Click to Subscribe & Stay Informed via Email!

Subscribe Here!

Subscribe and stay informed about our latest news and events!
  • Please List your Professional Affiliation

News Category: India

The Jana Swasthya Project at the 2015 Kumbh Mela

Three years ago, we launched the Jana Swasthya Project at the 2015 Kumbh Mela in Nashik and Trimbakeshwar, India. 

The Jana Swasthya Project was comprised of two components: a large-scale digital disease surveillance program, EMcounter, and a mass screening program for oral health, hypertension and diabetes offered to pilgrims, sadhus, security forces, and all visitors in Nashik and Trimbakeshwar.

You can learn more about this amazing project at this specially-created website:




Seed for Change 2018 Winners Announced

Congratulations to Green Screen and Umbulizer, the winners of our 2018 Seed for Change Competition.


Umbulizer, the winner of Seed for Change Pakistan, will receive $15,000 to further develop a reliable, low-cost, and portable device that can provide continuous ventilation to patients in resource limited healthcare settings. Team members include Shaheer Ahmed Piracha, Umbulizer, Project Lead; Hamza Ali Khan, Harvard Business School, Master in Business Administration Candidate; and Sanchay Gupta, Harvard Medical School, MD Candidate.





Green Screen, winner of Seed for Change India, will receive $40,000 to produce a zero-electricity, modular ventilation panel made from an agricultural waste byproduct and designed for the slums of New Delhi, India. Team members include Gina Ciancone, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Master in Urban Planning Candidate, Master in Architecture Candidate; Ramya Pinnamaneni, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Master of Public Health Candidate; David Costanza, Rice University, Technology Fellow; and Dan Cusworth, Earth and Planetary Sciences Department.





Other finalists:


Saving 9: Saving 9’s motto is ‘You don’t need to be a doctor to saves lives ‘, and the name of our organization comes from the idiom ‘A stitch in time saves 9’. We strongly believe that anyone can learn basic first aid, and hence gain the ability to support a casualty sufficiently during an emergency until they can reach the hospital. It is our organization’s mission to create a ‘safety net’ of first aid ‘literate’ citizens and robust emergency response systems. Our project is focused on creating an emergency response system in a rural village, Pind Begwal.

Team members: Usama Javed Mirza, Saving 9, Co-founder and Program Manager; Muhammad Ovais Siddiqui, Saving 9, Co-founder and Program Finance Head; Zainab Zaheer, Saving 9, Program Coordinator and PR Head; Raissa Chughtai, Harvard College Class of 2021; Saving 9, Program Coordinator and Economic Analyst

Xyal Water: Xyla Water is a water filter company that builds filters based on plant tissues. The purification ability of xylem tissues was discovered and tested by Professor Karnik at MIT. We formed a research collaboration with him to commercialize and make a product out of this filter.

Team members: Syed Waqar Ali Shah, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, PhD Candidate in Mathematics; Iqra Nadeem, MIT, Master of Science Candidate in Technology and Policy Program ; Diane Delava, Academics for Development LLN, CEO; Ali Mannan Tirmizi, Lahore University of Management Sciences Class of 2018



Pre-Texts: Pre-Texts is an effective and efficient pedagogy that acknowledges local strengths that can help promote development in literacy, innovation, and citizenship. The Pre-Texts protocol can raise literacy in low-resource communities thanks to local arts and languages that serve to interpret English language curricular material.

Team members: Anshul Kumar, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, PhD Candidate in Sociology; Jahnvi Singh, Pre-Texts Facilitator and Leaning Design Consultant; Polly Lauer, Research Coordinator for Pre-Texts

Parivartan: In India, rates of child diarrheal deaths continue to be alarmingly high despite overall improvements throughout the world. Treatment for often preventable cases of diarrheal illness is very costly for families in India and more efforts should be made to promote behaviors that prevent incidence of diarrhea in children. Hand washing with soap is a cost-effective means of preventing illnesses caused by bacterial contamination, as it decreases person-to-person transmission. However, India is one of the most water-challenged countries in the world. Project Parivartan aims to mitigate both the problems of water scarcity and absence of hand hygiene practices by introducing alcohol based hand sanitizer (ABHS) to 10 villages in the town of Palghar in Northern Maharashtra, a water-deprived tribal region of India. The use of ABHS as a substitute for hand washing provides a simple and cost-effective means of reducing the spread of diarrheal and respiratory diseases at schools in water scarce areas.

Team members: Alastair Fung, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Master of Public Health Candidate in Global Health Candidate; Nithin Kondapuram, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Master of Science Candidate in Epidemiology; Harvard Medical School, Research Assistant; Sujata Saunik, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Takemi Fellow; Vivian Zhang, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Master of Public Health Candidate

Ten Minutes with Professor Vikram Patel

In the developing world, 95% of people with a clinically significant mental illness receive no treatment at all, and it costs the global economy an estimated trillion dollars a year.

Vikram Patel is a distinguished Indian psychiatrist and The Pershing Square Professor of Global Health at Harvard Medical School. The Mittal Institute’s Hasit Shah caught up with him before our 2018 Symposium, where Professor Patel was one of the key speakers.

The Mittal Institute Hosts Open House on Fostering Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries

The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute (SAI), Harvard University conducted an open house on “Trust and Creativity, Fostering Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries,” the last in a series of events planned to mark the official opening of its India headquarters in Delhi.

Tarun Khanna, Director, The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor Harvard Business School, spoke about various aspects of encouraging entrepreneurship in developing nations. Shri Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation and a former investment fund manager and management consultant, took part in the discussion and moderated the question-and-answer session. The Mittal Institute’s India office marks a new era of Harvard University’s direct engagement with the region.

Tarun Khanna, Mittal Institute Director, chats with Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation at an open house in New Delhi.


For more than two decades at Harvard Business School, Prof. Khanna has sought to study the drivers of entrepreneurship in emerging markets as a means of economic and social development. He spoke about the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute’s commitment to studying and researching all aspects of South Asia, alongside its partnership with major Indian institutions in arts, social entrepreneurship, and life sciences. Mr. Sinha spoke about how entrepreneurship can improve economic growth of developing nations like India.

“We strongly believe that encouraging entrepreneurship will help our nation develop by opening multiple avenues for younger generations,” Khanna said. “The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University is committed to disseminating knowledge, building capacity, informing policy, and engaging with issues that are shaping South Asia today, by conducting research across the South Asian region. This open house is part of the monthly seminar series planned by the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute to spur knowledge-sharing amongst thought leaders. I believe these events will encourage a fruitful exchange of views on crucial issues and inform policymaking in a positive way.”

The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University, is a university-wide research institute at Harvard that engages faculty and students through interdisciplinary programs to advance and deepen the teaching and research on global issues relevant to South Asia. Currently, Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute in India is running programs/research projects in India related to the arts, social science and the pure science. The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute also serves as a nexus for Harvard’s engagement with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, as well as diaspora populations from these countries.

This article was originally published on EduNews Careers 360. 

The Mittal Institute Hosts Student Research Art Exhibition

Sacred Groves, Prathima Muniyappa

Picture 1 of 13

Sacred Groves, Prathima Muniyappa



On Wednesday, April 4th, the Mittal Institute hosted an opening reception for its Spring Art Exhibition, “Showcasing Research in South Asia Through Visual Arts.” It features 2D and 3D art and artifacts inspired by Harvard students who traveled to South Asia sponsored by Mittal Institute travel grants. The show was curated by Sheliza Jamal (Graduate School of Education) and Neeti Nayak (Graduate School of Design). At the event, we chatted with them about the show. 


How did you get involved with this showcase? 

Neeti: While I was doing my research, I realized that there were a lot of art projects that were tangential to the research that I was doing. However, I couldn’t really talk about them when I was doing my thesis project.  I wanted a way to showcase the arts-based side of my project, and I was sure there were other students who had similar motivations. I chatted with Amy [at SAI] and she liked the idea, and we decided to do something about it.

Sheliza: Amy [at the Mittal Institute] told me about the opportunity for an art show, and I jumped at the chance because I am interested in anything art-related.  


How did you choose the theme “Showcasing Research in South Asia Through Visual Arts”? 

Neeti: I’m working on a degree in master’s in design engineering, and we have a heavy focus on interdisciplinary work. To be interdisciplinary, you have to present your work in a way that is digestible by a lot of disciplines. And that’s why being visual is the most important thing [in bringing it to other audiences].


What was your favorite part of the show? 

Sheliza: The images, pieces of art, and artifacts are all manifestations of research in South Asia. Reading about how [the students] were inspired to take a picture, bring an artifact back, or create an original piece of work, was the most inspiring part of curating the exhibition.

Neeti: My favorite part of the show was working with a co-curator who had a completely different perspective on things. We came together to look at the layout of the show and choose the kind of images that best represent a certain line of research. 


What was the submission process like? 

Sheliza: We emailed the database of Mittal Institute grant recipients, and we asked them to submit an image of either an artifact, a piece of work that they had done, or a photograph they had taken while conducting research in South Asia. They also provided a short description so we would get an idea of their research and what that visit meant to them. We wanted to include as many pieces of art as possible, be inclusive as possible, and keep in mind the different regions. We didn’t want to have everything from one country. We were pleased that the exhibit has pieces from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Nepal.

Neel Ghose: A Robin Hood for the Modern Age


Neel Ghose (HBS’ 19) is one of the co-founders of the Robin Hood Army (RHA), a “disruptive startup that uses food as a medium to bring out the best of humanity at a community level.” RHA is a volunteer-based organization, which collects excess food from restaurants and distributes it to the less fortunate. In a little over two years, the RHA has served over 5 million people through over 12,000+ Robins across 12 countries. 

Prior to starting RHA, Ghose worked in New York-based hedge fund (D.E. Shaw) and Zomato, an Indian unicorn startup. He has been a bit of a nomad and has lived in 5 countries setting up Zomato’s global operations. 

In an interview with The Mittal Institute, Ghose shares how he is helping to reduce hunger through social media outreach and zero cash transactions.  

How did the idea for Robin Hood Army first emerge?
I was living and working in Portugal where I came across a volunteer organization called Refood with a unique model — the team would collect excess food from restaurants and redistribute it to the less fortunate. I loved the idea and spent some time with the founder trying to understand the workings. It makes obvious sense in a place like India, where there is more of a need. A few months later I returned to Delhi, I spoke to my co-founder and we decided to try out the idea at home. 
Could you describe your team and some of the collaborations involved with RHA?
The team for the RHA is formed by largely young professionals and students who do this in their free time. Our Robins come from extremely diverse backgrounds — there are students, lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, teachers, government employees, and folks taking sabbaticals. The common threads between everyone on the team are passion, a deep commitment to make their community a better place, and a strong bias for action.
We have a strict no-funds approach, so growth in the Robin Hood Army is largely funneled through social media and partnerships. We have routinely collaborated with companies and media houses to channelize their resources to helping and generally spreading smiles to the underprivileged community. Some examples are (helps us take children who live on the street for movies and entertainment shows), Uber (provides transport to help mobilize food across the city), and Viacom (created a music video featuring Bollywood artists to promote the cause).
Besides corporate collaborations, the local partnerships tend to be as, if not more, impactful. Our Robins in Pune partnered with a local hospital to provide free cataract operations to 50 senior citizens who live on the streets of Pune; food is a medium by which we interact with forgotten sections of society, and the idea is to figure out and execute on how we can bring happiness and relief to these people.
Could you please describe a meaningful encounter that you have had as part of the Robin Hood Army?
One of the most special parts of our RHA journey has been the project #Mission1Million —  we teamed up with our Robin Hood family in Pakistan to mobilize citizens on both sides of the border through the private sector and media house to serve 1 million hungry citizens on Independence Day (August 14-15, 2017). Given the political situation in our countries, this was not the easiest thing to pull off — but the idea was to make our countrymen aware of the acute hunger problem in both countries. 
We ended up serving 1.32 million citizens across both days, but #Mission1Million was honestly not about the numbers — but the fact that any kind of societal change is possible if we bring together citizens, media houses, and the private sector as one team. Some of the moments across cities in the project can be followed here.
How do you plan to grow your presence in the next few years?
The immediate focus is growing into smaller towns across India, expanding into Africa and Latin America, and growing the Robin Hood Academy, an initiative to get children who live on the streets enrolled into public schools.
We currently serve 200,000 people a month across 59 cities — and have chalked out plans to grow to serve half a million people a month across 100 cities by the end of 2018. We have a simple philosophy of “1% Done,” which basically implies that disruptive growth is the only way we can create a tangible solution to the hunger problem. 
How are your studies at HBS supporting the Robin Hood Army? 
I have always looked at the RHA less as an NGO and more as a disruptive startup that uses food as a medium to bring out the best of humanity at a community level. Given the focus on growth — we plan and prepare in the RHA with an acute focus on strategy, metrics, decentralization, mission, and leadership development. Almost the entire curriculum at HBS is geared towards developing clarity of thought in these fields. 
Besides this, we have been actively diving deep into the Harvard networks to spread into Africa and Latin America. Kenya, Chile, and now Mexico are three countries where we have identified our leaders and teams through fellow students in Harvard. My professors are extremely supportive — and it is very easy to bounce off ideas and decisions and get perspective from a different lens.
How is RHA working across borders between India and Pakistan and what has been the impact?
My friend from London, Sarah set up RHA Pakistan in 2015 after following its progress on social media. Our countries have very similar patterns — massive inequalities and young educated populations who are passionate about giving back to the community. In three years of operation, our Robins in Pakistan have served more than 200,000 people across Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore.
It has been a surreal experience working with a team across the border who think and are like us. The only time we have intense arguments is when India plays Pakistan in cricket, and the banter on our WhatsApp groups is very memorable.
How do you use social media to accomplish your objectives?
Since we have no funds involved, the metric to grow our impact is constantly bringing on new volunteers. We share our experiences and stories on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, where our viewers can see Robins wearing green going out and serving the local community. Through social media, we have been noticed by the media and platforms like TEDx talks, and now it is a strategic part of the RHA engine which gets us 1,400 + new volunteers requests a month across the world.
Could you describe some challenges that you have faced and how you have approached problem-solving them?
Since everyone does this in their free time, the constant challenge has always been time. To counter this — as a culture we are constantly decentralizing and looking for the next generation of leaders to replace the work we do, this is a long-term strategy to ensure sustainability of the mission.
Even though we have served 5 million people till date through a network of 12,000+ Robins — this is still barely scratching the surface of the global hunger problem, hence growing fast enough is always a problem. We try to work on that by creating flat, decentralized structures and making knowledge sharing of best practices real-time via metrics, documentation, and expansion teams. We have a WhatsApp group called the Boiler Room, where city heads of all 60 cities are constantly sharing best practices.
As we continue growing in an environment where all views are valued — confrontations within the team are an inevitable part of our journey. Through defining our culture and what we stand for as a team, it is possible in most cases to proactively keep these confrontations healthy and help us constantly reinvent ways to maximize impact.
What advice do you have for other young people who are interested in starting a non-profit?
Hit the field running as soon as possible — all strategy, plans, and processes will take shape once you know what is happening with the people you are trying to serve. Also always, always be empathetic. That is more likely to open more doors and create a difference than any corporate strategy on an excel sheet.

Harvard’s New “Embassy” in India


Picture 1 of 5


The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute’s (The Mittal Insitute) new India office, in the heart of the beautiful Lutyens-designed part of New Delhi, has officially opened, marking a new era of Harvard’s direct engagement with the region.

“Harvard would not be what it is if it was not capable of attracting the best brains from all over the world,” said Mark Elliott, Vice Provost for International Affairs and the Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History, to the Times of India newspaper last week. “We intend to create a small embassy at the institute, which will help the students and researchers to study at Harvard.”

Professor Elliott officially inaugurated the new office on Friday, March 16, 2018. In his speech, he made it clear that a greater regional presence is vital for the university’s future scholarship:

“We believe that our Delhi office will enable us to grow our collaborations with Indian academic and cultural institutions, contribute to the development of outstanding research across the sciences, social sciences, and the arts and humanities, and further strengthen our already close ties with numerous Harvard alumni who live in India and across South Asia.”

Dozens of Harvard alumni attended the event, thanks to the Harvard Alumni Association’s tireless efforts to bring people together and maintain these valuable networks. Harvard historian and Indian Member of Parliament Professor Sugata Bose, Executive Director Meena Hewett and India Country Director Dr. Sanjay Kumar were also present.

It generated wide coverage in the Indian media, too, in major publications like the Hindustan Times, Financial Express and the aforementioned Times of India.
The Mittal Institute’s Faculty Director Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School, will speak on April 5, 2018, about the institute’s commitment to studying and researching all aspects of South Asia, alongside its productive partnerships with major Indian institutions in the arts, social entrepreneurship, and life sciences.
“Our presence continues to grow in South Asia — with a new flagship office just opened in Delhi — as well as our strong connections to the diaspora in the US and beyond,” he said, recently. “With the infrastructure in place, we have the experience to do extraordinary inter-disciplinary research and produce valuable knowledge that will shape future scholarship in diverse fields as well as influence contemporary policy.”



SAI Hosts Four Artists from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and India


SAI is pleased to announce our 2018 Visiting Artists, who will be at Harvard from mid-March to mid-May. During their time at Harvard, the artists will display their work on campus, meet with students, attend courses, and give public seminars.

Check back on our site for details about the seminars and exhibition.


Imran Channa, Pakistan

Imran Channa’s art practice interrogates the intersection between power and knowledge. His primary focus is on the documentation and dissemination of historical narratives and events. He explores how fabricated narratives can override our collective memory to shape individual and social consciousness and alter human responses. His work draws attention to the instruments of documentation, highlighting how photography, archeology, and literature record, frame and manufacture history. He is interested in how these modes pervert knowledge and the construction of consciousness.

Images of the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India are the central motifs of his practice. He reworks historical images to forge new narratives, relocate historical truth, and interrogate the influence of subjectivity. Photographs are often the only ways of retracing the past for subsequent generations who did not experience events first-hand. They are paradoxical — containing the capacity to understand fact as well as create fiction.


Rajyashri Goody, India and England

Rajyashri Goody’s art practice revolves around the complexities of identity seen through the lens of larger social, political, economic, and religious structures at play, and consequently the tug between power and resistance that manifests itself within minority communities. Her interests lie within the interpretation of caste in India, particularly the strengthening voice of Dalit resistance since the 1920s. Caste-based discrimination is still very much alive in both urban and rural India, with crimes against Dalits such as rape, murder, beatings, and violence related to land matters committed approximately every 18 minutes. Yet, as Sharmila Rege put it, there is an “‘official forgetting’ of histories of caste oppression, struggles, and resistance.”

Goody’s aim as an artist is to contest this “official forgetting” by drawing out both political and personal Dalit narratives and weaving them together to reflect upon everyday acts of resistance in the current sociopolitical climate of India. Her artworks, whether they take the form of installations, photography, or more recently, text and ceramics, often result from a series of conversations and interviews. One of her ongoing projects incorporates Dalit autobiographies, which contain vivid and complex descriptions of food, cooking, eating, and hunger. She highlights and recycles their extracts on food to create “recipes” from their own words, compiling a cookbook of sorts as an ode to everyday resistance and an act of resistance itself against “official forgetting.”


Kabi Raj Lama, Nepal

Kabi Raj Lama is a contemporary printmaker based in Kathmandu, who primarily works with lithography and the Japanese mokuhanga (woodcut) medium. His work examines themes of natural disasters, trauma, and religion. Lama sees the complexities of natural disasters as multidimensional — affecting both tangible and intangible worlds.

Kabi’s exhibition, “From Kathmandu to Tokyo” in 2014 reveals the trauma of his experience in Japan where he witnessed and lived through the catastrophic tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. The artist’s decision to work with woodcut medium on traditional Lokta paper served as a cathartic experience. The motifs in this series were inspired by the wreckage and havoc created by the tsunami, as well as the Fukushima radiation that destroyed cities, and took away uncountable lives on land and sea.

In 2016, Kabi Raj was away from his home at residencies in Germany and China, when the Great Earthquakes struck Nepal in 2015. The earthquakes killed 8,686, injured 16,808, rendered thousands homeless, and leveled heritage monuments and places of worship. Kabi’s prints made while in Germany and China are poignant narratives of memory and loss. His work explores what the earthquakes destroyed as well as what they revealed. One source of inspiration for Lama was the hidden sculptures from the inner sanctums of Kasthamandap, which the earthquake exposed to the public when the building came down. For one of Lama’s ongoing projects, he recently traveled to the Everest Region in an effort to capture the moment of the earthquake at the world highest peak. He prepared and carved wooden boards from which he has created several editions of prints.


Faiham Ebra Sharif, Bangladesh

Faiham Ebra Sharif is a freelance multimedia journalist and photographer, who has several years of experience working as a reporter, newsroom editor and presenter in national electronic media. Sharif’s areas of research include colonialism, climate change, ethnic minorities, film, human rights, indigenous people, labor rights, migration, popular culture, refugees, Rohingya crisis, sports, tea industry and underprivileged children. He is involved with different cultural and political movements. Through his visual narratives and journalism, Sharif explores the lived-experiences of marginalized people both in South Asia and globally.

His current project, Cha Chakra: Tea Tales of Bangladesh sheds light on the plight of the tea garden workers of Bangladesh who are among the lowest paid and most vulnerable laborers in the world yet are strangely invisible to the global media. Currently, the project concentrates on labor rights and conditions within Bangladesh’s tea industry, which are a direct result of a long history of colonialism and oppression. This project aims to collect the undocumented history of the global tea industry through photography, oral histories, and archival materials. While at Harvard, Sharif plans to continue his archival research and collect materials related to the global tea industry from Harvard’s libraries and museums. He will also photograph the tea culture in USA and spread awareness about the phenomenon though public events and publications.

Other ongoing projects include Rohingya: The Stateless People, The Fantasy Is More Filmic than Fictional: Bangladesh Film Industry and Life in Progress: People Living with HIV.



“Epistemology is the Key to Tribes’ Emancipation”

Raile Rocky Ziipao


Raile Rocky Ziipao is the 2017-2018 Arvind Raghunathan and Sribala Subramanian South Asia Visiting Fellow at SAI. His research interest includes frontier’s highways, the political economy of Indigenous/Tribal/Adivasi peoples development, critical infrastructure studies, philosophy of Indigenous methodology (perspective from within), and an alternative path to modernity.

In an interview with SAI, Raile Rocky Ziipao discusses the importance of his research and initiatives regarding infrastructure in Tribal-dominated areas.

Ziipao will give a seminar on his research titled “The Question of Tribes in Northeast India,” Thursday, March 29, 2018.


How did you first become interested in infrastructure development?

My research project began in my home village of Purul. During monsoons, the roads are not drivable and electricity is so irregular that in some places, there are electric poles with no wires. People have to climb to the top of the mountain for cell service. To get to school, students have to walk for miles. When I go to other parts of the country, the infrastructure is much better. I began to wonder why roads and electricity are so bad in Tribal-dominated areas.

In the sensitive social and political context of India’s border and frontier region, it is crucial to research the impact of infrastructure development on ecosystems, communities, and livelihood. For this reason, I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on infrastructure development and social dynamics in Manipur. My dissertation examines the dynamics of infrastructure development in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the state of India plans, executes and politicizes infrastructure. My analysis gives primacy to infrastructure within the development discourse in Northeast India and provides a basis to understand the issues of access, inclusion, equity, and social justice.


What is the importance of roads in your current research?

My current research explores how road development and territorialization take place in Northeast India. One track of my research examines British Colonialism from a historical perspective and asks why the British built roads during the Colonial period? How do roads and colonization take place together?  How did the Tribes form a resistance effort when the British were encroaching upon them?  

Roads are political paths; the development of roads is entwined with the extractions of natural resources and political control of Tribal Areas. My research examines both contemporary and historical road development projects in Tribal areas. I draw connections between the legacies of Colonialism to the Indian state’s development approach. Roads for territorial expansion and resource extraction were the core agenda of the colonial project. The post-colonial Indian state, on the other hand, built roads in the region for securing the borders, promoting regional integration, and linking external markets.

Road development in Northeast India focuses on national highways and transnational highways, ignoring feeder and village roads. Budgetary allocations for village roads are very small. One of my case studies was the so-called Frontiers Highway, which borders China; and the Trans-lateral Highway, which connects India, Myanmar, and Thailand. These highways, in a way, bypass the local economy and local people.

Another case study is of the People’s road, which the Manipur government has ignored for more than 30 years. However, the community used social media to recruit help. With active community participation, they built 100km of the road without any government support, successfully connecting three states in India: Manipur, Nagaland, and Assam.


What are some of the challenges that Tribal Societies in India face today?

Tribes are at the bottom of any social development indicators in India. Tribal people make up 8.6 percent of the total Indian population (104.3 million people). My research utilizes epistemology to examine how India’s dominant framework centers on Caste Societies and theorizes Tribal Societies as the periphery. The dominant framework does not explain the social reality of Tribes. From 1951 to 1990, development projects such as wildlife sanctuaries and dams have displaced 21 million people in Tribal areas. The caste society decides everything for the non-caste society, which explains why they are at the bottom of all social indicators — such as literacy and infant mortality.

Tribes in India have a social structure, which is different from that of so-called mainstream society. Tribes are the non-caste society in India: A category opposed to that of caste, which is a pervasive feature of the larger Indian society. However, Tribes are not a homogenous category. The 2011 census categorizes 705 individual ethnic groups as Scheduled Tribes in India, some with populations as big as 1 million and some with less than 1,000. Tribes are also diverse in terms of culture, traditions, and value systems. While formulating development policy, the challenge on the part of the Indian state is to provide space for synchronizing Tribal peoples’ lived experience, their traditional institutions, and value systems along with the modern values of equality, justice, freedom, fraternity, mutual respect, emancipation, and non-discrimination. Development policy conceptualized and based on the premise of population size and dominant culture has further escalated the tension and development disparity between dominant societies and those living at the margin of history, economy, and crisis of identity.

While theorizing development, it is essential to problematize the Indian state’s assumption that Tribal destruction and displacement are necessary for national economic growth. This does not mean that Tribes do not want to be part of development. Rather, outside forces should not superimpose development but should align with the ethos of the Tribe.


What is the origin of the Tribal Intellectual collective India?

I belong to the Poumai Naga Tribes, which is located in Northeast India in the state of Manipur. I am part of the Tribal Intellectual Collective India (TICI), which Bodhi SR (national co-convener) initiated a few years ago. The collective has approximately 150 members who come from Tribes across the country from Ladak (border of China), Northeastern States, Andaman and Nicobar Island, Central India; from both small and large tribes; and a balance between male and female members. 

We draw inspiration from Professor Virginius Xaxa’s theoretical contribution to tribal studies in India. Tribes in India face two waves of Colonialism, what Professor Xaxa calls “double colonialism” — one from the British and one from the non-Tribal Indian population. Hence, the problem of trying to unravel Tribal social reality from the post-colonial framework of South Asian Studies. Tribes still have yet to experience a post-colonial reality. For Tribes, post-colonial reality and framework is just an idea. This is why it makes sense for us to look at the binary of caste and non-caste society, and from the waves of colonialism.

Xaxa argues that “a tribe is a whole society like any other society, with their own language, territory, culture, customs, and so on. Hence, as societies, tribes must be compared with other societies and not with caste, as has been the case in sociological and anthropological writing.”

The TICI’s theoretical framework includes:

  • The need to posit epistemological premises that challenge gender and class stratification within Tribe/Adivasi societies.
  • The need to produce knowledge that does not affirm the further oppression of “Dalit/Mulnivasi” societies.
  • Does not render invisible, silence, or immobilize small tribes/Adivasi societies.
  • While theorizing “development,” do not perpetuate the State’s current “development paradigm,” which frames Tribe/Adivasi displacement and destruction as necessary for national economic growth.

Furthermore, TICI aims to bring Tribal perspectives into focus by creating the theory, “perspective from within.” This theoretical approach acknowledges that everyone has their own way of looking at the world and that everyone has a right to look at and understand their own social reality. This theory is in contrast to dominant societies, who think of their theories as truth and position other perspectives as an expression of their emotions or a political statement. We see that as problematic because we all have perspectives, no one can stake claim to the truth. We acknowledge that we have a perspective, and we try to acknowledge that others have their own perspective.

The collective has a national seminar, this year’s seminar “Tribal Towns, Small Towns, Border Town and New Towns: Governance, Development and Change” will take place in August. We have also published two books, with two forthcoming, and have been successfully running our online publications, known as TICI Journals, for the past five years.


What has it been like for you to be at Harvard?

Harvard’s incredible resources — the classes, professors, academic environment — are very different from what I have experienced. Harvard gives me a space to reflect, take a step backward, and look deeply at the social reality of my home. Harvard also supplies me with academic tools to analyze and compare these different social realities.

When I am in my village, there is no concept of hierarchy. When we have a dialogue, we sit together — when there is a discussion, a decision can take two or three days. There is no stage, and there is no shouting. Because of this, I am non-hierarchical in nature. During my first talk at Harvard, I felt uncomfortable being on the center stage, since it was my first time in such a situation.

I am grateful for the opportunity that SAI has given to me — rarely do Tribals get access to this kind of opportunity. For instance, I am the first generation in my family to have access to higher education. For me, making it to a top-class university like Harvard is significant, and at first, I could not comprehend how I would face it. However, the staff at SAI have been supportive and friendly.

The best part of being at Harvard has been my academic growth and being part of the knowledge production.  TICI argues that epistemology is the key to Tribes’ emancipation. For our movement to be more than reactionary, we need to produce knowledge. For too long, dominant societies have put us within their framework. I contribute towards the collective by publishing in my area of expertise — Tribes and infrastructure development in conflict areas.


You recently gave a talk with the Boston Study Group. What sort of partnerships and collaborations emerged from that talk?

The talk gave me a space to reach out and collaborate with people from other marginalized groups. The Indigenous people from Australia and Central America who came to my talk were shocked that there are 104.3 million Indigenous people in India. The talk gave us a space to learn about each other’s issues. It makes sense to have a global collaboration across groups, for example, The Boston Study group is active with Dalit rights and issues and connects them with Black Lives Matter and Roma people. Historically these are different locations, but there were similar processes of marginalization. In the future, we hope to learn how to widen our horizons of collaboration, regardless of national boundaries.



This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Full List of Events to Celebrate Opening of SAI Office in New Delhi

The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute (SAI), Harvard University, is officially opening its new India headquarters in New Delhi. Throughout 2018 and beyond, leading scholars from South Asia-related fields are delivering a series of free public lectures in Delhi, and the new SAI HQ marks a new era of Harvard faculty and students directly engaging with the region, gaining invaluable insights and experience by committing time and resources in South Asia.


Full List of Events in March and April:

Thursday, March 8
1947 Partition of British India
Professor Uma Chakravarti, Historian
Urvashi Butalia, Author, and Publisher

6:00-7:30 PM
Seminar Hall 1,
Kamla Devi Complex, IIC, N. Delhi


Friday, March 16
The Lakshmi Mittal SAI Office Opening
Mark Elliott, Vice Provost of International Affairs; Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University

6:00-7:00 PM
The Imperial Hotel; Flr. 1
Janpath, N. Delhi


Thursday, March 22
Reviving Public-Private Partnerships in India: Highways Leading the Way
Rohit Kumar Singh, Managing Director of Indian Highways Management Company Ltd; HKS ‘04

6:00-7:30 PM
Seminar Hall 3,
Kamla Devi Complex, IIC, N. Delhi


Tuesday, March 27
Human Origin, Health, and Disease: Genomic Perspectives
Dr. K Thangaraj, Scientist, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, India.

6:00-7:30 PM
Seminar Hall 3,
Kamla Devi Complex, IIC, N. Delhi


Thursday, April 5
Trust and Creativity: Fostering Entrepreneurship in Developing Countries
Tarun Khanna, Director, The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University; Professor Harvard Business School

6:00-7:30 PM
To be confirmed