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Digging out

BAJENGDOBA, MEGHALAYA, INDIA – On September 22 of last year, the Garo Hills of northeast India were ravaged by the worst floods in memory. Monsoon storms triggered flash floods in many of the region’s river valleys. The flooding and related landslides took the lives of around seventy residents of the hills, in addition to causing extensive property damage.

The Garo Hills have a special significance for me, because I spent a year living and teaching here between college and graduate school, from 2009 to 2010. When reports of the floods began to circulate in the days and weeks following September 22, I was horrified to think about such a catastrophe occurring to a place and to people I know and love. Now, in January 2015, I am fortunate to have the chance to visit the Garo Hills again and see the flood damage and subsequent recovery for myself.

The school where I taught, Riverside Adventist Academy, is located in the district worst-affected by the floods, North Garo Hills. On the morning of September 22, the Jinari River entered the school campus by opening a new channel leading right into the cafeteria and big boys’ and girls’ hostels (dormitories). The river toppled sections of the compound walls and brought branches and logs sweeping into campus.

Before the walls fell, the hostel students evacuated to the top floor of the classroom building as the rushing flood water rose above their knees. Three small boys lost their footing and were swept away by the current, but remarkably they were caught in the branches of a banyan tree on the edge of campus. Not a single student from Riverside school was lost in the flood, but one teacher drowned after helping many students to safety. His name was Rituraj Phukan, and he was 31 years old.

It has been almost four months since the floods, and I am happy to see that the school is recovering well. The broken sections of the compound wall have been replaced by temporary fencing. Teachers and non-teaching staff have spent weeks painstakingly cleaning the campus – shoveling mud out of the buildings, righting and re-rooting trees toppled by the water, and clearing away logs that washed onto campus. I am impressed by how beautiful the campus looks now, with graceful gulmohur trees casting their shade onto the walkways. Apart from the broken compound walls and an ugly landslide gash on a nearby hillside, there are few obvious signs that this place was inundated by a deluge just four months ago.

Riverside school will reopen on-schedule for the 2015 academic year in early February. The school and the surrounding community have begun to recover from the floods, but despite appearances, the recovery is far from complete. Damage to buildings and other infrastructure in the Garo Hills (such as the school compound’s walls) will take time to repair. Harder to quantify – and likely harder to repair – will be the human toll of the floods. From my conversations with teachers and students who were at Riverside on September 22, it is clear to me that the floods were a deeply traumatic experience. Many witnesses expressed shock that such a disaster could happen. One student told me that she still feels like it was all a dream. I have noticed more gray hair in the Garo Hills than I remember seeing five years ago. I wonder if the stress of having their homeland inundated is causing the population of the Garo Hills to go prematurely gray.

Even these emotional wounds will heal some day. The families that lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers to the flooding and landslides will also eventually learn to live without the deceased. This will take years, but I am certain it will happen. I am also certain, though, that the great Meghalaya floods of 2014 will never be forgotten, as long as victims and witnesses of the floods are alive to tell their stories.

(This post continues coverage of the Meghalaya floods, which I started in this post.)

The Great Meghalaya Floods of 2014

Over the past two weeks, I have read with bewilderment as news has unfolded about a spate of catastrophic floods that struck the Garo Hills in Meghalaya state of northeast India. The Garo Hills have a special significance to me, because I spent nine months teaching at a school there, five years ago. I knew the Garo Hills mainly as a quiet place of farms and jungles, and friendly but reserved people. It is hard for me to imagine it as the site of a major natural disaster, and harder still for me to read about the destruction thousands of miles away without being able to do anything about it.

In the predawn hours of September 22, catastrophic floods struck parts of the Garo Hills, particularly the outskirts where the hills meet the plains of the Brahmaputra River Valley. According to the local and regional news, the floods are the worst in the hills’ recorded history. The rivers that flow down from the hills swelled from late monsoon rain and found new channels. The floods washed away almost everything in their paths, destroying huts, toppling trees, wrecking crops, and even demolishing some brick structures. More than a thousand villages were submerged, and fifty-six people lost their lives.

The floods disrupted the transportation and communication infrastructure of the Garo Hills. Landslides blocked NH-51, which is the main road to Tura, the Garo Hills’ largest town. The population of Tura depends on regular shipments of goods coming up on trucks from the plains below. At one point, the Shillong Times reported that Tura had stocks of rice for seven days and sugar for only four. Indian Air Force helicopters airlifted medical supplies into Tura, but since the town has no airport for fixed-wing aircraft, a full-scaled resupply airlift was not possible. Fortunately, relief crews were able to reopen the road before supplies in Tura reached critical levels.

Also affected was the Meghalaya electric power grid. The state’s grid runs entirely on hydroelectricity. Barapani Reservoir, near Shillong on the eastern side of the state, feeds water into the five-stage Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project. In other circumstances, the heavy rainfall could have been a boon, as it filled Barapani to capacity. For the first time in several years, the Meghalaya Electric Corporation Ltd. was forced to open the spillway of the dam to prevent the reservoir from overflowing. At the same time, though, the floods damaged the state’s transmission infrastructure, leaving many areas incapable of taking advantage of the electricity. Some of the damage has proven difficult to repair. In Bajengdoba (where I lived and taught), the substation was flooded and powerlines washed away. Local boys and young men have volunteered to help the state authorities erect new powerlines, but according to the latest reports I have read, electricity has yet to return to Bajengdoba.

Although the immediate danger of the floods is past, the hazard of epidemics, particularly malaria, remains. Even after the monsoon ends, the hills dry out, and the mosquitoes die off for the winter, recovering from the floods’ destruction will be a continuing project. I have no doubt that the people of the Garo Hills will dig out and rebuild, but it may take years. In this work, I wish them all the best.

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

(For more about the Garo Hills, please see my post series that begins with “A Short History of Garo-Land.” Also, please see my posts about the Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project, part one and part two.)

Thinking Historically about Technology

This is another article I wrote for the Collegian, entitled “Thinking Historically about Technology.” In this article, I illustrate how I think about technology by using a case study of one of my favorite Indian technologies, auto-rickshaws. (This version is slightly edited from the version that appeared in print.)

After graduating from college, I spent a year volunteer teaching at a school in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India. I first arrived in Meghalaya, jetlagged and disoriented, on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of the hot, sticky monsoon month of September. Come evening, I passed out on the bed of my quarters and slept like a dead man.

When I got up on Thursday morning, the day was already well underway. The sun had lifted his head above the jungly hills to the east of the school. It was not even 7 a.m., yet it was already blazing hot. My quarters were on the top floor of a three-family dwelling, one of several such structures built to the same plan around campus. From the back balcony, I had a view of the hills, some fields, a highway, and the Didram River, which gives the school its name. From the front door, over the school compound’s wall, I could see children in blue uniforms heading for school, even though classes were not scheduled to start for another hour yet. Some of the older students roared up on shiny motorbikes. Others pedaled awkwardly along on conventional bicycles, their bookbags slung haphazardly over their shoulders. Some came on foot, trudging along with their hands in their pockets.

And then there were some who came in the oddest vehicles I had ever seen: bulbous, three-wheeled conveyances with open sides that went sputtering down the road. A driver sat in the front of the vehicle, peering through the windshield and clutching onto motor scooter-style handlebars as he navigated the treacherous road. Students were piled in the back seat and up front around the driver, their legs jutting out of the open sides in order to free up room inside the vehicle.

As I watched these bizarre vehicles bounce past on the road, I asked my roommate, who had already been in India several months, what those things were. “Why,” he said, “those are rickshaws!”

I quickly grew enamored over rickshaws, which are an inventive solution to the age-old problem of how to move people from one place to another. I also liked them because they are fun to ride. As I traveled around India, I was impressed by the huge variety of rickshaws that I saw in use. In Calcutta, I saw hand-pulled rickshaws, a relic of the colonial era. In various cities and towns around India, I saw and rode on cycle rickshaws. The greatest variety is found in the motorized rickshaws, commonly referred to as “auto-rickshaws” or just “autos.” Most auto-rickshaws share the same basic three-wheeled configuration. Almost all of them have handlebars rather than steering wheels, since the first auto-rickshaws were built from motor scooter parts. Apart from these similarities, rickshaws vary greatly in size and under-the-hood specifications. There are black rickshaws that run on gasoline and green rickshaws that use cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Some rickshaws have two-stroke engines, like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. To start them, the driver yanks a lever or pulls a ripcord, depending on the model. Other rickshaws have four-stroke automobile engines and electric starters. A few rickshaws are even designed with rear-facing seats, so you can watch the road unroll behind you as you ride.

In an Indian city, it is usually not hard to find a rickshaw to take you someplace. On a street corner, just wave at a passing vehicle and shout “Oe, rickshaw!” (“Oe” is a Hindi interjection that means “hey.”) In most cases, rickshaw drivers will spot you first and volunteer to take you someplace, whether you want to go or not. Drivers park their vehicles at strategic locations and wait for customers to arrive. As soon as one appears, they all cluster around and start debating prices. Rickshaws in many cities are required by law to use meters, but most drivers claim that their meters are all inexplicably broken.

Not only are rickshaws a clever solution to the problem of people-moving (and fun to ride), they also provide an opportunity to think about technology historically. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in grad school is The Shock of the Old, by David Edgerton. In the book, Edgerton argues that the best way to think about technology is not in terms of innovation—the creation of new stuff—but the use of things that may be old or new. Edgerton cites rickshaws as an example of “creole technology”—something that originated in one part of the world but took on new use and meaning elsewhere. Rickshaws are glorified motor scooters—a technology that originated in the West but is now being used extensively, and to good effect, for different purposes far from its place of origin. Auto-rickshaws are not an old technology; they are a relatively new one, coming into vogue since World War II. They are not an intermediate step toward bigger and better western-style technology—they are here to stay.

Lately, rickshaw technology has flowed to the West. I have yet to see three-wheeler auto taxis anywhere in America, but cycle rickshaws are already a feature of American life. Entrepreneurs using pedicabs, as they’re called here, have set up shop everywhere that they can find tourists who are too lazy to walk where they want to go. In New York City, adults pay $60, and children $50, for a ride around Central Park in a pedicab. Even my town of Auburn, Ala., has rickshaws on the weekends of home football games. Someday, I want to hail one of these pedicabs with “Oe, rickshaw!” and then try to haggle the price of a ride across town down to $2.

(Those who missed the first article “Does Technology Have History?” can read it here.)

http://www.willylogan.com/?p=688After graduating from Walla Walla in 2009, I spent a year on a student missionary posting at Riverside Adventist Academy in the state of Meghalaya in northeast India. I first arrived in Meghalaya, jetlagged and disoriented, on a Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of the hot, sticky monsoon month of September. Come evening, I passed out on the bed of my quarters and slept like a dead man.

When I got up on Thursday morning, the day was already well underway. The sun had lifted his head above the jungly hills to the east of the school. It was not even 7 a.m., yet it was already blazing hot. My quarters were on the top floor of a three-family dwelling, one of several such structures built to the same plan around campus. From the back balcony, I had a view of the hills, some fields, a highway, and the Didram River, which gives the school its name. From the front door, over the school compound’s wall, I could see children in blue uniforms heading for school, even though classes were not scheduled to start for another hour yet. Some of the older students roared up on shiny motorbikes. Others pedaled awkwardly along on conventional bicycles, their bookbags slung haphazardly over their shoulders. Some came on foot, trudging along with their hands in their pockets.

And then there were some who came in the oddest vehicles I had ever seen: bulbous, three-wheeled conveyances with open sides that went sputtering down the road. A driver sat in the front of the vehicle, peering through the windshield and clutching onto motor scooter-style handlebars as he navigated the treacherous road. Students were piled in the back seat and up front around the driver, their legs jutting out of the open sides in order to free up room inside the vehicle.

As I watched these bizarre vehicles bounce past on the road, I asked my roommate, who had already been in India several months, what those things were. “Why,” he said, “those are rickshaws!”

I quickly grew enamored over rickshaws, which are an inventive solution to the age-old problem of how to move people from one place to another. I also liked them because they are fun to ride. As I traveled around India, I was impressed by the huge variety of rickshaws that I saw in use. In Calcutta, I saw hand-pulled rickshaws, a relic of the colonial era. In various cities and towns around India, I saw and rode on cycle rickshaws. The greatest variety is found in the motorized rickshaws, commonly referred to as “auto-rickshaws” or just “autos.” Most auto-rickshaws share the same basic three-wheeled configuration. Almost all of them have handlebars rather than steering wheels, since the first auto-rickshaws were built from motor scooter parts. Apart from these similarities, rickshaws vary greatly in size and under-the-hood specifications. There are black rickshaws that run on gasoline and green rickshaws that use cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. Some rickshaws have two-stroke engines, like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. To start them, the driver yanks a lever or pulls a ripcord, depending on the model. Other rickshaws have four-stroke automobile engines and electric starters. A few rickshaws are even designed with rear-facing seats, so you can watch the road unroll behind you as you ride.

In an Indian city, it is usually not hard to find a rickshaw to take you someplace. On a street corner, just wave at a passing vehicle and shout “Oe, rickshaw!” (“Oe” is a Hindi interjection that means “hey.”) In most cases, rickshaw drivers will spot you first and volunteer to take you someplace, whether you want to go or not. Drivers park their vehicles at strategic locations and wait for customers to arrive. As soon as one appears, they all cluster around and start debating prices. Rickshaws in many cities are required by law to use meters, but most drivers claim that their meters are all inexplicably broken.

Not only are rickshaws a clever solution to the problem of people-moving (and fun to ride), they also provide an opportunity to think about technology historically. One of my favorite books that I’ve read in grad school is The Shock of the Old, by David Edgerton. In the book, Edgerton argues that the best way to think about technology is not in terms of innovation—the creation of new stuff—but the use of things that may be old or new. Edgerton cites rickshaws as an example of “creole technology”—something that originated in one part of the world but took on new use and meaning elsewhere. Rickshaws are glorified motor scooters—a technology that originated in the West but is now being used extensively, and to good effect, for different purposes far from its place of origin. Auto-rickshaws are not an old technology; they are a relatively new one, coming into vogue since World War II. They are not an intermediate step toward bigger and better western-style technology—they are here to stay.

Lately, rickshaw technology has flowed to the West. I have yet to see three-wheeler auto taxis anywhere in America, but cycle rickshaws are already a feature of American life. Entrepreneurs using pedicabs, as they’re called here, have set up shop everywhere that they can find tourists who are too lazy to walk where they want to go. In New York City, adults pay $60, and children $50, for a ride around Central Park in a pedicab. Even my town of Auburn, Ala., has rickshaws on the weekends of home football games. Someday, I want to hail one of these pedicabs with “Oe, rickshaw!” and then try to haggle the price of a ride across town down to $2.

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