On our train ride from Jaisalmer to Jaipur a Muslim Indian by the name of Kutub, struck up a conversation with us as we were working on one of our blog posts. As with most of the locals we had met he was curious as to where we were from and if we had liked visiting his hometown of Jaisalmer. As usual, he was surprised to discover that I am an American since I appear to be of Asian descent. We always tell the locals that we “enjoyed” visiting their home town. We also discussed our professions as well as his. Kutub was one of the most genuine people that we have met so far in India. While Kutub is Muslim, he is Indian and proud of it and wished that Pakistan and India could just get along. Kutub owns a trucking/transport business and was on his way to Delhi to check on some of his business operations. While we were chatting, he introduced us to another man who had been sitting across from us and was listening to our conversation the whole time, Mr. RN Meena. Little did we know that he happened to be the head honcho for the entire Jaisalmer district. There is not an exact comparison in the U.S., but he is above a mayor, but not exactly the governor, either. Mr. Meena said his district is also the largest of any in the entire world, but he also made it clear that his district did not have a large population. If you are unfamiliar with Jaisalmer, it is a city in the state of Rajasthan, which is a very dry state, and the area of Jaisalmer is desert.
It was a pleasure and honor for us to meet Mr. Meena and we were eager to ask him a lot of questions! Kutub was also very excited and had many questions himself! The first question we asked Mr. Meena was, “What was the most challenging issue he faced as the man in charge of the Jaisalmer district?” We thought it would be something like keeping the city clean or providing power to all the citizens (throughout India and especially in smaller towns, power outages are common and for many of the rural poor there is no power). Instead, we were surprised to learn that preventing starvation was the number one problem, second was providing clean drinking water. Not just for the citizens but also for the animals because if they don’t feed the cows and provide water for them, they will have no milk to feed the children nor have any cheese or yogurt. A very sobering moment, indeed. With this new found knowledge I was now reluctant to offer my suggestions for making Jaisalmer more tourist friendly ;).
As the conversation somehow moved to their transportation system I took a chance and suggested that Jaisalmer Fort (the main attraction for tourists in the town of Jaisalmer) would be a much better experience, not just for tourists, but locals alike if no automobiles were allowed inside the fort. Currently, any vehicle large or small, rickshaws and motorbikes roam inside the fort walls down the tiny alley ways tearing up the fragile fort infrastructure and creating nonstop noise pollution. We were surprised to learn that he had attempted a law to do just that almost 5 years ago! That law would make all vehicles illegal inside of the fort walls except for emergency vehicles and transportation for the disabled and elderly. Unfortunately, the people who lived in the fort protested strongly against any such law and the best he could do was to postpone a decision on that matter for five years. That five years will be coming up this summer when he hopes there will be more support with more people becoming environmentally aware.
Plastic waste is another issue that they are currently trying to tackle and he asked us how we are handling that in the U.S. While some cities in the U.S., such as San Francisco, have completely outlawed the use of plastic bags, a similar law in Jaisalmer would be almost impossible without an alternative available to all citizens. We explained how many of us back home use cotton reusable bags or recycled plastic bags, but part of the problem is how to provide such an alternative to poor people? First there needs to be education about using the bags and second they would need to be provided free of charge to the poor. That brings up another problem. How to pay for the bags for the poor when there may not even be enough food to feed the poor? It all started to make sense why in many places India seems so dirty and we need to understand that there are many other issues at hand that the governments (both local and state) are trying to tackle and with a lack of funds it is difficult to progress.
Regardless, Mr. Meena believes that something must be done and it can be done and we are with him 100%! He was impressed to hear how passionate we are about the environment and more impressed to learn that Heidi is an attorney with environmental emphasis. Since there was not enough time to explain and talk about the many many issues that they now face, he gave us his contact information and asked us to contact him with any other suggestions to help improve his district. So if anyone out there has any other suggestions, perhaps a way to help them design an economical way to convert their plastic bag and bottle waste into reusable bags, or other suggestions please let us know and we will pass that information along to him.
Another very shocking moment for us was when he told us that about 45% of the population of Jaisalmer (higher for women) is illiterate. While that number may seem shocking to westerners, what was even more surprising was that his wife is also illiterate! How can that be possible we asked him? Mr. Meena went on to explain that many Rajasthani’s come from very humble beginnings, including himself. Both of his parents are illiterate and were poor farmers and it’s quite amazing that he was able to get an education and became an attorney before earning his current position. So with such a high illiteracy rate, which was much higher back when he and his wife were younger along with arranged marriages, it is common for both husband and wife to be illiterate. There are so many difficult challenges that India is facing, but purhaps increasing the literacy and education of the poor should be one of the focuses, in order to give them a chance at a better life. Many poor children drop out of school at an early age, in order to work and help support the family, but in the long run that doesn’t help to improve their position. We wish all the children here had the opportunity to go to school through high school.
Our chance meeting with Mr. Meena was a great opportunity for us to learn about the issues government officials in India face and gave us lots to think about…
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