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Trip to India by The Humanitarian Blog the slum children who smiled at me even though it seems that they have no reason to do so – I learned more about the resilience of the human spirit from looking into your eyes than I ever could from a lifetime of reading and studying. I don’t know where I’ll be in 30 years or where you’ll be, but something tells me that we’ll meet again on a brighter day, perhaps when we least expect it. Until then…

Anne Liu and I spent January 7th through January 17th in India on a project to reduce indoor air pollution in rural homes. We owe special gratitude to Zahir Dossa, whose class made our project possible; to the Public Service Center and the Legatum Center, which funded it; and to our host in Hyderabad, Beryl Nelson, an MIT alum who graciously welcomed us into her home after we found out that the hotel where we were planning to stay had been bulldozed to the ground last year. I also owe a big thank-you to Anne, who took care of me when I got sick.

I’m not going to try to do justice to our trip in this entry. We snapped well over 400 pictures, and we came away with enough stories to fill several days at least – I’d be more than happy to share them if you’d like. =) What follow are just a few of the highlights:

We spent the first leg of our trip in Hyderabad, one of India’s renowned IT hubs, and the latter leg in Ahmedabad, the site of Gandhi Ashram. We braved death many times each day – that is to say, we crossed the road many times each day. Traffic in India is bumper-to-bumper in a very real sense. Take a big road without lanes, fill it to capacity with rickshaws (India’s take on golf carts), bikes, motorcycles, and cars whizzing by and honking their horns every second, toss in a few bulls for good measure, and you have some idea of what it’s like traveling India’s roads. I’m giving the thumbs-up because we haven’t gotten in an accident:

After we got used to the traffic, we got down to business and arranged meetings with three organizations: BASIX, which works “to promote a large number of sustainable livelihoods, including for the rural poor and women, through the provision of financial services and technical assistance in an integrated manner”; SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), a trade union for “women who earn a living through their own labor or small businesses”; and SELCO, “a social enterprise, provides sustainable energy services to under-served households and businesses in India.”

Meeting with those groups gave us a reality check. We thought that reducing indoor air pollution would be a self-evident priority for the poorest of the poor. It annually causes 500,000 deaths in India, and the World Health Organization estimates that pollution levels in rural Indian kitchens are 30 times higher than acceptable levels. As it turns out, the rural poor are understandably far more concerned with feeding themselves and their families than they are with reducing the smoke in their homes. We also learned that many families like having smoke in their homes because it imparts a rich flavor to their food. The issue, then, isn’t one of technology: The Indian government has actually designed smokeless cooking stoves (known as chulas), but it hasn’t been able to market them in rural areas in large part for the reasons just mentioned.

As they illuminated some of the complexities of our proposed project, these groups also reminded us that urban poverty is far worse than rural poverty. There’s at least some support network for the rural poor – namely, their neighbors, who tend to be poor as well. The urban poor have nothing.

Their plight illuminates another reality: A very skewed form of globalization has come to India. Below are a picture of a McDonalds in Ahmedabad and a picture of the Cyber Towers in Hyderabad, which house offices of many of the world’s software titans (Google and Microsoft, for example):

As in China, the benefits of global economic integration have overwhelmingly accrued to a narrow elite, with hundreds of millions of Indians seeing their welfare either stagnate or decline. Here’s an indicative headline from the January 11th issue of a leading Indian newspaper:

This headline isn’t to say that socioeconomic disparities don’t exist in more developed countries – they certainly do. In India, however, one witnesses poverty in a far more immediate manner. When you’re stuck in traffic, a small boy whose arms have been amputated bangs his head on your window. When you go shopping, a mother tugs at your sleeves, her baby in hand. When you cross the street, you see an emaciated old man lying on the street, shivering even though it’s hot outside.

The other striking feature of poverty in India is its physical character. We’re used to thinking of wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. In India, opulence and squalor are inextricably intertwined. Heavily guarded five-star hotels are located next to trash pits and open sewers. Privileged members of society socialize at an upscale country club while the down and out urinate on the nearby streets and rummage through trash cans for food.

These types of conversations and experiences compelled us to reexamine our project (and the assumptions guiding it) on many an occasion. Nonetheless, we decided to carry on and collect as much data on air quality as we could.

Two days before we were to leave, we hadn’t even tested our prototype – more accurately, a simple apparatus made out of commonly available materials such as bottles and cardboard:

Arranging a visit to a rural village wouldn’t be feasible given our time constraints, so we had to locate a proxy for a typical kitchen in rural India. As at many other times during our trip, we placed our faith in ad hoc planning. Anne and I left our hotel and started walking around in the hopes of finding a suitable testing site. Lo and behold, we found the perfect garage not too far away. Unfortunately, there was a car parked in it, and removing it would require that we speak with the family who owned it – it didn’t help that all of them were eyeing us suspiciously as we surveyed their garage from afar. We went back to the hotel and, while Anne readied our device, I explained my request to one of the hotel managers in my broken “Hinglish.” One of his staff members duly escorted us to the site and spoke with the family, who unexpectedly (and kindly) removed the car and allowed us the use of their garage for three hours for a small fee, which we happily paid. The two sons bought us a power strip, helped us set up our equipment, rekindled the fire every so often when it began to die out, and asked us questions throughout our stay:

Encouraged that our extemporaneous garage experiment had been a success, we decided to try our luck at visiting a nearby slum and collecting more measurements. Anne and I found a translator from SEWA who escorted us the day before we left. We felt quite uncomfortable when we first arrived because everyone in the slum was staring at us when we arrived. It was as though they were thinking, “What are these clearly Western, relatively well-off people doing in our neck of the woods?” The initial tension dissipated as we made our way to the first of the five houses in which we collected measurements. At any moment, we had dozens of people walking with us. Two teenage boys facilitated our work, guiding us from house to house, clearing people out when the site became overly crowded, and asking the families to respond to answer our questions as we surveyed their cooking environments. As we left, several dozen people from the slum gathered near the entrance and wished us well as we got onto the rickshaw to head home.

The bureaucracy that pervades India’s government and professional corps was absent during those two trips – to the garage and to the slum. As I flew back, I kept thinking back to the people who I met there (I had a lot of time to think – the flight from Mumbai to New York is 16 hours). I doubt that many of them had received a basic education. They had neither running water nor electricity. Their homes were little more than straw huts. Their prospects for the future were dim. And yet, they were happy – genuinely happy.

And I couldn’t help but feel happy, too – not only because I’d had the chance to meet such inspiring people, but also because I was able to appreciate what I have in my life in a way that I couldn’t have before. You can never understand how much someone means to you until he or she’s not there.

I want to take a little space to thank those people. To Ammi and Abbu (Mom and Dad): I don’t know who or where I’d be without you. To Zaahira, my sister and most trusted friend: I love you with all of my heart. To my closest friends – Matt, first and foremost; Elizabeth, who completes me in ways that she’ll probably never know; and all of the SuMmErFuN folks, who’ve made the past two years of my life some of the happiest – thank you for being you.

And lastly, to the slum children who smiled at me even though it seems that they have no reason to do so – I learned more about the resilience of the human spirit from looking into your eyes than I ever could from a lifetime of reading and studying.

I don’t know where I’ll be in 30 years or where you’ll be, but something tells me that we’ll meet again on a brighter day, perhaps when we least expect it. Until then…

28 responses to “Trip to India”

  1. Karen says:

    Coooooool smile you two are an inspiration

  2. Libin Daniel says:

    Very much loved to hear this buddy. Am an Indian…
    Auto-Rickshaws- Golf Carts…Hilarious!
    Here we are trying to get into MIT, make our own life…and not concerned about other 5 lakh people who breathe their last due to moxious fumes..Such an uncommon thing taking such a large toll. India is always fascinating in many aspect( pun intended).

  3. Libin Daniel says:

    The one thing rich lack is the ecstasy of being poor..the fun with pals having nothing but few round stones intended to be thrown ON the lake.
    Buddy, the thing you experienced is very similar to my experiences when I visit my homeland, Kerala..It’s called the land of Gods. God then really ought to reside i gullible, funny, impecunious people who revel at the arrival of the neighbor’s Delhite grandchildren as if it was their own child. It is been 5 years since I have experienced that gleam of happiness among my neighbours. Sorry but this post really evoked me to write all this..

  4. Nihar says:

    Hats off to you!
    I am an Indian too and what you say touches me deeply for I have seen the rigors that the underpriveleged in India go through every single day first hand.
    This entry has been most appropriately filed. In just a matter of 10 days, you have experienced much of the essence of true India. I have lived in Gujarat for 4 years myself and so I know how much the rural parts of that State are in need of urban assistance.
    Through what you have said, Im sure you have understood this in such a short span. Unquestionably MIT, its who they are.

    A question though. Do students plan these projects or are they assigned to volunteers? If I join MIT, Im definitely for one of these…

  5. Tanmay says:

    That traffic thing is absolutely right. Also, on-road driving is *often* = off-road driving! wink

    I really appreciate your efforts. Probably the problem is not connected with literacy or development but our inherent nature. The Supreme Court of India sometime ago made ‘Environmental Education’ compulsory for most school curriculums. It was a good idea. But yet again the implementation part was, in my opinion, ineffective. Most students target to score 98% in the Environmental Education exam (as it is relatively easy) and shoot up their aggregate score, but hardly LEARN anything from it. Isn’t that common with the people whose kitchens produce smoke more than acceptable? Think how. The solution? I won’t lie, but I couldn’t find an answer to the difficulty of changing the mind of an entire nation. I am sorry to be one of those people who just point out the problem, not the solution. Perhaps I’ll be in a better position in the future.

    Thanks again, Ali and Anne and all others for your initiative.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Awww… u shud’ve added beryl nelson’s pic too..she’s just SO awesome!

  7. Tanmay, you are right, it is very hard to provide the solution. But I think I it is good just to try and may be something will change. I live in different part of the world and may be it is sometimes easier to find the solution here. However,(I do not want to harm anybody), it is all about the history, culture, place… in my work I buy and sell houses in Toronto and we already found some ways how to make our houses more clean and environmentally friendly. May be some kind of solution for India would be introducing cheap type of closed stoves or another type of closed fireplace. I am not technically educated but that was my first idea when I spotted pictures from this article.

  8. Shruthi says:

    This was a really nice post.. I am an Indian too, and having lived in two very contrasting cities in India for the better part of my life, I know what its like to have very minimal infrastructure development, without even the most basic of facilities… I am really happy that you have chosen to blog this experience.. smileAnd it just reminded me about why I love my country smile Thanks

  9. Tanmay says:

    Toronto realtor, I followed that link. The ideas are great! But the problem in my country is not that there is a lack of methods, but a lack of proper implementation of plans. As Ali wrote, the Indian government designed some smokeless cooking stoves which unfortunately remained unknown to most of the rural parts of India. MIT’s motto in english- ‘mind and hand’ seems to be more like ‘mind and mind’ back here. wink

    Yet, it is a beautiful idea to get better ways from around the world to improve living standards in India. smile

  10. Aditi says:

    ali you’re inspiring

    I’m not going to get into the whole skewed economic development and glaring disparities tirade/arguement. we should fix (or atleast try to fix things…) instead of harping endlessly and complaining about them. I’m glad you did just that.

    random question but have you read shantaram?


  11. monal says:

    the post was really evoking and inspiring..
    I have come to the US only this year from India.
    Many times I feel guilty and sad because I left my nation and am trying to settle in this new nation for financial reasons and also for a better education, I am really am proud of my country and am gonna do something good for it in the future…
    your blog inspires me to do that,,it doesn’t matter where i live …and this has given me one more reason to admire MIT smile

  12. Libin Daniel says:

    I agree with Aditi smile
    One can’t change the whole scenario but one can at least do his or her part. If all realize this the world would have been a better place to live..though MIT is still a place to be LIVED in. What say?

  13. Alias C says:

    BEAUTIFULLY Inspiring. Dear all, I have to ask, how many of you dedicate hours from work, school, life, and other things to do service within your country or even another? I love India cuz I am Indian, however even when I go back for summers, I see people not willing to change. It is like a norm… until our lives are revoulutionized we cannot change… We need to look out for the common man not only the elite or the growing middle class. The poor are the people who need our help. Dear lovers of your country please with all my heart do something for you beloved country… (This does not only imply to Indians but to all)…

  14. Ali says:


    Students plan virtually every aspect of projects like the one that Anne and I conducted. There are a myriad of venues through which one can get involved in development work: the Public Service Center, the Legatum Center, D-Lab, and so forth. If you have an idea, you can make it happen!


    Beryl is indeed awesome, as is her entire family. Her 12-year old twin daughters are particularly amazing — warm, inquisitive, and precocious.


    The question that you ask is exactly the question with which Anne and I wrestled during our trip, and continue to grapple. As I said, the problem is not so much one of technology as it is one of mentality. How do we convince a family who’s living on less than $1 a day to prioritize air quality over food and water?


    I haven’t read “Shantaram.” What’s it about?

  15. Anonymous says:

    Don’t mind, but I am a bit sad, why people portray only a part of India. A month ago a friend came from Spain, he said well people out there(Madrid) think India is full of bulls, cows and its little more than a village. But this is not true, how often does one see , the growing India, the growing villages, the rest of the 99% who are progressing. I agree this is a great blog, but it’s not so that India has bulls on its highways.

    And about my friend who visited me from Madrid(he’s Indian), he most of the times was clicking photos with backgrounds of malls , flyovers and rickshaws(which happens to be an ingenious and cheap creation , I guess transport for 3-4 people,in less than 50 cents).It’s true that roads are congested but only few are(merely 5-6% i guess).

    I live in New Delhi. And I too have seen the slums. The situation is not so bad as portrayed. The little jokes(not being offensive) pinch a bit.
    As those are my people(sounding like a politician) It’s a fact the slum children will never meet you smiling 10 years hence, but it does not mean their future prospects are dim. Need ignites the mind to think and so will they.

    This entry is cause whenever, someone reads about India, he reads something Sad, the poor, but if you look closely, you’ll see the ingenuity in little things(even rickshaws, and auto-rickshaws).For example a car(four people) in about 2500$(NANO).

  16. ROSHINI says:

    I dont know why India is looked down up in its “uneven development”!!I am proud of the country, its got something. We should’nt focus our “improvement and uplifting” blogs on countries like India and China. Remember, thats where most of the brain of this world comes from.

    And guys…STOP!!! saying I want to do something for my country, something for my country!!! BECAUSE if you wanted to , you would have already done it, besides I think and hope your country is self sufficient!


  17. Nihar says:

    I am sorry but I beg to disagree, Roshini.First off, nobody here is looking down upon India.That would be ignorance to the point of foolishness. Its true that quite a lot of intellectuals working in leading firms do come from India, but can you tell me how many of them are actually working towards India’s benefit?
    Majority of the intellectuals graduating from IITs and IIMs are recruited by US-based firms, and thats where India loses out. Correct me if I am wrong, but I point towards the majority.
    “if you wanted to do something for your country, you would already have done it”…are you serious? By saying this, do you believe that all the prospectives or other students/people commenting here have already reached the pinnacle of their professional life? Do you not think that more opportunities to aid our country would come by AFTER we have achieved a good education and/or secured a good job?
    Please try to comment about your views on the entry and not on other peoples opinions.Let Ali do that.

  18. Harnur says:

    “Their homes were little more than straw huts. Their prospects for the future were dim. And yet, they were happy – genuinely happy.”
    yes….you are right happiness is the measure of love,freedom etc ….you don’t need wealth or development around you to be happy…..India is a free country …you must have experienced that..
    I am an Indian and I love my country for what it is rich, very rich in its diverse cultures..its a beautifull country

  19. Anion says:

    “Need ignites the mind to think and so will they.”
    nah man..most of them have been numbed into believing that this is their fate, they can’t do anything about it. Generations have lived the same way, need will NOT ignite everyone’s mind. And any spark that’ll be seen will be doused by the others. This is exactly where we(and anyone else who can help) needs to step in….

  20. ROSHINI says:

    Hey Nihar!..I did’nt mean to hurt you or for that matter anyone, but yes if you wanted to do something for the country you would have done it, not by running forward to mit to get a “good education” etc etc but by staying there and getting into IIT and saying a no to the foriegn offers.It’s difficult , is’nt it?…Is’nt that where India looses out? (according to you to?).I think only those who wish to stay there all throughout the good and bad have the right to criticize the country.
    So if you cant “sacrifice” that much, at this age what are you going to do in the future?
    India is’nt all about poor huts, hungry eyes and crooked roads! IT IS NOT!
    Thats why the matter of the “brains” symbolising technology comes in.
    You dont get even a glimpse of the Indian life in 10 days. Its so diverse!so rich!so cultural!I’m sad at what this turned out to be but I cant help my emotions with this matter!!
    No offence, but all I wanted to say is treat it with respect!

  21. Anonymous says:

    I think it’d be better if u dont reply here..take her email id..sort it out…coz it’s never gonna end wink
    I know u’d have lots to say on “if you wanted to do something for the country you would have done it, not by running forward to mit to get a “good education” etc etc but by staying there and getting into IIT and saying a no to the foriegn offers” ..i do too..but it’ll go nowhere except doing a certain thing in the view of others …which i’m sure u’ll understand..

  22. Yash.. says:

    Hey Roshini.. i think u’re not quite getting it.
    How does getting into IIT help the country? How is getting a good education not helpful to the country? and who says getting into Mit means leaving India and not contributing to its development? And who says that by getting into IIT you’ll be contributing to India’s development. Alias was right in saying that there has to be some sort of a revolution, a dramatic change, freedom from all the corruption in politics and bureaucracy. all this is hardly one man’s job, and
    hardly a job for a 12th grader. That is why, in the future we need to be in a position to change things. And that is not going to happen by going to iit or mit or staying in india to study or any of that. We will be in a position to change things if we have the power, the resources and the willingness to do it. It doesnt matter how you get to that position, the only thing that matters is getting there. And IIT;s are hardly an ideal way to get there. Because they are a part of the indian mentality. All IITians want is a good job, a large paypacket and a family. And they’re content. They wont give a damn about surrounding conditions, and that is the way 95% of indians want life to be. And HOW does India lose out if its citizens become the leaders of tomorrow? you think someone who doesnt study in India or doesnt stay here cant help the situation? i dont think so.

  23. Yash.. says:

    And i hardly get to see bulls on the roads in hyderabad. maybe once in a blue moon, but they’re not a part of the general traffic by any stretch.

  24. Anonymous says:

    ummm i just want to clarify somethings which i think quite a few of u hav gotten all wrong. By the IITs i presume you refer to the Indian Institutes of Technology. now a person cannot really bring about change in a country by being a scientist/engineer or wateva u call ppl hu graduate from places like the IIT. sure, they might have rolls of notes in their wallets and all but money really wont change anything. Infosys’ NRN’s wife sudha murthy funded a program aimed at providing clean and hygenic toilets all around Blore… The project, though financed by a software giant, was to be carried out and maintained by the local authorities(they own building rights in public areas afterall). Today half the toilets are either locked all day long or in such bad situations that they have to be rebuilt. what i am getting at is that you cannot really change a country the size of india with money… heck we have the world’s richest family(the ambanis..) yet INDIA’s GDP is pretty low. If u really want to change the situation here join an NGO working on issues of ur interest or even better, join the civil services, contest the elections in your area or else field your own candidate for office. bring about the change you wish to see. you are never too young. the thought of finishing your education and then helping out with cash ,though a very grand and philanthrophic thot, is not gonna change anything. its only going to make things worse.

    on another note i think ppl are raising topics not concerned with this whole article. all Ali and Anne wanted to do was share their experiences of India with the rest of the blogging(or just blog reading) world. they went to india with a specific view of helping to reduce pollution in rural kitchens. nothing more. skewed development is a part and parcel of any country be it India or the USA. everyone has their share of the rich and the poor.

    a very disconnected piece of writing this. thats just how i write.. hopelfully ppl can make some sense outta it…

  25. Anonymous says:

    are we going to have any sequel to this entry based on your visit?looking forward to it

  26. Anonymous says:

    This post touched me very closely because it describes so well an experience I have often wanted to put into words. I am an Indian who was brought up in the U.S. till middle school, and now I live in Chennai. I have learned so much about the people here, the people who are real Indians. This can only by done by being with them and living amongst them.

    Recently, a very special person walked straight into my life and quite honestly, taught me things that there is no way I could have learned before. I have realized how insanely lucky I am to lead the life I do and have the people I have around me. I especially consider myself lucky to have met that special person, because without her, I would have never realized these things.

    India is a beautiful country once you get into the real India. Even today, India lives in her villages (or rather, her slums)

  27. anonymous says:

    Hi everybody,
    It is interesting to read what all you young citizens of India think about India on a MIT blog.
    I am not a student but an Indian citizen like you.
    I am sure everyone of you can contribute towards the betterment of your country irrespective of where you plan to settle.

  28. Ali says:


    We’re going to be continuing with our project this term, so I might well do a follow-up entry.