It was 2008 and I had already spend 3 years with Keystone Foundation, a very dynamic and vibrant organization at the quaint little town of kotagiri which Lonely planet describes as dusty and uninspiring (not that I affirm to the view) a journey to far off UK was not a very thought out decision at first.
When I first started working in Keystone I was more in awe at the small but strong model of livelihood conservation and enterprise at work. I was excited at the prospect of being a part of the process and contributing to it in any possible way. Given my research interests I was mostly into projects and roles suited to that. When we won the prestigious Darwin project the team realized the challenges of carrying out interdisciplinary research. The collaboration with leading institutes and researchers forced me to think about enhancing my own research skills which I felt would also benefit the organization and our own future direction of work. When keystone nominated me and I won the Joke Waller Hunter initiative which entitled me to a scholarship of 15k Euros I was elated. I had 15k Euros to spend on building my capacity. Since it was not enough for a 3 year PhD, I settled for a one year masters course in International Development Research at the School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.
I left for UK in mid September 2008. At Heathrow when I met 20 Indians from different parts of India waiting for the coach to take us to UEA, I felt assured of company in a land far away from mine. On reaching Norwich a huge campus awaited us along with several student volunteers helping the administration in guiding the newcomers. The chill in the air was more than that of Kotagiri and supposedly it was just the beginning of winter. After a tiring climb of four floors to the university accommodation I was more than satisfied at the accommodation. I was greeted by my neighbor who also offered me tea. I soon discovered that she was in my department too but had arrived in UEA a month earlier to attend English language classes. She then went on to tell me that she was a Russian and her Chinese like features were because she was from the area bordering Mongolia.
Towards evening I and some other Indians went about exploring the university. I was amazed at finding everything right within the university. There was a UEA union shop, post office, stationery store, three Restaurants, a pub, travel shop as well as a chaplaincy. The lake beside the large green university ground provided a picture perfect view. I was largely pleased as the window from my room provided a view of the lake.
The first setback came when we went to the university sports park where we were informed that as students we were entitled to some concession but not free usage. The prices of grocery and edible items at the university shop further lowered our spirits. We were then informed by a friendly Indian student who had been at the university for a year now that the items in the union shop were highly priced and so it would make sense if we students did the purchasing from supermarkets like ‘Tesco’ and ‘Morrison; as that would go easy on our budget since these outlets offered huge discounts. We were told that these places were far off and would require bus travel, the tickets for which certainly did not come cheap. But we were informed in one of the pamphlets that we students could avail of a huge discount which the university had managed to negotiate and get a one year pass for unlimited travel within Norwich for ‘just 150’ pounds. After debating this for a while most of us realized that it was a must as we definitely had not travelled all the way to be confined within the university premises and there seemed no other better way to explore the city than by these superb buses.
One of the many things which amazed me was the security system at work. I was told that within 2 days of registering at the university I would be provided with a campus card which would not only be my identity card for the bus pass and library but I would also be required to swipe it for entry to my accommodation which was called the Nelson Court and also into the library.
The library at the centre of the university was positively the best part of the university atleast for me. I spend many hours at several of its floors reading up as much as possible of the range of subjects in the form of books, publications, journals, e-journals, books and movies on offer. All book transactions, even paying up the fine was automated. We could check the availability of books online before landing up there, renew, and hold up books on request online.
Each student had his/her own page to register and check details of the course, financial statements and an e-black board in which the faculty put up announcements and material to read up before class. The School of development studies at UEA now known as the school of International Development holds a place of prestige within the university as well as in UK. It ranks 3rd in the overall rankings of development schools across the world. Having gone through the profile of the faculties who, besides being highly qualified had work experience across the world I was looking forward to attending their lectures and interacting with them.
The course I had opted for being a very specialized one (it was a one year course offered to students interested in pursuing their PhDs in development studies which also explains the focus on research skills in the course modules) I just had 2 more batchmates, a Belgian and another a Swiss Somali. Fortunately we were not limited to the 3 of us as we were to attend classes with PhD students and other MA students depending on the course on offer. The school offers an undergraduate course in development studies and atleast 8 post graduate courses in development studies. I discovered that of the approximately 90 students on roll for the post graduate course the majority were from Asian and African countries with the age group varying from 22 to 45 years.
As MRes students most of my coursework and subjects focused on development research methodologies (which are derived from economic, social sciences, anthropology) both qualitative and quantitative, epistemologies, skills in Literature review, field work and presentation skills. My interest in womens’empowerment and also the fact that the university had some of the best known feminist researchers made me opt for some optional course in Gender as well as in rural livelihood. Attending those lectures and reading up related material opened up a new world for me. That is something I have now internalized and would definitely be part of my future work. It deeply saddened me that India cut a sorry picture globally for its treatment of women. Though there has been high economic growth over the years the skewed sex ratio and general insecurity and hardships for women put forth a very different aspect of our society which points out that pure economic development does not, by its own, bring about social well being.
The quality of lectures, the debates, concerns and the vast experience brought in by the faculty as well as many of the students who had several years of developmental work experience ensured all the lectures were engaging and thought provoking. It was an immense source of pleasure and information being part of workshops and lectures by the ‘Guru’ of PRA himself Robert chambers, others like Frank Ellis and feminist like Ruth Pearson.
The university boosts of students from more than 100 countries and I can gladly say that I have friends across many of these countries now. Although interactions with students across different schools was limited my own department provided various opportunities in the form of cultural and food festivals. These not only brought out the culture and food difference and similarities but also the common bond which had brought together so many people from various countries to undertake courses in development studies.
The educational system is completely different from anything I have experienced here in India. Even with a post graduate degree from a reputed institute I felt that the quality on offer there was excellent. Most of us Asians had a common problem i.e. of critically analyzing. Years of rote learning and lack of a questioning habit leads to herd mentality. There the emphasis is on critically analyzing and questioning. There is no such thing as accepting anything on face value. As researchers we were told to question and probe from all angles.
I appreciate that from a very young age values of respect and dignity for self, human life and independent thinking are instilled which is then reflected in the outlook and personality developed later in life. The women there are not subdued (the female population is more than the male which was also reflected in the student ration in the university) nor is fear all pervasive in their lives. The sense of security and freedom from stares and harassment in public places was a very welcome change for a young woman like me who like all other women in India have encountered this in all public places in India. But I also found many lonely elderly people and young mothers (15-18yrs) struggling to find some balance. Certain concepts of Indian values and family system were alien to them nor could any explanation make them understand some of our everyday practices of arranged marriages and joint family systems. One Canadian guy even asked me if the elaborate wedding rituals and the ‘crying’ histrionics by the bride were indeed true, while another Italian just couldn’t understand why the parents expected the girl to marry a guy of their choice or for that matter how the girls gave their consent to such an arrangement. It also surprised me that the Indian film industry-the actors, songs and attire was quite popular among people from various countries, especially African and Arab nations. The same was true for Indian food, although milder versions (in terms of spices) were preferred.
The city of Norwich where my university was situated itself is a historical place with lovely cathedrals and castles. UK is such a small country in terms of the area that almost all places on the tourist map were within a days travel. Had it not been for the money constraint I would have definitely covered the whole country. The visit to Cambridge was more than a dream come true. Walking around the king’s Queens’, Trinity colleges and Newton’s garden was an amazing experience. London was a true cosmopolitan experience, where I hardly heard English being spoken and the multi ethnicity of faces was striking. The familiarity of the railway station buildings and the Bungalows reminded me of our own colonial past, if anything our hill stations are more British than Britain itself. Scotland with its breath taking landscape, history, culture and people was the best of the lot.
Although having lived in high altitude for sometime now the cold and chill was much greater then anything I had experienced with temperatures dipping as low as -7degree Celsius. But I greatly enjoyed the snowfall which was the highest in last 12 years. Summer was pleasant with a maximum temp of 18 deg c and the city was completely taken over by greenery and flowering plants
I had always wanted to experience a stay in a developed country and find and feel the difference for myself to figure out what is this development which we are all wanting? To begin with, the cleanliness, safety and sensitivity to differently abled people is what moved me the most in UK. It constantly reminded me of how we Indians just cannot stop spitting and dirtying our roads and other public spaces. While our cities are unpleasant with garbage, paan-spit (which is often mistaken by tourists as tuberculosis epidemic), broken pavements and lack of sanitary hygiene there it was all clean with beautiful landscaping and people with great civic awareness. The university, library, public transport and places are all equipped to cater to people with different needs. The ease with which the public transport facilitates access to mothers with young kids and other elderly people left me wondering if we are just too many for the government to care for? Can ever match those standards in an overpopulated under-educated democracy?
The one year in UK was fulfilling in more than one way. It helped me immensely in improving my research skills, general understanding of development issues and broadening my outlook. There was plenty of opportunity to learn and unlearn, listen, debate and question, the chance to attend lectures and interact with some of the experts in the field, mix with and understand people from different countries and cultures, taste a variety of food and undertake travel and make lifelong friends. It has also cautioned me towards ‘development’ as it is generally seen. But the biggest understanding that dawned on me is that India is where my heart and home is and it is here that I want to live and work especially for the women and the environment. Back here at work in keystone am on my way.