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Showing posts from 2013

The virtues of writing simply

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Academic writing can be daunting. I often find that when trying to communicate complex ideas, coherence and clarity tends to get compromised. However, like any other skill, writing can be perfected by practice.

I recently finished reading Orwell's Why I Write, a collection of essays where he discusses his motivations to write among other things. In an essay called Politics and the English Language, he is particularly critical of how modern English has evolved as a means to confuse instead of communicate. He expresses his disgust for the use of 'dying metaphors' (e.g. toe the line, Achilles heel), 'verbal false limbs' (using phrases where a word would do: e.g. make contact with, prove unacceptable, exhibit the tendency to instead of prove, render, serve), 'pretentious or archaic diction' (such as epoch-making or age-old) and 'meaningless words' (that do not convey anything).

Orwell goes on to list some simple rules to help make decisions while writi…

Modi, secularism, and the future of Indian democracy

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Do you, as a voter, feel trapped by the Modi/Rahul Gandhi binary? Are you questioning the future of democracy in India?  And what does Modi's rise say for the nation's secularism?

These were some of the questions discussed in a session organised by The South Asian Studies School at Oxford and King's India Institute last week (which predictably, began late; 'we the Indians'). A few points from that were particularly interesting for me:

Dr. Matthew McCartney, ('political-economy macro-economist' at Oxford) invoked the idea of 'the developmental State' (see Öniş, 1991) and drew comparisons between India's growth trajectory and that of the Asian tigers, in particular Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. He  noted that while the civil services in these countries were largely meritocratic and elitist (as he suggested was the case in India too), the wider population was ready to sacrifice short-term goals to achieve the 'vision of development' as …

Book Review: Research for Development, A Practical Guide

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Research for Development is a comprehensive guide to commissioning, managing and undertaking research in development work. It is useful for students of development research and teachers looking for a robust and engaging teaching tool. Read my review here.
Sage Publications, 440 pp.

Link Pack | Debates on Poverty, Development and Resilience

Nothing like a good debate to wake one up! What I've been reading this week:
The Arrogance of Good Intentions: NYU Economist William Easterly reviews Nina Munk's book 'The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty' and questions Sachs's seductive message of eradicating poverty through western aid.  Going Against Duflo: Raj Patel critiques the Abhijit Banerji-Esther Duflo duo for focussing on 'what works' when tackling poverty, and ignoring critical contextual issues. [Key points: they ignore larger contextual issues, assume 'what works' in one place will work in other contexts, ignore ethical issues around randomised controlled trials]  On Measuring Resilience: A new paper from IDS on possible directions towards 'measuring' resilience. Resilience has become the new 'sustainable development' and by that I mean it is being championed as the new goal to aspire to and has found a dedicated following amongst development academi…

Discipline hopping: what does depression have to do with vulnerability science?

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You often hear of the virtues of thinking 'out of the box', developing interdisciplinary reading habits, opening our minds to different influences and ideas. In spite of this, interdisciplinarity is a difficult monster to tame, and one commonly falls back on familiar authors, known reading lists, well-worn and oft-searched keywords. Skirting the peripheries of one's own discipline seems revolutionary enough, exploring a new discipline appears just too time-consuming and uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I attended a talk by Professor Glen Wilson on 'The Black Dog: Causes and Cures for Depression'. Falling within psychology, the subject was many disciplines away from my research on farmer vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change in India. So what exactly was I doing in that hall? First, two people very dear to me suffer from some form of 'the black dog' and attending a lecture on it seemed like a way to understand their situation better. Secondly, exhaust…

Book Review | Boundaries Undermined (The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh-India Border)

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What do Bangladesh-India geopolitics, an 8 feet tall fence, cross-border coal mining, eunuchs, and neoliberalism have in common? To find the answer to that, read my review at the LSE Review of Books of Delwar Hussain's thought-provoking and brilliantly researched book Boundaries Undermined, The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh-India Border.
Hurst Publishers, 256 pp.

The African Farmer Game

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This post was written in collaboration with Ankit Kumar, a PhD researcher at Durham University. You can follow him @ideatingenergy. It is based on our experiences and ideas, generated while playing the African Farmer Game during the STEPS Centre Summer School. Developed by the STEPS Centre and Future Agricultures Consortium, the game will be released soon as a free software.

The Mombonga household in Rural Africa consists of an adult man, two adult women, two young girls aged 12 and 13 and a young boy aged 13. In terms of assets they have 50 units of currency and two parcels of land. A modest household with many mouths to feed, the Mombongas await the beginning of the new plantation season. This is the beginning of another year for them. The Mombongas have a few options at hand. They could invest the money in crops and horticulture to feed their family or invest partly in commercial crops like cotton to earn some extra cash. They could also invest some money in long term planning by s…

UEA/IDS Mixed Methods Workshop (July, 2013)

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The University of East Anglia (UEA) and Institute of Development Studies (IDS) recently organised a two-day workshop on mixed methods research in poverty and vulnerability (1-2 July 2013). The event brought together 40 researchers, practitioners and students working in development-related issues to discuss different ways mixed research methods could be used to capture the dynamics of poverty and vulnerability. Over the course of two days, 22 speakers presented studies that use quantitative and qualitative methods creatively. A few highlights below:

Exploring public perceptions of the 'necessities of life' in the UK, Eldin Fahmy from the University of Bristol stressed the need to move away from using mixed methods for triangulation alone, i.e. combining methods to enhance validity of inferences from data. This combination of methods assumes that data can be 'integrated'  and tends to glaze over the contrasting strengths and weaknesses of both data types (which have diff…

Decision making for climate change adaptation

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In a recent talk at the Walker Institute, climate change adaptation specialist Suraje Dessai stressed the need to move away from the linear model of  'predict and provide' which believes that more science = better decisions = successful adaptation, towards an understanding of the limits of what science can provide. Talking in the context of decision making for climate change adaptation in the UK, he emphasised the need to make climate science more useful (matches user needs), usable (user-friendly) and valuable (salient and applicable). 
This led me to think of similar issues in a very different context. That of rainfed agriculture in semi-arid regions of India. In this landscape, smallholder farmers are highly dependent on agriculture for income and sustenance, making them vulnerable to an increasingly erratic monsoon. In addition to environmental stressors of erratic precipitation (both amount and timing) and fluctuating temperatures (e.g. unusually hot winters), farmers ar…

National Food Bill: A short review of the critiques

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What? The National Food Security Bill aims to  provide food to 67% of India's 1.2 billion people by distributing heavily subsidized food grain (5kg of grain @ Rs.1/kg). First introduced in 2011, the bill has invited heated debate, caused parliamentary disruptions and is yet to be passed. 

Why the criticism?
Where will the money to finance the scheme come from? Gurcharan Das argues that the key problem is "70% of the people will get food at 10% of the cost when only 1% should be targeted. The rest is a waste." The government plans to source some money for grain by reducing fertiliser subsidy but this will have implications for agricultural productivity and farmer input costs. Scheme touted as well-intentioned butfiscally irresponsible.Targeting vs universalisation: Who do we target? The statistics are contradictory and one must be careful when defining and counting people who are 'hungry' vs 'malnourished' vs 'starving'. Regarding identifying benefic…

Water in the Anthropocene

The "Water in the Anthropocene" conference (21-24 May 2013) opened in Bonn, Germany today. The conference explores governance and scientific challenges in understanding the indicators, thresholds and uncertainties of the global water system. I was selected to present a paper on "Farmer Perceptions of Water scarcity" using a case study from north-west India but couldn't go because of an interesting Summer School at the STEPS Centre at the University of Sussex!

Below is an introductory video about water in the age of the anthropocene. The anthropocene is conceptualised as an epoch where human beings are seen as the chief agent of change in the planet. It is not a formally recognised geological epoch, but is a useful term to describe the unprecedented change brought about by human agents.

Oxford Global Food Security Conference, 2013

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An interdisciplinary conference dealing with issues of food security and uncertainty around the world was held at Oxford University on April 27, 2013. Although not directly related to my current research on rural livelihood vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change, the conference was an interesting collection of diverse approaches to understanding, quantifying, and addressing food insecurity around the world. Across three panels, there were nine speakers with interesting and thought-provoking presentations. I'll just talk about some of the highlights:

The first panel dealt with Food Security and Environmental Change. Of particular interest to me was a talk by Dr. Joost Vervoort who explained the CCAFS's findings in Eastern Africa on future food security scenarios. Using different demographic, economic, political and environmental trajectories, the work comes up with an innovative typology of what food security in Africa may look like. Pertinently, Dr. Vervoort expl…

Newbie in Nuker: The fears and joys of field work

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I am flustered. I am going to hold my first village meeting, talking to women from a self-help group (SHG) and I am terribly anxious. I look around the circle of women sitting with me, they are honest-faced and clear-eyed. I give them a watery smile. The President of the group smiles back at me, her nose pin twinkling in the summer sun.  
I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I am in Nuker, a tiny village in Lahaul. When one looks beyond the Kullu-Manalis and Shimlas, Himachal Pradesh morphs into a collage of striking beauty, from Kinnaur in the east which is India’s apple-basket, to Spiti in the north, a cold desert akin to Ladakh. In the upper reaches of Himachal, nestled against Spiti, lies Lahaul. Himachal Pradesh is also one of the stars in the unfortunately dark tapestry that is the Indian countryside. Replete with extraordinary natural beauty and warm kind-hearted people, it holds a special place among my travels.


My journey so far

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Retrospective narrations of one’s journey can be misleading. Its linear format is inherently deceptive because an ordered layout assumes clarity and purpose, when life itself is often a jumbled back and forth of trial and error. And though it is slightly disconcerting to ‘review’ one’s life at the age of 26, I will try.

The background

Although brought up in the metropolitan bustle that is New Delhi, I have always had a strong connection with my maternal ancestral home of Rasmai (a village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India). Frequent visits to my village nurtured within me a love for nature and my attraction towards a simpler, less materialistic life. In Rasmai there was no TV or telephone, electricity came for a few hours, if at all. In Rasmai we had no restaurants or ice cream vendors, no shops and certainly no Coca Cola. But we did have walls lined with bookshelves, we did have endless paths to take walks on, we did have a spirited canal where we’d fish (unsuccessfully) and we did h…