A Wake-up Call

By: Logan Huffman

[As part of his graduate studies in Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) degree program, Logan Huffman participated in an International Residency trip to India. Below are some of Logan’s observations and reflections about the experience.]

Descending into Delhi International Airport, our 777 jolts around as the pilot initiates a go-around. The pilot says it’s due to activity at the airport, but many of us suspect it’s due to visibility. Looking out my window it’s as if I’m looking at buildings and cars through muddy water.

We arrive to an air quality index of 728 which has initiated a state of emergency in the city of Delhi. Local schools are canceled the next day and transportation limits are in effect. After going through customs and baggage claim we are quickly thrown into the chaos of tuk-tuks and constant honking in the roads of Delhi.

After about a 20-minute, nail-biting ride we arrive to the Imperial Hotel where marble floors and wood fixtures define the British style architecture. Walking to my room I notice a beautiful picture of Princess Diana with her then young boys, Princes William and Harry sitting in the lobby of this hotel. The hotel is an intimate and tranquil setting in contrast to the intensity of Delhi.

The first morning we all notice the dense clouds of smog in the hotel hallways: a constant reminder of the harsh challenges facing this city. We begin our program with a discussion panel from Water Aid India, a non-governmental organization (NGO) formed to help poverty stricken communities get access to clean water and develop crucial sanitation skills. M.K. Madhavan, the Chief Executive, gives a sobering picture of how bad the situation is:

“With 16 million in Delhi, 10% live in slums and only half of Delhi’s residents have access to sewer networks, while also nationally only 30% of fecal water being treated. We really just can’t get our sh*t together.”

That afternoon we get firsthand experience of the sanitation problem by visiting one of the slums where Water Aid has constructed an enclosure to the community’s water source. This is to prevent contamination through bathing, among other water usage. The organization had also facilitated the construction of a community toilet structure. Dressed in bright patterns of pink and orange, the children run to us to say hello asking to see our phones. The adults welcome our group with the ceremonial bindi, proud to show us their accomplishments in water sanitation.

Prior to Water Aid India’s influence, the situation was dire. Ishita Rampal, a content officer, explains, “There were open water drains filled with sewage and rotting food. Children, animals and even adults would bathe in the open water source contaminating not only their community but also communities down the road since water from this source travels through pipes about three kilometers further.”

The immense amount of poverty in India is overwhelming with roughly 350 million people living in it. Nevertheless, the social spirit there is monumental and is evident through throughout community. Their resilience comes through with these projects. Today, Water Aid India works in 24 districts across 10 states, assisting communities by implementing wash projects, functioning toilets, and sanitation practices.

On the second day, to better understand the social and cultural intricacies of India, we partake in a panel discussion on gender equality and equal rights for the poor, headed by several female community leaders. Walking around the markets and neighborhoods in Dehli, even though for them it’s illegal, there are still remnants of a caste system. It’s easy to see how this group of three women, Nandini Rao, Shivani Chaudhry, and Chicu Lokgariwar, are trail blazers as they describe overcoming cultural norms to fight aggression against women and for social equality of the lower statuses.

All of these understandings culminate on our last day when we visit Shalaam Baalbek Trust, an NGO that assists children living on the street by providing them a safe place to go and receive basic education. Probably one of my most profound experiences abroad, the visit begins with a walk through the city where the tour guide, a 17-year-old boy named Amman, tells us about the problems facing abandoned children in Delhi. He guides us through narrow alleys, busy local markets and, a large trash heap where we see an older, pants-less woman sifting through garbage for food. Our group steps around two men laying on the ground with several syringes sprinkled around them.

Once we arrive in the offices of Shalaam Baalak Trust, Amman tells us his story:

Kidnapped from his family at the age of 6, he escaped his abductors with no knowledge of how to get back home. He found himself on the streets of Delhi and became a drug user by the age of 10. Balaak Salaam gave him shelter, skills to live a healthy life, and a path to education. Today he is indispensable in helping find and offer aid to children like him, using the Trust as a resource to help get them off of the streets and improve their quality of life.

Our time in Delhi comes to an end as we depart from the Old Delhi Railway Station. On my 12-hour overnight train ride from Delhi to Jodhpur I meet Mudit, a 22-year-old graduate student in economics at the University of Jodhpur. We get into an interesting debate over India’s child abductions. He offers a quick reminder of America’s problems referencing the latest shootings in Las Vegas and New York. It’s always interesting getting different perspectives abroad.

Leaving Delhi I ask myself if this is where we’re all heading? Is this every city’s future? Getting nauseous just from breathing the air, not having access to clean drinking water, and having to walk through mounds of trash?

Returning home I become adamant about reducing my carbon footprint by using more public transportation and riding my bike. I also try to use less plastic by purchasing less food for takeout, and I utilize my reusable water bottle more. With one billion people in India, the scope of these issues is unimaginable, but I reflect on this trip, asking how we can all address these challenges to stop them from cropping up in other parts of the world.

_____________________________

Logan Huffman is a 2017 Graduate of the Virginia Tech XMNR program and is currently a Lieutenant with nine years experience in the US Coast Guard. He has served in a range of jobs from search and rescue and law enforcement in San Francisco to assessing over 50 rivers within Alaskan interior processing environmental impact statements. He has been mobilized to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Republic of Korea and acted as a joint agency liaison officer durning the State of the Union Address and the Presidential Inauguration. Logan Huffman holds a MA in Intelligence Studies/Terrorism Studies from the American Military University and a BS in Aviation Technology and Business Management from the Metropolitan State College of Denver. 

References