My Visit to India as a DGHI Doctoral Scholar

19 12 2012

By Jie-Sheng Tan Soo
DGHI Doctoral Scholar

jie-sheng1I went to India for the first time last summer to learn and observe how fieldwork is conducted and to understand what life is like in a low- and middle-income country. It was my first time in India, and my first research trip as a DGHI Doctoral Scholar.

I’m a PhD student in the Nicholas School of the Environment working with my supervisor and mentor, DGHI faculty member Subhrendu Pattanayak, on research projects related to water and sanitation and improved cookstoves. I’m excited to be working with Dr. Pattanayak.

My first stop in India was the mountains of Uttarakhand, where I worked on the improved cookstoves project. To reach Uttarakhand from Delhi, we took a four-hour train ride and a three-hour car ride up winding, narrow and unpaved mountain roads. This long and at times dangerous journey was worth it as I could escape from the sweltering summer heat of the plains.

We were trying to determine the desired features of improved cookstoves and how to encourage usage of these cookstoves among rural households. For the ten days I was there, I helped with staff training and participated in household surveys. While I have worked with datasets collected by others, this was the first time I was part of the data collection process. This experience allowed me to put a ‘face’ to the datasets. It also gave me a new appreciation for the hard work that goes into data collection and for the time people give up in order to provide us with information.

jie-sheng2After a week and a half, I begrudgingly bade farewell to the mountains and their lovely people as I proceeded to the state of Orissa in the eastern part of India. This is one of the poorest states in India and signs of their relative poverty were obvious everywhere.

While in Bhadrak district, which is located at Orissa’s coastal area, I surveyed villagers involved in the 2005 sanitation evaluation study led by Dr. Pattanayak and others. This study was initially designed to examine whether subsidies and/or social pressure on open-defecation would lead to higher adoption of latrines. The team is following up to see if the adoption was sustained and, more importantly, if there were improved health impacts because of the use of latrines. During this particular visit, I met with rural villagers and gathered preliminary information on the sustainability of that project. Some villagers complained about the poor quality of the latrines while others seemed proud to have one. Regardless of their attitudes toward latrines, I was almost always invited for a cup of hot Chai. On a more somber note, I noticed animal feces in the village, possibly making it more challenging to quantify improvements in health from latrine use.

The highlight of my two weeks in Orissa was visiting and interviewing villagers. They welcomed me and treated me to many new and interesting sights. In Uttarakhand, I coordinated my visits with the help of a native, who happened to be a fellow Duke student. All these hands-on efforts made these visits more satisfying.

The last leg of my trip was in Maharashtra, where the financial capital Mumbai is located. Upon arriving in Mumbai, I was overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity as the high-rise buildings, luxury cars and well-paved roads reminded me of my native country of Singapore. At the same time, I was made painfully aware of the wide wealth disparity as Mumbai is home to some of the largest slums in Asia.

Similar to my time in Orissa, I visited areas like the rural district of Nashik to interview villagers about their water practices and health needs. The top health concern for this community is water availability. Due to the scarcity of this natural resource, the community wanted a more reliable source of water. The more fortunate ones had water tanks to store excess water. However, during the long dry season, the water in the tank is used up quickly. I asked whether having water tanks in their village helped to reduce cases of diarrhea. Their answers seemed to be inconsistent — everyone had a different idea of what diarrhea meant to them. This is a good reminder that anthropometric health measurements are needed in addition to self-reported health status.

Since making the decision to work on health issues in the developing world, I have the nagging thought of whether this city-dweller can fully understand the daily challenges the locals face and if I have ability to make a difference. My trip to India has made me realize that I still have a long way to go, but I have taken that important first step. I look forward to returning to India soon to continue this important research.

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