Friday, 12 February 2016

Teaching (and learning about) vulnerability

In December, I helped organise an exciting 3-day course on vulnerability and the concepts and methods used to assess it. The course was attended by 30 participants from various disciplines and from sectors as varied as government officials, PhD researchers, NGO and private sector professionals. We used a mix of classroom teaching, games, field visits and guest lectures and focussed on co-learning, especially since the participants themselves were in positions that required them to conduct vulnerability assessments to plan for development projects.

What emerged from the course? 
  1. There is still a lot of confusion about what vulnerability means and the language used by researchers (adaptation, resilience, development pathways) is at odds with practitioner experiences (climate change being one of the many stressors people experience) and the 'vulnerable' themselves (slum dwellers are more concerned and motivated to act on issues of land tenure and possible eviction which are embedded in larger political and development processes than mull over climatic risks). 
  2. Who assesses vulnerability shapes what is assessed. For our field visits, some teams took the standard approach of Vulnerability = f (Exposure, Sensitivity, Adaptive Capacity) while a group of young researchers took a more rights-based approach where they charted the trajectory of a slum's formation and relocation as the context for multi-dimensional vulnerability. 
  3. Quick, quantitative vulnerability assessments tend to mask deeper drivers of vulnerability and thus for any assessment to be meaningful and truly representative, a mix of snapshot assessments and qualitative discussions (development trajectories, historical timelines) is necessary. 


A longer post on the course is here.

Friday, 11 December 2015

My Year of Conferences

2015 has been the year of the conference for me. From the CBA (Community-based Adaptation) Conference in Nairobi (April), Scaling Up Good Adaptation Practices in Delhi (August) to the Development and Climate Days in Paris (December), a 2-day side event to the Conference of Parties, adaptation has been a binding thread. What have I taken away from all my conversations?
  • Adaptation and development are inextricably linked. However, we (as researchers and practitioners), are yet to develop a vocabulary to clearly demarcate the two and in the mean time, many development initiatives are peddled as adaptation. While 'good' development definitely helps adaptation, in the face of unprecedented change, it may not be sufficient to facilitate adaptation.
  • While people recognise that vulnerability is temporal (especially in agriculture-based livelihoods that are directly affected by seasonality), few studies focus on it. Short-term and long-term dynamics in local vulnerability are understudied and poorly captured in common survey-based methods. 
  • Social differentiation is the new sustainable development: Everyone is talking about it and is broad and generic enough to be applicable to various issues.
  • Many people talk of combining traditional and science-based knowledge systems to conserve natural resources, understand risk perception, and motivate adaptive action. However, I haven't heard as much on how we can do it. How do we actually draw on two very different and often conflicting ways of thinking, understanding and processing risk to work together to inform decision-making?  
  • It is encouraging to hear a lot of people talk of the utility of research. With adaptation research having direct implications on action, I am always all ears for discussions on our responsibilities towards decision-makers and practitioners. At all the conferences I attended, issues of ethics, implications, and uptake of adaptation research were at the heart of our discussions. 
  • And finally, adaptation to climate change may require us to move out of our comfort zones. I am not sure we are ready. The Taste the Change session at the DC Days challenged us to eat insects (high protein, low carbon footprint). Not everyone did.
Here's to another year of learning!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

My Contentions with Gandhi's "Village Swaraj"


I have taken my time exploring Gandhi. My first encounter with his words were in the form of 'Gandhi's Talisman' that graced the inner cover of every book I had throughout school. It said, when it doubt, asked yourself whether your actions will, in any way, help the poorest person you know to live a more secure life. During my PhD fieldwork, Gandhi's autobiography, 'My Experiments With Truth' was an antidote to issues personal, professional and philosophical. Far from family and negotiating data collection through what I like to call iteration and 'controlled experimentation', it was heartening to read his experiments with life, his failings and lessons along the way, and his wise advice on working with one's hands, renunciation, and outward and inward ahimsa (non-violence).

And so, in the year that I have returned to fieldwork, this time in rural Karnataka, I looked forward to Gandhi's 'Village Swaraj'. But the tone, content and oversimplification of issues in rural India left me disappointed. Some bones of contention:



Romanticising villages
The moment you talk to them [the Indian peasant] and they begin to speak, you will find wisdom drops from their lips. Behind the crude exterior you will find a deep reservoir of spirituality. I call this culture - you will not find such a thing in the West (p. 94). 
Overly prescriptive with no acknowledgement of the deep inequalities that characterise Indian society, rural or urban. 
My notion of co-operation is that the land would be held in co-operation by the owners and tilled and cultivated also in co-operation. This would cause a saving of labour, capital, tools etc.  The owners would work in co-operation and own capital, tools, animals, seeds etc. in co-operation. Co-operative farming of my conception would change the face of the land and banish poverty and idleness from their midst. All this is only possible if people become friends of one another and as one family. When that happy event takes place there would be no ugly sore in the form of a communal problem (p.107). 
Singing praises of collective action (quoted above), Gandhi fails to mention, leave alone acknowledge, how the understandably well-intentioned aim of collective action and what he calls 'co-operation' is thwarted realities of social differentiation: unequal power, differential resource ownership, socially-sanctioned discriminatory norms and centuries of marginalisation. In other words, there is a reason why collective action doesn't always work. If it were 'easy' or natural, it would have.

Us versus them narrative: The tone of the book is reminiscent of what Rudyard Kipling once called 'the white man's burden' which points to one section feeling obligated to uplift the other, often through a economic and socio-cultural 'upliftment'. Throughout Village Swaraj, purposely or inadvertently, Gandhi portrays the villager as the queer, somewhat simple-minded 'other' who must be taught cleanliness, and other virtues and ways of appropriate living. He does not, for a moment, interrogate why villages in India function the way they do and his position to dictate.
We have got be ideal villagers, not the villagers with their queer ideas about sanitation and giving no thought to how they eat and what they eat. Let us not, like most of them, cook anyhow, eat anyhow, live anyhow. Let us show them the ideal diet. Let us not go by mere likes and dislikes, but get at the root of these likes and dislikes (p. 27).
All this is not to say Gandhi is irrelevant in today's Bharat. His focus on reviving village industries is pertinent to the current need for diversifying rural livelihoods. His push for 'khadi, gur, and unpolished rice' (p. 151) is mirrored in a niche but growing clientele that is keen to eat healthy and support local enterprises. His repeated calls for sanitation are as relevant in today's aSwachh Bharat (Unclean India) as they were in pre-independence India. But as we talk of adopting Gandhi's dream of Gram Swaraj, there is a need to reflect on how his ideas translate into today's rural India, which is negotiating issues of multiple vulnerabilities, conflicting identities, and most of all, changing aspirations.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Link Pack | Livelihoods and farming

Over the past seven years, I have been working in and researching rural areas. I have helped build water storage tanks, and sown medicinal plants with women's Self Help Groups in Himachal Pradesh. I have trained farmers in Arunachal to expand their use of wetlands to ecotourism, and examined why young Rajasthani men are opening mobile phone shops in their village and not farming. In my own village in western Uttar Pradesh, I have discussed why young boys are leaving to work as masseurs in Bombay. And I am still flummoxed by a question which started it all
Why is agriculture no longer seen as a viable livelihood? 
From research in the high-altitude Himalayas to villages in semi-arid Karnataka, the narrative of youngsters moving out of agriculture is repeated again and again. These youth are often educated: enough to dissuade them from farming, but not enough for them to actively compete with city kids. While the non-viability of farming as a livelihood is pushing such youth out of our villages and small towns, our cities are not equipped to absorb them and help meet their aspirations and goals. Development policies still bifurcate the rural and urban into an artificial dichotomy; research has only started conceptualising the rural urban continuum. But India's development trajectory is fast blurring these divisions: villages are morphing into messy towns while tier three cities are burgeoning into larger urban centres. To understand these transitions, a livelihoods lens is one way to disentangle the messiness and complexity of changing aspirations, dynamic risk and uncertainty, and securing a life that is clean, safe, and meaningful.

From around the web:
  • What do farmers really need? A blog I wrote on HuffPost India that uses field research in Karnataka to tease out why farming in rainfed areas has become so challenging. The original title was 'Are Agricultural Livelihoods becoming more non-viable" but I guess it wasn't seen as racy enough by the editors.  
  • Why livelihoods perspectives still matter: Prof Ian Scoones, proposer of the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, and more importantly the person who nicknamed me Chutney Singh (!) has written a book on Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development. In this, he argues that political economy and issues around power and knowledge production are critical for agrarian and environmental research. This goes on my must read list!

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Farming and the license to dream (notes from the CBA9 conference)

I am in Africa. After listening to stories of my mother catching a colourful fish in the River Kafue and of my grandfather driving from Nairobi to Lusaka in the 70s, it is finally my chance to see this inspiring, beautiful, and complex continent.

I am in Nairobi at the 9th International Conference on Community- Based Adaptation (CBA9) - a mammoth conference on community-based adaptation (CBA). There are close to 400 delegates attending and though it is easy to feel lost, I enjoy meeting old friends and making new ones. As part of the conference, field trips were organised within Kenya to critically analyse and learn from CBA initiatives within the country. I find myself off to Kajiado County with a bunch of wonderful, inspiring group of researchers and practitioners from 16 (!) countries.

CBA participants on a field trip to Kajiado County.
Kajiado is far removed from Nairobi's green landscape. Expanses of scrubland. An occasional dik dik or impala scampering across. Short spreading acacia providing the only shade against the unforgiving sun. Six feet high termite hills break the monotony of the flatland. The flash of colour from a Masai herdman's clothes makes a fleeting appearance.


Among the community initiatives we visited, there is the Emaiawata Horticultural Farm run by a Masai women's group. Through a translator, we learn that the farm was set up a year ago and sources water from a river 70 km away! This water is stored in a man-made pond and than used to irrigate the horticultural farm through drip irrigation. So far, the women have harvested tomatoes and spinach. Interestingly, the women pay men in their community to work on the farm and so, provide employment (and food) for their husbands!
My dream is to see this farm producing vegetables and fodder. We can later expand the pond and put fish in it. ~ Head of Emaiawata Women's Group

As the women narrated difficulties they faced in securing community land to farm on and learning how to use drip irrigation, the story echoed my fieldwork in India. In a similarly semi-arid stretch in Rajasthan, I had spoken to men about their drip irrigation woes (how salts from the brackish water clog the nozzles, how the hot sun makes plastic pipes brittle).


In Kajiado, it was apparent that the horticultural farm was a source of pride for the women. They worked on it, reaped harvest, and earned some money. It gave them some autonomy and a reason to dream. Whether it was a community-based adaptation initiative or not, is questionable. Without an explicit understanding of current climate variability and future changes and their impacts, I was not convinced that this project could not be defined as an adaptative process. However, it potentially begins to challenge current gendered roles, increases livelihood options and thus builds local adaptive capacity. To me, that is a start.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Pushing disciplinary boundaries: No, really.


As nerdy as it may sound, I enjoy learning. I look forward to hearing new ideas and meeting people with varied research interests. This year as a postdoc on the ASSAR consortium, I have found myself flooded with opportunities to just this - attend trainings, go to conferences, meet some really good researchers, and in the process learn along the way.

In March, I attended a week-long training on DSSAT, a model that helps simulate crop yields in different climatic scenarios and under crop management practices. Hosted by ICRISAT, I was one of the few interdisciplinary researchers in a roomful of agronomists. Some reflections:

  • For all the talk on interdisciplinary research, research in Indian agriculture universities is still predominantly confined by discipline. It took a couple of days for the agronomists to appreciate the importance of having non-agronomists on the training. This is disturbing since the value of drawing on the strengths of multiple disciplines is well recognised globally.   
  • Although one training does not make me a crop modeler, it does most certainly equip me with the knowledge and language to have a coherent conversation with crop modelers. Crucially, I understand the assumptions underlying DSSAT outputs and can therefore interpret results in a more robust manner. As someone who researches the interface of climate risks and agricultural livelihoods, I'm glad to have gained this skill. 
  • Trainings are also a great way to learn about an organisation. A week in ICRISAT and interactions with several junior and senior researchers, gave me an 'insiders' perspective' which is always an asset if you plan to work/collaborate with an organisation. 
DSSAT training at ICIRSAT, Hyderabad
To conclude, while carving your niche and specialising within a discipline is crucial, I feel early career researchers should definitely open their minds and schedules to training programmes that may not be directly linked to their research but may have implications on their understanding of others' research. It is only when I talk to those outside my discipline do I learn how to communicate my work to them and develop a language that helps me understand their research (and its strengths and weaknesses) better.

AgMIP training at IIHS, Bangalore
The DSSAT training was followed by one on AgMIP in Bangalore, but that's a whole other story :)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Interview | CARIAA Young Researchers


Filling up a monitoring form for a medicinal plant nursery in
Keylong, Himachal Pradesh (2008). 
Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA) is an IDRC and DFID funded project working on building resilience of vulnerable populations in vulnerability hotspots. As part of their series on young researchers working on climate change issues, I was interviewed by IDRC. The interview, Raising awareness about climate risk, adaptation in South Asia covers my motivations behind doing climate adaptation research and the journey that led me to become part of the ambitious and exciting CARIAA project. Read it here.
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