I have. From my perspective, Jodhpur lags behind the rest of the world with its trash-filled streets and its stark poverty, but Mr. Christie explained that the city has made incredible progress since he arrived. It has expanded far beyond its original borders, adding all sorts of new roads and buildings. While the government certainly has its issues (see my earlier post on the Rajasthan Police), it has done a respectable job tending to the needs of a skyrocketing population.
And government isn’t the only entity that drives development. Having spent the past five months working for a rural development NGO, I’ve seen the tremendous difference that a non-governmental organization can make. In focus groups, people frequently praised my organization for its inclusive methods and its effective projects, citing the construction of rainwater harvesting structures and the establishment of community-based organizations.
India is moving fast, but the progress is often so basic that it’s difficult for a Westerner to appreciate, especially in places like the Thar Desert. As a result, my feelings constantly fluctuate between awe and disgust. The trash, the crowds, and the general mess are unsettling, but the rich culture and the kindhearted people are inspiring. India takes pride in a majestic past, grapples with a challenging present, and shows promise for a strong, radiant future. The country is rapidly crawling forward.