A lot has changed since I submitted my initial summer funding research proposal. We are living in a new world that is completely new and unknown to most. Due to this new reality created by COVID, I obviously have not been able to travel to India to conduct my senior thesis research. However, I have used this time to reflect on my first experience in India, dive deeper into preliminary research, and attempt to understand how India may be changing during these times.
During my first visit to India on a study abroad program, I visited organizations and movements focused on sustainable development and social issues. I learned that climate change’s negative effects on agricultural production disproportionately affect women. My interest in these intersecting topics pushed me to conduct a research project examining the role of women in traditional agriculture, as well as their importance in preserving the environment and their perceptions on climate change. I will continue to build on the research I conducted during my first visit to better understand the relationships between women farmers and climate change when it is safe to do so.
However, I used my summer to go through my pages of transcribed interviews, and journals to better understand how I can conduct research in a more effective way when I go back to India. For example, I learned how when asking women about climate change I must use precise language such as precipitation changes, temperature changes, soil changes, and other factors that climate change affects. These women understand that the environment is changing due to human derived causes, but climate change is not used in their vocabulary. I have now adjusted the vocabulary used in my interview questions to best match the cultural context.
I have also worked on eliminating biases and interruptions to the interviews I conduct. Unfortunately, it is extremely hard for these women to find free time to talk with me. Most of the time they are cooking or doing other work during the interviews. However, I decided it is much better to work with the women to avoid putting them behind in their daily routine. The downside to such an uncontrolled and varying interview environment is that other family members often interrupt. I learned that who is present in the room drastically affects the interviews. If the husband is around he may often try to answer for the women, and I must use respectful methods to divert the conversation back to the women. The husbands’ presence also tends to make the women more reluctant to talk about gender issues. I absolutely don’t want to put my interviewees in an uncomfortable or even potentially dangerous circumstance, so I have worked to solve this issue. I have analyzed my recorded notes on these challenges and found that early mornings, before the rest of the family is up, is the best time to interview these women, in order to avoid interruption.
Additionally, I did a lot of preliminary research this summer. Since I will be conducting interviews in a different Himalayan state than my original research, I did a lot of background research on the location I will be working in. I found that the farming techniques and production are very similar, but that Dharamshala differs culturally from Sikkim. I interviewed Lepcha, and Nepalese people in Sikkim. While in Dharamshala these women have a strong tie to Indian culture, and also speak Hindi rather than Nepali or Lepcha. There is also a huge Tibetan refugee population nearby, so Tibetan culture and religion has influenced the area. I spent time educating myself on the conflict between China and Tibet, in order to better understand the struggle and circumstance of these refugees.
Another huge portion of my research involved understanding how my research has global importance. Before my research this summer, I was narrowly viewing my work as being applicable only in an Indian context. However, I found that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has had many meetings on addressing gender in climate change policies for agriculture. I have used this time to read about how there are other countries on almost every continent that have a similar problem with women farmers unequally feeling the effects of climate change. It has helped me understand the importance of my work, and also has opened doors to a lot more research on this topic that may not be in the Indian context.
Lastly, rather than fight the fact that I wasn’t able to interview women over the phone this summer, I chose to switch gears and adjust to the circumstance. It was clear to me that COVID would be shaping India differently for a long time. I realized how important It was to understand the effects of COVID on India both for my future research and in order to know what my loved ones in India were experiencing. It felt much more urgent and critical to focus on COVID’s devastating effects in India, rather than the research I initially wanted to do.
After talking with my Indian Professor, I discovered that migrant workers were suffering immensely during India’s COVID lockdown. Without transportation running, migrant workers got trapped in places they migrated to for employment. Most had absolutely no money after their jobs stopped, and they were forced to walk hundreds of miles to return to their villages. Many traveling home had no access to food or water because the places they normally work along the way, in order to fund their travels home and their sustenance, were all shut down. Many migrant workers died due to exhaustion and dehydration while trying to walk home to their families. One twelve year old girl migrant worker collapsed after walking almost 75 miles and died only an hour away from her home. This unimaginable predicament that migrant workers were facing in India devastated me. I worked with my professor to connect with a trustworthy organization that he works with. They were providing direct aid, food, and housing to migrant workers during the lockdown. I managed to start a GoFund me, and raised almost $400 for this organization, which made us one of the top donators! I tried to raise awareness about this issue, and I also wanted to directly assist in whatever ways I could from afar. I continue to learn from my professor about what other issues are occurring in India due to COVID.
While there is no doubt that this pandemic has been a struggle for me, this pause has allowed me to do more reflecting on my past experiences in India and to better understand why I want to do this project. I also have been able to use this time to do more preliminary research than I probably would have done if I had just jumped into this project during the summer. This period of reflection and research will positively impact the depth and success of my upcoming research. I am so grateful for this opportunity that will allow me to continue to pursue my research, even if it takes longer than anticipated.