India at the core, abridged

It’s been a long, short time since I wrote last. At the point where your life intersects completely with you work, it is quite difficult to take a moment and reflect on what you’ve accomplished. The writing in my personal journal has suffered too; only ten entries dot the pages from the last few weeks. 98.3% begin with how tired or worn out I was at the time of writing. This recount/ fictionalised drama will require a lot of thinking hard and looking back. As I have done some pretty “damn ballin'” things, as Joey would put it, maybe the narrative can be spun interesting enough.

To begin where I left off.

Traveling from Kodaikanal back to Pune for the Appropriate Technology Study Group (ATSG) ended up requiring two overnight bus rides, instead of a 28 hour train, because of the wonders of online rail booking. The first one I took dropped me on my head in Bangalore, where I was fortunate enough to spend only an hour and a half navigating the city for an 11 o’clock meeting with Vijay of Arghyam. His organization runs the India Water Portal, a project I am excited to see develop. After an hour long conversation about some of the technical aspects of our project, Daniel the masquerading altruist stuck again, first crashing their blog and then setting up syndicated subscription, RSS or email, via Feedburner. Productive afternoon for a tourist, eh?

A significant chocolate fudge chunk of the past weeks has been dedicated to achieving some sort of success with this study group. I partially documented this along the way in an update for the team and one for my faculty sponsor. It would be an understatement to say the project has been huge and there might not have been enough time planned for it; many times I would work seven to midnight one day and then do it again the next. For all of the effort involved, however, I’m immensely glad I did it. If the opportunity arises, I would surely go right back to the Kolwan Valley [Google Maps] and continue ours and everyone’s work in improving the region. The guiding research question has evolved since the beginning of the project but remains essentially the same: what are some of the socio-political constraints to clean water access in the Kolwan Valley? Following general conclusions from the 2006 UNDP Human Development Report, the water crisis around the world is not an issue of physical availability, but rather of “power, poverty, and inequality.” Our hope for the report is to document enough of these challenges for the next organization working on water access to achieve greater success.

My first week in the valley, but without the rest of the WDA team, started an hour after I arrived at Mahindra United World College of India with a quick drive back down the hill to Sadhana Village. It was time to debrief on the surveys and start thinking about how short time planned for research should pan out. I journeyed with two MUWCI (mew-key) students, Maya and Samir, and was fortunate to hear first-hand what they and others had gained from implementing the questionnaires. It, and other anecdotal information, began my crash course on the specifics of what we were working with. Hard data was also important for understanding what the study group needed to get out of the focus groups; Sunday consisted largely of sifting through 40+ surveys to gather some insight.

This specific project, and, well, any in a foreign country, requires an extraordinary deal of spontaneous optimism and naive steadfastness. There is only so much you can prepare for at home. The mold we created for the focus groups has to be broken completely and then quickly recast to different shapes. As it turns out, it is not quite as easy to go willy-nilly through a valley and have whomever you want participate in a discussion whenever you please. Especially in India. At one point, I was even dreaming of buses for transportation to a central location, microphones and speakers for communication to large crowds, and cater meals. Oh the ambition! If that’s how it actually ended up, I’m quite sure I would’ve had a mental breakdown. The trove of information we collected in the focus groups that did come together, including ones with scheduled caste (SC) women, village elders, and school children, is proving valuable enough.

When I did have time free, I was very fortunate to be able to spend it with some of the kindest people on Earth who just happen to live in a slice of Heaven. On a couple of nights, I was treated to Nandita’s wonderful home cooking. As the head of the Triveni office at MUWCI, the study group would not be where it is today without her generous assistance; without her food, I’m not sure I could’ve survived the week of caf fare. Anat, one of the student leaders of Community Development, was the best possible host and completely set me up when I arrived. Her company, as well as from a number of other students, was a welcome relief to countless hours of organizing, planning, and mind-numbing data entry. I must also give a shout out to Ben who has given me the inspiration for what I am considering doing near the end of my little foray into to this wee-tiny country. Hopefully an engaging photo essay will come out of that.

Now is where I really have to reconstruct from memory. There is a 10 day gap in my journal because of project overdrive. It’s unfortunate WDA didn’t get much of a spring break in terms of relaxation

On Monday, 11 March, Jessie, Yukta, and Raechelle, our faculty sponsor for the project, arrived in the afternoon looking frazzled. A couple hours later, we went down to visit Mr. Deshpande and Medhathai at Sadhana Village to give them a brief introduction to the valley and go over the plan for the week ahead. A large part of the days following consisted of surveying the villages for the specifics of each regarding water systems and availability, Tim and Joey arriving, testing the water of 15 points in 11 villages for basic indicators of quality, Yukta and Joey leaving to go work on the conference, conducting even more focus groups and interviews, and synthesizing the information for a presentation of preliminary results on Sunday. It may not seem like much condensed into one sentence, but the schedule kept us well-occupied. In some ways, though, this is where I wish we had more time. Every single day gathering data was a lesson in just how many complexities there are in the valley and with any social issue. We may be able to write in generalizations for the report, but the goal of understanding the dynamics of each village completely before implementing a water access project should be the goal of any organization following up.

I will be the first to admit there are times I can be a workaholic. The lines from Bob Marley’s “Catch a Fire” resonate in my head when I think about this statement of truth. Thankfully, Tim, Jessie, and company are better grounded in reality. The lulls while they were in India included frequent dips in the MUWCI pool and walks around the Biodiversity Preserve. On a side note, I rediscovered the sheer brilliance, literally, of putting a flashlight in a cell phone when Yukta and I became stuck in Paud after dinner one night and had to walk 6 to 7 km back in the dark. Over the weekend, or rather Friday and Sunday night because Saturday was spent preparing our presentation, we did us some cultural tourism to Pune to see what Bollywood (dancing) was like. As you may be able to see on the runaway YouTube hit titled “El Ostrich meets the Robot,” I am not a dancer and Tim could be a rising star.

Only after eight short, long days in the field were we then in Mumbai for the Safe and Sustainable Water Conference. Which went alright, in my opinion. There were a lot of good things which happened, but still many I wish had; my reflection essay will likely be tens of pages long. To keep it short this time, we had an all-star cast but a significant part of the “confirmed” audience didn’t show. Even some of those who had been granted travel scholarships didn’t make it. A learning experience, for sure.

Since the WDA team left last Thursday, I’ve been off and on by myself. Part of the time, I’ve slept at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House, which offers dorm rooms at Rs. 150/night, and have had the opportunity to meet some really cool people including Ravi, a philosophy teacher in the UK, Francis, a “dude I would not think is a web designer” from Australia, and Jana, a German girl working on her Masters thesis on soil conservation in Gujarat. Conversations with them have helped ward off missing the WDA crew and yearnings for home. Last Friday, I was fortunate to go to see an exhibit titled “The Photograph: Painted, Posed, and of the Moment” organized by India Photo Now at the NGMA in Colaba. It showcased work from the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Bartholomew, and the Magnum Photos group. Can I say super inspiring? I was especially struck by an image from Raghu Rai, an Indian national who is doing amazing work of his country. His image of a ship worker against the Calcutta harbor is absolutely stunning when viewed large. While in Mumbai, I also snagged a connection with Apnalaya to get a better understanding of the water access issues in the slums. Tuesday morning found me up at 445 so I could make it to the suburbs, not in the American sense, to get some images.

For meals, I’ve stuck largely with paneer makhani and naan, and then resorting to dal fry and chapaati at a local stand when I only feel like paying Rs. 25. Mumbai is a really expensive city; I will be quite glad when I am able to branch out.

With that, I embark on stage two: the north.

ATSG technical update

One aspect of Whitman Direct Action’s (WDA) 2007-2008 Sadhana Clean Water Project is the Appropriate Technology Study Group, looking at the socio-political constraints to clean water access in the Kolwan Valley of southern India. Traditionally, WDA has been an implementing organization, generally working with an in-country, non-governmental organization (NGO) to bring a piece of technology to a community or region. In early conversations with one of our collaborating partners, Sadhana Village, we determined it would be more poignant to rather work to understand why water access projects aren’t adopted to the degree hoped, and establish some of the challenges they face.

The Kolwan Valley [Google Maps], where we conducted our research, is an area an hour drive from Pune. It is comprised of 17 villages, or 19 if you count the larger Paud [Google Maps] and Kolwan [Google Maps]. The large majority of households earn their income through subsistence farming, with wheat and sugarcane being the primary crops, and everyone else through a small variety of other means. At this point in time, there is almost zero industry in the valley. This could soon change because of the proximity to a rapidly expanding urban center (Pune). Village size is generally between 70 and 400 households, which are then commonly split into between two and five “wadis” or pockets including the village proper. Composition of the wadis is, for the most part, determined by socio-economic background; for instance, in many of the villages we worked in, there was a “harijan vasti” scheduled caste (SC) families. Governance is done on a local level by the Gram Panchayat, a “democratically” elected body responsible for the basic issues of each village, and on a wider scale by the Gram Sevaks and regional Indian government. The structure of these villages, and of the valley, is as such to provide characteristics unique to the area and threaded throughout India.

Data collection done on the ground by participants in the study group consisted first of surveys coordinated by two partners, Mahindra United World College of India and Gomukh Environmental Trust, and implemented by high-school students of both MUWCI and the valley. Over two hundred responses from nearly all of the villages were collected. A second, preplanned component of the research was a series of focus groups and/or discussions with different types of groups from the valley, including scheduled caste women, school children, and the Block Development Officer (BDO), an official responsible for the government-sponsored water management projects. With one of our goals being to collect information on the same topics related to water availability, water quality, water quantity, and sanitation from different stakeholders, we found it was also wise to interview some member of the Gram Panchayat to get an “official” view of those aspects in each village. This detailed information on where certain wadis get their water, how much they get, and so on proved to be crucial in determining which water sources, or points of distribution, we should test.

Our guiding focus for the Water Quality and Quantity Addendum was originally to determine whether the water in the valley is generally safe to drink or not without further treatment, as well as to collect the supplementary data to establish a need for better water management. One reason for this is to partially substantiate the report produced by the study group; it will be important when we pen the paper to prove there are both socio-political constraints in the region and that the valley has a water problem to begin with. Although much of this type of information should be available from the Indian government, we decided, with more explanation later, to go ahead and do independent testing of the basic indicators of water quality:

  • pH
  • Temperature (C)
  • Fecal coliform
  • Turbidity (NTU)
  • Dissolved oxygen (mg/L)
  • Total nitrate and nitrite (mg/L)
  • Biochemical Oxygen Demand (mg/L)
  • Chloride (mg/L)

The tests were done through a variety of means. Dissolved Oxygen, pH, and temperature were all done in the field, as well as total nitrate, nitrite, and chlorine when the Lifewater kits showed up, and we took samples for the rest. On returning to the lab, the water for fecal coliform tests was placed on a culture of McConkey’s Agar for 24 to 48 hours. They were then assessed for growth of lactose and peptone-producing colonies, indicative of E. Coli, Salmonella, and other bacteria potentially harmful to human health. The pros and cons of each testing method will be documented in the full report.

As with working in any foreign country, there were, and still are, many challenges to getting the necessary hard data required for such a report. A significant amount of time, anywhere between one and four hours per village depending on how many cups of chai forced upon the team, was required to do a Village Water Source Worksheet [HTML], the first step towards understanding where we should test. Another timesink was that each one of these worksheets required at least one and sometimes two or three translators. This can easily magnify the amount of time needed as a question must first bounce from person to person and then the answer back the same path. One justification for why these questions have been necessary is that reliable information from the government is notoriously difficult to get, in both time consumed and accuracy. For many complex reasons, very basic data on water quality, quantity, and access sometimes either does not exist or is falsified. On top of that, there is an extraordinary bureaucracy to work through in order to obtain stats. The first person you talk to will pass you on to the next, and so on and so forth.

Regardless of these difficulties, we were still able to test 15 points in 11 villages assessed.

By testing for basic indicators of water quality, and surveying for hard data about the water sources in each village, we will be able to establish far more than just whether the water is generally safe to drink or not without further treatment. For instance, determining whether there is a presence of fecal coliform in the water can validate the accuracy of statements on both how often the water is treated and tested. If the man in charge of treating the water says he puts TCL in every day, but there is bacterial growth in the sample taken, there we will be able to document that there is a disconnect somewhere along the line. Furthermore, if the water source is being tested regularly, and there are indicators that the water is unsuitable for human drinking, then there should be action by the local and regional government to correct the problem. A presence of bacterial growth in the water could indicate some breakdown in the societal mechanisms required to provide safe drinking water. It is in ways like these that the hard data we’ve collected on the ground is proving to be a valuable asset.

With all of that being said, a fair bit of work still needs to be done. The collection of raw data from the Appropriate Technology Study Group is only just now being synthesized for analysis; through this project, we’ve been able to come to the overall conclusion that data collection is a time-consuming process. If it is at all possible, we would like to obtain the official water quality data from the government to see how it compares to our information, as well as use it to describe the long-term trends of the valley. It’s accuracy, of course, would have to be taken with a grain of salt. We made a request for this information to the BDO a couple of weeks back, and promised we could get it, but it has yet to come. It will also be important to continue tracking down the appropriate climate and water availability information to be able to compare how much water villagers perceive there to be compared to how much there actually is in each season, in addition to being used to depict the characteristics of the valley. Furthermore, it could be interesting to get hard data on how much water is being used for what, including what quantity is diverted away from the valley for use in Pune. The other data required to support certain arguments in the report will likely arise as we continue to figure out which specific dynamics in the Kolwan Valley inhibit access to clean and reliable drinking water.

Spot the giraffe

From my experiences thus far, the most crucial supplies a traveler must carry are good earplugs and a cheap bike lock. India is a cacophony of horns, whistles, clangs, and shouts. These sounds have a kinetic quality which drives them perpetually throughout the day, regardless of hour or location. Earplugs allow an intelligent human being to tone the racket down a notch and catch a few hours of sleep periodically. A chain provides the unquestioning service of sanity, assuring the traveler his gear won’t grow feet and walk off into the night, let he be in the dormitory, riding the train or bus, lying on a platform, or huddled on the street corner.

Kolkata is a huge, boisterous city with a Communist government in place for the past few decades. I noticed this only in a few subtle ways: the utilitarian design of the metro and university, signs proclaiming “A state of West Bengal Enterprise” on nearly every business, and the general antiquity of the city buses. While there is a fair bit of old stuff in this far off land, these buses had wood paneling. It took me straight back to the British Colonial period, ten or so years after I was born. If it hadn’t been so packed, I would’ve half expected the ticket taker to whip out a china set for afternoon tea, only to have the pot and cups break 15 seconds later. That’s how often there is an accident in the city. Actually, surprisingly, I haven’t seen a crash yet.

Thursday the 14th, aka Valentine’s Day and what already seems like eons ago, scored me the brilliant opportunity to travel with the executive leadership team of Water for People to West Bengal’s Nadia district. The point of their visit was to see some of the arsenic filters the organization has helped fund and install over the past five years, and the reason for my tagging along was to see if I can capture the cultural, social, and religious barriers to making sure people are drinking safe water. As with any shoot, there are images you hope to make and others you just accidentally happen across like an old man in the Thomas Crapper out back. Including my discussions with a former World Bank-er and other members of the team, I think I compiled enough to count that region a success.

Much of India’s public automotive transportation is also based on millions and millions of autorickshaws and taxis. In probably my most notable Bengali event, the Ambassador I hired just past dusk on Friday the 15th was dealt a fatal blow as we crossed the VIP Bridge. On the way to interview a Dr. Gupta of the BECS, a section of grated road right before the toll both tore the poor machine to shreds. I heard a metallic “clink” during 30 seconds of intense vibrations we confirmed not much later was a mission critical component of the car. Although I did feel a bit sorry for leaving the driver, he only received Rs 100 for making me walk the last 3 KM to my destination.

A tall beer certainly makes journal entries quite a bit more interesting to write. And read, looking back on that night. After sitting in the Victoria Memorial Gardens late Saturday afternoon, waiting to photograph the building at sunset and trying to explain to every visiting Indian IT student why I’m not with my girlfriend making snooky under a tree like everyone else, I took the advice of the Lonely Planet and took my supper on Park Street. For those who are not familiar with the area, this is a length of road where everything is a bit more expensive. Especially the meals. At the beginning of the entry, I write:

If I am to blow all of my money in the first month and a half, I might as well blow it in style. The meal hopefully won’t be any more than Rs 250.

and I finish it with:

Fuck, Rs 289. Man…

To take this in context, I spent one and a quarter what I was spending on my hotel room that night. Comparatively, it is as if I were traveling in the states with the budget for a $100 hotel room and then decided to go spend $200 on myself for dinner. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but I’ll bet it makes it more of an adventure near the end of a trip if you pretend it does.

Kolkata seems to be a mecca for the 25 year-old in search of his or her place in the world. It was my first time coming across so many travel bums in one square block. First, while wandering after returning from the Water for People excursion and apparently looking lost, I ran into Katie, a graphic designer and photographer who works until she has enough money to set off. You can imagine my relief in being able to have a conversation of more than three sentences. At the restaurant she recommended, which coincidentally costs alot and is called the “Blue Sky Cafe,” I sat across from a dude who was definitely hardcore and definitely not 25. Names must be meaningless if you’re 18 months into a six year trip; he didn’t ask for mine and I did not ask for his. Early into the conversation I learned he was on an overland trek from England to Tokyo, a journey I hope to take when I become crazy enough. One or two more years of school should do it. I asked him if he had read Danziger’s Travels to which he replied, “oh yeah, he’s an amateur.” For those unfamiliar with the story, Nick Danziger is a dude who did the same trip for 17 months in the 1980’s lying and stealing his way into countries, including Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. I wasn’t about to argue with him. The coolest guy I met, however, was a German photojournalism student named Andy. Not much for tourism, he is in India putting together a story on four Muslim girl boxers. Boxers as in the fighters, not the underwear. When I asked him how he managed to come up with such a subject, he said, “YouTube.” The wonders of modern technology!

Flexibility is obviously a required trait for those who want to avoid a mental breakdown. My stay in the smoggy city lasted two days longer than I had hoped because of an unintended consequence of India Railway’s decision to launch online booking. Nearly every single train, and I do mean 99.83%, are wait-listed for at least five days. This single fact is likely killing the boutique tourism of backpackers who don’t know where they want to be in the next week. There’s more than one of us, mind you, and it is a realistic impossibility to book your ticket to an unknown destination. After spending my last night in the Salvation Army Guest House dormitory building structure because I would be beaten, robbed, and raped if I slept in Howrah Station instead, I was off to Hyderabad.

Traveling by train for a single stretch of over 24 hours is an experience required of every visitor to this country. It gives you exposure to the myriad diseases and disfigurements beggars seem to have, is the only method of transportation in the world you can hear “chai, coffee; coffee chai” from a sing-song voice every 3.2 minutes, and lets you meet the type of people you wouldn’t normally sleep across from on a SpiceJet flight. Furthermore, going by second-class sleeper will be the only opportunity most will have to experience sheer and utter boredom. At least twice the type you thought you felt as a young child. India Rail should even mark up the absurdly cheap tickets and bill it as an amusement park ride. They could call it “Journey to Mars” but in small print mention the ride replicates what it would be like to get there using 1960’s technology. Like the lunar lander with hella tiny rockets. The “flight” would take absolutely forever, and when you have to go wee or throw out your leftover food it gets ejected into “space.”

On a somewhat related note, the India Railways company is the largest, non-military employer in the world. It transports over five billion passengers annually. If an organization such as Whitman Direct Action or, uh, UO Direct Action were to negotiate a recycling program with the head office, I think it would have the impact of single-handily ending pollution in all of Southeast Asia.

The 10 or so hours I spent in Hyderabad can be summarised by a single compound word: food-hospitality. It is the way of the true people. An extraordinary amount of treats, fried things, and fresh fruit was pushed my way as I sat on the floor of the Tajuddin house after delivering Kip’s mom’s package. After politely accepting a third and forth plate, my gut busted all over the floor. Not really. I had to keep eating. The gut-busting happened after I stood up.

As another word of advice from the open spigot known as my mouth, don’t ever buy a waitlisted takal fare from a booking office 1000 KM from your point of departure. They may appear to know what they are talking about but, if you hear those words, just say “no” and back slowly through the door. To leave Hyderabad, I had to cancel my train ticket and pay almost double for an A/C Semi-Sleeper bus where, in typical Indian fashion, they sell as many tickets as possible. I woke up at one point during the overnight ride to a TV show I really didn’t want to listen to. Hindi slap-stick comedy makes you want to punch the overhead speaker out. I now see why only the newest buses are in good condition.

The reason for my detour to the Kolwan Valley was to assess how the team at MUWCI was doing with implementing our mutual survey. A summary of several lengthier updates I wrote to the rest of the team, including a description of the difficulties MUWCI is having, is as follows:

  • We are a in a bit over our heads

The next few weeks will definitely be the most interesting of the project.

When I made it back to Pune Junction this past Thursday, my mind was a flutter with revelations of the deepest ocean trench. As a disclaimer, “every truth I write is a complete and utter lie.” This is what I came up with:

Life is not intrinsically “good” or “bad.” Events that happen in life are not “good” or “bad.” One’s opinions of the events depend exclusively on how one assigns value to an event. If, for instance, one were not to get a part in a school play, that person may establish a negative relationship to the event. To the other person receiving the part, the event would be seen as “good.” As such, in that simple proof, the event itself solely exists. It is, and has no intrinsic value.

Understanding the relationship between a person and an event is a key to enlightenment. Acting upon this understanding is one step towards achieving enlightenment. The trick is to separate one’s self from any emotion attached to an event and then recognize the opportunities stemming from an event like thin threads of light.

All events have these opportunities to take advantage of. Whether a person’s relationship to an event is positive or negative, there are always opportunities to move forward and progress. Again, the key is to look past the emotional relationship to the event, look through the cloud, and see where it will take you next.

Many times, the phrase “Nothing is Impossible” is said. In thinking about this, I believe the common reaction is one of inadequacy. Other people can do “great” things but it impossible to do “great” things yourself. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible do other people’s “great” things. You do not live their life flow, as they do not live yours. What should be said instead is “Dream. And do.” This phrase recognizes the unique values of each person, and their ability to do a multitude of “great,” impossible things, while emphasizing the need to look past their emotional attachment to the past. We must see, imagine, and dream the opportunities for progress.

Ironically enough, I woke up the next morning in my upper berth with a bitchin’ headache and gnarly fever. Natural Capitalism only ceded 55 pages of its sweet, recycled post-consumer content to me. Ye basta!

The area surrounding Kodaikanal at this time of year brings me to memories of the high Pacific Northwest during late May or early June. Under a stunning blue sky, the dark forests and meandering trails call my name in a way only the purest siren can. The air is often crisp and always clear; taking a gorgeous image is generally only a matter of pointing your lens. A chance encounter with Jeannette of Human Resources in front of the Kodaikanal International School on Saturday morning provided the opportunity to go on a stellar six hour hike to the highest point in the Palni Hills, a peak I can’t recall the name of, with her and a few friends. Along the way, the trail flirts with the edge of the mountain which drops thousands of feet down to the plains. Hot air rising from below offers priceless views of clouds forming in an endless dance. When we arrived at the top, we could see for miles and miles and miles and miles. Or kilometers, rather.

This past week has brought a wide range of experiences. While crossing the Bendy soccer field Sunday, I was nearly destroyed by a pack of wild dogs. My life was spared by five seconds of stupor and then an adrenaline-fueled sprint to the gate. For dinner that night, I was invited to the Shelton Cottage, the current residence of Tim and Katie Waring. Tim is a PhD student looking at, among other things, the traditional organizations which monitor fair distribution of irrigation water. Over left-over pizza and a delicious rhubarb dessert, we had an extraordinary conversation on topics ranging from Ghandi’s legacy to India, cultural as a method of evolution, and the SDK for the iPhone. They were, by far, the best dinner company I have had yet in the country. Monday and Tuesday were dedicated solely to producing as many images as I could for the KIS Development office. The current count tops out around 867 frames of French, Hindi, art, drama, and the “dish,” or dispensary. My mind has become numb to photographing. And writing, for that matter. This is the update that never ends.

One last thing. Today I escaped from campus for several hours to visit one of Tim’s small villages to photograph. It was dope. Dinner at the Royal Tibetan reminded me of good times with the Beckwiths.

Tomorrow I plan on running a double loop around the lake which will hopefully make my legs sore enough for the next few days of travel. Back to the Kolwan Valley and Appropriate Technology Study Group!