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The Technological Tourist Goes to Mexico

A VW drives down Calle Primera in Ensenada.

A VW drives down Calle Primera in Ensenada.

Studying history of technology for the past three years has gradually but inexorably changed the way I perceive the world around me. I now think about my surroundings technologically, especially when I visit a new place. I focus on the technology I see in the place, rather than its aesthetics—as any visitor could rightly be expected to do. Because of this, I take some rather unusual vacation snaps, focusing on such mundane technological subjects as bridges, factories, transmission lines, bicycles, and manhole covers.

A recent excursion to Ensenada, in the Mexican state of Baja California, illustrates this phenomenon well. During this trip, I was particularly impressed not by the differences between Mexico and the USA, but by the similarities. Looking at the built environment, I saw that in northern Baja, Mexicans had chosen similar solutions to problems as Americans had north of the border. Contrary to Anglo-American stereotypes that Mexicans are impoverished and rural, I saw that many of the people in Baja drove SUVs on well-made roads and frequented chain convenience stores (particularly the ubiquitous Oxxo).

The SUVS, roads, and convenience stores point to a high level of economic and technological development, much higher than in other parts of the world. On average, though, Mexicans are much less economically prosperous than their neighbors to the north. In some cases, then, they have had to seek solutions that are not capital-intensive. A few things I saw in Mexico reminded me of India; in both countries, restricted resources have forced people to adopt similar solutions to similar problems—even though these people live on opposite sides of the world from each other. Here are some examples:

Hand-lettered signs

In the USA, hiring a painter to produce a simple sign would be more expensive than having one made in a factory. In both Mexico and India, the reverse is often the case.

Hand-lettered signs on the Ensenada beach (left), and in the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi (right).

Hand-lettered signs on the Ensenada beach (left), and in the Indian Air Force Museum in New Delhi (right).

Roadside eateries

In India, dhabas are simple roofed structures with few or no walls, where food is prepared and sold on the cheap. I do not know if there is a similarly concise name for the structures in Mexican Spanish. These roadside eateries in both countries save on construction and energy costs; they are a less capital-intensive approach to fast food than the American approach of fully climate-controlled buildings.

Old cars, like new

Mexico’s equivalent to the long-lived Hindustan Ambassador is the Volkswagen Beetle, which was produced in Mexico until 2003, long after the original lines in Germany had closed. Mexican Beetles, some with aftermarket modifications, are a common sight in Ensenada.

One of many Mexican VWs that I saw and photographed.

One of many Mexican VWs that I saw and photographed.

Concrete

Mexicans and Indians don’t just use concrete to make roads and buildings; they use it for everything they want to make, ranging from monuments to trash cans.

Concrete heroes: the Indian (non-nonviolent) freedom fighter Bhagat Singh (left), and the Father of Mexico, Miguel Hidalgo (right).

Concrete heroes: the Indian (non-nonviolent) freedom fighter Bhagat Singh (left), and the Father of Mexico, Miguel Hidalgo (right).

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Independence and Unrest

On August 15, 1947, after three-quarters of a century of British rule, the Garo Hills became a part of independent India. The hills—and by extension, the people who lived in them—now belonged to the new nation-state. But national identity would not develop immediately among the Garos. Aside from their differences in language, culture, and ethnicity from the majority of the Indian population, the Garos’ recent history also separated them. Because of the colonial policy of partial exclusion, the Garos did not participate in, and remained largely unaware of, the Congress-led independence movement.

Although the majority of Garos now lived in India, the Partition of India and Pakistan left tribal communities isolated on the other side of the international border in East Pakistan. The Garos who lived in the Bengali district of Mymensingh differed in some ways from the hill Garos; nevertheless, they hoped that all Garos would be included in the same country at independence. In the immediate prelude to independence, a Garo delegation from Mymensingh met with the Radcliffe Commission in Calcutta and requested that their district be annexed into Assam. Radcliffe refused their request, on the grounds that Mymensingh was too small, and therefore inconsequential.1

In East Pakistan, and later in independent Bangladesh, the Garos were marginalized. During the Bangladeshi independence struggle in 1971, many Garos joined the Mukti Bahini (the Bangladeshi insurgent army) and fought alongside the Bengalis. When India invaded East Pakistan, Garo refugees poured across the border into the Garo Hills. After the end of the conflict, the refugees returned to their villages, hoping that they would receive a more prominent place in the new Bangladeshi nation-state. They were soon disillusioned when, in 1973, Sheikh Mujib announced that Bangladeshi national identity would be based on Bengali language and culture. Garos and other tribal groups received no special protection—and they continue to feel that they are second-class citizens.2

In India, the Garos remained on the fringes of the nation-state, but they were not marginalized to the same extent as in Bangladesh. The Garos of India have offered modest resistance to their condition as a marginalized group. Compared with other minority groups in northeast India, the Garos’ resistance has been tame. For instance, the Mizos fought the Indian Army for twenty years, before finally making peace. By comparison, Garo insurgent groups have been little more than gangs, painting graffiti on public buildings and occasionally staging road blockades.

Anti-Congress graffiti on a post office in the East Garo Hills.

Anti-Congress graffiti on a post office in the East Garo Hills.

At independence, the Garo Hills was a district of Assam; a significant Garo population also lived in the adjoining districts to the north. Assam was a multi-ethnic, polyglot state; diverse hill tribes surrounded the predominantly Assamese-speaking communities in the Brahmaputra and Barak River Valleys. In 1960, the Assam Official Languages Act, passed by the state legislature, declared Assamese as the official state language. The act was meant to hasten the linguistic unification of the state, but it had rather the opposite effect by spurring unrest among the minority language groups in the state. Although the Garos had little in common with the Khasis and Jaintias besides geographical proximity, they banded together in the Hill States Movement, calling for a separate state within the Indian union for the tribals of the Meghalaya Plateau.3 In 1970, Meghalaya broke off from Assam into an autonomous state. Two years later, it became a full-fledged state. Capt. Williamson A. Sangma, a military veteran and long-time MP in the Assam state legislature, became Meghalaya’s first Chief Minister.4.

In forty years as a part of the state of Meghalaya, the Garo Hills have developed slowly. While Shillong, the state capital and district headquarters of East Khasi Hills, is a cosmopolitan hill station with high-speed internet access, a multi-stage hydroelectricity project, and the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force, the Garo Hills remain underdeveloped and overlooked. According to the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (a central government agency), the three districts of the Garo Hills have the least-developed infrastructure among the seven districts in Meghalaya. Among the eighty districts of the eight states of northeast India (including Sikkim), the West, South, and East Garo Hills rank 37th, 42nd, and 43rd, respectively, in terms of infrastructure development. By comparison, East Khasi Hills ranks fifth in the entire region.5 Most development funds for Meghalaya are spent in the larger and more populous Khasi-Jaintia Hills. This leads to a feeling of alienation that occasionally spills over into unrest.

At Partition, the one major highway to Tura—the Garo Hills’ only major urban area—ran southward into what was now East Pakistan. In sixty-five years of independence, a network of national highways, state highways, and local roads were constructed to connect the major towns and villages in the hills, thus connecting Tura directly with the rest of India. Because of the difficult terrain between the Garo and Khasi Hills, no national highway connects the two hills directly; instead, the easiest route from the Garo Hills to the Khasi Hills runs through Assam. Roads are the primary means of mechanized transportation in the Garo Hills. India’s rail network does not touch the state; the rivers running out of the hills are not navigable for large boats. Baljek Airport, the Garo Hills’ only facility for fixed-wing aircraft, remains shuttered.

The Garo Hills have minimal modern industry—some textile mills, the occasional concrete plant, as well as printing houses in Tura. As mentioned in an earlier post, much of the population of the area relies heavily on traditional technologies. Nevertheless, despite the isolation and underdevelopment of the area, the Garo Hills have many contacts with modernity. Satellite television brings Indian and foreign news, TV shows, and movies—as well as an limitless supply of cricket—to mountainous areas that would never have received either a cable hookup or broadcast reception. Similarly, mobile phone networks have brought telecommunications to areas that were never served by landlines. In addition to voice communication and SMS, the mobile phone networks are also used for internet access by means of USB datacards. In some towns, locals can rent time on computers at Common Services Centers.6 With the exception of mobile phones, which seem to be in almost universal use in the hills, use of modern telecommunications technologies has spread slowly in the Garo Hills. Nevertheless, the introduction of these technologies in the Garo Hills shows that the area, as isolated as it may be, is still very much a part of the modern world.

Microwave and cell towers on a Garo hillside.

Microwave and cell towers on a Garo hillside.

This weathered bungalow in the Garo Hills sports its own satellite dish.

This weathered bungalow in the Garo Hills sports its own satellite dish.

In coming into closer contact with the modern world, the Garos have not simply become passive consumers of mass culture. In Garo-Land, amateurs and professionals use modern communications and media technologies to develop their own distinctive culture. Artists produce Garo pop music at studios in Tura and elsewhere. This music is distributed by CD or as mp3s, which young men exchange at CSCs and play on their phones. Garo music videos—many produced with consumer-grade equipment—are also watched and shared at CSCs. Some of these videos have even found their way onto YouTube.

In this video, the dancing is clearly influenced by Bollywood, but the musical track is distinctively Garo:

In addition to capital-intensive, sophisticated technologies like mobile phone networks, people in the Garo Hills use some of what might be called appropriate technologies. These technologies are small-scale and adapted to local conditions.7 An example of appropriate technology are the suspension footbridges that cross some of the swift streams running down out of the Garo Hills. Smaller than capital-intensive concrete road bridges built by state governments, they can be built by local funds, and largely by local labor. Provided they are built soundly and do not collapse (as one did in March of this year8), the bridges can serve communities for years.

A suspension footbridge over the Jinari River, at Rari.

A suspension footbridge over the Jinari River, at Rari.

Appropriate technology projects like the suspension footbridges, I think, represent the future of the Garo Hills. After sixty-five years as a part of independent India, the Garo Hills still have not industrialized; the area may never industrialize. Development capital in the Northeast has consistently been diverted away from the Garo Hills toward more prosperous areas such as the Khasi Hills. Appropriate technology offers Garos the opportunity to develop their land on their own terms.

  1. Ellen Bal, “Becoming the Garos of Bangladesh: Policies of Exclusion and Ethnicisation of a ‘Tribal’ Minority,” Journal of South Asian Studies 30, no. 3 (2007), 447. []
  2. Ibid., 452-55. []
  3. The Khasis and Jaintias are two related tribal groups living in eastern Meghalaya. Like the Garos, they have a matrilineal and matrinomial (but not matriarchal) culture; unlike the Garos, they speak languages derived from Mon Khmer, in the Austro-Asiatic group. []
  4. Shekhar Gupta, Assam: A Valley Divided (Ghaziabad, UP: Vikas Publishing House, 1984), 143; M. Taher and P. Ahmed, Geography of North-East India, 4th ed. (Guwahati, India: Mani Manik Prakash, 2007), 8 []
  5. Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, “NER District Infrastructure Index,” http://mdoner.gov.in/writereaddata/sublinkimages/Infrastructure%20index7631933225.doc (accessed May 31, 2012). []
  6. Datacard internet connections are generally too slow and unreliable for many of Web 2.0’s more celebrated services, such as YouTube. My discussion here represents the state of technology during my sojourn in the Garo Hills, 2009-2010. When I returned for a brief visit in 2012, I found that things had changed somewhat. USB datacards were cheaper and more accessible, albeit still unreliable. The local CSC that I frequented was closed; its former location was now occupied by a beauty parlor. I did not find out about the disposition of any other CSCs in the Garo Hills. []
  7. The German-born economist E.F. Schumacher is credited with introducing the term “intermediate technology,” which is synonymous with “appropriate technology” as I use it here. Schumacher’s essays and lectures on economics and intermediate technology were compiled into the book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973). The book is essential reading for anybody interested in international development. []
  8. See, for instance, “Principal nailed in bridge fiasco,” Calcutta Telegraph, April 4, 2012, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120404/jsp/northeast/story_15332790.jsp. []

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