On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows*
I had only been in India for seven days, nestled in Zorba the Buddha, an ashram tucked between the busy streets of Delhi. Then during the two-week Orientation for the American India Foundation Clinton Fellowship, I got the chance to visit the Himalaya Mountains and live with a family for three days as part of a rural homestay. Uttarakhand, the state we traveled to, is one of the more northern states in India. It borders Nepal and China, and it is crisscrossed by the Himalayan Mountains and rural mountain communities. Information from the 2011 Census of India states that Uttarakhand has a population of around ten million . And it is the 27th, out of India’s 29 states, in terms of population density .
The journey to Uttarakhand began by waking up at 4:00 am. Piling, with the other 19 AIF Clinton Fellows, onto a bus to weave through the ever-bustling New Delhi traffic to the train station. We boarded an AC train. Riding from early morning until almost noon through the beautiful countryside of India; passing by fields filled with rice or sorghum and houses built out of stone or whatever the occupants could find. Finally, stopping at the foot of mountains. Four hours, one harrowing drive along curvy winding roads, a 7,000-foot rise in elevation, and a few near misses of cows and other vehicles later we arrived at our destination. Aarohi, an NGO working on livelihood and health-based initiatives in the Kumaon Himalayas. All this combined was an amazing experience, but so was the opportunity to live with a homestay family within another rural mountainous community.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the visit to Uttarakhand. I grew up in the knob region of Kentucky, an area where knobs, a Kentucky word for something bigger than a hill but smaller than a mountain, rise out of the rolling plains of the Bluegrass and hide fertile fields, lazy rivers, and hearty people. It is a part of the Appalachian Mountains, known for the black coal that has been mined there for centuries . As well as for having some of the poorest counties in the United States, and for being very rural with a focus on agriculture and farmers .
When I talked about my rural upbringing to the other Fellows in my cohort, both the Indian and American Fellows were surprised. They were shocked to learn about the lack of infrastructures, such as wireless cell phone service, reliable access to internet, or public transportation. There is no governmental plans or industries working to bring these infrastructures to rural areas in America. In my community, it is not only necessary to have a vehicle but essential. There are no stores, jobs, banks, or groceries within walking distance or within even almost a 20-mile range. The land does not grow the necessities to live off of, rather it is used to produce large swatches of corn and soybeans for animal feeds. You do rarely see young people, many grandparents live alone as their children and grandchildren have moved to urban centers to find work. My experience growing up and living in a rural area seems outlandish and often contradicts the perceptions that most people have about America.
I was coming from a very rural mountainous region in the west and visiting a very rural mountainous region in the east. I knew there would be many differences, but it was honestly astonishing to see and experience those differences. Both the Himalayas and Appalachia have very vibrant mountain cultures but while the communities within Appalachia are struggling Uttarakand seemed to be thriving. Out of India’s 1.4 billion people, 66% of the population lives in rural areas compared to the United States where only 18% of the 327 million people live in rural areas . In the short time, I spent in the mountains of Uttarakhand, this rural population was apparent. I was amazed by the number of families, the young children walking to school, the shops, cafes, and open spaces filled with people talking laughing and eating. The community was clearly visible and seemed to not only be vibrant, but self-relent, creating businesses, non-profits, and self-help groups. At the homestay, much of the food we ate was grown within 100 feet and milk we drank came from their cow, Chandu, who was milked twice a day. Life was not easy for the family, but they seemed happy, working together to provide for each other and playing cards together in the evening. When I asked the two young boys in the family if they planned to stay in the mountains, they both answered, yes. Which is a contrast to my own community and to myself as I sit thousands of miles away from my own mountains, not sure if I will go back.
Government of India. “India Census 2011.” Uttarakhand Population 2011-2019 Census. 2011. Web. http://www.census2011.co.in/census/state/uttarakhand.html
“History of Coal Mining in Appalachia.” Galloway Family Foundation, 18 Oct. 2017. Web. http://www.gallowayfoundation.org/history-of-appalachia/
United States Government. “New Census Data Show Differences Between Urban and Rural Populations.” United States Census Bureau – Newsroom, 8 Dec. 2016, Web. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-210.html
World Bank. “Rural Population (% of total population) – India, United States.” The World Bank Data. Web. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS
*A previous version of this article was originally published on October 23, 2019 by the American India Foundation: https://aif.org/a-comparison-of-rural-mountain-communities/
AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India is a fully funded, interdisciplinary, experiential learning program that places young professionals in service with communities in India for ten months. In partnership with local NGOs, Fellows learn about inclusive leadership in poverty reduction through collaboration and capacity building.
About the Author:
Loren is serving as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. For her Fellowship project, she is training youth on the use of vegetable gardens to learn about organic food production, healthy nutrition, and environmental sustainability. Born and raised in Kentucky, Loren graduated in 2019 with a dual degree in agriculture and natural resources, and peace and social justice studies. Loren discovered her passion for sustainable agriculture and food equity during her gap, when she traveled to Japan and Hawaii. While in Hawaii, she volunteered at Mala’ai garden, a culinary and school garden associated with Waimea Middle School. When she began her undergraduate career, she knew her focus would be on food, agriculture, and food systems. She found Berea College to be unique with a no-tuition-guarantee and work-study program that provides low-income students with a wonderful education as well as work, internships, and research opportunities. Loren’s work experience at the college included time on the college farms as well as cooking, baking, and processing foods from the farm to sell to the community at the Berea College Farm Store, where she was head student baker and student supervisor. She won a summer research scholarship to the University of Minnesota to work on studying the impact of cover crops on the soil in organic agriculture and spent time working at Berea Urban Farm creating production space and a food forest plan. Loren is pursuing her passion for sustainable agriculture through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, where she looks forward to working with students in the organic gardens and demonstrating cooking those products in the community kitchen. Although she has never traveled to India, she has great respect for the county and its people and is very excited about her Fellowship year.