Siddharth Sareen graduated from IIT Madras with an Integrated MA in Development Studies in 2011. He is based at the University of Copenhagen’s Section for Global Development.
Closing in on three years since I graduated as part of the first batch of the Integrated Masters programme at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, a request to write a piece for IIT Madras’ blog comes as an occasion to reflect, and do so publicly. I am halfway through a PhD at the University of Copenhagen at the moment, having stayed with the interdisciplinary roots that my first degree in Development Studies afforded me the rare opportunity of cultivating. I feel a deep sense of gratitude towards the many people who have invested a lot of heart and spirit in making our young programme what it is – a way for enquiring, impressionable people to find their feet and use them to go where they choose, digging deeper into all manner of interesting issues in a bid to indulge the endless curiosity characteristic of those just starting to understand the world and their purpose in it.
My current work – studying the impact of state functioning on indigenous communities’ everyday lives through a natural resource governance lens, broadly speaking – gives me a great deal of insight into the circumstances and experiences of people who do not have this option; indeed, people for whom the question of considering what they wish to do (let alone how to do it) is a barely conceivable luxury. They are creative people, far more enterprising than you and I in some respects, but they find themselves in a context where life can be hard, often more a question of survival than exploration. External interventions rarely function as intended, and the state as a construct evokes rather fixed feelings. Riding a motorbike along dirt tracks around the Saranda forest on fieldwork, I am constantly confronted with the question of our responsibility – towards ourselves, the state, forest villagers and the lives we touch while going about our business.
My time at IIT Madras birthed many occasions where this same confrontation surfaced in various forms. I was fortunate enough to meet a few wonderful people, who worked (and work) keenly on addressing all manner of social and environmental inequity and injustice. Engaging with their work in and beyond Chennai, I learned to operationalise a great deal of what our curriculum handled in more theoretical ways. An enthusiastic bunch of us dedicatedly joined forces with the Bhopal movement, demanding that accountability hold sway over corporate influence. We introduced a culture of debate on the issue of Dow Chemicals being allowed to recruit on campus – adding to national media attention in solidarity with the cause, while also raising the issue of on-campus recruitment ethics and what we as an institute support. Along with a handful of others, I participated in city-wide efforts advocating for urban transport equity. We formed a platform called ‘Walking Classes Unite’, conducting walk audits with local communities to improve pedestrian accessibility, while also suggesting means of enhancing public transport. I was a regular at nightly turtle walks, covering the stretch of beach from Neelankarai to Besant Nagar, to ensure the Olive Ridley turtles had a fair shot at survival. Many a spring weekend, friends from the institute came along.
I could go on. There was the local collective that came up in support of locally-sourced organic food, which I used to volunteer with and which has really come into its own. There were livelihoods-supporting and skill-building efforts through an institute-based rural outreach initiative that many of us participated in, not least during Saarang. There was a great deal of on-campus engagement with several issues pertaining to water – equitable and inclusive access, the prevention of wasteful practices and enhancement of management capabilities and impact. Much of this was possible due to the fantastic drive of inspirational people coupled with our department’s openness to supporting worthwhile initiatives, and I was aware and proactive enough to learn from the opportunities this supported and lend a hand where possible. The fact that several brilliant researchers and practitioners came over to share their work with us, and that we had guidance at hand within the department as well as excellent sparring partners as peers, was an essential component of a well-rounded education, not the whole story. And that, to my mind, is a hallmark of healthy learning environments.
I have rambled on a bit and find, quite pleasurably, that I still have your readership, so I will venture to sum things up. I find, in retrospect, that my time at IIT Madras was characterised by an abundance of fertile experiences, which have played a considerable part in shaping the interests and inclinations I had into their current form, and one which I daresay is rather vital to the world we live in. We need proactive citizens and researchers with an informed normative sense who participate in creating a better, and fairer, world. Undertaking this task, I happily find myself in good company. An example best encapsulates this claim. Last summer in Copenhagen, I convened a conference panel on unexpected pathways of local economic development, and two presenters came from my old department, one a younger alumnus and the other a current student. Their approaches to the topic were quite contrasting – both with my own and with each other’s – yet their arguments solid and their style of presentation effective.
We were equal participants at a panel dinner that evening with others from around the world, and the table conversation was varied and engaged, but also imbued with an informed sense of urgent purpose. We wanted to make a positive difference, we recognised it was difficult but worthwhile, and our individual experiences equipped us with different means and varied perspectives on how to proceed with our common task. I couldn’t help but smile in reminiscence of my former supervisor’s Copenhagen visit the previous winter and our conversations then. It was clear to me then that our programme, even in its current early days, has developed its own identity. It does not manufacture products; rather, it contributes to a world with well-informed people keen to engage, sufficiently perceptive to be self-critical, who are at ease in any context but also eager to find meaning by being grounded in their own lives and work.
I have mentioned but a fraction of the wonderful array of things that filled my eventful years at IIT Madras, but I have nonetheless said enough. Suffice it to say that I feel privileged to be associated with my department, to have played a role in the life of the institute, and that this is an ongoing relationship. Last year, as a Danish Youth Goodwill Ambassador, I conducted a series of outreach events on Danish study and work opportunities for talented Indians, ably hosted by the institute’s Office for International Relations over two days. The event received such positive attention in Denmark that I found myself addressing 80 C-level executives at the new Danish Industry building in Copenhagen shortly thereafter, and was recently invited from Italy to Denmark to speak to 200 youth ambassadors from around the world who also wish to raise awareness about opportunities in Denmark in their home countries. I am pleased to be able to return to Chennai with a similar programme on 29th-30th March 2014, this time targeting a wider audience and held at Spaces, #1 Elliots Beach in Besant Nagar. I am joined by Prakruti, another IIT Madras alumnus, in these efforts, and you can find details of our initiative on https://www.facebook.com/StudyInDenmarkIndia.
In closing, I hope the good work continues in Chennai, and if students and residents current and future find themselves looking for opportunities to connect with worthwhile work happening in their surroundings, I am sure they will find meaningful engagement with ease – but they are nonetheless welcome to contact me for details pertaining to turtle walks, the organic food collective, other city-based volunteer collectives working in solidarity with community concerns, or to catch up at a cafe in Copenhagen should you happen to visit! Our contact details are, for better and worse, eminently google-able these days