Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why I am in Mumbai: An Overview of the Winter Institute on Sustainable Urban Development

From January 1-15, I am in Mumbai, India participating in a winter institute on sustainable urban development. My group from the Washington University Brown School of Social Work has partnered with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in an effort to create intellectual and cross-cultural learning. The institute focuses on four thematic areas: access to water, solid waste management, financial inclusion, and adequate housing. We are using “group model building” and system dynamics to work directly with the Mumbai slum communities to uncover the root causes to their most pressing problems. I strongly believe this type of work should serve as the cornerstone of our collective efforts to create a sustainable society.
When I tell friends and family that I am in Mumbai, their response has typically been “What the heck are you doing there?!?” This (perhaps rather boring) post is my attempt to answer that question.

Although I would have enjoyed going to Mumbai solely for tourism, I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in a winter institute on sustainable urban development through the Wash. U School of Social Work. The winter institute focuses on four key areas in Mumbai’s slums: water, solid waste management, financial inclusion, and housing. As I am an environmental studies and urban studies double major, I have found this institute absolutely incredible, and the perfect fit for my interests in climate change mitigation and sustainable development.

The winter institute has two parallel frameworks: social relations and system dynamics. These two approaches are meant to complement one another and lead to a deeper understanding of the problems facing the most vulnerable populations of Mumbai. With the insights gained from the social relations and the system dynamics perspectives, we are hopeful that our work will help to stimulate real positive change within our focus Mumbai slum communities and ultimately help with crafting new, sustainable policies for the city.

The social relations framework uses the lens of gender inequality to examine critical issues in Mumbai slum communities. The social relations framework uses five “tools” to analyze gender inequalities: power, resources, people, rules, and activities. This perspective provides great insights into larger policy decisions affecting the slum communities, and can generate a legal-policy framework that protects women from discrimination within Mumbai communities. As I am not a member of the social relations program, I still know very little about the methods and approaches this group uses in the field.

The system dynamics method attempts to create simplified versions of reality that can help a community to understand the key drivers of its problems. System dynamics emphasizes improving our “mental models,” or ways that we view the world, in order to eliminate inaccuracies and inconsistencies that lead to poor policies. System dynamics also focuses on feedback processes embedded within the system; most of the observed changes in behavior should be due to “endogenous” or internal variables, rather than “exogenous” or external forces. Through the winter institute, we are using a community-driven method of system dynamics, which gives the control of the modeling process directly to the Mumbai slum communities.

To create the sustainable urban development winter institute, Wash U partnered with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). Tata is the elite Indian social work graduate school, and has about 1200 students. There are many different schools within TISS, covering a wide range of social sciences. We are working with the School of Habitat Studies, which is particularly focuses on urban development, governance, and applied policy within India. The Habitat School is entirely interdisciplinary, and classes include economic theory, analysis of power, philosophies of community organizing, public policy, some technical engineering-esque issues on water and housing, and architecture/urban planning. Students in the Habitat School range from age 21 to 27, and come from backgrounds ranging from sociology to engineering.

Besides the Tata Institute, the winter institute also includes an NGO called CORO (Community of Resource Organizations). CORO has been working with slum communities in Mumbai for over 22 years, and has achieved many successes in community development. CORO originally started as a group of middle class activists pushing literacy in the slums, but has since transformed into a truly grassroots organization that develops most of its leadership directly from the Mumbai community.

CORO practices “research-based interventions” and has six key focuses: 1) understanding of urban community issues; 2) strategies that really work at the grassroots level; 3) community dynamics and politics; 4) identification of individual potential leadership; 5) support for collective leadership; and 6) bridging the gaps between macro concepts and micro realities. CORO is excited to see how system dynamics and group model building can be utilized in Mumbai slum communities, and feels that these tools can supplement their work. Because of CORO’s very positive reputation within the slum communities, we are able to talk to many people and form many personal connections that would not otherwise be possible.

Without the CORO members, the winter institute could not possibly involve residents of Mumbai slum communities. However, involving CORO members makes learning and interacting in the Winter Institute much more complicated, as only a few CORO members are fluent in English. To make matters more difficult, some CORO members speak mainly Hindi (the national language of India), while others are most comfortable with Marathi (the official language of the state of Maharashtra, which includes Mumbai). Because of this constraint, we have sometimes needed to translate winter institute lectures into three languages.

Because of CORO’s involvement, we have been able to place the Mumbai community at the center of the institute process. Each of the eight groups in the program have visited the “field” (ie, real Mumbai slums) at least three times to interview community members and gain insights into the unique problems faced by each community. During these visits, TISS students translate the Hindi discussions into English for the Wash U students. Surprisingly, this process has gone over very smoothly, and the American students have easily been able to contribute to the community discussions.

With only three days remaining in the winter institute, time is running short. The social relations and system dynamics teams met earlier today to collaborate and help each other to better understand the problems faced in the four focus areas: water, solid waste management, financial inclusion, and housing. While all teams have made substantial progress, much work remains in developing novel policy solutions for our final presentations on Saturday. I am confident, however, that we can break through the challenging barriers and generate ideas for that CORO, TISS, and the slum communities of Mumbai can use to create a more sustainable future for everyone involved.

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