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News Category: In Region


Spotlight on Harvard Fellow: Shalini Singh


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Shalini Singh

 

Shalini Singh, a 2018 Nieman Fellow, has worked for the Indian news magazine The Week and the national daily, the Hindustan Times, with a focus on gender, culture and environmental issues. She is a regular contributor to the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) and a founding trustee of CounterMedia Trust, the nonprofit that owns PARI.  

Shalini Singh spoke to SAI about her career in journalism and her goals as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.  

 

As a part of the People’s Archive of Rural India, could you tell what impact you have seen the organization make? 

 The People’s Archive of Rural India is a digital repository founded by the well-known Indian journalist, P. Sainath. I was his student many years ago. We believe that rural issues do not get as much attention in the mainstream as they should, and so some of us joined hands with him and formed the People’s Archive of Rural India in 2014. In less than three years, the site which goes beyond being a news-site to include oral histories and dying occupations has picked up eight awards. Nationally, PARI has inspired Janaavishkaara, a People’s Participatory Portal, in the state of Kerala in India. Over 30 district newspapers in the state of Karnataka that don’t have a web presence are carrying PARI’s stories. Publishers such as LeftWord plan to bring out readers on PARI’s stories, others are republishing its stories in children’s textbooks. There has been a request for help with design in setting up a people’s archive of township jazz in South Africa, while a People’s Archive of Nova Scotia is ready to roll out.  

In November 2016, when demonetization happened in India, the mainstream was mostly focusing on what it meant for urban folks. They were not looking at the people who depend completely on cash, the poorest of India’s population. The People’s Archive of Rural India sent out a handful of reporters, some already stationed in rural areas, to investigate how this change completely upturned rural livelihoods. While the mainstream was looking at what was happening to the urban population, we were looking at people who were the worst affected.  

 

Could you describe a meaningful experience you have had since being a founding member of the People’s Archive? 

Last June, I mentored a young journalist named Stanzin Saldon working out of Kargil, the site of the India-Pakistan war in 1999. She wanted to do a story on two local women from different castes and religions who opened up a tailoring shop together. It was going to be a warm story about how in this sensitive region, these women had come together, but she was worried about how to ask them personal details about their lives, such as their age. Part of my role was to help her break her barriers and be more confident in her reporting while having sensitivity. It was interesting to see what she was comfortable with, and how I could learn from her.  

 

How do you see the People’s Archive growing in the next several years? 

India can be looked at in 95 historical regions, and we would like to have one journalist in every region plus fellows covering climate change, manual scavenging etc. The money we have raised so far takes care of about 10 journalists or one-tenth of what we need. In the next five years, we hope to have enough money to fund the full 100 fellowships. Visibility is important, but at the end of the day, it is about the field reporting and groundwork. 

 

How did you become interested in working with rural populations? 

When I first became a journalist, I did not want to write about celebrities, gossip, and fashion, which many editors would want you to. There is nothing wrong with these topics; however, because a majority of the country does not have access to these lifestyles, it was always on my conscience to bring out untold stories. Journalists are in a position to give voices to a large number of people who otherwise don’t get heard. 

I applied to the Nieman Fellowship to reflect on my value as a journalist and to think about next steps.  

 

Can you talk about your goals as a Nieman Fellow?  

As a Nieman Fellow, I want to look at the arts to inform my work. A couple of months ago, I was at a local independent music performance and one of the artists used clips from the Charlottesville violence. It became a somber performance and inspired me to reflect on how arts are drawing from current events. 

This past fall, I saw WARHOLCAPOTE, a play at Harvard’s A.R.T. It was a real-time conversation between Andy Warhol and Truman Capote adapted into a theater piece. The intersection of a journalistic story and theater is one of the things I would like to explore going forward. 

In my first semester at Harvard, I took a theater class where we learned how to study someone’s subjectivity. It was a theoretical look at how to get under the skin of another person, how they think, and what informs them. It was not about learning how to act, but more about how to fine-tune empathy.  

 

 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Rohingya Crisis: Rakhine’s Fallen Mosques


A photograph of a mosque overgrown with vegetation

A mosque in Buthidaung, Northern Rakhine State that was condemned following the 2012 conflict. Photo: Cresa Pugh.

 

By: Cresa Pugh, Doctoral Student in Sociology & Social Policy, Harvard University

 

“You can look, but you can’t take a photo.” I was standing on the main street of downtown Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, on the westernmost edge of Myanmar. To my left was a street vendor selling papaya and mangosteen; ahead of me was a dense urban jungle of palm trees and thicket, and between us stood a uniformed military official, with an AK-47 draped over his shoulder, leaning against a pile of sandbags and a tangle of barbed wire and plywood. Rising above the trees were the weathered remnants of the minarets of Sittwe’s oldest mosque, Sawduro Bor Masjid, which was destroyed in riots that swept the city more than five years ago.

In 2012, longstanding tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in the region erupted into a bloody conflict that claimed the lives of hundreds of individuals and led to the forcible displacement of all Muslims into militarized camps in and around the city. Prior to 2012, Sittwe was home to 73,000 Muslims–nearly half the population of the city–yet today there are virtually no Muslims remaining, save those confined to the camps who are not allowed to leave the premises.

During the conflict, most of the mosques in Rakhine were burned, vandalized or razed to the ground by mobs of anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalists who fear what they perceive to be a rapidly expanding and increasingly dangerous foreign element. While the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority group, claim indigeneity to the region and may have roots dating back to the 700 AD, the population has been increasingly marginalized and persecuted on the basis that they are ‘illegal’ South Asian immigrants. Most recently a violent military crackdown in response to a Rohingya insurgent attack led to the killing of hundreds of individuals and the mass displacement of more than 600,000 Rohingyas across the Bangladesh border where they still await repatriation or settlement.

Today in Sittwe, the only reminders that there was ever a Muslim community in the city are the shells of ancient mosques dotted across the landscape. Since 2012, all mosques in Rakhine State have been permanently shuttered, many of which are under heavy protection by military personnel in order to prevent individuals from entering to worship or commit further vandalization. Now overrun by monsoon-fed mangrove forests, the structures stand in defiance of a society that has, over several decades, attempted the erasure of its Muslim population. While the mosques remind us of the existence of this community, their charred, crumbling, dilapidated character speaks to the violence exercised upon those who worshipped, learned and communed within their walls.

 

 

Mosque covered in vegetation

A mosque in Sittwe, Rakhine State that was torched and destroyed in the 2012 conflict. Photo: Cresa Pugh.

 

In January 2017, I received a grant from the South Asia Institute to begin my research in Rakhine and returned in June 2017 to conduct interviews in the Rohingya and Rakhine communities. I gained access to the military encampments and spoke with Rohingya individuals and families who had been displaced during the 2012 riots.

I arrived at the camp on June 26, which happened to be Eid al-Fitr, and was greeted by men with machine guns, but also by young girls in purple velvet dresses with bows in their hair, men in suits and crisp button-downs, and women in floor-length satin outfits bedazzled with jewels–all celebrating the holiest day on the Muslim calendar, a subtle act of resistance to a state and society that has stripped them of their humanity.

Asking what they missed the most about their home in Sittwe, many of them said freedom of movement, economic and educational opportunities, and freedom of worship. A makeshift building made of thatch and corrugated metal–similar to the structures that serve as homes where families sleep on bamboo mats atop mud floors–within the camps function as a mosque. Only men are allowed to enter–the women must pray at home. The mosque is bare and hostile; it is not a space for social communion, and my informants spoke with a heaviness about their mosques in Sittwe which had been destroyed, with only memories remaining.

In 2012, 17 mosques were demolished in the riots and since then, Rakhine’s security and border affairs minister has called for the destruction of the remaining mosques and madrasas (religious schools) built after 1962. Mosques are more than simply houses of worship and represent more than the symbolic, religious and spiritual elements of Islam. They constitute the social, cultural and political life of adherents to the faith, thus the destruction of a mosque is an assault on the very fabric of a community, the collective memory of a people. And the rampant destruction of mosques across an entire city and state–and the charred rubble, or mere emptiness, that lies in its place–stands as a testament to the attempted systematic erasure of a practice, a culture, and a people.

 

Mosque covered in vegetation

Sawduro Bor Masjid mosque in downtown Sittwe, Rakhine State that was vandalized during the 2012 conflict and later condemned. Photo: Cresa Pugh.

 

As I gazed up toward the minarets of Sawduro Bor Masjid, I removed my phone from my bag and started to aim it upward, but I was told by a friend that it was against the law to take photos of the destroyed mosques. As he whispered this to me, the armed guard stared blankly in my direction. Were the officials nervous that a journalist might document the mosque destruction as evidence of religious persecution that would tarnish the state’s image? Is the fear that I might be too curious about a population that has been deemed the enemy? I spent the next several days searching for places from which it would be safe to photograph the decaying mosques, the ghosts of the displaced worshippers looming present.

On my final night in Sittwe, I met a friend for dinner at a teashop that was opposite a mosque slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. We were greeted by an overweight dog. My friend reminded me of an interview we had conducted several days prior with a Muslim community leader being held in a nearby military camp who told us about having to flee his home in the middle of the night during the 2012 riots. My friend explained that the dog in the shop belonged to this man, and the owner of the shop, who was Buddhist Rakhine, began looking after the dog once his owner was detained. The shop owner explained that she maintained a strict halal diet for the dog because she knew his owner did not eat pork. My friend and I seasoned our rice with ‘kalar lay,’ an Indian spice named after the racial slur used for Myanmar’s Muslims. My friend tells me that only Muslim dogs bark at night because they miss their owners and that many of the dogs left behind after the conflict now sleep in the mosques, waiting.

 

Mosque covered in vegetation

A photo of Sawduro Bor Masjid in downtown Sittwe, Rakhine State taken from inside the Rakhaing State Cultural Museum. Photo: Cresa Pugh.

 

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Students in India delve into the Complex Genome


 

Student receiving diplomaThe following article, originally published in News Karnataka, covers the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute’s Boston Bangalore Biosciences Beginning Program (B4)’s most recent workshop. B4 aims to build a scientific research corridor and will engage scientists from India and Harvard through exchange programs: 1) Science and Technology Fellowships at Harvard and other peer institutions in the Boston area. 2) Two-week courses on Biosciences in Bangalore. 

 

Bengaluru: From over 220 applications, 25 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students from across India were selected to participate in a residential two-week workshop in ‘Genomics in Healthcare and Translational Research’ from December 2017. This workshop was under the aegis of the B4 (Boston Bangalore Biosciences Beginnings) Program, funded by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, and supported by the IT/BT Department, Government of Karnataka.

The aim of the Genomics workshop was to “introduce talented Indian students to the emerging area of genomics and enable them to explore the power and excitement of Next Generation Sequencing technologies to address clinically relevant research questions,” said Professor M. Vijayalakshmi, IBAB, who was instrumental in developing the curriculum for the workshop.

Genomics and Next-generation Sequencing technologies have influenced scientific research and medicine significantly, and have made a striking impact on healthcare and translational medicine over the last decade. The capability to sequence DNA at higher speeds with precision and resolution unravels several dimensions of the complex genome and enhances the applicability of genomic information in personalized medicine.

Distinguished faculty and postdoctoral fellows from institutions such as Boston University, Harvard University, Broad Institute (Boston), ACTREC (Mumbai), IGIB (Delhi), CCMB (Hyderabad), IISC and NCBS (Bangalore) trained the participants on both the experimental aspects of genomic sequencing and computational analysis of sequencing data, through didactic research lectures and hands-on sessions. The workshop concluded on December 23 with a panel discussion on ‘Genomics – Trends and Opportunities’.

Following the workshop was the valedictory event of the first phase of B4. The keynote address was delivered by Dr. VijayRaghavan (Secretary, DBT), who highlighted the current and future study and practice of Biosciences in India. He emphasized the need to build a science-based ecosystem that is sensitive to the nation’s needs.

Dr. VijayRaghavan’s talk was followed by a panel moderated by Prof. Venkatesh Murthy, Chair of Molecular & Cellular Biology, Harvard University, and lead faculty of the B4 Program. The discussion focused on the impact of the program in India. Panelists included Aditya Murthy, IISC, and three B4 fellows, Parvathi Sreekumar, Ramya Purkanti, and Gayatri Ramakrishnan, who have recently returned from a year at Harvard.

The closing vote of thanks was delivered by Prof. N. Yathindra, Director, IBAB, who spoke of the value of the B4 Program for the young Indian scientists and the bridge created between academic institutions in the US and India. He also emphasized the value of translation of knowledge from academia to practice.

(Originally published on News Karnataka on December 26, 2017)

Learn more about the B4 Program.

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From Boston To Bangalore: We Co-host Successful Genomics Workshop In India


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About | B4 Fellowships Genomics Workshop Past Courses | Resources | News

 

On December 11th, the Boston Bangalore Biosciences Beginnings (B4) program formally inaugurated the Workshop on Genomic Applications in Healthcare & Translational Research, co-hosted by the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University and Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB).

In her inaugural address, Dr. Kiran Mazumdar Shaw (Founder-Chairman and Managing Director of Biocon India Pvt Ltd) described Boston and Bangalore as cities that naturally gravitate towards innovation and science. Dr. Shaw discussed the need for scientists and doctors to incorporate big data in the development of clinical trials as well as new therapeutic approaches.

The 25 selected candidates are from all over India and represent research backgrounds ranging from pharmacology to rice genomics. The intensive two-week workshop includes daily lectures and hands-on sessions, culminating in a valedictory event featuring a key note by Dr. VijayRaghavan (Secretary of Department of Biotechnology, India.)

For the first week, students will learn about introductory genomics, cancer genomics, clinical genomics and the genomics of non-coding RNA. The students’ first hands on session was on computing with Linux, led by Dr. Subhashini Srinivasan (IBAB) and Dr. Jian Carrot Zhang (Broad Institute). The session ended with a discussion about how much about the human genome is still unknown. Another session will explore how to apply what they are learning to newborn hearing screenings.

Information from a patient’s genome is increasingly useful for diagnosis and therapy as a critical part of clinical care. Organizations such as The Human Genome Project, ENCODE (Encyclopedia of Human Elements), and the Human Epigenome Consortium have advanced our understanding of the etiology of disease and its progression. This has spurred a great deal of excitement in personalized medicine, which uses genomic and epigenomic information to guide diagnosis and therapy. Gene panel-based diagnosis, genomic markers for disease screening, and newborn screenings have created avenues for therapy and early diagnosis.

Genomics and next-generation sequencing technologies have influenced scientific research and medicine significantly, which has made a striking impact on healthcare and translational medicine over the last decade. The capability to sequence DNA at higher speeds with precision and resolution unravels several dimensions of the complex genome and enhances the applicability of genomic information in personalized medicine. 

 

The workshop is sponsored by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.

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“Wastage of food is not less than a social delinquency”


Our India Country Director, Sanjay Kumar, has written a powerful op-ed in The Hindu newspaper about the issue of food wastage in the country. He writes:

Food wastage has multiple socio-economic and environmental impacts. In a country like India, not only is food scarce for many poor families, it is a luxury for many others. Though hunger cannot be tackled directly by preventing food wastage, a substantial amount of food that is wasted in our country can feed many hungry people. India ranked 97th among 118 countries in the Global Hunger Index for 2016. About 20 crore people go to bed hungry and 7,000 people die of hunger every day; wastage of food is not less than a social delinquency.

Read the full piece here.

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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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Looking Back, Informing the Future: The 1947 Partition of British India


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Professor Jennifer Leaning discusses forced migration at one of our Partition seminars

 

By Tarun Khanna (Director, SAI; Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School)

Both my mother’s and my father’s sides of our family migrated from what is now Pakistan. As a result of Partition, many of them had to leave their lives behind, with years of hard work quickly wiped out, when they moved to New Delhi and were forced to start again. Partition has always been part of my family’s folklore but my grandfather, who bore the brunt of it, passed away very early. I never had the opportunity to discuss it with him.

At the SAI, we have embarked on a major research project to understand the history, context and continuing impact of Partition, as its 70th anniversary approaches. There has, of course, always been a great deal of interest in this defining historical event from scholars at Harvard and elsewhere. Professor Jennifer Leaning’s team from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has been studying Partition for more than a decade — her ongoing work is central to our collective research.

At the SAI, we have already undertaken a major interdisciplinary project of a similar scale. Our work on the Kumbh Mela was a very successful collaborative effort involving dozens of faculty, students, graduates and undergraduates. We created a platform so that other people could participate; scholars from the region as well as other universities around the world. We produced scholarly papers, videos, architectural designs and ultimately, a book.

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