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India at the deep end

Incoming Tata Fellows get a crash course on resource-constrained communities and the challenges of the developing world.
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Tata Fellows pose with residents of a village in Satara District, Maharashtra, India.
Tata Fellows pose with residents of a village in Satara District, Maharashtra, India.
Photo: Ben Miller/MIT Tata Center

It has been said of India that the more you get to know it, the less you understand. The country’s vast size, diversity, and complexity gives it a knack for defying logic and confounding accepted wisdom.

MIT’s newest cohort of Tata Fellows — graduate students supported by the Tata Center for Technology and Design — were introduced to a slice of all that is fascinating, difficult, and wonderful about India in a joint orientation session this August with their counterparts at the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. The six-day program took the MIT group on a journey through wildly different environments, from the swarming kaleidoscope of Mumbai to a remote, foggy mountaintop villa, from one of Asia’s densest slums to a countryside of sleepy villages and farms.

The goal, according to Tata Center Program Manager Nevan Hanumara, was to create a dissonance that would challenge students to “develop a nuanced understanding of life and its challenges at the bottom of the pyramid.”

It was the first experience of India for many, while others had visited before and some were born and raised there. For all of the Tata Fellows, who span numerous disciplines and will spend the next two years creating and implementing practical solutions for the developing world, it was a time to increase their knowledge of the problems they’re trying to solve.

“Being poor is physically stressful”

The Mumbai portion of the orientation, hosted by IIT Bombay, familiarized students with examples of India’s primary resource-poor environments: urban slums and rural villages.

The group visited Dharavi, an informal settlement in the heart of Mumbai where an estimated 1 million people are packed into just over 500 acres. Dharavi earned international fame when it was featured in the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” but students observed a far more complex ecosystem than the term “slum” implies. As one student noted, in the absence of government regulation, the logic of “extreme capitalism” organizes Dharavi.

Here, an unofficial recycling industry handles 80 percent of Mumbai’s plastic waste, while thousands of small businesses and factories manufacture everything from leather goods to puff pastries. In the residential sector, longstanding communities occupy an intricate maze of alleys and tin-roof shanties. Glimpses inside the homes revealed that, though small, they were scrupulously maintained and surprisingly modern.

Dharavi’s informal economy offers opportunities to migrants and other neglected groups, but leads to unsafe labor conditions and poor sanitation. Students looked inside an aluminum smelting plant where workers breathed highly toxic fumes. In the residential sector, they saw untreated sewage flowing into the ocean from public toilets used by as many as 1,500 people per day. (A previous Tata Center project, Tracing Public Space, created a framework to help residents transform these conditions.)

Back at IIT Bombay and shifting focus to rural life, Tata Center Academic Director Chintan Vaishnav and fellow Mark Jeunnette led the students through “Naranpur Express,” a role-playing game that simulated life in an agrarian village. Each “family,” played by a combination of MIT and IITB Fellows, had to manage their resources and survive the droughts, insects, and market forces that impact real Indian farmers.

One student reflected that “the life of a farmer in India is hugely dependent on factors apart from his own hard work and skill.” As the game wore on, they became increasingly invested in the fate of their imaginary family. One participant summed it up: “Being poor is physically stressful.”

Going to the country

After this mega-urban adventure, it was time to see the rural side of India firsthand. The group traveled to the hill station of Mahabaleshwar, a popular summertime destination. Now, with the monsoon in full swing, it was mostly empty and mired in an eerie, otherworldly fog. Below lay a wide green valley marked by waterfalls, rice paddies, and clustered villages — discernable on the few occasions the mist lifted.

In nearby Satara district, the group toured villages and asked questions about the local economy and infrastructure. According to Hanumara, “this led to discussions on urban migration and the sustainability of villages,” a connection to Dharavi, where many rural migrants go to find work.

Agricultural productivity varied widely from village to village. Some were naturally rain-fed and appeared relatively prosperous, while others, just a short distance away, were parched and struggling even in the rainy season. The unequal distribution of resources — natural, economic, and social — was apparent.

Orientation concluded back in Mumbai, in the historic Colaba neighborhood at the city’s southern tip. Here the students finally had time to gather their thoughts about the last few days before heading off to their individual research locations around India.

Said Hanumara, “It’s impossible to introduce India in a week. But the fellows now understand that the complexity of these problems needs to be handled with extreme care, and all potential solutions are interconnected. We have an immense scope to positively impact people’s lives.”

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