Students from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy are in Delhi, India, this month gaining hands-on international experience while learning about practices and policies for social enterprises. The students enrolled in the course are working in Delhi providing direct project assistance to several NGOs and social enterprises in the area. Read below to follow the students’ experiences.
January 27, 2017
After four incredible, exhausting days of fieldwork in the Nagzira-Navegaon region and a week of data analysis segmented by three flights, our team presented the initial findings of our impact evaluation to the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). Our evaluation was largely focused on WTI’s improved cookstove program, which distributes smokeless cookstoves in villages near this vital tiger corridor in Central India. While the stoves have been shown to consume less wood, a key question is whether program beneficiaries use the stoves consistently.
Our research revealed many encouraging trends regarding improved cookstove use among program beneficiaries, while also identifying a number of behavioral challenges to long-term program sustainability. For example, many people we interviewed indicated that they had not used their improved cookstove the previous day because, in the winter, they prefer to cook outside on their traditional stoves, allowing their families to gather and warm themselves around the fire in a manner not possible with the improved stoves. Some respondents also expressed a resistance to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) stoves, which have been distributed in some villages under a government scheme, because food prepared on LPG does not taste as good as food cooked on a wood fire.
While discussing these results with the WTI team, Vivek Menon, Founder and Executive Director of WTI, shared an interesting and insightful saying – “Slowly slowly catchy monkey” – to remind us that behavior change is a slow process requiring extreme patience and persistence. This is especially true in India, an incredibly diverse country (see January 5, 11) where cultural traditions have been embedded over the course of thousands of years.
Yet, in some ways, India is changing as fast as any country in the world. India is expected to be the largest country in the world by 2022, and is the fastest growing major economy. Electricity demand is projected to quadruple by 2040, and literacy is increasing, although perhaps not quickly enough.
Thus, there exists both incredible opportunity and tremendous challenges to influencing positive social change in India. NGOs must be prepared to deal with significant behavioral inertia, and committed to working in areas and building relationships over the course of years and decades. Programs that provide new technology without continued support and reinforcement are doomed to fail. Leaders must tailor solutions to local culture, and focus on generating small wins that accumulate into larger changes over time. Only with utmost patience and persistence will the potential for transformative change in India be realized.
January 24, 2017
Before an exhilarating several days in various places of Bihar with my team, and before solidifying our deliverables for Going to School, I had a chance to reflect on how things are regularly changing, but also how some things have always been seemingly constant.
The Ganges River—or “Ganga” in Hindi—has been a literal source of life in much of India for thousands of years, rivaling rivers such as the Tigris, Euphrates and Indus as the earliest to support human civilizations. I have had the fortune of experiencing the Ganges in three different locations during my winter working and learning in India. I waded in the river while in Rishikesh, where the water is fresh from the Himalayas and still beginning to form into a mighty river. Again, I walked into the water in Varanasi, where the river has a religious and cultural importance that is difficult for me to comprehend. Finally, I witnessed the river in Patna, where its flow was much more subdued and the waters aren’t as clear. Seeing the Ganges once is spectacular, but three times was even better.
While the Ganges has a high historical importance, it isn’t like a monument or relic: its importance still exists. The Ganges was highly valued thousands of years ago, and it’s still highly valued today. Seeing so many people using the river for almost every aspect of their daily lives—drinking, irrigation, cleaning, sanitation, religion—was a surreal experience and gave me an invaluable perspective of how human life has been for thousands of years. It also helped show me how important it is to preserve such natural things and ensure that they will still exist thousands of years from now. India wouldn’t be the same without the Ganges, and neither would the people of India.
January 22, 2017
Tomorrow my group and I present to our partner organization regarding the assessments and findings for the project. Currently, we’re trying to synthesize seemingly random and disparate information into a coherent story. For some reason this act has led to me reflecting on how I’ve been experiencing a similar process from the start of my time in India.
The day-to-day life of India has a particular “chaotic” element to it, or it least that’s how it feels to me, at times. I have lived in other developing countries previously and am certainly no stranger to an almost “no holds barred approach” to driving, numerous dogs and other animals populating public spaces and the occasional power outage. There seems to be something different about India, however. I’ve tried to make sense of what at first seemingly appeared to be disorder and after three weeks here, I’m aware that it doesn’t need to make sense to me. In fact, maybe it shouldn’t make sense.
And then I realized the true beauty in this country. India does not pretend to be something it’s not. It does not try to alter its balance so that others may feel shielded from any signs of discomfort or frustration. The litter on the roads is not hidden nor the smell in the air minimized. There are no apologizes for posh buildings or for “metal detectors” made out of wood. The offers of tea, coffee and samosas are not superficial gestures, but rather are the expression of a desire to have a sincere human connection.
While certainly not complacent, India appears to have a particular level of comfort in its current state and a certain freedom from needless worries of superficial impressions. It’s almost as if everything is as it should be. In fact, what might appear to be “chaotic” from one perspective is actually quite orderly and balanced from another. After all, this is India—pure, liberating, frustrating, beauty.
January 21, 2017
The Going to School team spent the better part of this past week doing field work in and around Patna, which is the capital of Bihar. Bihar is the poorest state in India, and is also known as the “pilot graveyard.” NGO’s are constantly launching programs there, only to abandon them when they fail. Going to School aims to be different. They’ve successfully had programming in Bihar for several years.
Over the course of the three days in Bihar, we went to five schools and talked to more than 70 people! It was so interesting to be able to see the differences between the schools in terms of the facilities, as well as the students’ comprehension of the questions we covered. The students were really excited to see us, although many of the girls were very shy. At one school, several team members were even coerced into singing the National Anthem!
In order to see as many schools as possible, we spent a long time in cars. This started even before arriving in Patna, because we took a seven-hour car ride from Varanasi due to a very delayed train. The car ride to Patna, and then from Patna to Muzaffarpur, a district in Bihar in which Going to School works, was so fascinating. We were driving through more rural roads than I had ever experienced. Nothing was that far, but the quality of the infrastructure was poor enough that it took a really long time. The transit between Varanasi and Patna was like an obstacle course. Our driver was awesome – but we were swerving around cars and speeding past trucks almost the whole way. If India has taught me anything, it is that driving here is unlike driving anywhere else!
After finishing our field work in Bihar, we came straight back to Delhi and went right to work assembling our presentation and paper. The following morning the entirety of the Going to School staff watched our presentation, and then they brought in donuts, coffee and cookies. It was really sweet to have everyone there, and the questions that the staff asked were very thought provoking! Before we left Going to School for the last time we were gifted with all sorts of swag, backpacks, posters, t-shirts and more. We will be wearing them around the U.S and making sure we tell everyone about the awesome work that Going to School does. We had a ball in India, and learned so much – the Going to School team is very thankful for their experience!
January 18, 2017
After a tiring but fruitful week of data collection in Gondia (central India), my team was excited to have a little escape weekend in Varanasi, where I was blessed to celebrate my birthday on January 14. My UMD friends surprised me with a birthday cake and made my day special and full of memories. In Varanasi, we took an awesome early morning boat ride where we watched the sunrise slowly turn from a breathtaking pinkish color to its habitual color.
Varanasi is considered as one of the holiest cities in India where religious rituals are performed 24/7. Naturally, I am very tolerant and respectful of others, but being in India has been a good reminder of the importance of these two virtues. The Hindu religion believes in and prays to various gods. While these beliefs are different from my own, I visited temples and took part in some of their religious rituals. Mainly out of pure respect and sometimes curiosity. I was also reminded that happiness is a choice and that our social conditions should not determine our decision to remain happy and appreciative of what we have and who we are.
We had little time to reflect on the fresh memories of a wonderful weekend in Varanasi as we quickly returned to Delhi to finalize our analysis of our data collection in Gondia and prepare our presentation on our Impact Evaluation of the Central India Tiger Habitat Securement Project to the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). Working on this project has been a tremendous experience for my team and me. We proposed various recommendations to inform the expansion strategy to distribute improved cookstoves in 31 villages in the Nagzira-Navegaon Corridor with the ultimate goal of securing the tigers’ habitat and strengthening sustainable livelihoods for local people. At the end of our presentation, we were congratulated on our work by the Executive Director of WTI, Vivek Menon.
Our team felt particularly proud when he suggested that our final report should be shared with all the departments within WTI. Finally, on behalf of WTI, Vivek also extended an invitation for a departure dinner to my team and me before our return to Washington, DC.
January 17, 2017
When I was admitted to the India Social Enterprises study abroad, a plethora of thoughts raced through my mind: Will I be able to tolerate the air pollution? Would my stomach agree with the food? Will I be able to overcome the language barrier? What if I do not get along with my teammates? What if our partner NGO fails to give us the guidance we need for success? How will I adjust to living in India for a month, when I have never visited a developing country before?
I decided to take the risk despite these concerns. Why? Because traveling to India to make a difference in so many lives is a special opportunity rarely available to people my age. As team Youthreach concluded its last day in the tranquil villages surrounding Roorkee, I realized how fulfilling this experience has been. Over the past two weeks, we met so many gracious women who long to attain something that we have all been lucky enough to have—an education.
At each site, the villagers greeted my team with a level of warmth that transcended the language barrier and put my initial concerns at ease. Conversing with the women over warm cups of tea and plates of delicious snacks allowed me to learn about their jobs, families, lifestyles and aspirations. Now more than ever, I am truly grateful for my life back home.
On our last day in Roorkee, we met with the field staff of the Disha Social Organization, an NGO that helps implement the adult literacy program in the villages we visited. As we prepared to depart, I told the Disha employees that they are an inspiration not only because they are working to better the conditions of life in the villages, but also because they have each found meaning in their lives. To see how each field employee works towards a selfless cause while foregoing more lucrative opportunities and in some cases, overcoming cultural barriers of their own, is a testament to how passionate they are about improving their community. May we all strive to have an impact as meaningful as theirs.
As we compose our final report, I am more motivated than ever to help Youthreach and Disha improve their literacy program. It brings a tear to my eye knowing that the study abroad experience is nearly over, but I will carry these memories for the rest of my life.
I leave you with one of my favorite quotations: “Don’t cry because it’s (almost) over, smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss
January 12, 2017
Today was a bittersweet day as my team concluded our data collection in the rural villages outside of Roorkee. Over the last 10 days, my team, along with our wonderful clients from Youthreach and Disha Social Organization, visited 15 adult literacy centers and talked to dozens of women and their families. We entered their homes, shared delicious meals, connected over chai and observed the unending desire of the female villagers to become educated. Six days each week, local women gathered on rectangular carpets among their neighbors and friends to practice counting using matchsticks, identifying letters in the Hindi alphabet and repeating letter sounds as a group. Most importantly, they practiced writing the letters that combine to make up their names.
The women felt so proud to have learned how to write their names and their children’s names at the centers. Every day in the villages the women shared how powerful it made them feel when they were able to sign the deposit slip at the bank for the first time using their name instead of their thumb impression. The adult literacy centers have thus provided a sense of identity and self-worth for the women, and this is something that no one can take away from them. At first, it was hard for me to comprehend just how big of an accomplishment the name recognition was. I constantly thought to myself, how can someone go through 30, 40 or even 50 years of life not knowing how to spell their own name? But then I reminded myself of my privilege and status as an American, and the cultural norm of educating all youth in the U.S. I reminded myself of the constant encouragement I received from my family throughout my time in school to achieve at the highest levels. I reminded myself that I faced minimal barriers compared to the women in these villages. It was only then that I understood just how impactful basic education can be. The women at the adult literacy centers demonstrated such a willingness and dedication to learn despite countless barriers. Their determination was not only humbling, but truly inspiring.
Tomorrow my team will leave Roorkee and head back to Delhi to analyze our findings and compile our final report. As we depart, I will hold onto special memories of Roorkee to help me get through the work ahead. I will remember the bright blue skies and the serenity of the villages. I will remember the beautiful fields of mustard plants and sugarcane that we passed on our drives each day. I will remember the warmth of the chai shared amongst friends and colleagues. Most importantly, I will remember the smiles on the faces of the women who opened their homes to me and who shared their stories of courage and determination.
January 11, 2017
Our team traded out the constant hum of Delhi’s car horns for the gentle clanking of cowbells this past week in central India. About a three-hour drive east of Nagpur, the area was remote, beautiful and a strong reminder of humanity’s interdependence with nature. We visited 16 out of the 89 villages in the region and conducted 104 household surveys on cook stoves and the collection of plants from the forest.
The demands of a burgeoning population have been encroaching on the surrounding forest for decades. As the rice capital of India, the people of Navegaon-Nagzira corridor largely depend on the land for agricultural income and for fuel in the form of firewood, Mahua tree flowers for cattle feed, and a variety of other plants from the forest which are sold raw or transformed into foods and medicines. Cassia tora, known as Tarota in the local language, is used for a variety of purposes from Ayurveda medicines, to a coffee alternative, to industrial applications. In a perfect illustration of man’s evolving interaction with nature, many villagers lay out dried bunches of Tarota on the roads with the hopes that cars and motorbikes will run over the seeds loosening them from their pods making collection easier.
As habitats shrink due to deforestation and as habit disturbances increase, conflict between man and nature has proliferated. Wild boars and monkeys destroy crops and tigers attack livestock or even occasionally people. The government of India has instituted several policies to address these issues such as compensating farmers for damages to crops and livestock.
The government also sought to increase development by creating alternative livelihoods through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, which provides at least 100 days of wage labor to every household willing to perform unskilled manual work.
Co-existence between humans and wildlife will further be affected by the implementation of some 1,241 sq km as a Buffer Zone of Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve for the purpose of protecting the Critical Tiger Habitat. This declaration will provide people in the region with increased access to governmental assistance programs, but will also decrease access to the forest’s resources. While many people view the buffer zone as a positive development, some individuals expressed a mild resentment towards the declaration explaining they believe the government cares more about the needs of wildlife and the forest than the people’s needs. Our client, The Wild Trust of India, is working to build individual relationships and rapport at the household level to provide creative solutions for sustainable development.
On our final day in Gondia, we had the privilege of taking a Safari into the Navegaon Tiger Reserve to experience first-hand the majesty and beauty of the jungle. While we didn’t spot a tiger, we were reminded of the complex relationships between the land and the people who are dependent on its resources.
The first week of work with Going to School (GTS) was something of a whirlwind, during which we learned the true meaning of the word “flexibility.” Our project requires asking many different people across different companies to take time from their busy days to participate in interviews. Our daily schedule is constantly in flux, from interviews being cancelled last minute to new ones being scheduled with little notice, and with hours of travel to and from in the crowded city.
We took advantage of a last-minute cancellation last Wednesday to try something new. As we started exploring the city, we decided to stop at a restaurant and ask if anyone would be willing to speak with us for a few minutes about the skills needed there to obtain entry-level work. This resulted in one of our more interesting conversations to date with the manager, who sat down with us for about 45 minutes and treated us to coffee, in just one example of how friendly and generous with their time people have been.
This time also gave us the opportunity to take a break from the hectic city with a stroll through the nearby Lodi Gardens. The home to several historical tombs, the Lodi Gardens is a tranquil area where people have picnics on the grass, do yoga or even sleep. It provided us the chance to recharge before heading out for more work.
Despite our time in the Gardens, we were exhausted by the end of the week, and so the weekend in Rishikesh was a welcomed respite. Our lungs enjoyed the clean mountain air while our bodies enjoyed doing nothing.
Though everyone had been excited for a Saturday full of yoga, hiking and a safari, rain put an end to nearly all of that. After a short yoga class and chai break in the morning, we all headed back to the hotel to warm up and get dry. At least two of us spent most of the rest of the day watching TV in bed and napping, and there were no regrets.
Happily, Sunday lived up to its name, and we were free to explore the city once more. We wandered the windy streets in search of gifts for loved ones back home (and, of course, ourselves) and enjoyed a relaxing chai by the river before taking our long van and train ride back to Delhi.
January 11, 2017
While India’s diversity is apparent within Delhi, the country’s heterogeneity is also exemplified spatially. Matthew Binsted, Nina Kouadio, Annie Wolaver and I had the pleasure of traveling to central India to help provide the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) an impact evaluation as well as an exit strategy for two of the programs the NGO had implemented in the region – both geared at conserving habitat for the tiger in the Navegaon and Nagzira corridor. Although we flew into Nagpur, with a population slightly over two million, we were based in the city of Gondia, with a population of about 120,000. Here we began to see that India, a nation of more than one billion people, is not composed entirely of booming cities, but also beautiful, rural agricultural areas.
Just outside of Gondia we met WTI’s field officers, who were a wealth of knowledge and excitement, eager to help our team, the native animal species and the local people of the region. Traveling into villages to begin our data collection gave an even larger glimpse into the range of lifestyles and cultures within the nation. One may even say that it provided a view of two distinct India’s – the remote village as compared to the bustling urban areas. Although electricity had reached many villagers, they were often still lacking other resources and modern amenities (such as indoor plumbing) and for some, we were the first foreigners they had ever encountered. Still, these people were warm and welcomed us with open arms – they were eager to talk with us and even share their native cuisine.
Even more interesting was that despite modern material items (that many consider necessities) not reaching all of these people, the concept of democracy and its institutions were most certainly present and a matter of pride. In villages of often less than 100 households, elections still occurred, making the winners the most localized Indian politicians and bureaucrats. Our team was even honored by greetings from elected village heads and policemen.
One specific program we are evaluating involved improved cookstoves. These cookstoves use less fuelwood than traditional cookstoves, and also produce less pollution. Together these lead to less demand on forest resources that support the region’s tiger population, and to healthier individuals. WTI also impressively incorporated local techniques with these new stoves, utilizing local knowledge and making them out of traditional materials that their current stoves utilized. Two villages in particular – Sondalagondi and Khamtalao – also generated income by producing cookstoves directly for the region. In all, our work here has certainly been informative, humbling, and one of the most amazing experiences we have ever had. Even though we did not speak their language, we will never forget the smiling faces, nor the laughs we shared with the locals.
Today was the first day of the India consulting abroad program and we got to meet our NGO partners at Youthreach and The Grameen Foundation in New Delhi. We were finally able to meet face to face with people we have been in touch with for the past three months. The NGO staff was very warm and welcoming and they gave us an overview of the various programs the organization runs. There were two programs that were particularly interesting to us.
The Volunteer Program: Youthreach runs a volunteer program that matches the skills and interests of volunteers with the needs of partner NGOs that are mutually beneficial to both. They ensure that the volunteer finds the best match for his/her skills and the NGO finds the person with the required skillset. Youthreach has facilitated volunteer projects that include teaching children and apprenticing children in music and art by engaging with people in the creative fields. They also run country-wide volunteer management workshops to help NGOs become good volunteer managers. The organization has more than 150 NGO partners and has reached more than 200,000 disadvantaged children and 40,000 women through this program.
The Sports Program: The sports program trains disadvantaged children in squash to help them compete in national and international events and gain employment as coaches in the future. The program currently serves around 35 children who come from orphanages. While not diminishing the importance of education in any way, the program recognizes that training in sports can be an important source of empowerment and earnings. The Youthreach team also told us the inspiring story about a participant who lived on the streets of the crowded old Delhi and had fallen prey to drug addiction. Once he enrolled in the program, he was able to channel his despair and was able to overcome his drug addiction. They also mentioned that they have among the participants five national level players.
We also had a chance to talk more about the Adult Literacy program that we will be working with for next three weeks as we travel to Roorkee to interview participants and teachers firsthand. After this fruitful meeting, we were able to explore the historic city of Delhi and went to Qutub Minar, a 73-meter-tall brick minaret that was built in the 1200s.
January 5, 2017
As expected, the start of our program has been full of surprises and devoid of disappointments. Among the most memorable moments of our first full day in Delhi was being able to take a rickshaw ride through “Old Delhi.” Talking to the rickshaw workers and being guided through a jungle of narrow streets and power lines that resembled vines, so closely they even fooled a couple of monkeys, provided the first of a series of unforgettable experiences these past few days.
Old Delhi in particular served as a reminder of the diversity of this country: Arabic and Devanagari characters spelled out words in Urdu and Hindi on stores, mosques, temples, and a variety of other sites. Diversity was also visible in terms of wealth disparity, evident in sights like men driving brand new Mercedes getting cut off in traffic by men making a living by driving customers on rickshaws.
On Monday, we began working for Going to School and thinking about the disparity of opportunity faced by graduates, with only an 8th grade education, who seek to enter the workforce. These questions led us to face a wide array of people from social entrepreneurs to restaurant owners. If at times I faced homogeneity it was due to the kind and welcoming attitude of people we encountered. From taxi drivers to the staff at firms we interviewed, people were quick to open up, share their stories, and show a sincere interest in listening to ours. However, I foresee that despite people’s eagerness to tell their stories, the depth of this nation’s history and the extent of its cultural, political and socioeconomic diversity, will only allow our team to scratch the surface of understanding the great array of public policy challenges this nation faces.
The first day of 2017 allowed us to finally see India’s pride—the Taj Mahal. Much like India itself, it’s easy to be quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of this construction. Built almost 400 years ago, this mausoleum houses 28 types of precious and semi-precious stones inlaid into white marble. However, the building grows when you begin to think beyond the wealth of the Mughals, but also focus on the degree of organization and centralization of 17th century India, the work and passion of the Taj’s designers and the 20 thousand workers who shaped thousands of tons of marble blocks into this breathtaking monument.