Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Geographic Travels Geo-Literacy Outreach Awards Submission: Geo-literacy Project on Meghalaya, India

The very first entry for the Geographic Travels Geo-Literacy Outreach Awards has been officially submitted.  Sangeeta Deogawanka and Vasundhara Deogawanka propose to do a local regional geography study and presenting the results to locals to inform them about how geography can show risks to their community.

Feel free to comment on the proposal and let the board know what you think!

And remember, you still have time to apply for the $500 in awards for promoting Geo-Literacy!

Geo-literacy Project on Meghalaya, India

Meghalaya is a small state in north-eastern India, nestled amongst the hills of the Patkai mountain range. Its people are one of the earliest settlers of the Indian subcontinent, largely belonging to three tribes; the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia. They are of Paleo-Mongoloid, Proto-Australoid and Tibeto-Burma descent, who have remained inaccessible to the outside world for centuries. Cradled within a region that boasts of a unique geography and climatic conditions, they have been dependent on the forest wealth for their livelihood. Although their first encounters with civilization were the missionaries from the Western world, it is only in recent times that the inimitable potentials of the region have brought them in sudden limelight, bringing in its fore instant cash and recognition.

These indigenous people may not have ventured beyond the hills, yet have had access to good education, thanks to the ongoing efforts of missionary institutions.

The ‘living roots bridge’ that has suddenly become hyped amongst curious travelers, is a centuries-old adaptation by the hilly tribes for communication across streams and gullies. For development in the north-east has been sporadic at best till the late 20th century. The oldest double-decker root bridge is barely accessible, and tests the most rigorous of trekkers. Tourists come to visit but feel cheated when they leave without savoring this remarkable man-made feature, merely because of lack of infrastructure or local guides.

True to its namesake, the State of Meghalaya (the 'abode of clouds') is a place where clouds and rains are a part of life. Cloud cover frolics and plays peek-a-boo with the rains. The capital, Shillong, has long been tagged as the 'Scotland of the East'. Forested hills interspersed with bare rocky outcrops, pine forests veiled in cloudy mists, gushing streams and cascading waterfalls, give way to the plains of Bangladesh in the east, this is a paradise to behold and sustain. Meghalaya has yet another claim to fame. It hosts the wettest place in the world, the Mawsynram-Cherrrapunjee belt, a current tourist lure.
We have many celebrities who have their roots in Shillong. Yet decades hence, the fortune of the people of Meghalaya does not seem to have changed significantly.

The hills are rich in limestone and coal deposits. Mining is proliferate and unscientific, primarily rat hole method, posing risk and challenge to resources. The fact that Meghalaya, essentially a tribal State, is governed by regulations that allow for the individual or community to be the land owners, has led to indiscriminate mining rights.  Small firms have spawned, leading to various problems atypical of an unregulated sector that taps natural resources of a region.

Agriculture is a learning curve for these tribal communities, as Government initiatives introduce strawberry, pineapple and plum farming to the region. Historically, betel nuts, bamboo and broom-grass have been the backbone of this agrarian economy, while medicinal plants native to this region are used only by local community.

It is recently that Meghalaya has discovered the enormous potential of tourism and mining, a boon in some ways with instant cash inflows, but perhaps a bane in disguise. To the outsider, it seems a terrific tourist hub with amazing eco tourist destinations scattered across the hills offering amazing adventure tourism opportunities. Hotels and cabbies are the most visible feature in and around Shillong town. At a rough estimate tourist cabs and vehicles constitute about 60 % of vehicular traffic, in the peak months, while characteristically outmoded trucks, belching heavy fumes form another 30 %. Ironically these heavy duty vehicles that have long outlived their purpose, belong to the mining firms dotting this region, that are already playing havoc with the ecological balance. Roads are also being broadened, as the Meghalaya Government realizes that communication is the first step to development and revenues. Mining and development work in tandem to envelop the hills in random haze of strong fumes.  The 16 year old taxi driver keeps asking me what it is like in my city, "if you do not have hills, then what is there?" The teenage workers at the tourist resort could not be faulted for placing the forks and spoons wrong. All they have known is their humble abode on the hillside and the local English school.

As I drove through the roads shrouded in thick cloud cover, I wondered. What if the local communities are more informed? What if the local communities were trained at conserving their own resources and regulate tourist development? Shouldn't they be aware of the hazards of rampant mining and forest degradation and take suitable precautionary measures, or be ready for situations brought about by unplanned development?

It occurs to me this would make for an ideal implementation of a community-driven geo-literacy project.

Project Roadmap
Stakeholders are the local tribal community, who are ill informed about their rights and are now being lured away from the responsibilities to their land. Unless they fathom what serves their interests best, both in the short-term and in the long course, they shall be the ones to bear the cost of geo-illiteracy.

Work breakdown structure

The approach to most issues has a geographical perspective. In an eco-sensitive region, where community is the prime stakeholder, information is the first step.

This can be achieved through:
    Mapping of resources, potential sources of livelihoods, current threats to land and potential threats from over-exploitation at macro and micro levels, with a view to educating
a) about the issues surrounding the region
b) about the fallacies of speedy development

Targeted audience would be north-east India governance, tourists, legal systems, NGOs, media and business sector, as well as the local community, the prime stakeholders.

Phase (A)
(i) Map the soil and mineral deposit areas, with eco-sensitive zoning
(ii) Map current mining areas, including operations like limestone mining by Lafarge in forested areas that goes against the legal norms
(iii) Map tourist attraction areas, with data about sensitive zones
(iv) List current threats to the environment - from both mining and tourist overkill
(v) List potential threats to both the environment and local community

Phase (B)
(vi) Arrange this into an audio-visual presentation, PowerPoint Presentation, flier and media handout
(vii) Deliver such information through local church activities, schools, the tourist spots and media.

Ongoing Potential of the Project

This project has a 'continuity' or expansion component. For the mapping of the attractions, natural resources, and potentials would form the baseline for potential investors or philanthropist ventures. Although I would personally hate to see McDonalds and Café Coffee Day outlets dot the hillscape, it would make sense to have various community led ventures that provide income, perhaps with support from such large enterprises.

Small villages that are little more than a collection of shanties dot the tourist routes. Mapping is the first step to geo-literacy for development too. Such a project has potential of calling to attention the development of a co-operative movement across the region, that would enable local produce to be sold at these shanty settlements, regulated by local community. Tourists have a place where they get local stuff at fair rates without the need for bargaining or doubts about being cheated, for the lure of quick money is also leading to a compromise on the quality of good on sale.

In Meghalaya it rains almost incessantly. Yet tourists brave the rains to savor the thrills that are best enjoyed during the rainy months. Shelters that offer umbrellas or raingear for hire, clean places to rest and warm-up after a downpour with hygienically prepared tea and soup, is another aspect that could be looked into in the future. This would provide ongoing income to the families who dot these routes, without compromising on their other sources of livelihood.

Large firms could fulfill their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) obligation and enhance their Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) portfolio through initiatives like launderette outlets, an unknown yet much-needed necessity for this rain-ridden region.

Non-profit organization could engage community participation for local tourist guidance and translation needs.

On a wider perspective, the youth who have never ventured outside the region, can be funded to gain relevant skills and education for a community driven development.

All in all, I see tremendous potential for community development in this tribal region of Meghalaya, geared for a geo-literacy momentum.


Work Schedule and costs involved:
(i), (ii), (iii), (iv) and (v) would take about 60 days time. Costs involved would be approximately $200.

Tasks (vi) and (vii) would involve about 40 to 90 days time, with clips and literature of various lengths, dubbed in English and the local tribal dialect.

Cost would be another $200 plus $100.  Format used would be simple DVDs, CDs, and brochures.

1 comment:

Sangeeta Deogawanka said...

I was just reading the adaptation from Robert D. Kaplan's book, "The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate," in WSJ article titled 'Geography Strikes Back'. How right he is, that technology has collapsed distance but hardly negated Geography.

It is the Geography of an area that speaks volumes of humanity's divisions, possibilities and constraints. The example of China's resource-rich ethnic cores that drives China's geographic realpolitik is similar to that of the tribal States in North-East India. While the presence of ethnic minorities have prevented attempts at democratization for fear of unleashing ethnic fury,
geopolitics has artificially stimulated the region's economies through tourism and mining overkill. So even as sporadic incidents of young miners being trapped to death in the rathole mines continue, the State Government refuses to re-think its mining policies. As the region with the highest annual rainfall grapples with a situation of water crisis and contamination of water resources by acid mine drainage and widespread land degradation, it is a forgone conclusion that Geography is common sense that needs to factor-in the role of choices that affect a region's future.

Sharing some interesting quotes from the article, " before geography can be overcome, it must be respected"... "successfully navigating today's world demands that we focus first on constraints", and "about working just at the edge of what is possible, without ever stepping over the brink".

All of this bears a compelling parallel to the ongoing situation in Meghalaya that calls for a strong geoliteracy and advocacy.