Friday, April 28, 2017

A woman cooking with a chulha

In December, 2016, a group of 12 UI faculty and students, led by Meena R. Khandelwal, an associate professor of anthropology and gender, women’s and sexuality studies at the University of Iowa, spent a month studying efforts to design and diffuse improved cookstoves in southern Rajasthan, India, thanks to a Fulbright-Hays GPA grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and supported by UI International Programs. 

Millions of people worldwide depend on simple biomass stoves to cook their daily meals. Cooking with this kind of stove (called a chulha in India) has benefits, including its construction from locally sourced stone and mud and the delicious wood-fired flavor it infuses into bread. However, these stoves are also linked to a host of health and environmental problems. In India and elsewhere, women and girls collect fuel wood, trekking increasingly long distances in the face of deforestation; mothers and children are disproportionately affected by harmful emissions due to their physical proximity to cooking fires. The problem of cook-stoves is a global story, but it also varies by place depending on differences in cuisine, landscape, history, culture and state policies.


Young woman carrying fuelwood

India has been a key site for efforts to replace the hand-crafted chulha with ‘efficient’ and ‘smokeless’ manufactured stoves.  Indeed, the government, academic researchers and NGOs have tried for more than half a century to diffuse ‘improved cook-stoves’ (ICs) in rural areas, but without much success. Thanks to a Fulbright-Hays GPA grant, funded by the Department of Education, I was able to take a group of 12 UI faculty and students to spend a month studying efforts to design and diffuse ICs in southern Rajasthan.  ICs are a window into the complex and inevitably unfinished project of ‘development’ in India and elsewhere.  We studied the IC issue by seeking out the perspectives of both women users and agents of development, including researchers and practitioners. The goal of our Fulbright-Hays seminar “Promise and Pitfalls of Development Efforts in Rajasthan, India” was to understand people’s personal experiences with ICs, including those of researchers who design them, manufacturers who produce them, NGO workers who promote them, and village women who are expected to use them. Another goal was to demonstrate the value of area studies expertise (language, history, culture, religion) not only for a broad range of ‘science’ disciplines, but also for engagement with vexing problems of global concern.  A comprehensive account of our four week trip is impossible in this short piece, so this is a sketch of some of the places we saw and people we met.  


City Palace in Udaipur

In addition to the focus on ICs, my goal was to expose participants to different kinds of places and people, because, well, there are many Indias.  Site visits included both research institutions that produce knowledge with painstaking care and shopping malls complete with gleaming food courts and escalators that carry customers up and down floors jammed with international and Indian brands but eerily empty of crowds that generally fill Indian markets.  We joined Indian and foreign tourists to see wildlife reserves, sprawling 15th century Rajput forts, massive palaces—open to tourism but still inhabited by present day royals who retain ceremonial importance—and even the Taj Mahal.  Forts and palaces are stunning artifacts of India’s long and colorful history, but the tour guides for hire—master storytellers—bring these monuments to life.    

Most of our time in India was spent off the tourist trail. We visited a local cricket practice session at an open field on the invitation of our young hotel owner and cricketer Sullabh, a tiny roadside temple devoted to the ‘smallpox goddess’ Sitala where young couples seek her blessing before marriage, and NGO offices where staff work with dogged persistence to change hearts and minds as well as structural inequalities.  One NGO, Jatan Sansthan, works to empower rural youth. Under the guidance of Ms. Lakshmi Murthy, Jatan has launched the UGER project (“new beginnings”) that focuses on menstrual health and trains girls to produce and use washable menstrual pads.  These pads offer a livelihood opportunity to girls, save money that might otherwise be spent on costly disposable pads, and address the environmental toxins associated with disposables so actively promoted by Proctor and Gamble.  They are also a public statement that pads hung out in the sun to dry are not a matter of shame.


Home in Karech

Getting out of the city in search of rural women’s views on chulhas and fuel wood collection, we also visited non-electrified village homes where chulhas are used daily, and wood is stacked nearby.  Small solar panels sit atop thatched roofs, charging mobile phones.  These village visits gave us the opportunity to try out our Hindi and Mewari which we were learning from our language teacher extraordinaire, Ms. Vanita Ojha.  Even though this seminar was relatively short, language instruction was a central part of the program.  As India has become a popular site for both business and short-term study abroad, it is often held up as a place where foreigners can get by very well with English.  This is true only if one limits one’s interaction to educated middle and upper class people.  In rural Bhil (“Scheduled Tribe”) villages in southern Rajasthan, women generally don’t even speak Hindi, much less English.  Trying to find out what women think through two layers of male translators makes me feel like a modern-day armchair anthropologist.  Because campus internationalization efforts occur within a context where ‘time to degree’ is a primary metric of success in graduate training and study abroad has a become a 2-3 week affair, language study is dismissed as too slow a process.  It must remain a key part of campus internationalization efforts.  

While the chulha is generally associated with rural cooking, rural and urban livelihoods are deeply intertwined.  People flee to cities to escape poverty and agrarian distress. Boys and young men leave villages to perform low-paid and dangerous work in the service and industry sectors (head loading, construction, mining); indeed, this labor mobility is central to India’s economic growth.  Ms. Parul Kulkarni spoke to us about the work of Udaipur-based Ajeevika Bureau, an NGO that assists migrant workers.  Many of these young men live temporarily on the construction sites where they work and either buy (fried) foods or cook with costly firewood that they purchase.  To address the cooking needs of migrant workers, Ajeevika Bureau has created mobile community kitchens, enabling the men to save money and eat healthier food.  Cooking is typically women’s work, but millions of Indian men work away from their homes—in the city, on the move with their herds, in another country—and they cook.

Barefoot College and Swaraj University are two alternative schools in Rajasthan that shun degrees and promote inquiry-based and applied learning.  Barefoot College is a striking contrast to US universities and colleges that were envisioned to be, like monasteries, separated from communities.  We now try to promote ‘public engagement’ to overcome this foundational town-gown divide.  Barefoot College, as described in Bunker Roy’s TED Talk, is embedded in the the surrounding rural community and ecosystem and founded on the tenets that everyone possesses valuable knowledge.  Thus, the college trains non-literate grandmothers to practice dentistry (we met one of them) and offers six months’ training to semi- and non-literate women on how to build and repair solar systems; these ‘solar mamas’ have taken their achievements as far as Sierra Leone and Zanzibar where they train local women in solar engineering.  We were lucky to have Ramniwas-ji as our tour guide; he comes from a Dalit background and has no formal schooling.  He was instructed by Bunker Roy to learn accounting to help the college—to his own surprise, he did—and was then encouraged to pursue his true passions of puppetry and theater as a means to spread the Barefoot message of breaking caste, gender and religious barriers—through satire and laughter. His repertoire of puppets include a poor Rajasthani farmer, a Brahmin priest, a grandmother, Barack Obama, and even a foreign researcher sporting a short-sleeved shirt, glasses and a tie!


Ramniwas with foriegn researcher puppet

 Swaraj University is part of the movement against ‘factory schooling’ called Shikshantar Andolan, and one of its projects is Halchal Café established as an experiment in gift economy.  We spent a Saturday evening at the café socializing.  People volunteer to cook a meal with locally sourced ingredients and serve it to anyone who shows up.  This is different from the charitable ‘soup kitchen’ model in that guests offer whatever they can give in exchange, whether a monetary donation stuffed into a wooden box, time, service or even an artistic performance.  Over steel plates of spicy pulao and vegan brownies, we got to chat with one of Shikshantar’s founders, Manish Jain, who renounced his career in the US to return to India:  He had worked as an educational planning consultant for UNICEF, UNDP, World Bank, USAID and an investment banker for Morgan Stanley.  As he puts it, he has spent years trying to unlearn his B.A. in Economics and International Relations from Brown University and his M.A. in Education from Harvard. 

Whew.  We managed to do all this in the middle a demonetization crisis.  The same day of Trump’s win in the US (Nov. 8) India’s government announced that, as an anti-corruption effort and amidst reports of Pakistani counterfeit rings, all Indian Rupee notes in commonly used denominations of 500 and 1000 would become worthless on Dec. 30; the government was releasing new 2000 rupee notes, but, predictably, there were not enough in circulation.  This situation wreaked havoc on India’s largely cash economy, as people tried to dispose of their old notes and get new ones. By the time we arrived in mid-December.  One could identify the few ATMs that had cash by their long lines.  Wealthy Indians scrambled to get cash, while poor people, who subsist almost entirely in the informal economy and hold their savings in cash, were hurt the most, as both employers and customers did not have cash to pay them.  For me, the first omen was when, upon arrival at the Delhi airport with a group of 12, I was allowed to change only US$ 77 (the weekly allowance foreign currency conversion). Period.   With plenty of money in the budget, I spent the next four weeks trying to figure out how to spend it; only larger stores and restaurants take credit cards.  While Prime Minister Modi heralded India’s new digital economy that would end corruption, India’s national monuments like the Taj Mahal were still accepting only cash for entry fees!  Miraculously, we got by with the kindness of many and a heavy dose of what Indians call “jugaad” or work-arounds that bend the rules to solve a problem. Insights from economic anthropology were much more helpful than economics proper. 

Our first few days in Delhi highlighted Iowa connections.  In Gurgaon (bordering Delhi), we were hosted by Sehgal Foundation in their beautiful LEEDs building powered by solar and with zero water waste.  Dr. Suri M. Sehgal arrived in India as a child refugee during the 1947 Partition, later came to the US to study plant genetics, and lived much of his life in Des Moines.  He is a diaspora philanthropist who has devoted his energies and wealth to promoting rural development in Mewat district of Haryana.  Mr. Jay Sehgal is a Trustee of the S.M. Sehgal Foundation (SMSF) and an alum of University of Iowa; SMSF has been a supporter and host of UI’s India Winterim Program.  Mr. Lalit Mohan Sharma, the SMSF Director of Adaptive Water Technologies, explained how the organization uses check dams and technologies to address problems of dropping groundwater levels and salinization.  While in Delhi, we also visited the Gurgaon office of American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), where Dr. Vandana Sinha gave us a wonderful tour of AIIS Art and Archaeology Department that included seeing work in progress, a labor of love, to document and preserve South Asia’s rich architectural and archaeological history.  Here was another Iowa connection, as UI faculty member Dr. Philip Lutgendorf, is the current president of AIIS.


Group in front of Ganesh Pol Gate at Amber Fort in Rajasthan

In India, NGOs most commonly take an oppositional stance towards ‘corporates’ who tend to promote neoliberal development and, of course, benefit from it.  Two of our guest speakers suggested the need for a different approach. In Delhi, we heard from Dr. Nisha Agrawal, head of Oxfam India. When she left her career as a World Bank economist to lead Oxfam’s transition from being a subsidiary of the British non-profit to a national (Indian) organization, she had to win over the trust of her new employees and colleagues in the non-profit sector who were generally suspicious of the World Bank’s capitalist development.  Dr. Agrawal explained to us that Oxfam adopts a rights-based approach, but is one of the very few NGOs in India that is willing to work directly with corporates; they are doing so, she said, because it is the ONLY way to bring about large scale change on the issue, for example, of violence against women: if corporates are the problem, she said, then they need to be part of the solution as well.   A few weeks later, in Udaipur, Mr. George Varughese, president of Delhi-based Development Alternatives (DA), observed that if humans don’t learn to work together we will never address the systems challenges we face.  DA works on issues of environment and sustainable development by building partnerships with other organizations, with communities and researchers.  In order to scale up, he argues, development organizations need to get into company and corporate space.  Both Agrawal and Varughese are pragmatists.

In addition to journeys by bus or train, tours and meetings, wild rides stuffed like sardines into auto-rikshaw taxis,  we also read essays and discussed them in ‘seminar’ sessions, our disciplinary disagreements kept friendly by steaming cups of chai, fried pakoras and our favorite ‘biscuits’.  Packets of Bourbon Silk and Parle G (G for glucose) can be found at Coralville’s Indian grocery, but they never taste quite the same here. This trip confirmed my long-standing view that India is a place of incredible vitality and innovation, perhaps because the state is rather weak, the problems daunting, the civilization ancient, and the population enormous and diverse.  We learned that, with regard to the IC issue, too much attention has focused on technology itself and not enough on the experiences of users or on the power dynamics between agents of development and those targeted for interventions.  These conversations and debates continued during the Provost’s Global Forum “Up in Smoke: Women’s Health and the Environment” that took place April 12-14, 2017, on the University of Iowa campus.  This forum brought together some of the leading experts on ICs from India and the US, and included comparative perspectives from China, Tanzania and Malawi. We brought two ICs from India and demonstrated their use on the Anne Cleary Walkway as part of the forum.   In terms of future research directions, every short trip to a village in southern Rajasthan prompts more questions than answers: How is fuelwood shared, exchanged and sold?  Would women actually be thrilled to be freed from having to collect wood?  These questions about actual behavior and actual attitudes and aspirations can only be answered with substantial ethnographic research.