Delhi

“Smog Rules the City”

Today I had a great experience at CSE (the Centre for Science and Environment).  A wonderful woman named Mahreen, the program director of the water team there, took time out of her day on short notice to sit down and extensively talk about what the water team does as well as explained key information about water systems in India.  I captured audio and video of the whole experience for my amateur documentary but basically she explained their work in decentralizing water treatment facilities and using natural processes.  I learned about bioremediation as well as the process that CSE uses in their very own treatment facility on their beautiful campus.  The process is extensive but the most interesting part was one of the final stages in which local, hearty wetland plants filter out remaining sulfur and phosphorus necessary for their survival while the remaining water is left behind, with dramatically lower levels of phosphorus and sulfur.  The water is used for on campus horticulture.
I want to talk about the interesting signage I have seen as well as the gender dynamics I have experienced so far.  Many counters for ticket purchases will be separated by gender, there are separate metal detectors in subways and malls for male and female, and even seats designated for”ladies” on subways.  On the other hand I admire Indian women in delhi’s “badass-ness” in their ability to ride motorcycles in flowing traditional indian attire as well as balance perfectly on the end of one that a man drives as they carry two babies and a flat screen T.V., their bargaining ferocity, the way they cross streets with no fear of being run over by crazed rikshaw drivers, and the way they balance huge bags on their heads and walk with confident, nonchalant looks like they haven’t just done the most incredible thing.  I thought I was tough but I’ll be lucky to pick up 2% of the strength of these women.

Lastly take a look at this no nonsense sign

outside of our airbnb to the right–>

It makes me look every time because it is so shocking to me to see official signage that addresses the implications of an everyday act such as littering (that I personally despise and anyone who spends time with me will have been scolded more than once for throwing trash on the ground).  It reads, “What is the point of your education if you still throw garbage on streets to be ultimately picked by an uneducated person.”

Have yet to even see water but already have learned so much.  Will check in again soon…

Four Days Until Departure

A personal reminder of my inspirations

I leave my home in New York for Delhi in four days and I’ve never been so scared.

I looked back on a statement of purpose that I wrote a month or so back, this morning to remind me of why I am doing this and inspire myself once again.  These are my plans and ideas surrounding this adventure thus far:

Goal: Comparative Research Process analyzing the actors and interconnective aspects of ecosystems centralized on the Rivers Ganges and Yamuna.

While studying Ecology, I learned about systems thinking and the worldview of identifying relationships and interconnectivity.  In this project I ask, “How can I identify the relationships between a geographical feature (Body of water-Ganges/ Yamuna River) and the life that surrounds it.  I will be experimenting with the idea that ecology can be not just limited to nonhuman lifeforms (rivers, vegetation, animals, weather, climate), but include art/expression, ritual, sacrality, tradition, cultural norms (gender roles, customs, hierarchy, daily routines).  I intend to explore each of these actors and how they come together to manifest a living breathing ecosystem as well as what these roles mean to inhabitants of the ecosystem.

One important relationship to the Ganges River is the Save Ganga movement.  I will speak to activists involved as well as explore what it means now that the Ganga and Yamuna have been granted human rights by the government of Uttarakhan.  To accomplish these goals I will use the tools of digital media such as audio, video, and photograph, inclusive survey design, ethnography/ participant observation, and textual research in 5 different locations along the Ganges or Yamuna in Northern India.  These tools will help me develop an understanding of how individuals perceive and respond to environmental conditions, as well as how individual responses are linked across space and time through social, economic, cultural/artistic and political institutions.  I will first arrive in Delhi, where I will take advantage of the Save Ganga Headquarters and research/ activist centers as well as other cultural institutions.  Then, I will carry out the remainder of my study in Rishikesh, Haridwar, Dehradun, and Varanasi, which are all along the Ganges.  

No matter what the central construct to a city is, one lives in full awareness of it and it is not just there when you want or need it to be.  Whether it be a skyscraper or a river, its presence is intriguing to the functions of an ecosystem, in a broad sense of the word.

Trip to the Lotus Temple

Day 22 in New Delhi

For my last afternoon in Delhi, I wanted something calm and relaxing so I headed south to the Baha’i Lotus Temple, an astounding piece of modern architecture. I had the opportunity to walk the grounds, learn a bit about the Baha’i faith, and sit in on a service. Baha’i works to find the unity in all major world religions, and for the service I joined practitioners read verses from the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Quran followed by a period of silent, personal prayer and reflection.  This gave me time to think back on my experience with Nazdeek, plan out what might come next for the project, and prepare for the start of my last year of graduate school–courses start just a week after I return.

Coming from a background in both religious studies and architecture this was an amazing experience both in terms of the content of the service and the design of the space. I couldn’t think of a better way to end my trip. Photography was not allowed inside the temple, but here are some shots of the exterior:

Trip to Red Fort and Jantar Mantar

Day 21 in New Delhi

After an exciting three weeks of work with Nazdeek and a day of celebrating Indian Independence on the 15th, I took a trip to the famous Red Fort, the walled residence of Mughal emperors from the 15th to the 17th century.

On the way over, however, I stopped at Jantar Mantar, a fascinating architectural complex designed for astrological observation in 1724. Having studied Jantar Mantar in architectural history courses, I was quite excited to experience this little known wonder in the heart of Delhi, only to find that the complex is currently under renovation. While the construction did interfere with my visit, I was happy to know that the site is being preserved after years of disrepair.

Trip to Humayun's Tomb

Day 19 in New Delhi

After my last day of work with Nazdeek, I decided to take a sunset trip to Humayun’s Tomb, just 10 minutes via auto from my office. Humanyun’s Tomb is precursor to the Taj by about 100 years, but the two possess many architectural similarities. A beautiful site to say the least. Below are the photos from the visit.

A Trip to Qutb Minar

Day 15 in New Delhi

With the day off from work, I decided to take a trip to South Delhi and visit the Temple Complex of Qutb Minar. While I love the advocacy media work I am currently engaged in with Nazdeek, it was nice to have the afternoon to focus on simple tourist media, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. Here are the photos:

Maternal Health Workshop

Day 8 in New Delhi

This gallery contains 13 photos.

On August 3rd, Nazdeek brought together 25 passionate community members from two informal houing settlements–Gole Market and Nangloi–to kickstart training programs dedicated to advancing the maternal health rights of women living in these slums. I had the opportunity to document the workshop: read on

The Responsibility of Representation

Day 7 in New Delhi

Kathputli Colony, New Delhi

Kathputli Colony, New Delhi

All forms of media representation are simplifications of a real world object for the sake of conveying information. From maps, to icons, to photographs and even language, representations serve to summarize something in order to convey complex information in a concise and understandable way. Without representations conversations would be completely impossible; we could have no shared understanding of objects in reality. However, as necessary as they are there is a potential danger when our created representations are presented as fundamental truths—especially when dealing with representations of groups of peoples.

A stereotype is a specific representation that is created, intentionally or unintentionally, to affiliate groups of people with predetermined characteristics. A stereotype works to limit the range of characteristics that one assumes is possible for a certain type of person. Whenever you see someone who you affiliate with that group of people you will assume they are characterized by the facets of that stereotype. This fixing of meaning is detrimental to both the cultural perception of that group, as well as those individuals’ self-image and conceived potential. Presenting limited representations of groups of peoples via tropes or stereotypes—whether that is along the lines of race, class, nationality, gender, or sexuality—begins to blur the line between perception and reality, effectively redefining how the viewer understands the world around them.

When working with international advocacy media, like I am with Nazdeek as part of my ICI fellowship, it is important to be aware of the representations that are being presented to the rest of the world, and to avoid falling into the same old stereotypes that might affect others’ perception of the people we are working with. For example: I had the opportunity to visit the Kathputli Colony earlier this week. Kathputli Colony is an informal housing settlement in Delhi that is scheduled to be demolished as part of a slum clearance/urban redevelopment plan by the government. While it definitely fulfilled many of the stereotypical characteristics of a Delhi Slum that I had been exposed to, I was surprised to find a community of individuals who were proud of their homes, and passionate and informed about their rights—some of who have even been to Europe, Canada and the US. Even more inspiring was the pride they held for their professions; Kathputli is Hindi for “puppet” and most of the residence are puppet makers, wood-carvers, musicians, or street-performers. While the label of slum-dweller might be applicable, these individuals had far more interesting stories to tell than the images that simple stereotypes might initially invoke.

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Representations, especially if they are meant to empower those they represent, need reveal the complexity of any given social issue, acknowledging the aspects of a stereotype that might be valid while be nuanced enough to reveal that individuals have far more depth than what stereotypes present. Moving forward, as I work to develop media projects for Nazdeek regarding slum clearance, maternal mortality, and fare wage I need to be wary of the ways in which the people Nazdeek are working with are being represented to the rest of the world. These projects have a lot of potential to raise awareness about the issues Nazdeek is addressing, while simultaneously advertising their amazing work, but they carry the heavy responsibility of mindful representation. This will be a great challenge, but is something I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be spearheading for the organization in the weeks to come.

To Do List

Day 4 in New Delhi

In the process of planning my research project and experiencing my first few days in Delhi, I am starting to learn that adaptability is a crucial capability for working (and living) in India. Due to a change in schedule, the project I had planned on assisting with during my time in Delhi has been pushed back. This change is coming after an already significant shift in research focus from the project proposal I submitted to India China Institute to become a research fellow almost a year ago. Uncertainty is a reality of working in the real world, and when working with a small—three person—NGO like Nazdeek (the office I am consulting with for my research fellowship) flexibility is a necessity for success. After a series of discussions with the Nazdeek staff about what projects I could contribute the most to during my short time in India and how they might fit into my research requirements, we have identified three project that I will be developing for Nazdeek covering both of the primary campaigns they are involved with.

First, I will be developing a flier to be distributed among workers on a tea plantation in Assam. Assam produced close to 1/6th of the world’s tea, but legislation and customs derived from colonial era indentured servitude forces garden workers to live in abject poverty—making less than $2 USD per day for their work. Nazdeek has been working with an activist group in Assam to push for an increase in pay to reach a livable wage for the plantation worker. The current flier they have been distributing is predominantly text, which Nazdeek knows is not the most effective way to reach the garden workers. I will work on creating some infographics, re-designing the flier to increase legibility, and re-conceptualize the content to be more directed at the needs and interests of the worker; all of this will hopefully raise awareness and activate the community around the push for a wage increase.

Second, I will be working to create a series of infographics regarding the wage campaign in Assam that can be distributed digitally on social media, press releases, and newsletters to help Nazdeek raise awareness for the issue of unjust wage in Assam and promote the work they are doing nationally and internationally. These documents will be marketed towards an international audience, and will need to work as standalone images as well as in series when presented together. This is an interesting cross road between advocacy and advertising, but when the work Nazdeek is doing is so grounded in activism the two are essentially one in the same. An effective media series, in this case, will raise awareness of the issue and Nazdeek, hopefully drawing in support (financial and otherwise) for both the cause and the organization.

Finally, the largest project I will be involved with comes from a grant from Every Mother Counts—the event that inevitably shifted the timeline of my previous research project—funding Nazdeek’s work on maternal mortality in Assam tea plantations and in New Delhi slums. The grant will provide funding for Nazdeek to run workshops helping build the local capacities of women in Assam and Delhi to address human rights violations regarding maternal health, and train a network of lawyers in Delhi and Assam who will work with these women to pursue justice. The grant, however, require that Nazdeek produce a series of 12 “stories” over the course of the next year profiling individuals effected by the project. These stories can cover anyone (mothers, activists, lawyers, family members, health care providers) involved or effected by the work Nazdeek is doing, and can be told in any media—video, photography, or short story). I will be working on developing a feasible strategy for creating these stories, including a timeline of production, some content guideline, who to profile, interview questions and narrative arcs for each story, and which medium will be most effect. I will also be working on producing the first story to be submitted to Every Mother Counts—due mid-August—and released alongside Nazdeek’s announcement of the grant funding. This is a spectacular opportunity for me to explore both communications strategies and production of advocacy media. Although it is not what I originally signed on for, this project with Every Mother Counts encompasses almost all of the areas I am interested in pursuing as part of a professional practice, and I feel like I can really help Nazdeek (as a group of human rights lawyers) by bringing my expertise into this project. I am excited to move forward with all of these projects, and hope to post some reflections on the experience and process work as the content gets developed in the next few days.

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