Dr. Avilash Raul is the Principal Scientist at Indo German Centre for Sustainability (IGCS) and a guest faculty at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Chennai 36 correspondent Rasika Joshi sits down with Dr. Raul to talk about the projects and research internship opportunities for students from all fields at IGCS.
Could you talk about why IGCS was established and briefly outline your association with it?
The Indo German Centre for Sustainability was established in 2010 through collaborative efforts with various universities in Germany and IIT Madras. The aim of the Centre is to provide a platform for research on various aspects of substantiality like land-use patterns, water, environment, etc. The projects and research undertaken here are largely collaborative and cooperative, and there is a lot of interaction between students and faculties from many departments here with their colleagues in Germany. I have been associated with the Centre for the past five years, first as a post-doctoral fellow, Senior Fellow, and now as the Principle Scientist. We host students and researchers from undergraduates, postgraduate, and Ph.D. levels.
Comment about the interdisciplinary nature of research undertaken at IGCS.
To give you a good example of that, a team from the Centre is currently working on the Coastal Resilience Project funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India. There are faculty members and students from the civil engineering, humanities and biotechnology departments working closely on this project. We are not just looking at the engineering and physical aspects of the issue, but also analyzing the socio-economic problems and impacts associated with it.
How does IGCS promote the idea of sustainable development in a holistic sense?
Sustainability and the idea of sustainable development is a highly nuanced concept, and different people have differing ideas of what it really entails. IGCS is focused on promoting and working towards long-term stability. Our approach to issues, our research, or our advice to various governmental bodies and other stakeholders are all geared towards providing long-term solutions that have meaningful and lasting impacts. This means that we don’t just conduct research about the environment and physical factors, but also the societal and economic angles associated with them. So, succinctly, the three pillars of sustainability that IGSC is focused on are the environment, the society and the economy. This kind of framework is also consonant with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and policy prescriptions for their implementation.
Do you also work with other organizations and bodies in the development sector? What is the nature of interaction there?
Yes, absolutely. The German International Development Cooperation (GIZ) has been a very active collaborator with us we have completed a number of projects with them in Chennai like the Chennai Climate Probe. We also work extensively with government stakeholders like the Department of Science and Technology, Department of Biotechnology, etc. for consulting on drafting policy or implementation of new projects.
What differentiates research in the development field here at IGCS, from that across the globe?
The biggest difference that makes research work at IGCS unique is its strong institutional grounding. Being in an IIT, we have the ability to make a direct impact related to our projects, not only through academic and policy prescriptions, but even on-ground practically, through demonstrations, pilot projects, and other activities. Another unique aspect of the research done here is that a large number of projects are undertaken at the pre-policy level – which is then used by government agencies, development organizations like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), UN Development Programme (UNDP), etc. and other stakeholders to formulate and refine policy measures for promoting sustainable development.
As I’m sure these projects require quite a lot of fieldwork, what is the field experience that interns at the Centre can expect to take away?
We make sure that all our interns get ample experience of going out and working in the field. After a couple of days of familiarising themselves with the project and its requirements, they are immediately out in the field. It is a great exposure for students to have direct access to the field in order to learn how their coursework and theory plays on the ground in real life.
What are the avenues for research for interns at IGCS? What areas can they work on?
We have four major fields of work here – water, energy, solid waste management, and land-use patterns. Most of our projects are centered around one or more of these areas. So, students who intern here, especially those from a humanities background, will have an opportunity to learn about environmental governance and management, econometrics, impact assessment and policy evaluation in these fields. They also get to play an active role in collecting and analyzing large amounts of data from the fields to inform and supplement this work. It is extremely important to gain a practical perspective through this kind of research work in addition to the theoretical knowledge gained from coursework.
We are currently working on the Coastal Resilience Project with the DST and another two-year-long peri-urban project Pericene, which is about the environment and impacts of climate change in Chennai. We have partnered with the University of Manchester for this project, so we have a large number of researchers and students traveling to and from Manchester.
We also have other projects across India, such as in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Orissa, etc. We strongly encourage our interns to be involved with the fieldwork at these sites and work with the researchers on-ground.
What is the biggest takeaway of interning at IGCS?
Firstly, in terms of exposure to the field, an internship at IGCS will give students an invaluable perspective of practical time-bound problems that require large-scale efforts from the community. Secondly, they will get to understand and work with the various interests of different stakeholders involved in the development process. They will learn to analyze problems from different angles –employing cost-benefit evaluations for a project, policy impact assessment, etc. Third, such an internship would be extremely helpful in giving students a base for their higher studies or work by identifying areas of interest, and because of the opportunity to interact with faculty members, entrepreneurs and professionals in these fields.
Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects that the Centre is undertaking?
The Pericene project is a tremendous one in terms of scale and period. There are smaller projects related to Chennai’s cultural water mapping and urban climate change impacts on the cards.
For more information about the winter school and internship programs at IGCS, visit http://www.igcs-chennai.rwth-aachen.de/.
Author – Rasika, HS’22