While accompanying me during my preliminary fieldwork in Dakshinkali, Nepal in 2018, a young female teacher gave me an uninvited opinion, “To me, development means convenience.” She must have wondered why I had not asked her the question ‘what is development?’ while I had asked everyone else. Indeed, potentially everyone has her/his own take on development. For many, development simply indicates improvement or progress. Some relate it to the historical processes of modernization or globalization (Edelman and Haugerud, 2004). For others, it is an increase in state’s intervention in people’s lives (Paudel, 2012), or even a form of neo-colonization (Escobar, 1995). But who gets to define development? While researchers and thinkers are debating and deconstructing development, local actors are the ones who grapple and make sense with ongoing changes, constantly shaping and reshaping their own understanding of development. My research entails recentering the experience and agency, shaped through gender and caste, by the ‘subjects’ of development at the local level–community members and grassroots leaders, who are also ‘agents’ of development themselves. My research site is in Dakshinkali, Nepal, which is a place undergoing rapid changes (e.g. promulgation of a new constitution, increased urbanization and a recent earthquake), and a popular site for development interventions. My research questions are “What are the perceived political, social and ecological changes in people’s life time and how do these changes reshape people’s perception of what is well-being and what are the ‘problems’ of development?”
During June-July 2018, I have conducted a total of twelve sharing sessions and focus groups discussions among different groups related to education, farmers, women, forestry groups and elderly people. I used open-ended questions, adapted to different audiences, e.g. “What are the most important things in your life?” “What is development for you?” “What are the obstacles for development” and “What are the changes you experience since the last few decades?” Through these exercises, I learn that ‘change’ is an especially relevant theme in people’s experience. This change is reflected by the adjustment of vision and strategy. Communities do not accept external discourse as it is. Rather, ‘development’, and increasingly ‘sustainability’, are being leveraged, interpreted and implemented flexibly by local actors to suit their changing contexts and agendas. I had been exposed to different perspectives by forestry groups, women, farmers, Dalits, and young activists, which reflect themes of changing relationships, conflicts, sense of loss, and determination for ‘good’ change, not change per se.
My paper will comprise the following sub-headings (tentative): 1. Introduction. 2. Change in material production and consumption. 3. Change in knowledge system and aspiration. 4. Change in values and norm, and 5. Is ‘sustainable development’ an oxymoron? Under each section, I will discuss examples of experiences as narrated by people, and how they were entangled with their own changing perceptions of development. This work forms the preliminary component of a longer-term dissertation research project. It also forms part of a broader effort in decolonizing knowledge, and attributing voices of Presenterity to actors from the subaltern contexts.