I owe to my undergraduate education the key insight that knowledge in our world comes in myriad forms: local, generational, scientific, intuitive. This belief has both shaped my travel experiences in South Asia and been reinforced by them—and I approach my work in India this year with the intent to value the community-level knowledge I encounter in Delhi’s low-income neighborhoods.
What does this mean? It means that an illiterate mother of five in Sundernagari, earning four thousand rupees per month by selling her cow’s milk, has ideas about urban design and neighborhood planning that are just as important—perhaps more important—than a government official or NGO worker. She knows the experience of a slum-dweller far more intimately, and she must be heard. The question I struggle with, and the question this fellowship might help me begin to answer, is how that woman’s story can trickle up—from the community level to the sphere of institutional change.
I believe this question—of the disconnect between institutional policy and on-the-ground realities—is one that India as a whole continues to face. As Dr. Sagar Jain, a retired professor from my alma mater, said: India has the most progressive laws on the books in the entire world; the problem is with their implementation. Indeed, the disconnect between the social schemes and economic promises that New Delhi makes to its people and the grinding poverty and inequality that typify everyday life, demonstrate frustratingly the problem of implementation. The housing sector, in which I’ll be engaged this year, is a prime example: the government’s official policy in Delhi calls for in-situ slum rehabilitation with community input. Especially coming from the United States, this policy feels wonderfully and encouragingly progressive. And yet the number of low-income or slum communities in Delhi that have seen their quality of life improve due to government intervention remains minimal.
While this work of bringing local, unvalued knowledge to policy spaces might be extremely difficult, it also presents an extraordinary opportunity. This year, I expect, will expose me to wildly different scales of community and governance—from individual households in Delhi’s poorest neighborhoods to high-level discussions with the World Bank and the Indian government. The scope of Micro-Home Solutions’ work is what excites me most about this experience, and what I know will make it truly transformative.