IHP Cities in the 21st Century Letter Home from India Spring 2015

From the moment we stepped out of the airport in Ahmedabad, India, the city offered up a sensory overload. Cows, monkeys and the occasional elephant in the street, the smell of burning trash, and the hustle-bustle traffic on the ride to our hotel formed our first impression of the place where we would spend the next five weeks.


We were fortunate enough to arrive on the first day of Holi, the Indian festival of spring. Bonfires were lit in the streets; drums were played, and everyone spent the morning throwing colored powder at one another.


Our wonderful country coordinators and language facilitators welcomed us with a ceremony that included marigold garlands and candle lighting. They also gave us a bag filled with essentials for our time in Ahmedabad: hand sanitizer, a notebook and pen, toilet paper (Indian toilets took a bit of getting used to), a map, and our survival guide; tools that became indispensable as we navigated our way through the city.

Exploring the Old City

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Just the typical day in Ahmedabad


Our site visits in Ahmedabad were among the more memorable of the program so far. With our Urban Planning and Sustainable Enviroments local faculty member, Rutul Joshi, we visited GIFT City, the first of Prime Minister Modi’s promised “100 Smart Cities.” During the visit, we toured the ongoing construction and met with the director to learn more about the ambitious plan to construct an international tech and business hub just one hour outside of Ahmedabad. While GIFT city has the potential to heighten Ahmedabad’s image as an international leader in business, such an outcome would reinforce and widen existing inequalities and exclusion among its residents. The visit proved to be a powerful example of the concepts of lived versus inscribed governance, which have continued to remain present in our conversations.


CTB India City Plan

Discussing the design of GIFT City


As we approached the halfway mark of our semester, we began to focus much of our outside class time to fleshing out our semester-long Comparative Analysis (CA) projects. One of our classmates, Sydney P., University of Vermont ,’16, shares her CA observations in the city:


My CA is focusing on markets for middle class consumerism. I have had a harder time pin pointing a specific location, such as a shopping mall, in Ahmedabad. With the help of our country coordinating team, however, I have been able to look closer into the purchasing of sarees, particularly wedding sarees. Ahmedabad, with it’s roots in the garment industry, is one of the most desired wedding shopping destinations in India. I am fortunate that Niyati, a friend as well a program facilitator, was more than willing to take me on a shopping adventure to locate a wedding saree for my traditional Gujarati wedding. We first travelled to many stores in town where I fully played the role of bride-to-be, telling the attendants a compelling love story so that I would be treated as an actual shopper and not just an American girl looking around. While the experience provided great fieldwork for my CA, it also gave me insight into the grandness of Indian weddings – and taught how to find a good quality saree.


Throughout our time on IHP, we have been struggling with the notion of multiple narratives complicating and contradicting our previous understandings of what it means to live and work in cities; our desire for solutions and answers often getting in our way of truly capturing the complexity of urban life. While it’s a difficult thing to imagine if you haven’t been with us for the past few weeks, we thought we’d give you a snapshot of one of our most recent struggles in an effort to highlight just how powerful our time here has been:


While in Ahmedabad we have engaged with the concept of caste through our class lectures, on site visits, and in conversations with the many Ahmedabadis we have met along the way.
We read extensive literature on the Indian caste system as part of our coursework. In our Culture and Society (C&S) lectures with our travelling faculty, Carmen Medeiros, we learned that the caste system is far more complicated than our high school textbooks would allow us to see. It is a hierarchal societal organization system based on occupation. The more that your work involves using your hands – the dirtier and more physical it is, the lower on the caste system you are. It divides the population into four labor oriented groups; with the most “pure” at the top and most “polluted” at the bottom. Then there is a group that falls almost outside of the hierarchy – the bottom of the bottom – the ones called “Untouchables” because higher castes are literally unable to touch these people.


In our C&S discussions we reflected that caste is almost racialized. It is seen as part of your biology. It is hereditary—the work your parents’ do will most likely be the work you do. The difficulty of breaking away from this inequality that been institutionalized for over 3,000 years overwhelmed us.


In our Politics and Development class with our travelling faculty, Juan Arbona, and in both formal and informaal lectures from our brilliant country coordinators, Sonal and Persis, we further explored this issue. We learned that India’s grand Constitution states that no individual should be discriminated based on caste and makes the practice of “Untouchability” forbidden.


Over time, those in the Untouchable caste have chosen to take the name Dalit, meaning “The Oppressed” in Sanskrit and have been subject to government interventions, almost like Affirmative Action in the US, which have increased access to education and employment opportunities. We learned that some of us were living with Dalits – something we would certainly not have understood the significance of last month in Sao Paulo.


We learned that Dalits experienced caste discrimination in rural villages and migrated to Ahmedabad, in search of employment and a better life. We watched a documentary, filmed by a colleague of our country coordinators, demonstrating just how alive these “Untouchability” practices are and how escaping to the city doesn’t quite solve this challenge. Many workers found upon arriving to the city that because of their minimal education level, the only work they could do was clean. And so they became sanitation workers employed by the city to sweep streets, collect trash from door to door, and maintain manholes.


According to the sanitation employees we spoke with, they received minimal protective gear and tools for cleaning, and are only temporal subcontracted workers with minimal workers’ rights. According to a city solid waste management official, sanitation workers are provided with protective gear and tools, yet workers choose not to use the gear.


We watched as workers without proper gear and tools appeared from the darkness of manholes. We understood the health hazards involved in doing the work sanitation workers do with minimal protective gear. We heard how the work of cleaning someone else’s waste is dehumanizing.


As students, we were challenged to see the agency within every sanitation worker. Juan, told us, “You see, American students have the tendency of feeling bad, of traveling abroad and victimizing people abroad.” Not this time. Juan challenged us to think deeply and see agency even in one of the most marginalized groups in India.


During our last week in Ahmedabad, India, we had the opportunity to speak with a group of local university students, and our questions about these workers continued. We asked if these students had experienced or witnessed caste discrimination. One young woman said, caste discrimination does not exist; especially not after India received its independence from Britain. One young man said that by simply reading someone’s last name, they automatically know what caste group the person belongs to, yet caste discrimination is not existent anymore.


Were we hearing that all we had learned about during our site visits was not true? Were street sweepers’ and manhole workers’ parents, children, brothers and sisters not discriminated against? Why does the Indian government reserve seats for Dalit students in University, if caste discrimination does not exist?


As usual, our unendingly thoughtful country coordinators began to place these statements in context for us. Sonal asked the students, “How many of you belong to the Dalit community?” Not one student raised their hand. “How many of you have fallen in love or are in love with a Dalit man or women?” No one. “How many of you have a Dalit friend?” Some hands went up.


And there we were, students studying at American institutions with students studying in Ahmedabad institutions speaking about discrimination on the basis of caste, yet the most marginalized group within the caste system was not present in the conversation. With local university students claiming caste discrimination did not exist, it was our opportunity to share the experiences speaking with sanitation workers and city officials to ensure that we all acknowledged caste discrimination is the reality for many Ahmedabadis.

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Usual Ahmedabad scene of an elephant in traffic


This is just one of the many complex issues we have been grappling with over these past weeks. These struggles to reconcile what we have seen and heard here in Ahmedabad will remain with use long after we arrive in South Africa. And if past experience is any indication, we know that our next month in Cape Town will only serve to further complicate and contradict these stories. One understanding we can be certain of, though, is that solutions and answers may not be in the cards for quite some time.

CTB Salt Flats

Exploring the Salt Flats in the Little Rann of Kutch

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