July 30, 2010
A little snippet of my research
The Wildlife Institute of India conducts ongoing research with nearly every aspect concerning wildlife in India. The particular department that I am working with, under the direction of Dr. Ruchi Badola, deals primarily with the conflicts that exist between people and wildlife. Living at the institute, I can say that we experience conflict with wildlife everyday. Monkeys constantly infiltrating our halls, turn over our trashcans in search of food, and even enter our rooms (I have learned to keep my door bolted because of this problem). But all of these are very minor issues compared to what the people living around the Nanda Devi Biosphere experience.
For the project I have chose to complete I was sent to survey two to three villages to understand the impact that primates have on the humans and vice versa. We (two fellow Wildlife Institute students and I) picked three villages to survey in the course of two days. In the end, we were able to obtain a total of 54 interviews. The questions we asked concerned things such as people’s attitudes towards the monkeys, how much and what kind of damage is done to their crops and orchards, whether they were ever physically attacked by a monkey and whether they feared an attack, as well as whether they were aware of any diseases that monkeys may carry. Many people at first found it interesting and even funny that we were only interested in knowing the problems they have with monkeys because generally the biggest problems they face are not from monkeys, but rather from bears, wild boars, and porcupines. Regardless, we found from these interviews that monkeys are in fact pests (94% of the respondents thought so).
There were several aspects of the interviews that I expected. For one, monkeys are a major issue for these people. They subsist primarily off of the crops and orchards that they themselves grow and when there is a common pest (such as monkeys) who constantly destroy they crops this results in major losses. People reported their losses in crops and orchards due to monkeys to be anywhere from 10% to an astounding 100%. Second, the people do not receive any compensation for these losses. The government compensates for damage due to leopards, bears and wild boars, but not for monkeys. As expected, we heard endless stories from the people we interviewed about how they filed complaints in regards to these losses but received nothing. One woman even reported to us that she was advised by the forestry department to kill the monkeys if they were causing such a tremendous problem. Finally, there was little aggression experienced from the monkeys. This is expected because these surveys were conducted in a rural area, and not in a city where the monkeys are reported to be highly aggressive and often attack people.
While many things were expected in the course of our interviews, there were a few surprises. I found it alarming that only two out of the 54 respondents were aware that monkeys carry diseases. Even though most people responded that they had never heard of any one being bitten, I believe this is something that should be highlighted to these people in the future.
July 13, 2010
I recently spent an afternoon with another American student in a place in New Delhi called the India Habitat Centre—easily the poshest place I've been to in India yet. The Centre is something of a blend of an office building, a conference center and an elite social club. The institutions it houses include the ILO, the MacArthur Foundation, the Centre for Science & Environment, and numerous other high-profile Indian think tanks, government agencies, and trade organizations. Its premises are undeniably opulent. The massive courtyard features several fountains, terraced gardens, and a glass ceiling at least five stories up to shield from rain. Custodial staff ceaselessly sweep and mop the pavement tiles to keep them free of the characteristic layer of Delhi dust. Rumor has it the Chief Minister of Bihar was recently denied membership for being too hoi polloi.
On returning, I remarked to a friend that the Centre looked like a slightly modified version of a ritzy American conference center. He responded, "Almost. It’s actually a cheap imitation." I was taken aback by his bluntness, but with some reflection I have come to the conclusion that he is basically right.
Why is it that the Indian elite choose to construct a conference center in an Anglo-American style in a country with an equally rich architectural tradition? Why is it necessary to keep outdoor tile footpaths—which will never be touched by bare feet—free of the dust that is found literally everywhere in Delhi? I believe the answer lies in a pervasive culture of imitationism in India. To exemplify this point further, consider the eating establishments at the Centre. My friend and I, not being members, were directed to a fairly basic food court (which included, among other restaurants, "Western Willy’s"). The members—essentially the social and intellectual elite of Delhi—however, get access to the exclusive "American diner". A friend of my friend extolled the quality of this diner’s hot dogs and hamburgers. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that these are pretty lowbrow dishes in the US.
I am suspicious of this trend for several reasons, not least of which is that the concomitant imported institutional arrangements do not fit perfectly in the Indian context. For instance, about a week ago I found myself in Croma, an electronics chain store run by the Tata group. For all intents and purposes, a replica of Best Buy. However, I quickly learned that this outlet was out of about one third of its stocked items. How viable is the supermarket business model in a country where most manufacturing is carried out in unregistered factories employing 10-15 people, and where a large proportion of shipping takes place on thelas and cycle-carts? Or, for another example (which has some relevance to my research here), does the car culture work in Delhi? Since the 1980's, the number of cars in Delhi has more than tripled, but the infrastructure to support them simply does not exist. For one, there is no parking space in Delhi. Cars tend to park illegally on street-sides, contributing to the already ridiculous level of congestion. The municipal authority has adopted the band-aid approach to this problem (with some exceptions, notably the excellent Delhi metro system) of building a network of flyover highways while continuing to provide subsidized loans for purchasing cars. The already taxed busing system seems to have been largely ignored.
I should clarify: I am not criticizing India for failing to live up to some Western-centric developmental telos. Rather, I am concerned that Indian society has itself internalized this teleogical point of view at the expense of forming appropriate—and no less valid—institutions for the unique context here. I should clarify further that my distress is not limited to the realm of development. The imitationist vein of Indian culture runs much deeper than that.
To explain more precisely what I mean, I think it would be best to start some more examples. If you walk around Connaught Place (the central market in Delhi), you will not see a single brown mannequin. They are uniformly white, and usually blonde. For another, a younger boy once tried to chum up to me by explaining that, "American girls. I like them. They are good girls." Yet another, on the train ride back from Agra of which I wrote previously, a young man took a lock my hair in his hand and infomed me, "Aapke baal... is beauty" (I had to laugh at that one). It is episodes like these that lead me to conclude that this imitationist social phenomenon is not merely a manifestation of admiration for Western economic and political supremacy—though it certainly is that. It extends even down to the aesthetic qualifications of races, which is not even to touch upon the cultural significance of the English language. No, this is a deep and broad cultural inferiority complex, and in that respect these are "cheap imitations".
Visiting today, it is difficult to believe that just over sixty years ago there was a broad-based movement to eject Europeans. And in this era, when the type of Indian leaders who frequent the India Habitat Centre are falling over themselves trying to attract foreign capital, I can't help but feel like what they might need more is a little pride.
Please Allow Me to Explain the Last Two Weeks of June
Hello people. Apologies for falling off the map for a while. I will now attempt to explain the happenings of the last 2 weeks of June in India. This post is coming to you in what we might call Indian time...maybe you're familiar.
This first post will be an overview of the relative chaos that kept me away from technology for so long. I will try to do a series of about 3 posts in the next week, all coming from detailed journal entries I was able to maintain throughout the trip.
Let's start at June 20th 2010 about 7:00 PM. I am upstairs in Hope's guest room frantically packing my backpack for an impromptu 36 hour train ride to Bangalore in the South of India. Why you may ask? Raj (an employee at Hope) is originally from Bangalore and kindly invited me and three other employees, including my project director zeba Baji, to join her and her family in their home in Bangalore. Another piece of information that may be useful to know is that Hope Project was pretty much on vacation from about 17 june to 3 July which also happens to be the time I spent traveling with the staff. I was especially excited to be spending so much time with Zeba, the head of the micro-finance institute (MFI) at Hope, and the one who has been kind of mentoring me along the way.
I haphazardly toss some things into my bag and jump on a cycle rickshaw to Nizamuddin Railway station. I have gotten better about taking cycle rickshaws. In the beginning I avoided them because I felt bad that the driver has to do this terribly grueling and downright dangerous traffic dodging just to get me from point A to point B. I soon realized though that these guys are going to be out there doing it anyway so why not give them business. They deserve it more than auto rickshaw drivers if you ask me. I have rarely been cheated, or had to walk away from, or have been walked walked away from by a cycle rickshaw driver. So now when the distance is small and I see a cycle I go for it.
I make it to the station and get on my train no problem. I was lucky enough to get a spot in the foreigner's quota for 3rd class AC. I get to my birth or whatever and it turns out I am sharing with a relatively large family from Nepal who have two small children. These children provide endless entertainment. I pretty much just sit there and watch them do everything from hanging off the bunks upside down, to reading stories to each other, to going over to the small baby that is in the aisle next to us and stealing its water.
Needless to say the journey passed extremely quickly with these children to keep me company. As if the extremely pleasant atmosphere of Indian Railways rajdhani Express 3rd AC (with its meals, blankets, and ice cream!) wasn't enough, the family invited me to their home in Kathmandu when I told them I planned to visit in July. Since it is already July 13, I currently write to you from Kathmandu Nepal.
Don't worry, I will explain the rest of India's shenanigans, how I got here, and when I am coming back, but all in due time friends. Here in Kathmandu there are time schedules for the power and it turns off in the afternoon sometimes, so I am going to stop short here so that I don't get to carried away and BAM! the post is gone. We will start again at 22 June 2010 6:30 am at Bangalore City Railway Station. Until then.
July 08, 2010
Firang in the train station
This blog post is coming a bit late. I've been at my computer less than usual the last couple weeks and a bit busy too, and I guess this just fell through the cracks. I will try to write an extra post fairly soon.
I'm not sure if it's as hard to make and execute a plan in Delhi as it seems, or whether it's just me (though honestly, I suspect the latter). Recently, I decided to take a day trip out to Agra--I don't think any self-respecting tourist in India can avoid it forever. Anyway, I made this decision around midnight the day before, so I had no chance to book train tickets or anything in advance. I figured I would show up a bit early and buy my ticket there, but it turns out that it's not quite so easy.
I arrived at the train station around 8:00, and the train I wanted to catch was leaving at 8:45. By the time I finally got on a train to Agra, I had missed not only this train, but the next one as well. All in all, I spent over three hours in the station. There is virtually no English signage at the station (a bit of an oddity in Delhi), and the organization of the place is still baffling to me. For instance, lines I was standing in would suddenly dissolve, and everyone would run (literally) to another ticket window where a new line was being formed. I could see no apparent reason why this was happening, nor any forewarning when it did. At some windows, there was no line at all: people would just form a crowd, and unless you were willing to physically push people out of your way there was no chance of getting a hearing.
Eventually, I did make to Agra. My time there was relatively uneventful. I saw Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, and both were very nice, but I don't have much of anything else to say. My trip got more interesting on the way back.
This time, I went straight for the window that I had finally bought my ticket from before, but I was informed that it was impossible to get one there now, and was redirected to another window. This experience was not atypical, so at the time I thought nothing of it. At this second window, I did manage to get a ticket, and I was pleasantly surprised by how cheap it was. Turns out there was a reason.
I had bought a ticket for the so-called "general class", which is short hand for "the coach where we sell as many tickets as possible regardless of how much seating is available". Coming as I did only a few minutes before the train left, these were the only tickets still available. Moreover, the coach was as full as it was ever going to be. For the first leg of the trip (a little over an hour), I was packed in so tightly that I literally couldn’t put both feet on the floor. Moreover, in my rush to get on the train, I hadn't had time to buy a bottle of water, so I ran out just after the train started moving. After the first stop I bought a bottle and had a little more standing room, though I was still unable to sit until the last twenty minutes of the four hour trip.
Also, I believe that this was the most out of place I have ever looked anywhere in India so far, which is definitely saying something. From what I could understand with my (very limited) Hindi, the people there were quite amused at seeing a Firang on that train. I can hardly blame them. Some soreness aside, though, it was quite a fun little trip.
July 06, 2010
After four meals, five films, and 8 hours of sleep on the plane, I finally arrived in India, where I had been dreaming of coming for past two years. Although I didn’t like waiting at the Amsterdam international Airport for almost five hours for the connecting flight, the journey was alright. Some people on the plane couldn’t even watch movies as there are some technically problems, but thankfully I wasn’t the unlucky one. PHEW! On the plane, I read Mohammad Yunus’ Banker to the poor: Micro-lending and the battle against world poverty. I enjoyed this book because from his book, I could know about his personality and background, which was more than what he have achieved in poverty alleviation.
It wasn’t all easy for him to establish the Grameen Bank and he wasn’t very knowledge in banking system like professional bankers. But his passion and dedication worked him through to what he has accomplished so far in poverty alleviation. The fact that how he is an ordinary person, nor a brilliant banker or one of richest people in Bangladesh, inspired me even more to be passionate on the issues of poverty and assured my reasons to be in India. A few people asked me on the plane and at the airport, “What brings you to India?” Although many think it’s so cool that I’m going to India and a donor of the Center of South Asian Studies kindly granted me $3000 for this wonderful opportunity, some of my friends repeatedly tell me how they don’t understand why I would go to India. Dangerous, dirty, and poor. That’s what they have in their mind when they think of developing countries. But I see them quite differently. In those countries, I see courageous, hopeful, innocent people with a lot of potential in themselves.
South Korea was one of the poorest countries, incompatibly poorer than other developing countries, just sixty years ago in 1950s. However, it is now the 11st richest countries with the world's largest shipping industry and everybody knows many Korea companies like Samsung and LG. How could this happen? How this “Miracle of Han River” happened? Are Koreans just supermen? Do we (Koreans) have some special abilities that others in other developing countries do not have? I don’t think so at all. The only thing we were left with after the bloody war was passion, and this made it possible like a quote says, "a strong passion for any object will ensure success..." Although many people suffered, somewhat the government successfully mobilized the economy and people to bring the country back together. This miracle can happen again. Korea, Taiwan, China, Singapore. A number of countries has done it, and this also can happen in India, too, in a greater scale than any other countries. There should be a change that can mobilize and stimulate despaired people to live more hopeful life. This cannot be done by themselves, but can be done by some dedicated educated people like Professor Yunus and his student like they have done with innovative Granmeen system of microfinance.
This was one step forward for poverty alleviation and is leading to the right direction. However, there is a long way to go. Recently, there have been more notable opposing perceptions on the effectiveness of microfinance as a means of targeting poverty alleviation. An increasing number of scholars assert or agree that microfinance does not reach the poorest of the poor. How can we, or rather how can I really help the poorest of the poor, who are dying for not having 20 cents a day while my dad spends more than $40,000 on me every year for the education and living costs? On the very first day, very first few hours in India, on the way to the guest house from the airport, I already have witnessed people who sleep on the street next to a pile of rubbish, families living under a small tent on the street, and a gathering of teenagers at 2 AM. I’m not educated enough, I’m not rich, I do not have any power, but I came to India to experience the reality of poverty and write it in my senior thesis, which is on the topic of “Under what conditions, microfinance programs the most effective alleviate poverty?” So that I can share my experience and my thought on the issue with people, who don’t have this kind of opportunity that I have. Hopefully, I can use this month productively enough so that I will have more practical answers to my question. Hopefully, the microfinance institution, Hindustan Lvt Ptd., where I will be working from tomorrow, will graciously share some information and their thought on the problems of existing microfinance programs. I would be thrilled if they are willing to help me to conduct some field-research. FIGURES CROSSED. Again, BIG THANKS to the donor of the CSAS Summer in South Asia fellowship for this wonderful opportunity!
July 01, 2010
Finally able to post...
NOTE: I wrote this post quite a while ago, but was not able to post it until now. I have been in Dehradun for a little over 2 weeks now and I am currently staying at the Wildlife Institute of India. And now to my actual post...
It seems that whenever I am in the states for a long time I forget to appreciate little things. One of the most frustrating aspects of India for me has been just how inefficient almost every aspect of (my) life is here. Making an international call, something my family does on a daily basis in the states, is a problem here in Dehradun. On the day I wanted to make a call the international lines were not working and the internet is not fast enough to support an adequate skype connection (i.e . I was disconnected several times and could barely hear the other person on the line). The power goes out so many times that it is difficult to keep track and while I am fortunate enough to be in an institute that has its own generator that kicks in as soon as the power goes out, I wonder about the people who live outside this institute that do not have this luxury. I do not know what I would do if the power went out for a longer period of time and I could not use my fan.
The wireless router on the second floor of the hostel, conveniently attached to the wall: https://mfile.umich.edu/?path=/afs/umich.edu/user/k/s/ksenijas/Private/2010_0625AA.JPG
Caught in a traffic jam one night coming back to the Institute with one of my friends I wondered how people manage to drive here. I thought Americans were aggressive drivers, but road rage is child’s play in the United States compared to the driving I have witnessed here. It seems that everyone is in such a hurry that any time the opportunity presents itself people will try to cut the person driving in front of them off. It’s easiest perhaps to pictures the driving with reference to a funnel where there is one small opening in the front and many cars trying to fit into that one opening. Even my friend who was born and raised in India her entire life commented on the traffic congestion and how there would be much less if people only drove in lanes. I agreed with her that it would be much more efficient, but the people are used to driving this way. But not only is this sort of driving inefficient, it’s also dangerous. That same night we witnessed an ambulance trying to get through this mass of cars, the drivers did not seem to heed to the ambulance (mostly because there was no where for them to go). I do not know the real reason why the ambulance was called, but someone’s life could have seriously been on the line. This is where the real danger lies.
One week after writing this, I do not feel much different. While I have become more acclimated I cannot say that I have become more used to any of these things that I discussed. I normally do not like the “things could be worse” mentality (mostly since, well, things could also be better), but I feel that this is one way that I will be able to get through the following few weeks.