Expeditionary India

What a fascinating and fulfilling day I had at the Heritage School!

In my first school visit, I met with an amazing group of educators who will be instrumental in setting up a collaboration between our two schools.  Our hope is to create a student created and moderated blog that exchanges local environmental solutions for our two communities.  Experts from Indian and American NGOs will weigh in with their opinions on the proposals submitted by students. 

I cannot say how impressed I was by this school.  Every teacher was so helpful and thoughtful with me, and the children were deeply invested in their learning.  The grounds buzzed with activity, and students demonstrated a huge degree of independence.  This is something I’ve noticed across India.  Young children travel and play without parental supervision much more so than in America.  

The Heritage School is a K-12 school, and the middle school follows an Expeditionary Learning curriculum, just like CLA.  I had an amazing time going through their curricula and learning new ideas to enhance our own expeditions next year.  It was wild to see the same teaching practices and ideology implemented so similarly yet so far from home!

I had a tour of their gorgeous campus, much of which is outdoors.  Their facilities were incredible, with various rooms for a wide array of arts like textiles, pottery, tabla music, dance, painting, etc.  Student work abounded.

Their science facilities consisted of a terrarium and a gigantic green space for plant cultivation and experiments.  Apparently, a snake had recently escaped.  I asked if the snakes they house were poisonous, and one teacher replied, “Not most of them.”  They all chuckled at my frightened reaction to the fact that a baby cobra was recently caught on the grounds.  I like my Rikki-Tikki characters to remain on the page.

Their campus has done outstanding work to improve their carbon-footprint, and I’m hoping that our two schools can compare results of our energy outputs.  I like the idea of an international energy competition!

I’m feeling very lucky to have made these connections, and I hope that our schools will continue have strong exchanges in the future. 

Delhi’s development is in full swing.

On a trip to Gurgaon, a growing suburb outside of Delhi, it’s impossible to ignore India’s booming construction sector. 

Vast rows of gigantic, towering condominiums spring up from desert brush, and they simply appear to be multiplying.  I’m not sure who will be the future residents, but it’s clear that there is a demand for new housing. I’ve never seen anything like it.

It struck me that Cleveland has almost the opposite condition.  Folks are leaving the city and homes sit unoccupied.  New buildings are a rarity, and construction sticks out.  Here it is the norm. 

All of the discussion of wastewater treatment through the DEWAT method reminded me of my very own beloved Oberlin College Environmental Studies building.
It recycles its own waste through a living machine, much in the same way that projects in Agra or Delhi do.

All of the discussion of wastewater treatment through the DEWAT method reminded me of my very own beloved Oberlin College Environmental Studies building.

It recycles its own waste through a living machine, much in the same way that projects in Agra or Delhi do.

These are images from a DEWAT in Agra.  DEWAT stands for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment, and it is a means for a local community to recycle and treat sewage without the need for a connection to government run sewer lines. 

CURE India has been instrumental in implementing this system.

This is an example of a community resettlement project in Delhi.  A family would live in this home, though they would need to leave to use the bathroom or access water.

This is an example of a community resettlement project in Delhi.  A family would live in this home, though they would need to leave to use the bathroom or access water.

This is a video of Dr. Renu Khosla speaking about her work in New Delhi and the difficulties facing the urban poor in this city.

Today I met with Dr. Renu Khosla, the leader of CURE India.  She is an amazing advocate for the urban poor who lack basic water and sanitation services throughout the city.

Throughout my trip I have been gathering videos, testimonials, and photographs from my own observations and interviews with local residents and business owners.  This was my first time to sit down with a true expert on the subjects I’m studying.  I could have talked to her all day long, but I did not want to monopolize a very busy schedule!

CURE is an extremely valuable organization to those who need assistance procuring basic water and sanitation services.  One of their talents is integrating a variety of stakeholders (local and state governments, private businesses, community members, other NGOs, etc.) together to achieve successful projects.  Dr. Khosla mentioned the need for collaboration among a variety of sources because without it one body or organization can prevent a project from occurring.

An interesting fact I learned from Dr. Khosla is that one of the primary problems facing those in very low-income settlements is that many of the residents are technically squatting on the land.  Because they have no legal right to their residences, the local government feels less obligated to provide services to them.  They are not paying rent or property taxes and therefore they are ignored by government services.  

It’s easy to frame what these people are doing as “illegal,” but that is really an excuse the government uses to bypass solving the problem.  Obviously there is a crisis if millions of citizens are technically living illegally on land because they do not have incomes available to purchase or rent space in the market.

Just as in America, it is difficult for the disenfranchised to advocate for services or obtain the necessary identification and legal status required to receive the government services that are available. I was reminded of the controversy over voter ID laws in the US, for example.

This is not to say that the local government has been totally inactive when it comes to providing water. They do bring in water tankers for residents of slum areas and have established resettlement communities for squatters.  However, these resettlement communities face their own problems of water management and sewage treatment.  The resettlement communities do not have indoor plumbing systems for residents and thus have community bathroom facilities outside the home.  These facilities are frequently broken and poorly maintained.  Also, the waste from such bathrooms is not properly treated and is dumped into the watershed, further polluting the groundwater and the Yamuna River.

CURE sets up sustainable, local services designed to be controlled by community members, rather than the government.  This empowers neighborhoods to better manage their own water and sewage systems and decreases their reliance on the sometimes infrequent and ineffective government aid.

Projects created by CURE have included designing and building wastewater treatment facilities that local neighborhoods can use to clean and recycle their own water.  In addition to taking care of their own water, the wastewater plant also has the capability of taking in outside waste to recycle for a profit.  This allows the community to use the system as a means of making money and serving a greater good. 

The challenge seems to be taking these small scale successes on a local level and multiplying them to be effective statewide and nationwide.  CURE has done an incredible job of demonstrating how unique and innovative programs can solve these complicated problems, but the government of India has been slower and more resistant to adopt them aggressively. 

Despite the immense challenges, Dr. Khosla was optimistic that the environmental movement in India is growing stronger.  She said that there is an increasing awareness of the issues at hand among middle class Indians, even though the government has been frustratingly apathetic and intractable in the face of many of these obstacles.

I would love to have our school work to raise money and awareness for this organization and am hoping to set up some kind of town hall or symposium on the issues at hand next year at CLA. 

Perhaps even more exciting than the Taj Mahal was the sight of the Yamuna River!

My students studied this river for months and to be able to take pictures and videos of it for them was just inspiring.

As they could tell you, the river is used for many (probably too many) things.  Just in one glance you can watch people bathing, washing clothes, and throwing out dirty water into the river.  Next to them, water buffaloes graze and drink.  And next to that, trash sits idly in mostly stagnant waters.   Above the river, smokestacks from Agra’s factories loom.  Most likely some of them dump into the Yamuna. 

This is not to mention that upstream 60% of Delhi’s human waste gets put into this river as well.

Though it’s somewhat depressing to document, I’m excited to work with schools in the area to propose some solutions to the problems here. 

After an overnight train to Agra, I arrived at the Taj Mahal.

I’ve always enjoyed the more interactive elements of travel (talking to locals, sampling food, walking through neighborhoods, etc.) rather than simply visiting monuments and museums, so I was prepared to find the Taj Mahal overrated.  I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of famous buildings, and normally I check them off my list and find something a bit more off the beaten path. 

It really was worth all the hype.  I’m not going to dare try to describe a place that Kipling, Tagore, and hundreds of other much more talented writers have depicted other than to say it was quite ethereal and surreal.

I found it more beautiful from a distance with the monsoon clouds as a backdrop.

Behind the monument sits the Yamuna river, low from lack of rain and dotted with trash.

There’s an eery contrast to witness as the revered Taj Mahal is treated with extraordinary respect and care, while the river behind it suffers so deeply.