January 14, 2010

Abroad in India: Reflections from My Fall Semester

January 14, 2010 - Emily Nguyen (‘11) writes about her semester in India.

January 14, 2010

Almost two years ago in Environmental Studies 160, my good friend Rosanne Wielemaker and I chose to do a small research project on the Navdanya Farm in Dehradun, India. Little did I know at the time that my interest in this organic farm would lead to a second situated research proposal in India, an application for the Lewis & Clark study abroad program in India and an independent field study on third world environmentalism. This fall, I was able put my two years of theoretical research on India into a real cultural experience by spending three and a half months traveling and studying the country with twenty-four of my fellow classmates. While I was there, I had the opportunity to learn about India’s history and culture from two brilliant university professors—Sunil and Nita Kumar—as well as a host of other native lecturers and local townspeople. In addition, Rosie and I were able to conduct an independent study on waste management and environmentalism in India.

From September 1st to December 14th, I lived in about five of India’s major metropolises and dozens of other small and rural areas. We began the program in Delhi where—under the guidance of Sunil Kumar—we studied medieval and modern India through field trips to monuments, mosques, shrines and temples as well as through projects that forced us to navigate the city on our own. From there, we went to Dehradun, Rishikesh and Haridwar before finally settling in Varanasi for the month of October. I was fortunate enough to be in Varanasi during the major Hindu festival of Diwali, which meant plenty of sweets, firecrackers and parades. Unlike a developing economic and political capital such as Delhi, Varanasi is a city in which India’s social and ecological problems are more apparent. The city’s significance in Hinduism, old infrastructure and large handicraft industry make Varanasi an incredibly unique place to study environmental issues such as waste management, pollution and urbanization. Consequently, Varanasi was where I situated my independent study.

In the spring of 2009, Rosanne and I decided to collaborate on an independent study regarding waste management practices in India. After a semester of intensive research and planning, we submitted our project proposal to the ENVS steering committee and waited anxiously for the fall to begin furthering our investigation. However, research projects do not always go as planned, especially in new and foreign countries. Despite the many drawbacks that we faced in attempting to follow our original proposal, we were able to create and accomplish a new project, using the data and contacts that we had already established through another, separate assignment in Varanasi.

With help from the Nirman School, I spent nearly two weeks learning about Hindu philosophy on humans and nonhuman nature from Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra and his colleague R.K. Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Foundation. As the high priest of Varanasi and a former professor of Civil Engineering at Benaras Hindu University, Dr. Mishra—more commonly known as Mahantji—combined his faith and knowledge of science to form the Sankat Mochan Foundation, an organization that works to raise awareness of pollution in the holy Ganga river. While it is considered the Mother Goddess in Hinduism, the Ganga River is incredibly polluted and many Hindu residents in Varanasi refuse to accept this objective fact. In Varanasi, I listened to these local Hindus talk about their love for Gangaji and then watched them throw plastic bottles into their beloved river. During these two and half weeks, my main objective was to look at the significance of religion to an individual’s actions towards the biophysical world. In finishing my assignment in Varanasi, I was able to gather a tremendous amount of data for my independent study, which I will continue to analyze this spring.

From Varanasi, we headed south to Bangalore, Mysore, Penukonda, BR Hills and Nagarhole to learn about other issues of environment and development in India. My visit to the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) organization in BR Hills was one of the most eye-opening and humbling experiences that I had throughout my stay in India. VGKK is an organization formed by Dr. Sudarshan that aims to protect the culture and livelihood of tribal peoples in the state of Karnataka from the effects of technological development and wildlife conservation. VGKK provides these tribes with health facilities as well as education in both academic studies and organic agriculture. In BR Hills, I was able to witness the benefits of this program: the preservation of biodiversity and local knowledge.

After spending three and a half months in a third world country, I have had a rough time transitioning back into my previous lifestyle knowing that the same issues that I saw and people that I met still exist 8000 miles away. At the end of the day, I am grateful for choosing India two years ago as my situated research site in ENVS 160. Because of that small choice, I am now returning to my studies at Lewis & Clark having gained a tremendous amount of inspiration and knowledge from my experiences and travels in India.

Posted by Emily Nguyen ‘11