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News Category: South Asia in the News

Does the Fight for Working Women’s Rights in India Leave Out Informal Workers?

Tata Trusts and Harvard University South Asia Institute (SAI) recently embarked on a collaborative journey in knowledge creation and capacity building for social and economic empowerment in India. The 18-month research project titled, Livelihood Creation in India through Social Entrepreneurship and Skill Development (beginning October 2015) was the first step in this direction. The project focused on three key areas including rural livelihood creation (emphasis on the handicrafts and handloom sectors); educational, social and economic empowerment of women; and science and technology-based interventions for poverty alleviation.

There is consensus that India’s future growth depends in part on addressing the severe current deficit in gender equality. Much work has been done to address this discrimination through legislation, social policy, grass roots organizing, educational targeting, and public sector training. Despite the imperative of higher education as a preparation for engagement in a skill based global economy, only 6% of rural girls make it to college. 46%of Indian girls are still married before they are 18, and 16% experience their first pregnancy before they are 15 years old. At the same time, sexual violence against women continues to be reported at high levels—every third Indian woman between the ages of 15 and 49 years has experienced sexual or physical violence during her lifetime. Women are severely underrepresented in leadership positions in industry, academia, and government.

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Inaugural Harvard B4 Fellowship Opens New Doors for Postdocs

Left to Right: Venki Murthy, Ramya Purkanti, Gayatri Ramakrishnan, Parvathi Sreekumar, and Praveen Anand

One year ago when Parvathi Sreekumar earned her PhD in Crop Physiology at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India, she never would have guessed that today she’d be halfway around the world, learning computational biology and bioinformatics to study bacteria in Philippe Cluzel’s lab. Yet here she is in Cambridge, along with three other research fellows from Bangalore who were awarded the inaugural Boston Bangalore Biosciences Beginnings (B4) Fellowship, co-sponsored by the South Asia Institute (SAI) at Harvard University and the Institute for Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB) in Bangalore. The four fellows, selected from over 52 applicants, earned their PhDs in different fields from different institutes in India, but all now share the unique experience of spending 11 months pursuing research in a completely new direction at Harvard. “Being part of this fellowship is broadening my research exposure and equipping me with new skills that I can go home and implement in India. I’m grateful that students from diverse fields are being given an opportunity like this,” says Sreekumar.

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Building Budding Brain Biologists: Harvard’s inaugural B4 Program in India

In the gleaming academic fortress of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, India, MCB professor Venkatesh Murthy and Advisor/Preceptor Laura Magnotti spent two weeks over winter break giving 25 engineering and computer science students a crash course in something completely different: neuroscience. The Boston Bangalore Biosciences Beginning (B4) Program, which is administered by the Harvard South Asia Institute, hand-selected the participants from about 150 undergraduate and graduate student applicants from all over India. It is supported by the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology and the Government of Karnataka’s Department of Information Technology & Biotechnology. Through a series of five daily sessions consisting of three lectures, one presentation by a local scientist, and one hands-on demo that included activities from dissecting a goat brain to recording action potentials from a cricket leg, the students gained a comprehensive knowledge of the field of neuroscience, basic concepts, and how to apply them. “Teaching this short winter course to smart and enthusiastic students without much of a neuroscience background was gratifying because we could see in real time how excited and awestruck they became about the brain,” says Murthy, director of the B4 program.

Why teach neuroscience to students who are committed to degrees in other fields? “The educational system in India is very narrow. There are no general education requirements; once a student enters university, they pretty much only take courses in their declared field of study,” says Magnotti. Murthy himself was educated in that system at the Indian Institutes of Technology: “I only learned about biology as a research endeavor when I came to the US for grad school, and then I ended up making a career out of it. If India’s brightest students don’t know that some of the questions and ideas they come up with can be applied to solve problems in other fields, they might never do that.” The three NCBS PhD students who were teaching assistants for the B4 course – Siddharth Jayakumar, Sahil Moza, and Mostafizur Rahman –  agree. “I honestly wish I had access to such a course when I was a curious undergraduate student in India thinking about the brain,” says Moza.

Neuroscience is a logical gateway for bridging the gap between engineering and biology. “In the B4 program we describe neurons as electronic circuits, and axons as cables,” explains Magnotti, “and lots of theories from engineering and electronics are easily applicable to neurobiology. These are real applications of the concepts the students have already been learning, so they don’t have to start completely over in order to explore the new field of biology.”

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SAI responds to Executive Order

The South Asia Institute (SAI) fully endorses Harvard President Drew Faust’s response to the Trump Administration’s executive order restricting travel to the United States.

We offer our full support to Harvard students, faculty, staff and affiliates, regardless of their country of origin or religious background, alongside the Harvard International Office and the university’s Global Support Services. We encourage all South Asia scholars to apply for our programs.

The work of universities in the world has never been more vital. The SAI is committed to the advancement of global scholarship and understanding, and our work in this fascinating, important region will continue. Across many borders, our diverse students and scholars are aiming to generate knowledge and insights that transcend and outlive any temporary barriers to progress.

Harvard President Drew Faust: We Are All Harvard


Harvard International Office

Harvard Global Support Services

Reversing Brain Drain: City has Best Critical Mass of Neuroscientists

Reversing Brain Drain: City has Best Critical Mass of Neuroscientists

BENGALURU: Harvard professor Venkatesh N. Murthy, one of the foremost neuroscientists in the world, was amazed by the state of-the-art laboratory at Bengaluru’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). The place seemed better than his own lab at Harvard.

“My lab is pretty well settled but my colleague Sumantra ‘Shona’ Chattarji’s laboratory is fantastic,” he says. For Murthy , that only reflects the position Bengaluru has taken in neuroscience or brain research. “Bengaluru has the best critical mass of neuroscientists in India,” he says.

Murthy is in the city for a two-week workshop to introduce neuroscience to engineering students. This is under the Boston-Bangalore Biosciences Beginnings (B4) programme funded by the Centre and Karnataka.

“In honest and direct terms, the research being done is world class. The qualifier is that it’s still very small. NCBS has maybe 5-8 people and the Indian Institute of Science has 10-15 people who are card-carrying neuroscientists,” he says.

Other institutions such as Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and the National Brain Research Centre at Manesar are “somehow not as prominent,” the 43-year-old says.Even a premier institute like Nimhans has no identity outside India because “clinical people are not doing basic research, unlike in the US where graduates aspire to be both doctors and scientists.”

Tamil Nadu-born Murthy studied mechanical engineering at IIT Madras. At Harvard since 1999, his research focusses on understanding odour-guided behaviour in terrestrial animals.Indian engineering students are, he says, asking the right questions unlike in his time. “I wonder if it has to with the startup culture. Scientifically though, I’m not sure if they are as mature as US undergraduates, who are deliberately exposed to a variety of subjects requiring critical analysis. And biology here is still a lot of memorisation and less of quantitative skills.”

Brain research in India, and Bengaluru in particular, received a fillip with Infosys (BSE 1.60%) cofounder Kris Gopalakrishnan’s Rs 225-crore grant for a brain research centre at IISc. Murthy, however, is cynical of private funding. “It’s good that money is coming in for research. But, for instance, a multi-billionaire might fund research into autism because he has an autistic child or something. However, what we need is much basic research to understand the brain and how it is wired,” he says.

Murthy believes India can bring back scientists who were part of brain-drain to the West, by making research attractive.”I’m one who drained,” he laughs, adding: “It rarely works when you try to prevent people from leaving. Now, it seems to be the right time to come back because, I’m told it’s not a huge problem to get grants and resources. Even if it’s not as extravagant as NCBS, it can be attractive enough to do good science.”

Written by Bharath Joshi for The Economic Times (source)
Updated: Jan 12, 2017, 11.54 AM IST

Health crisis faces the Rohingya people of Myanmar

06Myanmar-master768After decades of discrimination, the Rohingya—a Muslim ethnic group living in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Malaysia and other southeast Asian countries—are experiencing a severe health crisis, according to a study co-authored by experts at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School.

In 1982, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship in Myanmar (known as Burma before 1989), leaving them stateless. Since then they have faced a cycle of poor infant and child health, malnutrition, waterborne illness, and lack of obstetric care, according to the Lancet study. The researchers explore the Myanmar government’s poor treatment of the group and suggest steps that can be taken to address the health and human rights crisis.

Authors of the study included Jennifer Leaning, SAI Steering Committee member, and Arlan Fuller, director and executive director, respectively, of Harvard Chan School’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights; and Harvard Medical School’s Syed Mahmood (first author) and Emily Wroe.

Read a New York Times article about the study: Rohingya Face Health Care Bias in Parts of Asia, Study Finds

-Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health

Engineers Can Look Beyond Pure Engineering

Engineers Can Look Beyond Pure Engineering

25 students in two-week long residential programme being conducted in Bengaluru

Bengaluru: Harvard University’s South Asia Institute (SAI), along with the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology in Bengaluru, has launched a Young Scientist Development Course for 25 engineering students selected from top institutions across the country.

Over the last week, select students were introduced to neurosciences and how they could apply their engineering skills in the field. They were trained by both professors from Harvard University as well as those from science institutes in India.

The two-week long residential programme is being conducted at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. It is part of B4 (Boston-Bangalore Biosciences Beginnings) and will conclude on January 11.

The aim of the programme is to help students adopt a multidisciplinary approach to their education and chart a career beyond pure engineering.

“The world might not need too many software engineers in the next few years. Most of what software engineers do today, such as coding, will be automated,” said Raghav Singh, R&D, IBM Cognitive Computing. He was a panellist at one of the workshops on Saturday.

But the likelihood of engineers becoming redundant is far from remote possibility. There are many untapped avenues that engineering students can get into. Neuroscience is one of them. To help students explore their options, a knowledge exchange platform was organised for students to connect with government representatives, industry executives and scientists.

The two-week residential course is sponsored by the Department of Biotechnology and the Karnataka Biotech and IT Services (KBITS).

Originally published by a staff reporter for The Hindu (source)
January 07, 2017 21:35 IST

What Next? Trump and Asia

This article was published by the Asia Center.

161212_acthiswk_trump1_webWith Donald Trump’s surprising victory in becoming the next President of the United States next month, people are anxious to have some idea about his likely Asia policy. A panel of four experts was convened on December 5 by the Acting Director of the Harvard Asia Center, Professor Andrew Gordon, and moderated by Professor Susan Pharr of Harvard University, to interpret any related harbingers thus far.

Listen to audio of the event.

To unscramble Trump’s inscrutability, Professor Joseph Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School began by taking Trump’s words from his campaign trail. Although contradictory at times, Trump’s statements on American foreign policy, if taken literally, would represent a radical departure from the post-World War II liberal international order that successive American presidents had shaped through a network of security alliances and international institutions. To maintain this order, the U.S. has intervened militarily in far-flung places when necessary. Trump threatened to withdraw American troops from the military bases of allied countries if American allies don’t contribute more to the alliances. Judging from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s deft visit of Trump soon after Trump’s presidential victory and the fact that Japan already contributes more to the alliance than other American allies, Nye predicted that the U.S.-Japan alliance would “probably be OK.”

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South Asia In The News: India’s Cash Crisis November, the Indian government announced, with little warning, that the country would be withdrawing the legal status of its 500 and 1000 rupee notes, over 80% of the current currency in circulation. The effort to curb corruption has left many Indians in a state of chaos, with long longs forming as citizens wait to exchange their old notes for new ones. Below, are a series of articles written by SAI and Harvard affiliates.

Please note: The views expressed here belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the South Asia Institute.


India Wants a Cashless Society. But There’s a High Cost. – Slate
“There are long, debilitating queues for banks and ATMs. Wages and bills have not been paid. Rural Indians often have to travel a long way to reach a bank, and an estimated 300 million people don’t have the official ID that’s required to process a cash exchange. In some places, a barter economy has even re-emerged. That’s a marker of ingenuity, perhaps, but hardly the modernity that India is striving for. India’s most decorated economist, the Nobel Laureate and Harvard Professor Amartya Sen, says: ‘The move declares all Indians — indeed all holders of Indian currency — as possibly crooks, unless they can establish they are not.’ Meanwhile, the people with the most black money—the people the policy was intended to target—are unlikely to have wads of cash under their mattresses. Their money will be safe in foreign bank accounts and property holdings.”

Hasit Shah, SAI Research Affiliate


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A change called NeHA

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.

This is in follow up to the recently held Radcliffe Advanced Seminar, “Exchanging Health Information.”


By Satchit Balsari, Fellow at the FXB Center for Human Rights and Tarun KhannaJorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School; Director, South Asia Institute

Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a world where tapping a piece of glass in the palm of your hand would allow you to watch a movie, order food, hail a cab, or transfer money without leaving your couch. Through companies like Ola, Flipkart and Chaipoint, Indian entrepreneurs have moulded Silicon Valley’s best ideas to successfully meet local needs. Yet, a decade after the ways in which we search, navigate, buy, communicate and entertain ourselves have radically changed, health-services in India remain largely unaffected by the power of the internet. We archive doctor’s prescriptions, labs and X-ray results the same way we did decades ago. Polythene bags with scraps of paper, EKG strips, and scans are carefully stored in our homes and diligently carried from one doctor to the next, from one hospital to the other — and this is the best-case scenario. To date, the vast majority of Indians has no organised medical records, whether paper or electronic.

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