India is definitely a-moo-sing

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View of my neighborhood from the top of my water tank.

The past week has been real great, if you’re a fan of the animal kingdom. I’ve been able to visit the CDD Society office, where I worked most of last summer. The most shocking development is that the poor dog who was dying with open wounds the whole summer is now healthy (besides her paralyzed legs) and actually even pregnant. I would have confidently bet my entire life savings that she would not still be alive.

If you know me well you know that my actual nightmare is having a parasitic worm crawl out of my arm. I’m preparing myself to live that nightmare. When I took a shower this week, I discovered AFTER my shower at least twenty tiny, tiny wriggling worms swimming in my shower bucket. This is probably the only moment in my lifetime where I actually prayed for the existence of mosquito larvae. Now I’m debating whether showering with baby worms or not showering at all is less hygienic.

Another significant animal encounter was waking up, walking outside for breakfast and stepping immediately onto a dead rat. Other animal highlights of the week include:

The bunnies are from a resort we went to over the weekend in Bangalore. I think I was too excited about the prospect of swimming in a real pool with actual clean water to document anything besides the bunnies.

Besides the worm shower, one of the lowlights of the week was an encounter with one of the shop owners in my neighborhood. He’s someone I’ve gotten to know over my time here and one who lacks the same tact and respect of boundaries that most others hold. His family makes great food though, and owns an organic shop so I usually run into him a few times a week. This week, I was with my two EcoHouse-mates and we stopped in the organic store after dinner. Breaking all norms in India (and even the U.S.), this man handed me a small package and encouraged me to open it to check out his “organic” sanitary napkins, made especially for me. Um. Once the shock wore off that an Indian man actually brought up the topic of sanitary napkins (which is total taboo for most people), I was finally able to form a half reply that I wasn’t interested. This was deemed insufficient and he pushed for further explanation. Again, um. I personally subscribe to a reusable even more eco-friendly option than organic sanitary napkins but was panicking and wracking my brain for how I explain that to this man, also in the presence of my other two male friends. Thankfully, Marius saved me by deflecting the conversation to organic grapes. That’s India though, always challenging your comfort zone even when you think you expect that.

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Also not something you always expect to see when you buy fruit.

I spent the majority of this week at another community in Bangalore, conducting interviews and lifting concrete covers to look inside sewer lines and treatment tanks. For those of you who aren’t excited to see pictures of wastewater (aka poop) from India, scroll down fast. Part of my data collection consists of evaluating the performance of sanitation systems (how well wastewater is contained, treated, and disposed). Thankfully, I am able to rely on existing monitoring data or send samples to a lab for analysis so that a pop-up poop lab doesn’t have to be made by my bed. We still do walk all around the systems and pull open the manholes to see if the poop inside is cooperating. I have no problem (besides the occasional lack of upper-arm strength) opening the manhole covers myself, but it is funny to watch my assistants or community members kind of panic and try to stop me from doing so.

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Manual scavenging to clean out drainage systems, while technically illegal, is still one of the only options for drainage and sewer O&M in some places.

In contrast to the community I visited last week, this community still has a functional treatment system. The system is operated and maintained primarily by the NGO that implemented the project, with some support from the community. The only significant challenges with this particular sanitation system occur with the sewer lines. For nearly all the communities I study, the wastewater connects to the sewers from a household or community toilet block with PVC pipes. The sewer lines are simplified concrete sewers with small slopes and varying sizes. The largest problem we see with these sewers are that they’re often really shallow and not designed to sustain the structural loads of India. The sewers here should be designed to bear cows, dogs, goats, motorbikes loaded with twelve feet of corn stalks, auto rickshaws, large water tankers, and people carrying stacks of saris to sell door to door. Usually, this doesn’t happen since people can map the broken sewers to the time when a large truck drove past or when the water tanker stopped on the pipes. As a result, this community really struggles with sewer clogging and there isn’t a clear delineation of who is responsible for fixing the breakages or clogs. The positives reside in that wastewater is still slowly making its way to the treatment system, a system that is performing to Pollution Control Board requirements. The water is reused onsite for a small community garden, where households collect shares of the harvest on a rotational basis. Every household and family sees the value of sanitation and the benefits their community receives as a result of continued investment in the system, which is not something that I regularly hear when I’m doing my interviews.

One of my favorite things is when I’m trying to do an interview or hold a focus group and my participants just start laughing hysterically. This usually happens with the women in the community, and I think it reflects a bit of shyness or nervousness, often housed in self-doubt of their ability to answer my questions and speak on behalf of their community. This probably isn’t a refined research technique, but it almost seems to me one of the best ways I build rapport with the women is by squatting on the ground next to them and smiling and laughing with them, acknowledging how strange our experience is. The women usually also end up being my favorite interviewees, maybe because they have more time, or are just generally more willing to tell me about their community. This week, I was sitting in the house of one woman, drinking a seemingly endless supply of Turkish Delight flavored Kool-Aid and listened to her tell the story of each and every one of her neighbors. She told me of their struggles, of their many petitions made to the government that went unanswered, of the dwindling opportunities for education for her children. She also told me about when her community got a public library, and the first time her family got the free delivery of vegetables. I always wish there was a way to express more tangibly how thankful I am to my interview participants for their willingness to sometimes spend hours answering my questions and checking the boxes of my data collection. Another highlight from my interviews this week was when I thanked a local representative for taking the time to speak with me, and he responded with “you ask more questions than God Almighty”. In addition to my interviews, I’m trying to decide how to incorporate “personal experience” into my research protocol. When communities have told me about their mosquito problems, I confirm their honesty with at least nine ankle bites (yes Mom I put bug spray on 3x a day minimum). When communities say they don’t have a nearby bus service, I also confirm this by walking the four kilometers to the main road to catch a bus home. I’m sure peer-reviewed journals will accept that type of justification.

Just a few hours after one of my PhD advisers asked me to complete the Indigo DISC personality test, I employed my skills of perseverance, confirming what most personality tests call the “Dominator” or “Steamroller” or “Challenger”, or in layman’s terms: “not taking no for an answer”. I have a few potential projects on my list that I was unable to visit last summer since I waited in vain for contact information that never materialized (still confusing to me how an organization can complete a project and have zero documentation – not even outdated – on who their contacts were for the project). After our scheduled interviews finish, I drag my intern and translator to all corners of Bangalore and we wander around neighborhoods asking random people if they know anything about a treatment system in their community. These adventures are quite the challenge as sanitation awareness in peri-urban areas in general is miniscule, not to mention when a project was implemented over ten years ago by an NGO that never returned. But, we have a 2/3 success rate of finding the systems, and it usually takes six or seven households before someone can accurately match the word “septic tank” with the mysterious concrete box plopped in some forgotten corner of their community. My little research team had just spent an hour striking out in a slum resettlement (although we had “exact” GPS coordinates for the treatment system’s location), so morale wasn’t at its usual high. We took a traffic-filled cab ride back to the other side of town to finish data collection for a different community where I spent an hour and a half convincing my team that “the answer is always no if you don’t ask”. I so far had not had any problem collecting a group of six or eight community members who were willing to endure a slightly tedious exercise for my research, so I was convinced that all we had to do was ask one or two of the community members we knew the best to gather a few of their neighbors and we’d be good to go. I’ll admit that some hesitation was valid since it was a Friday and we were in a community that has significant Muslim presence, but the hour and a half we spent going back and forth between “let’s just ask” and “no ma’am, they won’t want to come” was a little much. Once we asked, it was no problem to assemble our little group and finish the data collection. In the words of Indigo “be sure that if you tell her no, Allie will come back the next day expecting a yes.”

Every so often I have these moments where my thoughts are completely consumed by how different are my life and the lives of many of my interviewees. That sounds like I’m stating the obvious, but it’s usually the subtle things that hit me the hardest. This week, I was conducting interviews in a community that was resettled with support from their former employers. In some cases, Indian government will require a company, such as a mining company or factory whose work causes health problems, to provide housing and facilities for their constituents after the factory closes. This particular community is very low-income, with many of the families unable to even afford the cheapest cell phone. They have so many problems: clogged drainage, overflowing sewers, tree roots cracking house foundations, salty water, faulty electricity. In this community, like in so many others, they lack the access and agency to bring their complaints to a higher authority. Even the simplest options, like calling the government office to tell them of the problem, or calling the NGO that previously helped with those issues, are totally inaccessible because they don’t have cell phones and can’t spend ten seconds on Google searching the information. Realizing how simple things like cell phones and information access open so many doors hit me especially hard this week because despite the many terrible things the new administration in the U.S. has done, I’m still able to call my representatives, tweet at them, email them. I’ve been able to do this from halfway across the world because I have access to Google which tells me their phone numbers, I have apps that let me write a few sentences on what I think on an issue and my thoughts are automatically sent to my representatives. I have Facebook, which notifies me of mass organized protests or strategies to share my opinion. They don’t. They don’t have the access and ease of both information and technology to make their voices heard. There is no group organizing on their behalf to petition their rights to the government. There is no one holding the government accountable when the sewers still haven’t been cleaned in six months. Obviously, this isn’t the case for everyone in India, but it is the reality for many and that’s not going away.

I am thankful to be in Bangalore for the beginning of this stint. I am surrounded by a small community of people who refrain from asking me about my sanitary napkin habits and instead are open to intellectual discussions of American and Indian politics or the latest verbal processing that I need to do to survive a worm shower or a long day of data collection. Indians always laugh when I say I love India, I think expecting me to think otherwise, but I really do love it. India always is teaching me something new, and what’s not to love about that?

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Sun protection in Winter.

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The open defecation/trash disposal field right next to our house.

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Sculpture of Gandhi outside a metro station.

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