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News Category: News

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 SAI, 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.

Professor Tarun Khanna to Serve Third Term as SAI Director


The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute (SAI), Harvard University is pleased to announce that Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School, has agreed to serve as Faculty Director for another three years, beginning on July 1, 2018. 


Professor Tarun Khanna began his tenure as the Director of SAI in 2010.  Under Professor Khanna’s leadership, SAI began to emphasize the full spectrum of the University’s intellectual activities – across the social sciences, arts and humanities, and the pure sciences.  SAI developed into a platform to help connect faculty and students from across all of Harvard’s schools with each other and with scholars, institutions, and well-wishers in-region.


Professor Khanna says of his re-appointment, “I am grateful for the incredible support that I have received over the past (nearly eight!) years, and the vote of confidence.  Our team in Cambridge and in-region is as strong as it has ever been. SAI has recently reinforced our on-the-ground presence in South Asia with a robust presence in New Delhi. I look forward to continuing this important and exhilarating work”.

Q + A with Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud: The Secret History of the Silk Road

Hasna holding a piece of Indian pottery design from India Gate, Mongolia


Poet and lover of secrets, Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud, has journeyed the Silk Road in search of mysterious connections across centuries and borders. She is the author of “Mystic Poetry of Bangladesh” and “Where Women Rule: South Asia.” She is currently an SAI Research Affiliate, a former Senior Fellow at the Harvard University Asia Center and a former Visiting Fellow at the Harvard University Ash Center.

In an interview with SAI, Hasna shares the inspiration behind her quest to traverse the Silk Road in an attempt to uncover the lost links between Mongolia and India via Bangladesh. 

Hasna will give a seminar on her poetic journey titled “The Silk Road to South Asia: From Mongolia to Bangladesh” on Tuesday, March 27th at 4pm.



How did you first become interested in studying the Silk Road and Buddhism?

The Silk Road is a road from the past that connected people through trade — both in open material and secret spiritual goods. In translating 1,000-year-old Buddhist mystic poems, I discovered how the poems traveled from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan to Tibet and Mongolia through the Silk Road. The poems are lost now but preserved far away. Art, books, and secret tantric teachings traveled the Silk Road through secret passages in the Himalayas.

My interest in poetry grew through my father who was a great poet. We lived near the Kamlapur Buddhist monastery. After my long-awaited visit to Tibet, I learned how people from far away revered Atisha. However, besides the Buddhist priests, people in his birth country, Bangladesh, did not know about Atisha. I see myself as his daughter — and I am devoted to introducing Atisha Dionakara Srigana to his people in Bangladesh.


What are some of the questions that led to your trip to Mongolia?

I always felt that India had a very close connection with Mongolia, despite being so far away — deserts and mountains could not keep India and Mongolia apart. I wanted to find these connections by traveling to Mongolia. Last year, I attended the World Poetry Congress in Mongolia and found some answers.

My proposal that the Silk Road came through Bangladesh, connecting Mongolia with Bangladesh — intrigues people, for it is a secret history.


There is something poetic about your physical journey to discover the lost connections between Mongolia, India, and Bangladesh. I noticed that you also have published on poetry. Could you describe the role of poetry in the way that you conduct your research?

I sometimes call myself a writer and a poet, who loves nature. My research is about restoring and conserving the world’s lost and natural heritage.

It is exciting to imagine how these Silk Road riders rode off, some to make money and others not, with a great sense of necessity — an urge to be a part of a race into the unknown — an urge shared with animals. It is a call of nature, just as the mountain and the sea often call me. Poetry opens roads to unusual places.


What has been the most surprising part of your research?

Sometimes information comes as a revelation and I do not have to research; it appears — like a piece of a poem.

Additionally, as a masters student of old English literature, translation, and manuscript reading, I have a self-acquired specialization on handling old manuscripts, bringing in new meanings and focusing on the world of their period.


What is a common misconception about the Silk Road?

That it exploits cultures and brings deadly diseases like the plague, or that the Silk Road belongs to one country.


Who are some of the people that you have met on your travels in Mongolia?

I encountered writers and poets, Buddhist priests, homemakers, and every-day Mongolians. People, who do not speak my language, but share the mysteries of the desert. I met a young man who is a founder of his school belonging to the Kadamba sect of Buddhism — he said that he would pray for me.


What is the research that you have been conducting while at Harvard?

When I first started working on the Silk Road — or Roads — it was not so well known. During the last five to six years, suddenly everyone is talking about the Silk Road, even Barack Obama. It now has many names, with political and economic connotations that offer many theories and interpretations.

However, the Silk Road is the Silk Road. My interest was to bring the Silk Road to Bangladesh.

At Harvard, I spent my time in the libraries and museums, discovering a different library each week. The seminars and lectures have enlightened me. My research is about bringing peace in the world, nothing less. Since the Silk Road is not always about a single country, I see ways in which the Silk Road can continue to build connections between cultures.

Harvard’s New “Embassy” in India


Picture 1 of 5


The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute’s (SAI) 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, SAI Executive Director Meena Hewett and SAI 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.
SAI 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 SAI 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.”



Second Annual Crossroads Emerging Leaders Program

Harvard professors will welcome 70 first-generation college students from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia to the Second Annual Crossroads Emerging Leaders Program in Dubai, a unique, fully-funded career development opportunity for accomplished, ambitious young people who have already had to overcome significant barriers to higher education. 

During the pilot program in 2017, 50 students engaged with each other and faculty through the renowned Harvard Business School case-study method of teaching and learning, exposing them to real, contemporary business scenarios. Executives from leading private and publicly-owned multinational companies visited the classroom to interact with students and offer their invaluable wisdom and experience.  

The successful cohort of 2017 included a young woman from a city in Pakistan with the country’s lowest female literacy rate. An Indian student had  worked as a garbage collector to pay his school fees.

The 2018 program will see a larger, even more diverse group of students exposed to a greater variety of disciplines within Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics (STEAM), business and leadership.

Harvard faculty leading the program include Tarun Khanna, SAI Director and Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School; and Karim R. Lakhani, Charles E. Wilson Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School, co-director of the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard, and the faculty co-founder of the HBS Digital Initiative. 

Crossroads Program, 2017

The program will cover the costs of international travel, board, lodging and class  materials, for students who are the first in their families to attend college and may also be facing challenging financial and social circumstances that discourage them from applying to postgraduate schools. 

Crossroads is organized in partnership with the Harvard Business School Club of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with the support of  DIFC, Air Arabia, the Dubai Future Accelerator and  Expo 2020.

For more information, please contact or visit The Crossroads website. 


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.



Kabaadiwalas, Caste and Fast-Moving Consumer Goods

Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron


Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey just published their book, Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India, this month with Harvard University Press. The book examines national assets and obstacles for achieving a cleaner India. The authors argue that obstacles that appear unique to India are volume, density, and the caste system. The authors also discuss India’s assets, including old practices of frugality; recycling; global experience and science; and dynamic entrepreneurs, officials, NGOs, and citizens.

In a written interview with SAI, the authors give insight into their book, research, and what India is doing to combat garbage growth.

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey will give a book talk at SAI this upcoming Monday, March 19, 2018.


In Waste of a Nation, you focus on India. What are some of the waste management challenges that are unique to India?

In three words, we would say density, volume, and caste. Only Bangladesh, among substantial countries, equals India in population density. Even if India were very heavily rural, its growing population would mean vast amounts of vegetable waste, as well as human and animal excrement each day.

India will be close to 40 percent urban when we see the next census results in 2021, and that population increasingly consumes growing quantities of throwaway products that go with urban and middle-class life.

Finally, caste means that India does not have a tradition as, for example, China, Japan, and the Netherlands once did – of seeing even human waste as a valuable product. The intense revulsion felt in India against things — and people — seen as ritually polluting is very rare elsewhere – and probably unique in its complexity and intensity.

Working with garbage is not a great job anywhere, but in some parts of the world, young people from top universities might take a summer job on the local garbage truck because the pay is not bad and the work is outdoors and without many rules. In India, ideas about caste and ritual purity predispose people to a sense that there are “others” — low-caste people, Dalits — who are destined to deal with tainted things.


Why is it important that a clean new India becomes a model for other parts of the world?
The planet’s population has more than quadrupled since 1900 from about 1.6 billion to more than 7 billion. In addition, a larger percentage of those people now consume more elaborate, energy-needing “stuff.” We are running out of the “stuff” to make things and places to put the “stuff” we do not want any more.

If India can make big strides in creating a more hygienic and sustainable environment, it will demonstrate that significant changes in people’s behavior and attitudes are possible. It will also emphasize the sorts of technologies and incentives that succeed in specific — and difficult — circumstances.


Could you discuss the role of the kabaadiwala in your book?
In India, everyone over 30 has a kabaadiwala story – the bicycle with big bags on the back and the cry of “Ka-baaaa-dee” to let you know the waste-collecting person – or “rag-and-bone man” – is coming to purchase things you might want to get rid of.

Other places had rag-and-bone men but lost the frugal habits of turning disposable things into cash through door-to-door transactions. It lingers in India, and the kabaadiwalas and their networks offer practical, working ways of “recycling.” The trick is to make such practices systematic and to use innovative technologies to deal with the “stuff” that is collected. These days, India has a patchwork of inventive success stories across the country. Now, the question is how do we multiply them and make them comprehensive?


In your book, you discuss the complex relationship between waste and class in India. How do these interplay?
How to measure class has always been controversial. However, the short answer would be that all classes in India consume and excrete to a degree — even the very poor may have a mobile phone, which is a disposable product. Over the last few decades, the penetration of consumer items through the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) economy has been remarkable. Small sachets of washing powder, biscuits, and pan masala, to name a few, saturate the landscape in some places. The FMCG economy is built on the principle of cheap goods sold in small quantities but in large volumes. It is an economy of scale that, as we know, produces enormous amounts of waste and with little thought about where it would end up.

The more affluent classes generate a different kind of waste, more in line with what is familiar to people in industrialized countries. Urbanization has also turbocharged waste production. A real-estate sector and infrastructure boom generates a lot of construction and demolition debris. This form of waste is often dumped in rivers and floodplains with little consideration of how to deal with it more effectively.


In your book description, you write, “If a clean new India is to emerge as a model for other parts of the world, a “binding morality” that reaches beyond the current environmental crisis will be required.” Could you discuss what you mean by a “binding morality” and how it might be fostered?

By “binding morality,” we mean a readiness of very large numbers of people of different backgrounds to recognize that “we are all in this together” and to treat others as “fellow passengers” rather than “ticketless travelers.”

We appear sometimes to get periods of “binding morality” after a “binding crisis” — a period of extreme danger and discomfort that seems to affect everyone, rich and poor, and that can only be ameliorated by overcoming status distinctions and working for some common goals. The Great Stink in London in 1858 was a “binding crisis.” The Thames stank putridly right underneath parliament, and parliament resolved to build a great sewage network and improve water supplies. In public health terms, these things benefited even the poor. We argue that the so-called “plague outbreak” in Surat in 1994 was a similar “binding crisis,” and led to Surat going from being India’s “dirtiest city” to one of its cleanest.


How does waste affect rural and urban communities differently?
In the old days, most of what rural places had to throw away was biodegradable. Wind, sun, rain, and foraging animals could handle it. Random defecation harmed health, which was not understood, and the important thing was that it was somewhere else — far away from one’s dwelling.

Even in the past, urban life made disposing of things more difficult, and urban life usually brings more “things” with it — packaging, for example, and limits on vacant spaces to defecate.

Today, many villages are part of great, sprawling cities and experiencing similar difficulties. As anyone in the FMCG trade will proudly tell you, disposable products are available everywhere. There are close to two billion mobile phones — dead ones and living ones — somewhere in India today. That is a lot of waste — or a lot of raw material for well-organized, semi-urban kabaadiwalas.


Do you see viable solutions in the near future? What role does (and will) technology play in waste management?
Some remarkable technologies can mitigate aspects of waste. Nevertheless, the danger lies in the attempt to implant single technical and organizational “solutions” that are supposed to work everywhere. Even something as simple as a rural toilet is a bit complicated: What is appropriate in Rajasthan will not work well in Kerala.

One example of new technologies is the work of an Indian scientist and his team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. They have a process into production that takes discarded plastic, uses the heat from a steel mill to reduce the plastic to its chemical components and reconstitutes these into high-carbon bricks that go to fire the steel mill.

You can make arguments about plastic and carbon, but they are both going to be with us a while. Here is a way of keeping them out of landfills and water bodies, and reducing the need for increased extraction of fossil fuels.


On what scale will initial solutions need to take place? National, municipal or community?
The weight that the BJP government has thrown behind the Swachh Bharat program is important, but the negative side is that it is top-down and target-driven. There is an echo of the disastrous nasbandi (family planning) campaign of Mrs. Gandhi’s 1975-77 “emergency.”

If the national effort of Swachh Bharat is sustained and spends more time and effort on education, demonstration, and follow-up, the program over time will be immensely influential. However, relentless follow-up and demonstration are keys in the medium term.

Sustaining, educating, and following up, will have to be done by local governments, and local government in India is under-powered and under-valued. Huge expectations are placed on local governments that lack experienced, dedicated people, partly because the funds are not there to train and reward them fittingly. For most up-and-coming officers, local-government duty is something you do on the way to something else. But local government, and its connections with citizens, whether as NGOs or individual families, are crucial elements in the success of Swachh Bharat, because much of the day-to-day work falls on them.


How did the two of you collaborate to write this book? Could you describe your process of research and working together?
Assa is an anthropologist. Robin was trained as a historian but worked most of his career in a department called “Politics” — not “Government” and not “Political Science.” Our backgrounds are very different, but they seem to complement each other. We both were admirers of the work of Anthony Low and Barney Cohn — trying to bring the skills of anthropology together with the historical foundations on which people build their lives.

The way we have done research is like this: We broadly agree on things we need to know, and then we burrow away like truffle-hounds in areas of our expertise and write up our findings. Then we play ping-pong, sending fragments back and forth for the other one to work on, question, or cry out in horror. Then, a skeleton of the chapters begins to suggest itself, and we move the main bones around a lot; perhaps we are a pair of wannabe Dr. Frankensteins. However, we hope this book, and the one we did on mobile phones, do not end up in the horror section of the library.


Second Annual SAI Crossroads Program







To be determined

The Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University (SAI) Second Annual Crossroads Program is a fully-funded career development opportunity for students from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and Africa, who are the first in their families to attend college and may also be facing challenging financial and social circumstances.

The 2018 program will run from September 23 – 28, 2018 at the DIFC Academy of the Dubai International Financial Centre (Dubai, UAE).

Leading Harvard faculty will teach an intensive, multidisciplinary four-day curriculum in Dubai, for accomplished, motivated youth.

This program is a collaboration between the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University, Harvard Business School Club of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Dubai International Financial Centre, with the support of Air Arabia, the Carlton Hotel, Dubai Future Accelerators, and Emirates Grand Hotel.

Applications will open March 15, 2018. Please find application instructions here.


Program details

  • Class size: up to 60 students
    • 150 candidates will be shortlisted. Short listed candidates will be asked to submit a 2 minute video sharing their leadership experience and why they should be considered for the program.
  • Location: Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai
  • Cost: FREE (The program will cover the costs of international travel, board, lodging and class materials. Visa costs are the responsibility of selected candidates.)
  • Application deadline: Tuesday May 15th, 2018 11:59 PM Eastern Standard Time (EST).  
  • Questions: Write to 


Faculty Leaders

  • Tarun Khanna is the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at the Harvard Business School and Director, the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, Harvard University.
  • Karim R. Lakhani is Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, the Principal Investigator of the Crowd Innovation Lab and NASA Tournament Lab at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science and the faculty co-founder of the Harvard Business School Digital Initiative.

Before contacting the Lakshmi Mittal South Asia Institute, please read through the answers to Frequently Asked Questions.


Deadline Tuesday, May 15th, 2018, 11:59 PM EST. 


Student Voices: Intergenerational Experiences from the South Asian Diaspora


Sheliza Jamal


Sheliza Jamal is a Master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, specializing in the Arts in Education. Before Harvard, she had accrued over ten years of teaching experience, both internationally and in Canada, with a special interest in the Theater of the Oppressed pedagogy. Sheliza has been working at SAI for the past year as the communications intern.

This blog is part of a series about Harvard students who have done research related to South Asia at Harvard.


By Sheliza Jamal, HGSE ‘18


Last semester, I took an Ethnic Studies course taught by Christina “V” Villarreal, where we critically analyzed the master narrative of American history. In this course, we learned about counter-narratives, which include the histories of African Americans, Mexicans and Indigenous people of America. I had always longed to read these counter-narratives as well as my own lived experience in history books; however, throughout my life, I have found my own history left out.

I sought to change this historical erasure by conducting an ethnographic study aimed at illuminating identities within the South Asian diaspora created by migration. I was inspired to explore the topic of inter-generational experiences of people from the South Asian diaspora because of my personal experience growing up as an East African, Indian, Canadian and Muslim in Coquitlam, British Columbia. Both my parents were born and raised in East Africa. My father’s family fled Uganda in the 70s during Idi Amin’s mass expulsion of Asian-Africans.

As a third-generation Indian, I often feel a dissonance between the four identities that I hold. One of the reasons I applied to the internship with SAI was to feel a sense of belonging and connection to South Asia. My personal interest in identity and belonging sparked my investigation of a heterogeneous South Asian identity within the North American framework.

As part of my research project, I created a photo gallery called Photo IDX. The aim was to foster critical thinking, literacy and community building through a series of eight interviews with individuals from various age groups and countries such as Canada, the USA, the UK, Guyana, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. The exhibit highlights stories of identity, culture, family and community.  The focus of the project was South Asians’ migration and how this affects their cultural identity.

Initial questions made participants speak about “home” and share how they identify culturally.  The accompanying photo gallery of participants created another opportunity for expression of identity.  My project highlights the plurality of identities in South Asia and problematizes the assumption that there is a homogenous South Asian.  Additionally, the personal stories serve as a counter-narrative to the popular narratives of American history as well as Asian-American history.

Many of the individuals that I interviewed lean towards assimilation with the countries where they currently reside and reported that they did not feel as though they suffer from a distorted identity due to this migration; rather, they appear to accept a state of fluidity. I found an inter-generational discrepancy in this regard, where young adults described experiencing an identity crisis at one point in their upbringing.  Many participants noted that prior to our interview, no one ever asked them to discuss their cultural identity in depth and as a result, they enjoyed the opportunity to share their lived experiences. For me, this project has been a springboard for continued conversation about race, identity and belonging and the debate between assimilation and cultural preservation.


Pictured below are two participants from my Photo IDX Gallery.

“People constantly ask me where I am from. I feel like it is a mixed identity as I don’t completely fit in with Canadian, Indian or Kenyan. Sometimes, identity is not clear-cut.”   – Yasmin Jamal, Gujarati, Kenyan, Canadian



“The language was lost as a result of the British running the country, everything was in English. We are Indians with a combination of other cultures; we have a hybrid culture. Oftentimes, Indians will say, “You don’t have an identity – it’s stolen and mismatched.” I would say I am Caribbean, I am all of it.” – Dr. Sean Abdulla, Guyanese-Canadian

Alum Q+A: Art, Business and Life after Graduation

Sneha Shrestha aka IMAGINE sits on top of her mural  Photo Credit: Sworup Ranjit


Sneha Shrestha (also known as IMAGINE in the art world) transcends easy categorization. As a calligraffiti artist, arts educator, curator and social entrepreneur, her day to day – much like her art – is never predictable.

Sneha completed her Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) in 2017. While at Harvard, she served as Arts Manager for SAI. She proved to be an integral member of the community and a valuable voice for the arts at SAI, curating a show with visiting artists from Nepal and India. She also received an Arts Fund Grant that allowed her to do research in Nepal as part of her Project Zero Artist in Residency. The SAI Grant allowed Sneha to fly to Nepal for 10 days to facilitate her workshop with students in Kathmandu. She currently runs one of SAI’s internship sites, The Children’s Art Museum of Nepal (CAM), which she founded in 2013.

SAI recently spoke to Sneha about art, business, and life after graduation.


What have you have been working on recently?

I am one of this year’s Boston Artists in Residence (AIR). AIR is a yearlong residency project and this year’s theme is resilience and racial equity. AIR allows the city, government, residents of Boston and artists to work together through the arts. I am particularly interested in the Boston Creates Initiative, whose mission is to make art accessible for all people in Boston. Public art is an amazing form of art; murals have the capacity to get everyone from the community involved. Plans are in the works for me to paint a mural for the Harvard-sparked initiative Zone 3 on Western Avenue.

Additionally, I have been working as a Curriculum Designer and Business Strategist for the Learning Labs education technology camps at CAM. I started designing the program while I was at HGSE in Professor Fernando Reimers’ Social Enterprise class. In Reimer’s class, students have the opportunity to learn how to start their own venture. The class was both fun and practical.


Tell me about your paintings.

My paintings are my way of carrying my culture and my experiences with me. They are mindful mantras based on Sanskrit Scriptures, married with contemporary graffiti. Graffiti is something I learned about when I moved to Boston. Blending the two art forms is my way of creating a home away from home.    


What was the process of establishing the Children’s Museum?

In 2009, while I was still in college, I had the idea to build CAM. I started by building a library in Nepal for a struggling public school. The goal was to encourage kids to read. As a child, I had limited exposure to art experiences. However, I found it baffling that many children at that public school had never seen paintbrushes. Because of this, I decided to integrate art-making into the library.

When I graduated from college, I worked as a mentor at Artists for Humanity, a nonprofit after-school studio arts program in South Boston. This program helps teens understand entrepreneurship and they get paid to learn in creative studios through painting, silk-screen and photography from mentors.  Before this program, I never saw myself as an arts educator.  

Many Nepali children do not have the opportunity at school or at home to be creative and to think for themselves. I kept thinking about how my brother was the same age as the teens in the program. I began to wonder, if my brother had the opportunities to make art and express himself in Nepal, would things be different. Would he get into less trouble, be more positive and have more opportunities?  

This drove me to create a space for kids in Nepal, space where they would have the opportunity to express themselves through the arts. It was risky, but I was dedicated to my mission. I did what my heart told me: I applied for a grant, quit my job and flew to Nepal.  

Fortunately, I received the Advancing Leaders Fellowship from World Learning Projects for Peace grant for $10,000 to design a space dedicated to art and learning for kids in Nepal. They flew me to San Francisco to pitch my project and in June 2013, I flew back to Nepal and started the project. I gathered together a small team to help me crowdfund and put together an official board for what would become CAM. Our goal was to build a permanent place and a sustainable project that makes art accessible and provides 21st-century skills through project-based arts learning.


What is your vision for the future?

CAM has worked with more than 9,000 kids over the past four years. The plan is for us to keep making the museum sustainable and scale up in terms of the curriculum that we are developing. We also want to make CAM’s curriculum available to schools outside of Kathmandu.

Another goal is for us to collaborate with more international partners so there is an exchange of learning and opportunities we provide for children. This February, we are excited to collaborate with the Creativity Museum in San Francisco for a staff and volunteer training. For the past two years, we have had summer interns from Gettysburg College, and this year we opened up the opportunity to Harvard and MIT students.


Could you tell me more about CAM, and what kinds of experiences a student intern could expect?

The CAM internship is a unique opportunity to be a part of a young organization that is the first of its kind in the country. The internship provides students with the opportunity to get insight into how creative nonprofits work in the developing world and learn about education systems from a global perspective. Students also get hands-on opportunities to work with children through the arts. Depending on the student’s background and interests, there are opportunities to design tech-forward museum experiences, such as the learning labs.



The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.