2012 Cohort – Three Weeks Complete!

The 6th cohort of the UW Environment & Development in India Study Program is as dynamic, wildly curious, deeply engaged and playfully spirited as each of their predecessors. Three weeks ago we hit the ground running (albeit slowly in the 114℉ heat of Delhi!). Two days of that heat was enough and we shuttled six hours north by train to the Himalayan foothills and taxied 3 hours (and nearly 6000 feet higher) to our host institution, the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group’s (CHIRAG) main campus at village Simayal. The dormitories at the CHIRAG office were our home for the first two weeks.


Above a few of the students in the lobby of the YWCA Blue Triangle Family Hostel in Delhi with Dr. Anindyo Roy of Colby College (Maine).

Staying here at Chirag these first two weeks proved to be a wonderful way for the 13 students to bond with each other and with Keith and I. We all feel as though we have been together for much longer than a week and a half (in a good way!). While the very simple accommodations were an adjustment from our Seattle norms everyone adapted to the changes in good humor. Happily, the two week residence at the CHIRAG dorms afforded a different sort of luxury, a great deal more time to get to mix with and grow to know the CHIRAG staff. In informal discussions with the staff here at Chirag, our students are already being praised for their engagement, enthusiasm and for working hard to pick up Hindi.

One week ago, on July 1, we shifted to our “home” for the duration of the program, Himalayan Village – Sonapani, with our gracious hosts Ashish & Deepa Arora, their daughter and son, Vanya and Aranya, and their ever attentive and talented staff. Shortly after our arrival at Sonapani another much anticipated “arrival” visited all of us, the much delayed monsoon rains!  The students have been here just long enough to know what a momentous occasion this is. Out on field visits a week ago we all felt a few drops here and there of the pre-monsoon showers and they shared the anticipation running throughout the community. One shower last Thursday culminated with an impromptu outdoor dance to celebrate the coming of the rains.

In addition to the onset of the monsoon, it’s fruit season here in the hills, and we are all enjoying this year’s harvest (plums and peaches, and apples and pears soon!)  Mangoes, especially the highly sought after Dasheri mango from the orchards in western Uttar Pradesh, are in the local shops for another few weeks and we are enjoying them fresh and in the Sonapani kitchen’s baked goods too!

In classes thus far, students have shown an impressive facility for reaching a common ground despite coming from varied academic backgrounds. Students have been asking for additional lessons on specific topics they are interested in, such as the geographical concepts of space and place. I frequently overhear them talking about themes from the readings and about their observations thus far. Some of the students are staying after class daily to explain difficult concepts to each other. This week we have already begun to work on creating cognitive maps of the power relationships and connections across scales (individual, household, community and state) related to natural resource management, rural livelihoods and rural development in this area.

We, Kacy and Keith, are so excited about this group! They are outgoing, flexible, caring, intelligent and just plain fun to be around!

Next update – internships!

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2012 Summer Program | Application Deadline Approaching!

The end of the Autumn 2011 program was a whirlwind of activity! So much so we didn’t have any time to devote to this blog. In the coming months we’ll be sharing some of the highlights of the 2011 program. In the meantime if you visit this blog wondering what it is like to live and study in the Himalaya, well, don’t dream about it! Apply to the 2012 Summer program. Here is a link for more information and how to apply. Warm regards to all, especially all the program alumni!

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Films, finals and homestays!

As I write the view of the Himalayas is absolutely stunning, perhaps the clearest we have seen yet. Several of the students hiked up to a nearby town today and will get an incredible view on their way back.

On Monday we finished our official class meetings, and students are now diligently working on their finals. During the last days of both courses students demonstrated how very far they have come, and I was delighted by their abilities to draw together the vast amount of material we have read, seen and experienced. In the Political Economy of Indian Development course, we returned to the subject we began with: Indian democracy, and the class engaged in a powerful debate about what it means to be a democracy, about the role of secularism and about the myriad actors and processes that have shaped Indian democracy since Independence. Perhaps most powerfully, students talked about how what they have learned about India is providing them with new perspectives on some of the same issues in the US, including on consumption, democracy, domestic violence, education, social inequalities and more.

At the end of the Work, Gender and Environment course we talked about the power of witnessing, of listening and seeing difficult and tragic events and interactions, and how we can find agency and promote solidarity and justice. We discussed what lessons, ideas and knowledge we can bring home and share, as well as how we can continue to engage with these issues and debates. This led into further discussions, together with Keith, about how humility, vulnerability and openness in the research process and during their time with host families can help to bridge divides and to get the most out of these exciting opportunities.

This week, in addition to working on their finals, and continuing to work on their internships, we are meeting nightly here at Sonapani for a film festival curated by Kuntal Bhogilal. Kuntal has brought a series of independent Indian films that at once bring in new topics, such as perspectives from women struggling in Kashmir, and delve us deeper into the material we have been working with throughout the program, including: out-sourcing, images of development in India, struggles over access to forest resources, Partition and more. Each night Kuntal introduces the film and we have some time afterward for discussion and debate.

Keith and I are delighted with the progress our students have made, with the level of engagement they have shown, and with the development of their internship activities. The students are an incredible, creative, outgoing and highly intelligent group and, as I said on the last day of both courses, I simply cannot wait to see what these students will do!!

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Internship planning and research design with CHIRAG staff has commenced in earnest. We have a diverse range of fascinating projects that directly support ongoing CHIRAG initiatives. Particularly exciting for UW students is the opportunity to do primary research. Over the next few days we post a synopsis of the internships.

~ Mapping of springs in the Reetha and Suyalbari areas. The goal of this project is to generate a detailed map of active springs (perennial and seasonal), interview villagers on seasonal fluctuations in water availability, map inactive/dry springs and identify how long they have been dry. This information will provide a basis for groundwater (aquifer) recharge design and planning (eg. for building check dams & contour trenches) to better manage water availability for domestic and agricultural use.

~ Rural BPO’s (business processing office), a segment of the outsourcing industry, have been increasing as rents, labor and energy costs climb in India’s urban and peri-urban areas. In 2009 B2R Technologies set up office in village Simayal becoming CHIRAG’s neighbor. (See The Economic Times article titled “The Rural Jobs Rush” for background on rural BPO’s in general with a focus on B2R and CHIRAG. CHIRAG provides needed support to identify and train village young people in the skills necessary to adapt to B2R’s requirements. The changes this has manifest in area village youth, particularly young women, has, to date, not been assessed. Three UW students are collaborating with CHIRAG staff to interview the young people employed with B2R Technologies to 1) gauge the changes in their self perception, 2) learn how their families are reacting to their children’s employment (is it affecting family dynamics? If so, how?), 3) what are the reactions among the village communities, particularly those who are not involved with B2R’s work. The goal of this internship is to critically examine the changes in the lives of the rural youth employed in this new sector in the region.

Time certainly flies when studying and working here in the Himalaya! Days are full hence the frequent delays in posting updates. As promised several weeks back, here are the balance of the student internships with CHIRAG.

~ Detailed survey of all children 0-6 to examine trends in sex ratio in this age group. The goal of this survey is to get a better sense of the local trends in sex ratio considering the trend in some areas of India and the world where preference for male children is increasing. The recent census data (2011) indicates an improvement in girl child births. But the census sampling methods and techniques only capture a macro level scale of this trend. The local trends are not captured in this type of sampling. Furthermore it is difficult to capture sex selective abortion in sex ratio sampling. This challenging study is an attempt to illuminate sex ratio trends in the area.

~ Examination of trends/choices in the use of agricultural inputs (organic & commercial) and innovative methods in varying ecological regimes (rainfed, irrigated, aspect, slope, soil type, etc.). This study focuses on the affect of land use, types of inputs used, and environmental factors to detail variation on input and land management.

~ One student is helping to revive CHIRAG’s dormant soil testing laboratory. This is part of a project to examine best practices in composting (eg. vermi-composting) and the myriad factors contributing to soil health.

~ Survey of how different sources of credit are identified, used, and managed. In this examination of the dynamics of micro-finance in the area the study expects to illuminate the types and sources of credit (formal and informal), how preferences affect choice of financial tools and credit, how people diversify their risk, and the extent of dependence on various sources of credit.

~ A study of how members of Self Help Groups (SHGs) use the resources within the SHG. If they are not using all of their resources (eg. using SHG savings for loans) why are they seeking outside sources (particularly when interest rates within the SHG are often lower than outside sources). If the SHG is not using their savings/credit resources what are the other reasons for being members of the SHG. What intangible benefits can be identified?

~ In the efforts to create micro-enterprises in the area (eg. bringing value addition to primary agricultural produce) CHIRAG has initiated agricultural cooperatives and federations. One initiative is a cattle feed micro-enterprise managed and operated by women. This project aims to examine the 1) changes in milk productivity and animal health comparing the locally produced cattle feed and commercial cattle feed, 2) cost benefit analysis considering the higher quality of locally produced feed (nutritional needs met with 50% reduction in feed per animal) and the relatively higher raw material cost of the locally produced cattle feed.

~ The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) is encouraging women to choose institutions (eg. hospital) versus homes for childbirth. This student study examines why women are choosing either institutional or home births. Some of the questions include, is it based on the NRHM education campaign? The cash incentives offered to subsidize institutional births? If midwives are trained for safe delivery in the home, what drives the choice between institutional and home birth?

~ For the last 10 years CHIRAG has had a residential training program (35 days) for adolescent girls, Kishori Shiksha Kendra, (and a separate program for boys) providing vocational training and building leadership skills. This student study aims to survey young women who have done the KSK training in the past 5-6 years to better understand what impacted them most from the training. CHIRAG hopes to learn how their investment in the program has affected change in the young women’s lives.

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Diwali Festivities

Below are but a few of the many photos from this past week’s Diwali celebrations. More details on student internships to come!

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Week 5 Reflections

As we finish our fifth week of class, Keith and I are reflecting on how far our students have come in such a short period of time. While some students began the program having taken a few classes on India, and one student had been studying Hindi, we are noticing students making complex connections drawing on significant bodies of literature, personal experiences and observations. Some students have also been teaching themselves basic Hindi and practicing it at every opportunity.

On Thursday we held a mock village meeting in which students represented six different interest groups, proposing dynamic responses to a set of problems including low water tables, increasing poverty, oak disease
and erratic rains. I was very impressed with the students’ abilities to identify the ideologies, motivations, constraints and assets of each group. Groups decided upon by the students and represented by them at the meeting included: the local Gram Panchayat, a non-governmental organization (modeled after the NGO we are working with), the World Bank, women from the village aged 16-85, Greenpeace, and the Forest Department. The solutions proposed demonstrated in-depth engagements with development discourse, theory, practice and critique – in addition to an advanced understanding of local issues around work, gender, and the environment.

Today, Friday, we will have class with one of the several guest speakers, who come periodically to visit and meet with us at Sonapani. Dr. Nitin Rai, Fellow with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, shares his work and insights on state and community use of forest resources. Students are also excited to celebrate two holidays this week: Dipawali and Halloween: an excellent mix of Indian and American traditions.

We have an incredibly multi-talented, creative, and caring group – in the evenings they might be heard singing indie rock songs and practicing the sitar, or practicing dance moves and cooking up a storm. Early in the morning they might be doing yoga on the lawn, or photographing the incredible wild life in our midst.

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Week Four already!

It’s hard to believe we are nearly four weeks into the program! Last week began with a visit Lakshmi Ashram at village Kausani. A Gandhian residential school for girls and young women, Lakshmi Ashram provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere for the UW students to experience a more intimate understanding of village life, particularly the daily life of adolescent girls and women. It is the time of grass cutting in the forests surrounding villages throughout the Himalaya. Cutting, collecting and stacking the dried grass provides fodder throughout the winter for the livestock. The photos here offer a glimpse of the challenging physical labor involved. With the young women and senior Ashram leaders guiding us we joined in the collecting, carrying head loads, and tossing bales of grass to stack on the long thin logs from which they are suspended. In the evenings the girls of the Ashram regaled us with Kumaoni folk songs and dance.

From Lakshmi Ashram we headed further north to the small village of Saung where we had to abandon our SUV’s owing to the poor state of the roads. We walked the last 1.5 km to village Loharkhet for our first night halt. And that short steep walk to Loharkhet was to foreshadow the demanding, yet terrifically fulfilling trek of the next three days. Three of the talented, unflappable, resourceful, Sonapani staff, Pramod, Sandeep and Pappu, fed and led us up and up and up the mountain trails to the villages of Dhakuri, Khati and Supi. We witnessed the dramatic effects of pressures on the evergreen oak (a variety called banj) above village Dhakuri where the brown ferns hanging from the trunks and branches were evidence of a dying forest. An elderly couple on ponies passed us on the trail between Dhakuri and Khati, their destination the regional hub Bageshwar (3 hours by trail and 2 hours by taxi) where they would seek out health services for the ailing woman. This a vivid reminder of the problems in health care provision in the region. Village children ran up to us asking for sweets, a sure sign we were on a well traveled route. In this instance the route culminating at the snout of Pindari glacier. Alas, our schedule did not allow for a visit to the glacier. Nevertheless we were blessed with a full moon that illuminated the high Himalayan peaks of Nanda Kot and Maiktoli and the Sunderdhunga glacier and valley.

Visiting with some of the men of the Khati village council we learned of the village issues and concerns, namely education and access to health care. But all is not as we were told nor as we observed. Stories emerged from our Sonapani host, Ashish, and his (our!) friend, Sudarshan, who are filming a documentary on change in the Himalaya. Some of these observations will emerge in subsequent posts to this blog. For now enjoy a few photos of the rich and breathtaking trek at the feet of the high Himalaya.

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