Students from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy are in Delhi, India, this month gaining hands-on international experience while learning about the role of philanthropy and nonprofits in today’s global environment. The students enrolled in the course are working in Delhi providing direct project assistance to several NGOs in the area. Read below to follow the students’ experiences in Delhi.
January 24, 2016
Full disclosure, I submitted this four days late. I technically am writing this in the midst of the D.C. blizzard rather than the day before our final presentation to our client. But hear me out, I have a good explanation.
My team and I worked with Chintan, a fantastic environmental NGO here in New Delhi that advocates for sustainable development and the livelihoods of some of the worst off in the area. We spent our three weeks in India meeting with their advocacy staff and organizations like the National Resources Defense Council and National Foundation for India to develop an advocacy strategy for them to expand a sustainable, zero-waste model and give them a monitoring and evaluation toolkit.
Our last few days of work in our final week were a flurry of activity, trying to coordinate final meetings; writing, re-writing, editing our deliverables; and creating a presentation to communicate our recommendations to our client. On Tuesday we were feeling pretty confident that we were on track to complete everything with minimal sleep deprivation, and maybe even find time to visit the highly regarded Museum of Toilets we had heard so much about! Of course, as you would expect, this is exactly when things went terribly wrong.
Tuesday evening we had a group member fall ill and have to be taken to the hospital. After spending a few hours at the hospital to make sure they were going to be okay and in safe hands, we held a late night group meeting to assess how we would need to adapt our project to deal with the situation. Down a critical member of our team, we had a day and a half to work with to adjust our timeline, final report and presentation. It seemed daunting, but after breaking down what we had and what we needed to do to still deliver a high quality product for the client, we all left for bed that night feeling confident again that we would be successful.
I am proud to report that things once again progressed smoothly from that point. More importantly, our team member who was ill made a full recovery and returned to the hotel just as we were leaving to wish us luck. We had a successful presentation to Chintan and the staff was very receptive to our recommendations and excited to start trying to use the tools that we have left them with. It was so rewarding to have all the work and effort we put into our project be recognized and appreciated by such a successful organization.
I think what I am going to hold on to most from this experience is the importance of adaptability, flexibility and trusting in your team. Working in India has challenged the very way I approach work, forcing me to be more flexible in completing the task in front of me. It has reinforced that what is most important is moving the project from conception to a finished product that the client can use, and not the small details along the way. Throughout the project, these small details changed so much; it was impossible to keep track of them. But what kept us focused as a group was our overall goal in creating something that would be beneficial for the organization. I can’t thank the School of Public Policy and the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership enough for the experience.
January 23, 2016
Women and Toilets
One of the most challenging aspects of traveling especially to developing countries like India is the constant confrontation with your most primal bodily functions. As a traveler and a consultant for Youthreach’s toilet construction project, I had a lot of time to reflect not only on my own bathroom habits, but also on the gendered nature of sanitation.
Every week, my consulting team made the six-hour trip outside of Delhi to Youthreach’s project site. The early morning train ride was a formative experience in helping our team understand the true need for sanitation facilities in India. As we passed through some of the poorer communities on the outskirts of the city, we would often see hundreds of men squatting among piles of garbage to relieve themselves. Very few, if any of the squatters, seemed to be women.
As someone who has read a bit about sanitation in developing countries, I know that for most women in the world, going to the bathroom is an arduous task. To ensure their privacy, many wake-up before dawn to go outside often compromising their safety in the process. Others walk long distances or try to avoid going to the bathroom altogether when nature calls during the day.
I felt this pressure acutely during the trip. While conducting household surveys, many respondents would generously offer up not only their time but glass upon glass of chai. In communities that had received a Youthreach toilet, accepting a glass or two was a nonissue since we knew we would have access to well-constructed and clean latrines. In the control communities where toilet access was much lower, I would mentally clock out the amount of time I had away from a reliable facility before accepting a glass of tea.
In cities too, women seemed to be excluded from many public spaces by the lack of toilets. During one of our last days in Delhi, several members of my team decided to trek deep into the belly of a local market to buy spices. By mid-afternoon, one woman in the group desperately needed a bathroom. We asked a local vendor where a woman might be able to use a toilet. His response? “Women don’t come to the market.”
Several days later, with my flight cancelled due to the snowstorm in DC, I felt my first fit of Delhi Belly coming on. Holed up in the lovely Shervani Hotel with access to a sparkling clean toilet, I was not only struck by how thankful I was for that particular toilet, but also how incredibly lucky I am to not have my day-to-day activities dictated by when and where I will or will not be able to go to the bathroom.
January 22, 2016
Launching a social media fundraising campaign in India isn’t as easy as it sounds. Ok, let’s be honest, no part of that sounds easy in the first place. So we were given a bit of a challenge. However, our main objective in working with the Wildlife Trust of India was to help them develop a strong social media presence. One of our first tasks was to pilot a program that could raise funds for elephant cataract surgery. Our plan was: Week 1, finish all research; Week 2, launch the cataract campaign; and Week 3, collect data on the campaign, use the data to develop workshops and a second campaign to raise corpus funds. Things did not go according to plan.
Before delving into our tasks it is worth mentioning that we did indeed complete our goals and have already presented our final deliverables to the Wild Life Trust of India (WTI). At the risk of patting ourselves on our preverbal backs, I can assure anyone reading that we were quite successful. However, that is not the topic of this post.
As Annie (a fellow member of team WTI) mentioned in a previous post, we went to meet an elephant in need of cataract surgery in order to build our story. It was our original intention to take a bit of a utilitarian approach as we believed that was the underlying issue. Why else would captive elephants need cataract surgery? It’s so they can work, right? Wrong.
The Mahout (elephant caretaker) explained that he knew his elephant, he could direct her and she could work just fine even if she was blind. No, that’s not why he wants her to get surgery. He wants her to get surgery so that she can see. Because he loves her. She’s family and he wants her to be happy. That wasn’t what we thought he was going to say. Indeed, empathy was actually the ONLY underlying rational there. The forestry service catalogued seven additional elephants in danger of going blind and requested WTI’s help in raising funds. Why? Is it because they use the elephants for wildlife monitoring and integration and an elephant with full sight is just better at its job? No, it’s because they love the elephants; they’re family and they want them to be happy. That is truly the only reason behind these fundraising efforts.
Apparently a blind elephant would, theoretically, be even better at its job because it could just be directed around by its rider or caretaker without question. From a purely utilitarian perspective it would make perfect sense to blind as many work elephants as possible so they could be mindless slaves and their power be best used. That is completely out of the question for WTI and the forestry service of India.
Now, I didn’t ask these questions to be tricky or to try and undermine WTI. I’m a naturally curious person and I wanted to see how WTI worked. I imagined that they would shift funds around as necessary to pay for things they found important. Apparently that is completely out of the question. What this means is that if a project fails to get funding it is scraped. Those animals do not get help. That must be quite hard on WTI since they have such a unique mix of conservation and individual apathy. Every animal’s life matters. They go out of their way to help individual animals. The individual matters as much as the species. To my cold scientific mind this seems illogical, but who am I to question it?
In the end, if this project does not reach its goal these elephants may become completely blind. To me (a bleeding heart liberal), this is heart breaking because they love these elephants, they’re family and they want them to be happy.
January 21, 2016
It has been interesting to come back to India after seven years. I studied abroad in Delhi during my undergraduate career, spending six months studying Hindi, anthropology and art history in the smoggy, crowded metropolis. I definitely can’t say it was an easy place to live. Small things are challenging in a culture and climate so different from home. Even the simplest things like mailing a postcard or buying groceries were monumental tasks, requiring what seemed like much more than a modicum of commitment, energy and cunning. I took great pride in being able to cross the street, dodging rickshaws, cars and prying eyes. And of course there are the cows that constantly snarl the traffic and leave their droppings for inattentive pedestrians, as well as the mischievous monkeys that will snatch at your hair and shopping bags if you get too close to the trees. As many writers have said, India is a country that assaults the senses; it can easily wear you down and test your resolve. I left after six months feeling exhausted and beaten. But I had the utmost respect for my adversary, and working (successfully) in India became my professional white whale.
I was quite excited to come back and test my mettle after a few years of traveling and working abroad in other regions. Our team worked hard to get our materials created for our field research. We all anticipated difficulties and geared up to work under difficult circumstances. The trip has gone astonishingly well though, in large part because of the hard work and perseverance of the professors and TA leading the trip. Another huge factor though has been the level of integration we’ve had with the NGO. Youthreach organized so much of our travel and logistics, connecting us with field office workers and translators that were absolutely indispensible to our success.
It is this success, in the light of how hard my prior experience had been, that is the biggest surprise to me. It is in part due to having a great team, but we would have been vastly less successful without our NGO’s commitment and contacts. The right contacts are everything in a country like India, a notion that has been reinforced by many of our guest speakers. An anthropology professor of mine once attributed this strong insider/outsider culture to the succession of invasions that North India has experienced over the millennia. This is perhaps an over-romanticized view, but it’s certainly true that India can be a closed society, and trust can be very hard to come by. It is deceptive; at first glance everyone’s personal lives are on display. People hardly have personal space anywhere, and so many masses bathe, launder, defecate, and sleep in the open. But people’s deeper thoughts, past the veneer of what they are expected to do by society, are hard to access.
People in the communities we surveyed were remarkably helpful and open to us. Many knew our NGO workers, and admired them greatly, which allowed us to be trusted by association. While in my undergrad I had been alone and unwelcome as an outsider in most places, our NGO gave us access. The trip has also made me think deeply about my own contact-building skills, and about my professional strengths and areas for growth. I feel so happy to have had such a great working experience in this crazy, intricate country. It’s been a lot of learning, and a lot of very welcome catharsis.
January 20, 2016
Chairs and Chai
Over the past few weeks the Youthreach consulting team has spent more than seven days in the field visiting three different villages outside of Nalagarh in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Collectively our team has spent a significant amount of time in other developing countries and had myriad preconceived notions about how our surveying would go, and how we would be viewed and welcomed into these rural villages that had scarcely seen foreigners. I naively expected to be swarmed by excited, energetic children with dirt caked to their shirts and holes in their pants who wanted to hold my hand, pull my hair, ask me for money and play games—what I had experienced in East Africa.
We set out to find out information on why people did not have toilets, where they defecated, what their personal health problems were, and if they had any diarrhea recently. Since in the United States it is not common to talk about what happens behind the bathroom door, which is private information one barely shares confidentially with their doctors. We were concerned our questions were too intimate and private or that people would not want to share their information with us. We were worried we would be offensive and contentious.
Our experience working in Himachal Pradesh was quite the contrary. When we arrived at a community member’s house, speaking through our translators, we inquired if we could ask them a few questions about their health and we were greeted with friendly faces and kind words. Then the eager rush for chairs would begin. It was critical for our hosts to find seating for each one of our team members (sometimes we were arriving in parties of six to seven people) and this was their first priority. As dusty plastic chairs, which were likely only used for formal guests, were pulled out from dark corners and cots were lifted up and placed in a circle, it always took a few minutes for everyone to get situated and seated. The respondents were always the last to sit down, sometimes insisting that the guests sit and they stand (it took our translators a lot of convincing and us non-Hindi speakers a lot of sign language to persuade the host to take a seat). While we asked that only one person represent the household and answer the survey individually, usually whoever was home would gather around and politely observe the process. It was not uncommon to have a group of 10 or more good-mannered people present during the survey. Questions about defecation, diarrhea, toilets and other private health matters were answered with sincerity, civility and graciousness.
About a minute to five minutes into the survey, they would always ask if we wanted chai. Sometimes we would accept, most of the time we would politely refuse since we were on a tight schedule. Then, following the traditional Indian hospitality rules, when the survey was complete they would insist again and again that we stay for chai. We were never accosted for being foreigners in their homes, we were never berated for asking intimate questions, we never received demands for money or other items. Indians are too courteous for such actions. We were always offered the nicest chairs and warm cups of chai. In a country that is full of poverty, contradictions and gross inequalities that do not make any sense, Indian hospitality provides a warm escape from the harshness and severity of the world outside the Indian home; the treatment we received as strangers in a foreign land was a welcomed surprise.
January 19, 2016
Becoming a “Chindian”, Fighting for Chintan project
I believe that for most Chinese people, India is a mysterious and unfamiliar neighbor country that only appears on television shows or in a geography textbook. I have never imagined that I would spend three weeks in India, fully observing and deeply interacting with this country, knowing about how people lead a different lifestyle and even working here as a consultant to help bring positive changes to the country. This might be the first milestone of my 2016 and the most amazing experience in my graduate studies at the UMD School of Public Policy.
The three-week work in Delhi has somehow set up an emotional link between this city and me. I can still remember that Chitra, the program manager of Chintan organization, told us that even though Delhi has bad air and bad traffic, she still loves it. I have a very strong resonance with her feelings as I hold exactly the same emotion to my hometown city in China. It is really hard to undermine the strong mental linkage with a city where you were born and grew up. Being the only Chinese person on the team, my feelings about India might be a little different. At some moments I felt myself just somewhere in China when I saw the terrible traffic, overwhelming people in the street, very similar countryside scene and breathed the smoke and polluted air. On the other hand, I experienced great culture shock, trying to understand their different behavior, customs and beliefs and began to get used to the cows wandering along the road with other vehicles. I just recalled two years ago when I volunteered in Cambodia as an English teacher and received the best friendship with local teachers and children. Now I am trying to be a “Chindian” who recognizes myself not as a visitor but an insider being infused into this large culture context.
We just had an impressive weekend trip in Rishikesh, located at the foothills of the Himalayas. It is known as ‘The Gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas’ and yoga capital of the world, with many yoga centers located here that attract tourists. Wandering along the Ganges River, visiting the famous suspended bridge and enjoying shopping in small but exquisite shops released all the pressure accumulated by the work last week. Getting up quite early on Sunday morning, I had my first Safari tour in Rajaji National Park. It was an extremely exciting opportunity to explore wild animals on jeeps. I was deeply moved by this alive and energetic ecosystem and further realized the important role of NGOs in creating a harmonious relationship between human development and environmental protection.
At the beginning of the third week, we finally got our presentation confirmation on Thursday afternoon at the National Foundation of India. This means that we would have enough time to make our final deliverable better and solid. This week will be the most intensive, but meaningful and productive time period to send out our energy and to “make a change.” Just fight for it!
January 15, 2016
In my experience traveling in developing countries, getting away from the capital and into smaller villages provides the best opportunity to experience the reality of development. India, like other countries I have visited, has a large wealth distribution gap between urban and rural sections. My group of student consultants had the pleasure of spending seven days over the past two weeks in Himachal Pradesh (HP), a mountainous region of northern India. While working in HP, we piloted data collection tools, conducted nine focus group discussions, 55 household surveys and conducted key informant interviews with several individuals. What we discovered was a beautiful landscape of small villages full of kind people ready to talk about the reality of development in their region.
Himachal Pradesh, according to lots of development literature, is a region leaps and bounds ahead of many others in India, excluding some southern states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The region has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2020, has banned the use of plastic bags and has a much lower rate of open defecation than its neighboring northern states. This last issue – sanitation – is what we went to HP for, and we learned a lot. Our NGO partner, Youthreach, is implementing corporate social responsibility projects on sanitation and health/hygiene on behalf of Indag and Unipatch rubber companies. This effort includes building many latrines and a couple of drinking water stations and hosting informal health talks led by regional medical professionals.
Our conversations with survey respondents and friends there made us aware of an alternative development reality. Nalagarh, the industrial town that served as our base, has the biggest trucking union in the country, totaling some 15,000 heavy lorries. These trucks and the industries they accompany bring needed jobs and income to the region, but are hard on the roads. Disputes between central and regional governments and contractors made for 10 years of abused roads and a very bumpy ride for us every day.
Locals criticized India’s panchayati raj system, adopted in 1992, as a major reason for stalling development. Panchayats are five-member councils existing at different levels and responsible for regional infrastructure development. Village-level councils in charge of rural development bribe voters with liquor to win elections, and informant interviews pointed to frustration with past panchayat councils, some of whom returned millions of rupees in federal funding because they did not use it for development when they should have. Although there was a serious divergence between Himachal Pradesh’s development goals and reality, I cannot think of a place I would have rather spent two weeks, and hope our team of UMD School of Public Policy graduate student consultants did our part to improve sanitation outcomes in HP.
January 13, 2016
Chai, Chai, Coffee, Coffee...
As I look at the calendar, I can’t believe that we’re already 11 days into 2016 and by extension, nearly two weeks in India!
This last week was our first full one in Delhi. All of our consulting groups were able to meet our NGO clients for the first time and go over our projects and get right to work. Along with three of my classmates here, I am consulting with Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. They are an NGO that advocates for sustainable environmental policies while also protecting the livelihoods of those in the informal sector. These are people who work in initiatives such as waste picking and segregating garbage that is recyclable so that it can be sold. This sustainable process is just one of many facilitating roles that Chintan is playing here in Delhi. Chintan is a smaller NGO with about 40 staff members decentralized across many projects. My team and I hope to produce a deliverable that Chintan can use as a tool to advocate and also evaluate their programs over a period of time.
Following the first day at our NGO client sites, all consulting teams attended a talk with Sauryajit Chaudhuri, former program manager for Bankers Without Borders in India, he is now program manager at Max India running their corporate social responsibility campaign (CSR). Chaudhuri was able to give us excellent insight on his journey from sales and business development in the media and entertainment industry to his role in the NGO world. He provided further details about Max India’s CSR arm and how the new CSR law in India is affecting the NGO sector.
Another highlight was our panel with all three representatives of our client NGOs (Youthreach, Chintan and WildLife Trust of India). We were able to get insights into the successes, the challenges and their ideals for where they want to see societal attitudes change to achieve more for organizations and their country at large.
Being in Delhi this last week and a half, we have also seen public policy in action on the roads with the #OddEven campaign. Cars that have license plates ending in an odd number can’t be on the road on even dates and vice versa. I’ve found that in the media and talking to people around town that there’s a wide array of opinions. The bright side is that traffic isn’t as bad!
Our first week ended with our second weekend trip. We departed by train and it was my first time being in a train with bunked seats that turned into beds. As a person who stands over six feet tall, it was quite the night sleeping in my bunk! After a 12-hour night of games on the train, calls of chai and coffee from the vendors on the train and some rest, we arrived at our destination. This time it was to Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world.
Varanasi is the holiest city in Hinduism. The city lies right on the Ganges River and we were able to take in the atmosphere in the market areas and near our hotel which provided a spectacular view of the water. Our travels also took us to Sarnath to explore the history of Buddha and the importance of the site to Buddhist pilgrims. After a sunrise by boat observing more Hindu practices such as funeral processes and holy offerings, we explored the city in the afternoon. This is when I stumbled near the Alamgir Mosque, a relic of the Mughal Empire. After taking in the site, performing prayer, getting lunch, plus another look at Varanasi, we headed to the airport. With a busy weekend over, we headed back to Delhi with our second week right in front of us and looking forward to what’s next!
January 11, 2016
In this morning’s panel discussion, Rupa Gandhi from the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) made a statement that shined. She noted, “It’s not just about saving wildlife, you have to work with the people.” I immediately sat back and thought to myself, “and what a joy it is to work with the people.” From the U.S., to Indonesia, to India, one thing I’ve learned is that empathy for animals is universal. No matter where you travel, you’ll find compassion and kindness towards them. This compassion isn’t always identical, and animals don’t fit into every culture the same way. But if you pay attention, you’ll always find it.
This week, the WTI team ventured out of Delhi to meet an elephant, her owner and mahout. We traveled four and a half hours away to find a story we could mold into a compelling fundraising campaign. In preparation, we brainstormed numerous storylines to make the relationship between the mahout and elephant resonate with people around the world. What we didn’t expect was that the story would already be shaped for us. It didn’t take us long to understand the elephant wasn’t just an economic asset. To the mahout, owner and the entire community, the elephant is family. They care deeply for the animal, and since we showed compassion for the animal we too became family. We were invited into the home of the owner’s family, and offered the best cup of chai I’ve had in India.
Another panelist said if she had a magic wand to improve one thing in the NGO sector, she would increase the sensitivity in people’s hearts. Indeed, many animal protection issues could be repaired with a good dose of sensitivity. However, if there’s one thing this week taught me it’s that we shouldn’t be discouraged. Despite the human-animal conflict existing around the world, compassion remains universal. If you simply work with people to change perceptions and behaviors, solutions will begin to emerge.
I’ve been so thrilled to find a network of animal advocates everywhere I’ve traveled. We come from incredibly diverse backgrounds, but find common ground where it counts the most.
January 8, 2016
When my extended family caught wind that I was headed to Delhi, the only question asked was, “Are you going to see the Taj Mahal?” Each relative brought up a new source touting the magic associated with the structure and held nothing back as they reminded me just how lucky I was.
My poor, well-intentioned family. They only meant well. Deep down I knew they were simply excited to share in the experience I was about to have, but I struggled to understand why my visit to this mystical building seemed to be the only aspect they really cared about.
Much to my family’s delight, I am excited to report that I did indeed pay a visit to the Taj Mahal. Last Sunday, our group woke up early and headed over to the building to see what all the fuss was about.
I must admit it was a pretty impressive building. Like most visitors, I too joined in the chaos that is attempting to take the perfect photo with your friends in a tourist spot packed in tighter than the four weeks’ worth of clothes I attempted to pack into one carry on. As we were leaving, I was struck with something that I assume not all guests are struck with. The Taj Mahal is really just a building.
Obviously, it is a pretty cool building with a strong backstory, but it is not all India has to offer and far from the only thing guests to the country should be interested in. Much to the dismay of my father and grandmother, the Taj Mahal failed to impress me like other aspects the Indian culture has.
India is interesting. It is a modern example of industrialization and what it means for a society when the needs of its people quickly outpace the growth of its infrastructure. India is exciting because its government is exploring new ways to create social value through real policy change. And India deserves a visit because, despite the heavy traffic, everyone is sincere and hospitable.
So, if you are a newly hired graduate of the policy school and not sure what to do with your newfound paid vacation time, please do come visit India. Obviously take a quick trip to Agra and visit the Taj Mahal (everyone will be displeased with you if you remove it off your list), but remember that all cultures deserve more attention than the attractions listed in the Delhi section of Lonely Planet.
January 7, 2016
From Baguettes to Naan: environmental policy across the world
I cannot think of two more distinctively different cities to visit in one month than Paris, France and Delhi, India. Especially when you are traveling to these cities to experience two very different types of environmental policy.
In early December I was one of seven public policy students that attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 21st Conference of the Parties (COP). As observers, we were able to explore the negotiating space located in Le Bourget’s repurposed airport hanger. Even though the actual decisions were made behind closed doors, we still had unlimited access to expert panels, the public space called Generations and climate change conversation.
As a graduate student, my role was to analyze the highly complex negotiations process. In an attempt to get as connected to the negotiations as possible, I spoke with individuals representing sectors from all over the world. Small talk and networking was key to gaining a deeper understanding of each country’s position and where these pieces fit into the progression towards a final agreement.
By observing interactions and the formal negotiations I was able to conceptualize the overall process and examine how each component functions together. Even after studying the history of the negotiations for the fall semester and keeping up on all textual changes, there was nothing like actually being in the room with 10,000 other people as the final text got adopted. I left Paris feeling optimistic about international negotiations and believing that continued cooperation is possible at a global level.
However, currently I am in Delhi experiencing a completely different type of policy, delving straight into local advocacy efforts in the developing world’s nonprofit sector.
Along with three other UMD students, I am consulting for Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, an NGO based in Delhi that advocates for waste reduction, among other environmental causes. One of their most successful partnerships is with Safai Sena, a local waste picker group. Safai Sena has several zero waste sites that have been extremely successful in collecting, segregating, composting and redistributing recyclable waste.
These zero waste sites are not only important for the environment but also for the livelihoods of the informal workers that collect the waste known as, “waste pickers.” These low-income workers rely on delivering waste from sources to the zero waste sites to be segregated so that recyclable materials can be sold. This sustainable process is far safer for the pickers that previously rummaged through dangerous and disease-ridden landfills in search of sellable materials. What’s more, the process creates jobs, saves money for the government and repurposes waste that would otherwise be incinerated, creating even more air pollution (a problem Delhi cannot afford).
So, why aren’t these zero waste sites popping up all over the city? Because of social barriers and a lack of mandated incentives, it is difficult for Chintan to negotiate contracts for waste pickers with corporations or other large waste sources. In an attempt to fix this, my team and I are creating a deliverable that enables Chintan to expand and replicate already successful zero waste sites while advocating for new policy that incentivizes the use of waste pickers, ultimately leading to significant waste reduction.
Far different from my observation and reflection role at COP21, here I have to insert myself into Delhi’s local political process. Now my ability to partake in small talk with strangers comes into play as I interview municipal officials, NGO leaders and waste pickers themselves in an attempt to understand how each component functions together. Additionally, I am researching policies and non-profit best practices to better understand waste management at such a micro, though impactful, level. In the end, the deliverable must embody the perfect recipe of advocacy and political ingredients that will eventually shape meaningful, sustainable policy.
Even though these experiences are starkly different, the environmental world always finds a way to overlap. While meeting with Chintan’s Manager of Outreach and Advocacy, I learned that they were also in Paris for COP21. Chintan received an award for their successful e-waste campaign and attended much of the conference.
Both these experiences have shown me the depth and complexity of environmental issues in policy and society. I cannot wait to see where else my graduate degree will take me.
January 4, 2016
And so, with jet-lagged eyes and hopeful hearts we arrived at our own speeds to bring in the New Year in New Delhi, India. The first day here was spent getting to know Delhi. Our day started with a prayer at the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. We ate in the kitchen where, everyday, the Sikh community feeds more than 40,000 people for free; disregarding class, caste, color or religion. We spoke about the many merits of Gandhi, at Gandhi Smriti, and introspected peacefully.
I grew up in Delhi, however, the trip that we took together to see Old Delhi was an eye opening experience for a hardened Southern Delhiite like myself. I saw the Jama Mazjid for the first time in my life. It is the largest mosque in India. It was peaceful with people walking the grounds after they had finished the call to prayer right before dusk. It brought up in me a great feeling of admiration for the Mughals. This, I realized, was just a teaser for Agra. Agra was the capital of the Mughals before Delhi, and the majestic Agra Fort (in the heart of the city) doesn’t let you forget that. We admired the architecture but what we saw in strength and might was nothing compared to the delicacy, symmetry and beauty of the Taj Mahal the following morning. On the banks of the Yamuna it really is a love poem immortalized in marble. The inspiration for the Taj came from the lesser-known tomb of Itmad-Ud-Dualah. Itmad-Ud-Dualah's mausoleum really was a "jeweled marble box" as described by his daughter. She commissioned its construction, and was the wife of Jehangir. A feminist hero; she was a warrior, stateswoman and a formidable politician. She held the purse strings and the power of the Mughal rule in the 16-17th century. Her name was "Mehroonissa," or a gift from God, and her official title was "Nur-Jahan," or the light of the world.
The weekend trip showed us the stark contrasts that exist in this vast country, from bejeweled buildings, to the beggars in front of them. I was talking to a friend on the bus ride whilst leaving Agra, and a young man my age stared up from the road directly at us. He was probably a daily wageworker. I could tell by his tattered clothes and gaunt face. His eyes were full of hope and aspiration. I wondered what his aspirations were and I found his gaze to be profound. I felt a pang inside me, and a greater realization than ever as to why I am in the School of Public Policy. As we learned at the Sikh Gurudwara, at the home where Gandhi took his last breaths, and through the rich history of the Mughals; service is at the core of public policy. By serving our community, our countries and our world, we can try to help others, and maybe if we are lucky, can help ourselves in the process.