By Shabana Meyering
Shabana Meyering, Professor of Biology and Chemistry at Northern Virginia Community College, was a 2020 participant in the CAORC-AIIS Faculty Development Seminar to India. She was also born and raised in India. In this essay, she provides her reflections on the changes she observed in Indian society during her first visit to the country in nearly 20 years.
I have two homes—India, the country of my birth, and the U.S., where I now live, work, and raise my family. They are both dear to me. When I was selected to attend the CAORC faculty seminar to India, I looked at the opportunity with a gleam in my eye, as talk of India always does. Despite my familiarity with India, I chose to go there again. Why?
I wanted to look at the country differently this time, not as a native daughter but as an unbiased outsider. When I was growing up as a teenager, India—then just entering its fifth decade of independence—was but a teenager itself: tormented with growing pains, struggling to find a foothold, experimenting with both paths in a fork on the road. My personality and worldview evolved when I left India to pursue my studies in the U.S. How had India developed in the nearly 20 years I had been away? This is what I wanted to find out. Participating in the seminar would give me the answer.
The most obvious difference between the India of my youth and India today is the exponential increase in population. In 2000, the country’s population had just reached the momentous 1 billion mark. Today, the population is 1.3 billion—a 30 percent increase in 20 years! When I was younger, everywhere I went in Mumbai (already a megacity at that time) I was surrounded by a vast sea of people. I was expecting worse in New Delhi. After all, New Delhi had surpassed Mumbai to become India’s most populous city. But when our group landed in Delhi, I couldn’t see the vast sea of people I was expecting...my visibility was blocked by smog!
So where were the city’s 21 million people? The chilly January weather may have kept people from being out on the street and, therefore, out of sight. But our group sure did feel the impact of so many people while on the road. Travelling from Janpath in New Delhi to Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, a distance of just 15km, took us more than two hours! There are more than 11 million registered vehicles in New Delhi, which equates to one vehicle for every two people! No wonder I couldn’t see people out on foot...they were all in their cars!
As an Indian Muslim woman, I know Muslims are socio-economically marginalized within India. When I went around town, whether it was Agra or Lucknow, I saw shop after shop that employed Muslim sales staff and sold items made by Muslim craftspeople, but no stores that were owned by Muslims. I was heartbroken, reflecting that the situation of many Muslims—skilled and talented but not wealthy, and broadly exploited—was the same as I remembered years ago.
But through the seminar, we learned that things are changing for the better. We were introduced to several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to improve the condition of Indian Muslims. In Lucknow, for example, we visited Sanatkada, a handicraft shop that showcases and sells handmade arts and crafts from across rural India but also employs young minority Muslim women, supporting them to become smart, savvy, and skilled businesswomen.
At SEWA, also in Lucknow, we met founder and CEO Runa Banerjee who has spent decades of her life improving the position and self-esteem of minority Muslim women by employing them in the field of traditional hand-embroidery known as chikankari. Lucknow was also the site of a unique restaurant called Sheroes Hangout, a restaurant and cafe serving simple, tasty, local vegetarian fare. The restuaruant’s uniqueness lies in its mission, which aims to raise awareness of acid attacks against women and give victims the opportunity and courage to integrate back into society. The restaurant is entirely run by acid attack victims, all of whom were confident and eager young women. Thanks to the restaurant, these women have a new lease on life.
India is a diverse, complicated, vibrant, and chaotic country, blessed with year-round warmth and rain. Yes, blessed with three months of monsoon rains. Yet, the country’s exponential population growth, combined with poor water management practices, has resulted in rivers drying up before they can be recharged during the next rainy season. The Bombay Natural History Society, an NGO in New Delhi, took us on a guided walk along the Yamuna River, an ancient and sacred river that, today, completely lacks fresh water and has a dissolved oxygen count of zero. The grim situation is a result of New Delhi’s increasing urbanization and, consequently, the need to supply fresh water from the river’s headwaters to the growing city. Again, the situation is not all lost, and the Delhi Water Board has partnered with the Yamuna River Project to find solutions. The Delhi Institute of Technology, too, has programs that are finding technical solutions to better manage the water crisis faced by New Delhi as well as many other rapidly developing cities around the world.
At the airport, as we were leaving India, I caught one final glimpse of change: an airport taxi service operated exclusively for women, by women. In talking with the booth attendant, I learned that the company teaches driving and self-defense so that its drivers are ready to take on the world and the busy streets of New Delhi!
Now, back in the U.S., I am googly-eyed with the momentum towards equality that I saw in India. India was never boring; it is even livelier now. What is different from the India of my youth? On the one hand, the population has grown and the country’s infrastructure just isn’t able to keep up. There is still a majority and a marginalized minority. This fact has hasn’t changed in 20 years. On the other hand, there are earnest efforts by countless NGOs and social for-profit organizations that are all working towards an egalitarian society. The vectorization created by them is heartwarming. Soon, India will be on par with the developed world with respect to social equality and all the sustainable development goals laid out by the U.N.
CAORC’s 2020 faculty development seminar to India was organized with the American Institute of Indian Studies and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in South Asian Studies: Columbia University, Cornell University, Syracuse University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Learn more about CAORC Faculty Development Seminars.
About the Author
Shabana Meyering (pictured at Sheroes restaurant in Lucknow) is Professor of Biology and Chemistry at Northern Virginia Community College. She was among 16 faculty participants in the seminar “Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held in India from December 26, 2019–January 10, 2020.