Students Get Firsthand Take on India's Development Challenges

Story posted December 09, 2008

Sarah Glaser '11 is at odds with her husband, Ross Cowman '10.

ashish kothari
Ashish Kothari

Ross can barely contain his scorn as his wife describes her efforts with the Chipko Movement in India to prevent the felling of trees by developers in their region of the Himalayas.

"The women go into the forest to protect the trees from developers, but it really just ends up stealing money from men in the community," Ross says, throwing up his hands. "Farming doesn't give us cash anymore. I wanted to take the employment offers from the timber company and I wasn't allowed to do that because of this movement. It's hurt us. I don't have that money in my pocket to buy my family food or move to the city."

Between them, their "son," Mamiko Taniguchi '11, glowers sullenly. He just wants to leave the village and seek his fortune in the city.

In-Class Video Clip

Kothari's students act out the roles of Indian villagers, bureaucrats, journalists and politicians. (View using Quicktime)

This tale of family friction is only one part of the drama unfolding in Ashish Kothari's seminar, Development and Conservation Issues in India. Students in this Fall 2008 class are assuming the identity of villagers, bureaucrats, journalists and politicians as they role-play actual case studies of natural-resource development conflicts in several Indian villages.

Their stories are deeply familiar to Kothari. A 2008 Bowdoin Mellon Global Scholar, Kothari is a founder of Kalpavriksh, a 30-year-old NGO active in environmental justice in his native India. He has published over 30 books on conservation and livelihood issues, and coordinated the making of India's National Wildlife and Biodiversity Action Plans. He also is chairman of the board of Greenpeace India.

"It's a short-term course, so I don't want to think too big, but I hope it opens up possibilities for Bowdoin students to explore another culture and do more introspection about their own culture and society," says Kothari. "I want to remove stereotypes ... to bring out the nuances, the grays in the middle of the black-and-white thinking most of us have about each others' countries and issues."

Kothari has used role-playing or other interactive methods in his course several times as a way to help students understand the people and cultural contexts behind the environmental justice movement in India. Students have two weeks to research their topics as preparation for the improvised scenarios.

students in kothari class

In this role-play session, an American journalist (played by Emma Verrill '10) is writing an expose on conservation and development in India and the conflicts among private developers, government officials, villagers, conservation groups and funding agents, such as the World Bank. She seeks their input about several conflicts involving private timber harvesting and ecologically damaging agricultural development.

Stephen Gonzalez '09, an economics major, animates his role as a World Bank representative with provocative challenges to conservationists to consider long-term funding issues as they seek solutions to immediate development pressures, such as logging.

"The World Bank wants to see conservation," he says, waving his hands emphatically. "But we're going to need to see conservation mixed in with some development. Conservation in itself is not going to work, if you are going to reduce poverty. We see the future of India as being a decentralized government. We see the need for community development, and we're also interested in seeing a redistribution: We want to see women involved as much as men."

Later on, Kothari decides to throw a wrench into the mix. He speaks out against the World Bank, claiming that the organization has been funding projects that are insensitive to ecological and cultural issues.

Gonzalez plays his part well, acknowledging that the World Bank has learned from past challenges, and is now trying to support community-driven development.

"This role play was really different than anything I've done before in my classes," noted Gonzalez after class. "Coming to Bowdoin, I didn't know anything about these communities in India—I'm from a middle-class American family and I wouldn't know what it's like to rely on common-pool resources for a livelihood.

"It's also affected the way I view economic issues," he added. "You don't really take into account someone's livelihood when you study the economics of development. There isn't a variable for the happiness level of a person, or whether they get to pass a tradition down from generation to generation. This class opens up a new perspective on the world and social issues in general."

kothari in classroom
Ashish Kothari, A 2008 Bowdoin Mellon Global Scholar, discusses final projects with his class.

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