Not Just Brains & Prawn.

My intern has gotten to know me well, after spending time with me constantly for the past two-plus months. He now just orders an endless stream of fish for me at meals without even asking. He expresses deep concern when we sit down to a meal and find out they only serve veg options.

I recently started tasting salt while showering and at first thought it was just embarrassing amounts of accumulated sweat sloughing off my body at the end of the day, only to later realize that the hotel water is saltwater. Since all my communities in the area complain about saltwater intrusion destroying their drinking water supply, it follows that our hotel’s borewell is not exempt. Halfway through our stay, we elected to move to cheaper rooms, only to discover that the cheaper rooms are characterized by having only a hot water supply (still salty), which is quite uncomfortable after spending eight hours in 100-degree heat. The cheaper rooms also come with a large number of roommates in the form of cockroaches, and don’t come with free blankets so I slept for three nights under a patchwork of towels and spare clothing. I think I’m worth more than this.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Woman collecting drinking water from a hand-dug water spring since the municipal water supply is compromised.

After an eight day wifi hiatus, I moved to a hotel with fast wifi, functioning A/C, thick comforters, odor-free toilets, and no cockroaches. Luxury, right? That’s what I thought until I was woken up four mornings in a row before 7 am by an over-zealous nineteen-year-old boy ringing my door bell no less than twelve times to offer “Coffee or Tea, Madam?” to my bleary-eyed angry face. No amount of begging and pleading convinced the hotel owner to prohibit his staff from knocking on my door at these ungodly hours, so it continued the rest of my stay.

Upon completely the work within striking distance of Pondicherry, I woefully tore myself from the beachside cafes and French Indian fusion cuisine, and took the bus south to Cuddalore. Cuddalore is an uninteresting city that basically feels like a transit hub for the many small communities in the district. For weeks (months, really), I’ve been trying to track down knowledgeable officials from the Tamil Nadu Water and Drainage Board (TWAD), who can share information on six or seven of the communities we’re interested in. TWAD provides a lot of the financial backing, technical support, government approval, and organizational management for water and sanitation infrastructure in Tamil Nadu. But, being a government agency in India, turnover and transfers occur frequently, which creates an information vacuum. The government officials also understandably lack incentive and motivation to speak with lowly foreign researchers, so it has been particularly difficult to even uncover the TWAD organogram and find the phone numbers of district officials. We had an incredible breakthrough last week when we finally gave up and marched straight into the Villupuram TWAD office, where we met the superintending engineer who is one of the highest officials in regional TWAD. This man and his immediate deputy both see the value in external monitoring of their organization and in academic research. They were really excited to learn that an American PhD student and a Tamil MTech student are wandering through their state to learn about their sanitation systems.

While once again being the only white person on a public bus headed to a tiny village, people kept asking me if I was going to visit the boat house. For once my severe image as a sweating tourist paid off, as we discovered that they all were talking about the Pichavaram mangrove forest just a couple kilometers away from one of the communities I’m studying. The Pichavaram mangrove forest is the second largest mangrove forest in the world (the largest is in Bengal, India). We raced over to the boat house after finishing the first day’s interviews, only to find out that they closed half an hour before. All my persuasion and unrelenting begging skills could not convince any of the people there to make an exemption and take us out on the boat at sunset. Instead, we were resigned to returning early the next morning for our mangrove tour. We paid $5 for a two hour tour of the mangroves. Our oarsman offered an “exclusive” addition to the tour, where he’d promise to row faster and take us twice the distance through narrow tunnels created by the mangroves. We still only ended up paying about $8 total for five kilometers of a hand-rowed mangrove adventure, complete with birds, crabs, pencil fish, minnows, and one idiot tourist:

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In between failed systems, we visited a community with a successful primary settling tank and single-pass intermittent sand filter. This community, in contrast with many others in the area, actually has a paid, trained operator whose responsibility extends beyond just turning the pumps on an off once a week. While it was nice to see a functional treatment system instead of overflowing sewer lines and cracked toilet pipes, this community served as a reminder that a lack of institutional oversight or government support creates huge barriers for long-term success. The local panchayat (group of community leaders, all male) barely has enough funds from the taxes they put on the fishing hauls to pay the operator’s salary and for the occasional manual scavenger or vacuum truck who comes to remove sewer blockages. They’ve been blessed with the luck of continuously operational pumps and seemingly resilient motors, so functionality continues, but they worry for the future when a larger catastrophic event such as pump failure derails their ability to repair and maintain the treatment system.

I’m definitely at the point in my research where my interviews are really wearing on me. In one of my interviews this week, a man broke down crying (I was more surprised to see an Indian man cry than I was when the shop owner brought up sanitary napkins publicly) while telling me about how he failed to save his wife after she was paralyzed in the tsunami because he couldn’t afford health care for her. In another interview, a man told me that most of the people in his village have gone abroad to work for some time, where they become actual slaves for giant Chinese construction companies, and return without the fortunes they had expected to gain for their families.

I like to think that after a total of six months in India, I’ve become adept at masking my feelings when people say things I disagree with, but this allusion was shattered when I was sitting with a group of women and young boys and girls in one of the communities, and the women told me that they hope that I have a boy child because of the time I’ve taken to listen to them. To a community like this, boy children are both culturally and economically more valuable, since girls lack opportunities, require large dowries, and will not take care of their parents after they move to their husband’s family after marriage. I’ve known this value difference is inherent to much of Indian culture, but to hear it said so blatantly, in a group of mostly women and young girls, even amid a joking tone, surprised me as India is so prone to do.

I’ve had so many successful days of seamless data collection, where all interviews go as planned and meetings remain surprisingly unscheduled that a week of chaos was far overdue. My week began with the exciting prospect of a community who actually begged for interviews and organized large community meetings to tell me about their sanitation system and community, only to end with a couple of those meetings disrupted by a few drunk men belligerently (but somewhat justifiably) questioning the fairness of me asking for so much community time and giving nothing in return. The week continued with plans for another meeting with an official from a government office in Cuddalore, but the meeting was cancelled when the official was suspended for illegally employing three manual scavengers who died from noxious gases in a sewage system. The week ended with a four-hour demoralizing “adventure” through the Nagapattinam district as my intern and I took two buses, four shared autos, four private autos, and walked endlessly in the sweltering heat in search of an almost fatally elusive sanitation system. An NGO that has been helping provide initial contacts and GPS locations of systems first gave us “confirmed” contact information for a town panchayat thirty kilometers away. The town panchayat sent us first to a village panchayat office who sent us to the municipality (all of these are different levels of government who govern different types of land/communities/towns in India, with sometimes only very subtle and bureaucratic differences) who had no clue about the treatment project. Then, they directed us to old reports with GPS coordinates sending us far south where we discovered a community very different from the description. While we awaited further information, we followed incomplete information from a municipality office we’d visited and traipsed through two other random neighborhoods, peering between houses hoping for a treatment plant. A few phone calls and pleading text messages later, we finally were sent yet another set of coordinates where we were warmly welcomed by community members who showed us the system we’d spent the past four hours hunting. To top it off, I’ve taken so many field notes, that the tip of my right thumb has been numb for over a week now. I wonder if my travel or health insurance would consider this a work-related injury. The AHCA certainly wouldn’t have.

Among my interview highlights are the moment when I was politely accepting water and drinking it Indian-style which means water-falling the water out of a large vessel, spilling on myself, and then laughing and choking in response to the woman laughing out loud at me, plus these pictures:

KODAK Digital Still Camera

KODAK Digital Still Camera

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