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How do economic pressures influence an individual’s work choices? LEARNING FROM LADAKH 1 In the traditional culture, villagers provided for their

How do economic pressures influence an individual’s work choices?


1 In the traditional culture, villagers provided for their basic needs without money. They had
developed skills that enabled them to grow barley at 12,000 feet and to manage yaks and other
animals at even higher elevations. People knew how to build houses with their own hands from the
materials of the immediate surroundings. The only thing they actually needed from outside the region
was salt, for which they traded. They used money in only a limited way, mainly for luxuries.

2 Now, suddenly, as part of the international money economy, Ladakhis find themselves ever more
dependent—even for vital needs—on a system that is controlled by faraway forces. They are
vulnerable to decisions made by people who do not even know that Ladakh exists. If the value of the
dollar changes, it will ultimately have an effect on the Indian rupee. This means that Ladakhis, who
need money to survive, are now under the control of the managers of international finance. Living off
the land, they had been their own masters.

3 At first, people were not aware of the fact that the new economy creates dependence; money
appeared to be only an advantage. Since it traditionally had been a good thing, bringing luxuries from
far away, 4 As people find themselves dependent on a very different economic system for all their
needs and vulnerable to the vagaries of inflation, it is not strange that they should become
preoccupied with money. For two thousand years in Ladakh, a kilo of barley has been a kilo of barley,
but now you cannot be sure of its value. If you have ten rupees today, it can buy two kilos of barley,
but how do you know how much it will buy tomorrow? “It’s terrible,” Ladakhi friends would say to me,
“everyone is getting so greedy. Money was never important before, but now it’s all people can think

5 Traditionally, people were conscious of the limits of resources and of their personal responsibilities.
I have heard older people say: “What on earth is going to happen if we start dividing the land and
increasing in numbers? It can never work.” But the new economy cuts people off from the earth. Paid
work is in the city, where you cannot see the water and soil on which your life depends. In the village
you can see with the naked eye how many mouths the land can support. A given area can only
produce so much, so you know that it is important to keep the population stable. Not so in the city;
there it is just a question of how much money you have, and the birth rate is no longer significant.
More money will buy more food. And it can grow much faster than wheat or barley, which are
dependent on nature with her own laws, rhythms, and limits. Money does not seem to have any
limits; an advertisement for the local Jammu-Kashmir Bank says, “Your money grows quickly with

6 For centuries, people worked as equals and friends—helping one another by turn. Now that there
is paid labor during the harvest, the person paying the money wants to pay as little as possible, while
the person receiving wants to have as much as possible. Relationships change. The money becomes
a wedge between people, pushing them further and further apart.

7 The house had a festive atmosphere whenever Tsering and Sonam Dolma’s friends came to work
with them as part of the traditional lhangsde practice. Sonam used to cook special food for the
occasion. But in the last couple of years, the practice has gradually disappeared and their farm near
Leh is increasingly dependent on paid labor. Sonam complains bitterly about rising prices and
resents having to pay high wages. The festive atmosphere of friends working together has gone; these

laborers are strangers, sometimes Nepalis or Indians from the plains who have no common

8 The changing economy makes it difficult to remain a farmer. Previously, with cooperative labor
between people, farmers had no need for money. Now, unable to pay larger and larger wages for farm
hands, some are forced to abandon the villages to earn money in the city. For those who stay, the
pressure increases to grow food for profit, instead of food for themselves. Cash cropping becomes
the norm as farmers are pushed by the forces of development to become dependent on the market

9 The new economy also increases the gap between rich and poor. In the traditional economy there
were differences in wealth, but its accumulation had natural limits. You could only care for so many
yaks or store so many kilos of barley. Money, on the other hand, is easily stored in the bank, and the
rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

10 I knew a man named Lobzang who had an antique shop in Leh. Like many Ladakhi shopkeepers,
he had given up farming and come to Leh to make money, but his wife and children still lived in the
village. He wanted the best for his children, and as soon as he could afford the housing, he planned
to bring them to town to get the benefits of an education and, in particular, to learn English.

11 I had just dropped into his shop to say hello when an old man from Lobzang’s village came in to
sell his butter jars. It was a full day’s journey on foot and by bus from the village. The old man probably
planned to spend a couple of days with relatives in Leh, buying supplies to take back to the village
with the money from the butter jars. He looked dignified in his traditional burgundy woolen robes. He
put two jars on the counter. They had the warm patina that comes from generations of constant
handling. They were made of fine-grained apricot wood and had a simple elegance that would
certainly appeal to tourists. “They’re lovely,” I said. “What will you keep your butter in without them?”
“We keep it in used milk tins,” he said.

12 They argued about the price. Apparently a few weeks earlier, Lobzang had promised him a much
higher price than he was willing to offer now. He pointed to some cracks in the jars and refused to
raise his offer. I knew he would get ten times as much when he sold the jars to the tourists. The old
man threw me an imploring look, but what could I say? He left the shop with a disappointed stoop to
his shoulders and enough money to buy a few kilos of sugar.

13 “You shouldn’t have said they were lovely,” Lobzang scolded me. “I had to give him more.”

14 “But he’s from your own village. Do you have to bargain so hard with him?”

15 “I hate it, but I have to. Besides, a stranger would have given him even less.”


1 Some days back, the House passed a bill that stated that the United States would no longer permit
the import of goods from factories where forced or indentured child labor was used. My liberal friends
applauded the bill. It was a triumphant advance in the field of human rights. Now children in Third
World countries wouldn’t have to spend their days chained to their posts in factories manufacturing
goods for other people to enjoy while their childhoods slipped by them. They could be free and happy,
like American children.

2 I am not so sure.

3 It is true that child labor is a terrible thing, especially for those children who are sold to employers
by their parents at the age of 5 or 6 and have no way to protect themselves from abuse. In many cases
it will be decades—perhaps a lifetime, due to the fines heaped upon them whenever they make
mistakes—before they can buy back their freedom. Meanwhile these children, mostly employed by
rug-makers, spend their days in dark, ill-ventilated rooms doing work that damages their eyes and
lungs. They aren’t even allowed to stand up and stretch. Each time they go to the bathroom, they
suffer a pay cut.

4 But is this bill, which, if it passes the Senate and is signed by President Clinton, will lead to the
unemployment of almost a million children, the answer? If the children themselves were asked
whether they would rather work under such harsh conditions or enjoy a leisure that comes without
the benefit of food or clothing or shelter, I wonder what their response would be.

5 It is easy for us in America to make the error of evaluating situations in the rest of the world as
though they were happening in this country and propose solutions that make excellent sense—in the
context of our society. Even we immigrants, who should know better, have wiped from our minds the
memory of what it is to live under the kind of desperate conditions that force a parent to sell his or
her child. Looking down from the heights of Maslow’s pyramid, it seems inconceivable to us that
someone could actually prefer bread to freedom.

6 When I was growing up in Calcutta, there was a boy who used to work in our house. His name was
Nimai, and when he came to us, he must have been about 10 or so, just a little older than my brother
and I. He’d been brought to our home by his uncle, who lived in our ancestral village and was a field
laborer for my grandfather. The uncle explained to my mother that Nimai’s parents were too poor to
feed their several children, and while his older brothers were already working in the fields and earning
their keep, Nimai was too frail to do so. My mother was reluctant to take on a sickly child who might
prove more of a burden than a help, but finally she agreed, and Nimai lived and worked in our home
for six or seven years. My mother was a good employer—Nimai ate the same food that we children
did and was given new clothes during Indian New Year, just as we were. In the time between his
chores—dusting and sweeping and pumping water from the tube-well and running to the market—
my mother encouraged him to learn to read and write. Still, I would not disagree with anyone who
says that it was hardly a desirable existence for a child.

7 But what would life have been like for Nimai if an anti-child-labor law had prohibited my mother
from hiring him? Every year, when we went to visit our grandfather in the village, we were struck by
the many children we saw by the mud roads, their ribs sticking out through the rags they wore. They
trailed after us, begging for a few paise. When the hunger was too much to bear, they stole into the
neighbors’ fields and ate whatever they could find—raw potatoes, cauliflower, green sugar cane and
corn torn from the stalk—even though they knew they’d be beaten for it. Whenever Nimai passed
these children, he always walked a little taller. And when he handed the bulk of his earnings over to
his father, there was a certain pride in his eye. Exploitation, you might be thinking. But he thought he
was a responsible member of his family.

8 A bill like the one we’ve just passed is of no use unless it goes hand in hand with programs that will
offer a new life to these newly released children. But where are the schools in which they are to be
educated? Where is the money to buy them food and clothing and medication, so that they don’t
return home to become the extra weight that capsizes the already shaky raft of their family’s
finances? Their own governments, mired in countless other problems, seem incapable of bringing
these services to them. Are we in America who, with one blithe stroke of our congressional pen,
rendered these children jobless, willing to shoulder that burden? And when many of these children
turn to the streets, to survival through thievery and violence and begging and prostitution—as surely
in the absence of other options they must—are we willing to shoulder that responsibility?

Scribbles On The Poverty Line

When I was a girl in a poor family
we hung our clothes to dry on the povertyline,

and with it I jumped rope.
My friends saw and joined me.

We were hoping to learn to jump over
endless obstacles and walls…

Our poverty line was generous and plentiful,

it ran from house to house like telephone wiring
made of rich gossip.

And like magic, when it was cut,
quickly self-renewed!

So everyone found good ways to use it:

I snipped a piece of it for my pony tail,

the pony that took me to many places

but not far away because it got hungry and

I had no extra food for it.

On the main holidays

we tugged the poverty line as an argument

with our neighbors

who had a bit more money than us.

On summer days, the line turned into a street

that we marched with our ‘holey’ shoes,

filled as coin purses,

with street pebbles of the holy land.

At times when things were dark as kohl

I used the poverty line for an eyelinerand could see that many people

were poorer than me:
their line was so long,

it could reach future generations,

if someone does not write something rich,
with hope, on it…

In your initial posting, address the following questions:

• How does work, or a specific occupation, define the individuals described in
the three texts?

• How do economic pressures influence an individual’s work choices?
• How do economic pressures reflect the cultural context, values, and traditions

of a specific country, region, or group? Do economic pressures influence or
change those values?

• How does a specific genre (e.g., essay, creative non-fiction, poetry, newspaper
or magazine article, etc.), and the literary conventions of that genre, enable
authors to evoke the working environment and to make a larger point about
the relationship between cultural values and work?

Remember to refer to specific examples, passages, and quotes from your chosen essays
in your discussion.

Your initial post is due by Day 3 and must be at least 300 words in length.

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