Development and environmental management in modern India

28 February 2020
Streets become classroom for students visiting India
Working with NGOs to solve wildlife management issues and assessing sustainable farming practices were some of the learning experiences political economy and geography students gained, as part of the recent India Field School.
View of Mumbai cityscape

In collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), 28 students from the disciplines of Political Economy and Geography travelled to Mumbai and southern India as part of the India Field School program.

The Field School enables students to learn about the key social, economic and environmental challenges facing modern India, in a real-world setting.

“India is one of the most important, influential and dynamic countries in the world. Understanding its economic transformation, its diverse population, and the environmental issues it faces is extremely valuable for graduates wanting to make a difference in the world,” says Dr Rebecca Pearse from the School of Social and Political Sciences, who led students on the 3-week Field School with Professor Bill Pritchard from the School of Geosciences

The students began their experience in the megalopolis of Mumbai where teaching lead by academics from TISS focused on issues of urbanisation and education. 

Mumbai is home to over 18.41 million people, with an estimated 43% of the population residing in M-East Ward, the poorest area of the city. Taking part in the TISS social outreach program, students were able to visit the ward and learn about the wide range of economic, social, and cultural challenges that hinder mobility and financial prosperity in the area.

“It is one thing to learn about theories of inclusive development and sustainable urban planning in class, however having an in-person understanding of the impact it has on the lives of participants was astounding,” says Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Advanced Studies (History and Philosophy of Science/Political Economy) student Rosemary Gatfield-Jeffries.

Image of learning facilities operated by TISS in M-East Ward as part of social outreach program.

Learning facilities operated by TISS in M-East Ward.

“We visited the M-Power Library and Study Centre, both run by TISS and designed to provide a safe and quiet place for students from slum areas, who can’t find unobstructed time and space to adequately study for exams. The space, complete with classrooms, a library, and a communal courtyard, provides this simple necessity to encourage and assist disadvantaged students to aspire toward professional careers.”

Students also travelled to rural sites in Kerala, southern India, to undertake problem-solving activities relating to environmental governance, plantations and wildlife management. 

Bachelor of Economics/Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Political Economy) student Georgia Locke worked on Vembanad Lake with the NGO Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), helping to reinstate what was once a naturally occurring fishing sanctuary.

Conservation work being conducted on Lake Vembanad

Conservation work conducted on Lake Vembanad.

“It was rewarding to work with ATREE and understand how they are using human and physical capital (bamboo and other materials) to recreate a naturally occurring phenomenon, mangroves, which were removed over the last 50 years to provide foundations for real estate.”

Dwindling fish numbers have been particularly problematic for Vembanad residents, who are financially dependent on fishing and clam mining.

“Vembanad Lake is a microcosm for the tensions that continuously play out between economic and environmental interests and stakeholders. It highlights the tendency for policies or projects that artificially alter natural ecosystems and landscapes to be implemented for economic purposes, with negligible consideration for environmental consequences,” explains Georgia, who is hopeful that man-made solutions like the fish sanctuary can fix the environmental consequences of previous economic decisions.

In the rural village of Mograj, Maharashtra, students spoke with local farmers about the effects of changes from traditional to modern agricultural practice.

Modernisation involves sowing only locally compatible varieties, increasing crop rotations and soil restoration. These new farming methods have significantly improved crop yields, minimised excess water use and are more compatible with a changing climate.
Murray Gatt, Bachelor of Arts (Political Economy)/Law

“Farmers in the region were assisted by a local NGO that prioritises collaborative community participation, which is fantastic because it helps ensure the sustainability of local changes.”

Interestingly, changes to farming methods have also significantly reduced the labour required, which is problematic in a country where agriculture accounts for 50% of employment. 

While these improvements might benefit farmers, they don’t increase employment opportunities for landless workers.

“Taking part in the India Field School has shown me that inclusive development demands comprehensive responses from the government, non-government and corporate organisations to improve property rights, grow future productive industries and increase employment opportunities,” reflects Murray.

The India Field School is available to third-year students majoring in Political Economy or Geography. Students can enrol in the Field School through ECOP3021 or GEOS3053. Read the India Field School blog for more insights.

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