Compassion Knows No (scientific) Boundaries

This is my first fall in Dehradun, and Himalayan winters offer you various shades of cool other than the regular ones. Of wet window panes in the morning, of the bright sunny days with freezing winter breeze and having a feeling that the glaciers are directly connected to your house tap. Such is the emotion of Himalayan winters. Besides, it’s been almost a year since I started working on Himalayan towns, water, and its people. We are a group of researchers at CEDAR trying to find truths of the natural environment and real-time situations of small urban conglomerates of Uttarakhand part of Western Himalaya (India). Our group comprises experienced as well as early researchers; some quite fit in our experiential theories and some still shaping up with the new and upcoming research methods. This piece is a commentary from the field and, on a rather exceptional field worker who has not just inserted herself in the everyday lives of the field, but has gained much more than only qualitative and observational data.

Ms. Yashi Gupta- a 25 yr old resident of Haldwani and a Junior Research Associate at CEDAR, Dehradun. She is a natural scientist, who is well versed with the forests of Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Having her academic training in forestry, she has learned the technicalities quadrat by quadrat. In these times, where the nature of scientific research has emphasizing dimensions of societal benefits or ‘research put to use.’ It does introduce her to the science-society interface. She states, ‘her inclination is more towards the science part of the interface,’ but research demands much more than one’s comfort area. In one scenario, the researcher formulates the research, and in the other situation, the research shapes the researcher. Under the ongoing project funded by the International Development Research Centre, Canada, there were many interesting and unexpected turn of events. The project necessitated a ‘Climate adaptive management practices (CAMPS)’ to be studied in small and mid-sized Himalayan towns, and CEDAR was responsible for Mussoorie and Haldwani (cities in the central Himalayas). Yashi has been coordinating the Haldwani site for CAMPS. Though it has been advisable in the research that one should avoid researching its city, state or ‘known’ space in social sciences, as the biases and prejudices one has for the ‘known’ field meddles with the authenticity of the research. On the other hand, in critical conditions, such as for this case where ‘people are residing illegally on the railway land,’ the local language, familiarity to the people, sense of belonging to the place as well as the existed rapport works in favor of the research.

Dholak Basti is a godforsaken third-category slum population that falls under the municipal boundary of Haldwani-Kathgodam in Uttarakhand. From the word, third category slum, it can be inferred that the living conditions of the residents must be more unfortunate than most of the residents of Haldwani. The ward is situated in the center of the city near the railway station, and the settlement is illegally located on the railway land. The voices of the people have long been unheard which is amusing because these people manage to spread musical notes through their Dholaks (a barrel-shaped, two-headed musical drum used in South Asia) to far off places. Their Dholaks are sold in markets of Nepal and several Indian states (Odisha, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and locally in Uttarakhand). This is the peak time for the dholak makers in Basti (space inhabited by poor people, as the popular perception speaks and the google best result). As another festival named ‘Holi’ is approaching. ‘Another’ because we have countless festivals in India. Holi is mainly a carnival of colors based on religious mythology where people celebrate with joy, colors, music and folk dance with a tinge of Bollywood nowadays. And Dholaks are considered auspicious as well as traditional when it comes to Holi celebration. Coming back to Dholaks and the Basti, the Basti people voices many gatherings and parties with their skills and Dholaks. A vital thing that they couldn’t voice is the basic ‘Right to Life’. They are living in a deplorable condition. The state of abject poverty is synonymous with Dholak Basti.

‘When I entered DholakBasti for the first time, I had a hard time convincing my mind the necessity of doing it. It was new, and I wouldn’t deny that it was not scary, not because of the people, I was not scared at all, but because of the miserable state of living conditions where there is no scope of economic activity, there are no provisions, an abysmal level of hygiene and evident crisis of potable water (through the lined up jerry cans outside their tailor-made 10*12 inches shacks supported by wooden logs and covered by plastic which could wash away with one heavy rain)’-Says Yashi


I went there, I placed myself at that position, and I didn’t have to necessitate the research question and rationale anymore, I just had to get on with it, and I did- says Yashi

Everyday lives in Dholak Basti

From this, I take a very enthusiastic, compassionate and empathetic researcher rationalizing her motive of research without any deductive reasoning and reference and I will give it to her. The research was on the water, and there was ‘no’ or ‘very little’ water. A household survey was done on numerous visits. There were four-five brief surveys done. During the surveys, ‘many people were welcoming to have a conversation while some were outright rejecting my presence in the basti.’ Why? ‘They were stating reasons like, ‘tum logo jaise bahut aate hain, data leke thesis karne, khud bade aadmi ban jaate hain aur hume kuch nahi milta (many like you visit us, collect data to complete their thesis and become successful, but we get nothing)’-added Yashi.

I cannot concur more with what Basti people had to say. I have seen fellow researchers wearing out ‘field’ with a mix of research methods which drains the motivation of society to interact. One goes to a community with no fascination, with no objective of knowing the people, their culture, traditions, their everyday lives, instead they go with a fully-structured questionnaire especially zooming into challenges of their lives which later translates into the academic research paper. I have myself seen worn-out research site/communities disinterested in communicating with people like us. For Yashi in DholakBasti, the damage of over-research was bare minimum because none of our kind was courageous enough to care. She spent a fair amount of time with Basti people from June to October. The welcoming people of Basti were generous with conversations but wouldn’t ask her to take a seat in their homes (as they were aware that they do not have a decent seating arrangement) or offer any refreshment (because of the well-known level of contamination in the water).

“When I started to go off to visit the sources of water, I was astonished. There are three sites for water procurement at far distances; one is a tubewell, second is a public tap by Jal Sansthan Haldwani and third is a citizen invented pits where they have cut the underground pipelines and use the collected water for their daily needs. At the third site, the pipe is damaged, and the water smells like a sewer, and it has worms visible to the naked eyes.

I have seen the transition in this Basti from scorching heat of summers to flooding monsoons to piercing winters, and the people who pray for the reasonable amount of essential quality water are threatened by the rains in monsoon. The sewage, defecated areas, the water source pits are all mixed and clogged by the storms. The process of fetching water for daily usage is arduous.”

–added Ms. Gupta

Thirteen-year-old trudges 4–5 hours every day to meet daily water needs.

Yashi mentions that many of the people started to think her as a doctor and started showing her the medical reports and the number of ailments present in the Basti in different age group. This is widely seen in developmental research when the researcher goes to a community to explore the fundamental needs and its crises. The community many times mistake them as their messiah who will solve all their problems. And this is not the failure of the people! This is their need, a fundamental human right that needs to be taken care of by the agencies running the city. They are a group of voters; they are present in the market (minutely). They are picking rags off the city garbage. They are in the center of the city, yet they are overlooked. If one argues that a third category slum is under no provision by the government, I would rightly believe so. As rehabilitation schemes have been passed by the government but their implementation remains in shadow due to lack of funds, says a leading daily report by Amar Ujjala. Then meanwhile, will approximately 3000 people (including children) be withheld of their basic rights? No!

To this, the researchers at CEDAR took an action research approach. We understand the public policy and administrative management is an integral part of action research or any research, but both observant and subject (people) are agencies of the change in any scenario. An intervention was proposed by the CEDAR team to address the quantity as well as the quality issue on the ground. A basic model of Bio-sand Filter, we all have been reading and forgetting in our EVS (Environmental Science) classes, with the tanks, the quantity is augmented, and the stored water is filtered for consumptive use. This was no easy victory. You can’t be demanding area to install tanks with the bio-sand filter where the lanes are size zero and a family of 6–9 are managing themselves in a 10*12 inches hut. We were in need of proper planning, management, adequate stakeholder consultation, a fair amount of opinion and with all these conditions falling in place, and we managed to implement our first pilot in this project.

On this Ms. Gupta said,

‘I was introduced to the sociological research for the first time, and participatory research helped me learn various methodologies of research. My research was moved by scientific rigor and objectivity, yet it was also motivated to address social problems and subjective issues. And we achieved what we aimed for, i.e., a socially acceptable technology for water woes in the Basti.’

The action and participatory research educated the researcher with experiential pieces of evidence. The understanding on the issue of interest here is enhanced by hands-on experiences, for example, of the sources of water, their shortage, and storage, their management, the loopholes in the functioning of different players involved and the nature of mediations that could apply in one scenario which differs from another. Well, this is it, the despair of Dholakbasti was covered, it was heard, and it is now a remarkable case of community participation as an agent of change.

Ecologist and Environmentalist. Realist. Romantic. Birder. Weaving stories from Observations.

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