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.