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A man sells masks in the busy street of Varanasi during the pandemic. Photo by Shubhangee Vyas.


Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mittal Institute forged ahead, furthering scholarship and partnerships on South Asia’s arts, sciences, humanities, and more. Read about MI’s latest research and programs in our 2020-2021 Year In Review, now available digitally, by clicking here. For a preview, read the report’s opening “Letter From the Director” by Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School and Director of the Mittal Institute, below. 

Letter From the Director

COVID 19 has affected, in one way or another, every person on this planet. The Mittal Institute experienced its effects in multiple ways. We sought to support faculty in their research and teaching, offered student grants for virtual learning opportunities, and forged new alliances with museums, health institutions, academia, and government institutions in South Asia.  We re-optimized our operations, and leaned on the community to engage with us in a modified way. Our faculty members, staff, students, partners and others associated with the institute have truly risen to the occasion.

Satchit Balsari (center, top) and teammates on a home visit in tribal Melghat region, conducting a needs assessment and examining potential implementation challenges while designing digital health interventions.

Serving as the nexus for all the myriad forms of scholarship related to South Asia, the Mittal Institute’s Cambridge and in-region offices jointly disseminate information, aggregate research, and publications, and host public interest webinars on regional issues, including several that have global implications.

2021 Virtual Annual Cambridge Symposium

Our New Delhi office presently serves as the secretariat for The Lancet Citizens’ Commission to Reimagine India’s Health System (LCC). Vikram Patel (HMS) and I are two of the commission’s four co-chairs under the auspices of the world’s leading global health journal. LCC aspires to identify paths towards Universal Healthcare (UHC) in the resource-poor setting that is much of India.  Perhaps the report will ultimately have lessons for analogous evolutions towards UHC in other developing countries.  Of course, such exercises have been undertaken many times before in India, going back to the 1946 Bhore Commission, with inadequate results. We hope that our focus on the citizenry – incorporating views of the patients and the front-line healthcare providers – will distinguish our attempt.

The pandemic has also had an indirect effect on other significant scholarship pursued by our colleagues. For example, how should laws regarding the welfare of animals be altered with the stark reminder of societal vulnerability to zoonotic diseases? What engineering and economic solutions should accompany the discovery of vaccines in a way that makes them accessible in settings like those in South Asia? Of course, as in past years, myriad research streams are thriving – including but not limited to scholarship on climate change, urbanization, bio-design for low resource settings, and technology-facilitated education for densely populated areas. This past month, the Institute launched an exciting series of webinars on the science of conservation of tangible and intangible heritage in partnership with the Harvard Art Museums and the CSMVS Museum in Mumbai. Jinah Kim (FAS) and Narayan Khandekar (Straus Conservation Center, Harvard Art Museums), along with Anupam Sah (CSMVS), identified the topics for this year’s program.

Image courtesy of CSMVS museum.

We are fortunate to be of service to our students through the Graduate Student Associates (GSA) Program. It brings together graduate students from across Harvard as a community of peers to share and receive feedback from each other on their research. The GSA program grew considerably in size during the pandemic year and continues to provide a window into new and exciting scholarship pursued across Harvard. For example, Hansong Li, a GSA from the government department, is working on Vedic and Sanskrit sources of social thought and how this interfaces with modern-day diplomacy.

A winter student grant report from Emma Lewis on the LNA nuns of Thubten Choskor Ling, in Leh, Ladakh (photo taken pre-COVID-19).

Our Seed for Change (SFC) competition selects innovative ideas that tackle intractable problems in Pakistan and India. It’s been incredibly inspiring to see these students deliver on the ideals of the SFC program during a pandemic year. For example, Faiz Ahmed (HBS ’21) was awarded the Pakistan SFC prize for Macro Pakistani, a new digital media platform to help educate and inform Pakistanis about the economy and markets.

The Mittal Institute’s New Delhi office.

Looking ahead, we will build upon our longstanding presence in Pakistan and nurture several ongoing collaborations with scholars and institutions in Bangladesh and Nepal. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni, we have been able to expand our New Delhi office considerably. The office provides a physical location from which we hope to nurture the partnership ethos that is central to the operations of the Mittal Institute, in-region and in Cambridge. Our local presence – via that office and the one in Lahore – is central to walking the talk of giving something back to the benevolent societies from which we learn so much.

On a personal note, it is with mixed feelings that I share the news that our executive director, Meena Hewett, will be leaving the Mittal Institute at the end of the summer to pursue new endeavors. Alongside all of us, she has worked tirelessly over the past eleven years to bring to fruition our community’s collective vision for a University-wide hub with a ‘feet-on-the-street’ presence in South Asia. No good idea seemed impossible to attain as far as she was concerned! She found ways to make things happen with grace and grit. She will be missed by all who had the opportunity to work with her. Today, thanks to the efforts of the team she’s led so ably, the Mittal Institute is a magnet for anyone to intellectually ‘plug and play’ with us. 

The Mittal Institute team and I invite you to continue to engage with us in ways that enrich our learning community dedicated to exploring the myriad facets of South Asian societies.

Tarun Khanna
Director, Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University
Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School

The Mittal Institute’s Year in Review designed and produced by Neha Joseph