A River Runs Through It – Full Copy

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Overloaded trucks and honking rickshaws rush past, but Professor of Economics Dave Martin doesn’t flinch. Now on his eighth trip to India, he is at ease amidst the cacophony of this main thoroughfare in New Delhi as we stroll to a South Indian restaurant for dosa.

The two of us are in India this year on Fulbright grants, both of us researching rivers. Dave is investigating the allocation of water on the Gambhir River in the western state of Rajasthan. I am researching how flood-affected communities along the Brahmaputra River in India’s northeastern region are adapting to climate change.

In September we met in New Delhi, where Dave and his wife Elizabeth welcomed me into their flat for a few days.

Neither of us would be doing our current research were it not for Davidson’s Fall Semester in India program, currently in its 18th iteration. The 2004 program led by Professor Jonathan Berkey was my start in India. That trip gave me the confidence to go back alone the following summer to conduct research at a leprosy hospital in South India, funded by a grant from the Dean Rusk International Studies program.

Professor Martin’s first trip to India was on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in a South Indian town he describes as “the Statesville of India.” But it was on a scouting trip in 2005 for the semester program he would lead the following year that Dave first read about the water-sharing issues on the Gambhir River. The next year, with 16 Davidson students in tow, he visited Keoladeo National Park (into which the Gambhir River flows) for sunrise and sunset bird watching trips. “Crunching on grass that should have been wetland,” he said, confirmed that the impounding of water behind a dam raised in 2004 was seriously hurting this world-renowned bird sanctuary.

Professor Martin is now asking (and trying to answer) the economic question of what is the appropriate allocation of water given the ecological value of the national park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Upstream of the dam, farmers benefit from irrigation and power. But downstream of the dam, the wetlands and other farmers receive inadequate water.

My “crunching” moment was a nine-week trip up and down the Brahmaputra River mid-way through graduate school in the summer of 2010. The ubiquitous spectacle of barren, sludge-covered fields and shattered paddy brought home to me how hydrological changes are hammering the human “carrying capacity” of the land, even as environmental dislocations elsewhere trigger a new inflow of climate refugees.

Now I will return to this river in Assam to complete month-long case studies in each of eight villages, mapping natural resource flows and hazards and engaging villagers in group discussions and interviews. Prior to the field research, I will learn Bengali and Assamese in Kolkata through funding from the State Department’s Critical Language program. For me, this project represents a way to challenge my abilities in the ways I most enjoy: living for long periods in remote conditions, engaging people very different than myself, and tackling complex, high-stakes problems.

It’s telling about Davidson College that Professor Martin and I have both chosen to work on rivers. Especially in South Asia, river management presents difficult choices between development and conservation and examining these issues requires an interdisciplinary approach. Davidson College’s emphasis on the liberal arts, I think, is what gives us the confidence to extract information from a variety of disciplines and integrate it into a cogent narrative.

With sultry weather and the persistent threat of tropical disease, living in India is a challenge, but Dave and I agree that it is well worth the discomfort and risks. For both of us, the incredible personalities and hospitable souls we meet on our journeys and in the course of our research is what keeps us coming back.

And the sweets of course! Dave describes “chomping” on fresh mysore pak, “a nearly liquefied concoction of ghee (clarified butter), sugar, and a tiny bit of flour,” as “an indescribable bit of bliss.” My favorite sweets are jalebi, pretzel-shaped dough that is deep-fried and then saturated in hot syrup. It’s even the namesake of my blog, Jalebi Yatra, which means “sweet journey.” The circular, overlapping shape of jalebi is a good representation of how past Indian trips serve as jumping off points and touchstones for the present one. In that spirit, Dave and I were both looking forward to visiting with this year’s semester program led by Professor Annie Ingram, wondering what their “crunching moments” might be.

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