This is part of a series of reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.
By Mei Yin Wu, Harvard College ’17
This wintersession I interned with the Wildlife Conservation Trust as a fellow working in the economics division. Having had traveled a fair bit, I was surprised to find Mumbai a beast of its own. During the first couple of days in the city, I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of people and traffic. Mumbai is one of the ten most densely populated cities in the world (8 of which are in the Indian subcontinent). Due to the enormous size of the population, there is a large demand for motor vehicles, which inevitably contributes to higher levels of particulate matter in the air. Issues such as air pollution and water sanitation safety, however, are by no means unique to India. Most developing countries face these problems and in fact, most developed countries have experienced these issues in the past. But generally with consistently high growth rates, like the ones India has recently enjoyed, comes increased expectations of standards of life. I believe that India will face increasing pressure to combat the environmental issues that seem inherent to the process of economic development.
Despite the initial discomfort that came from adapting to new traffic patterns and air quality, I grew to appreciate the abundant diversity of Mumbai. Being a financial hub, Mumbai attracts people from all over India and as such, is home to many diverse cuisines and religious practices. I was able to sample Southern Indian street food at Matunga and “sizzlers,” Chinese Indian fusion dishes, in Nariman Point. According to my peer fellow, Pooja, people celebrate all religious holidays in Mumbai. In her circle of friends, her Muslim friends would invite her over for Eid, and she would return the favor when it came time for Diwali. Many people I spoke to seemed to disbelieve the claim of religious differences being the primary factor behind Indian-Pakistani conflict and instead viewed the conflict as a matter of politics. While the conversations I had were by no means necessarily indicative of popular opinion, it was interesting to hear local perspectives as a supplement to the views posited by Western professors.
I was interning at the Wildlife Conservation Trust, which currently works in over 110 national parks and sanctuaries of India, covering tiger reserves and nature preserves. In India 3.5 million people live within tiger reserves and several hundred million inhabit the nature preserves. Due to the inseparability of humans and the natural environment, WCT has realized that one cannot take an isolationist approach towards conservation and as such, it seeks to promote conservation and community development in tandem. WCT’s initiatives have two goals: economic empowerment and minimization of environmental degradation. During my time in Mumbai, I became familiarized with the different levels of wildlife protection granted by the government as well as about how WCT has evolved from an entity that grants donations to causes, to a stand alone non-profit with formal programs. One such initiative employs and trains communities living on tiger reserves to be part of the forest guard force. Forest guards are necessary to mitigate human wildlife conflict, as well as to protect wildlife from poaching.
Prior to my arrival, WCT had conducted surveys to collect general information from these communities. After initial data wrangling and exploring descriptive statistics from a dataset of 360 respondents in the Greater Tadoba Landscape, I gained insight into energy consumption and crop patterns. I determined that 90% of the sample population used firewood as their primary source of energy, with 93% of these firewood consumers collecting their own firewood. This initially seemed unsurprising given that firewood is freely available for extraction in the forest and has been traditionally the primary means of attaining energy. However, recently, liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, has been offered at no cost to these households through government subsidization, which causes one to wonder why residents still opt to devote time and energy to collecting firewood. This behavior is worth noting on the environmental front, because burning firewood for energy not only emits pollutants, but also exacerbates deforestation. Understanding this behavior can be useful for thinking of new methods to incentivize shifting towards alternative energy sources. Also interesting to note is the fact that 70% of respondents report damages to their crops due to animal interference, with only 7% receiving compensation from the government. All of those receiving compensation report an insufficient level of compensation. Additionally, 12% of respondents report cattle loss, of which 84% blame tiger activities. These are all issues to consider when further considering how to maintain a mutually sustainable environment for human and animal communities. I am still in the process of examining additional data collected regarding health metrics of forest guards. This is important because forest guards suffering from poor health may have difficulty meeting certain performance levels, such as failing to complete their daily surveillance route. We believe that finding the most efficacious ways of optimizing the health of the forest task force would lead to greater gains in conservation efforts.
This internship opportunity not only allowed me to learn a lot about the intersection of economic empowerment and conserving animal populations, but also about the context in which work is conducted in India. For example, while I was familiar with high bureaucratic hurdles such as permit applications, I was surprised to learn of extensive institutionalized corruption embedded in daily life. I also realized that India, compared to the U.S., has a drastically different set of resources and priorities. On my first day at the office, I overheard a conversation during which someone said: a policy that does not impact at least a million people is a not policy worth talking about. Due to the size of the Indian population, problems are tackled from a different angle: the activation energy for implementation is much higher. Policies and initiatives, compared to those in the U.S., must affect a relatively higher population to merit pursuing. I am grateful for not only new perspectives into a very interesting interdisciplinary field, but also a new network of warm and helpful colleagues at WCT. I look forward to continue collaborating and learning with my WCT family in the future.