Global Study Series, India, Part 1: Preserving East Kolkata Wetlands

BY ALEC MASELLA – AUGUST 13, 2019

As a student in the Online Master of Natural Resources program at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability, Kasey Fioramonti has had a chance to witness the enormous environmental challenges affecting one of the most populous countries in the world—India. Kasey’s International Field Experience (IFE) to India in February 2019 offered her a rare opportunity to see how to recognize a community’s sustainability issues early on and address them at the grassroots level; how individuals and families are affected by pollution; and how difficult combating these issues through policy can be. Her IFE project—a story map—portrays the trip as an invaluable cultural experience, where she met the people who are the impetus behind India’s sustainability movement.

“My experience abroad was led by Dr. Bruce Hull,” Kasey says. “Before the trip, he asked us to compile a list of questions for the people who live there. It was going to be a very personal experience, where each student gets what they want from it. The experience was going to involve us learning about the environment, the people, and those people’s grassroots efforts to make their communities cleaner and more sustainable.”

As one of the major engines of global economics, India is one of the biggest suppliers of consumer goods; but its rivers are now literally choked with plastic packaging. Kasey explains, “Seeing these communities made me realize that plastics have surfaced so much in the past decade. When we were kids, we didn’t use plastic as much but now it is absolutely everywhere. When I came back to the States, I started making changes to my own plastic usage. In India, It was in their water sources. A woman in the wetlands told me that none of the Styrofoam and plastics from Kolkata are breaking down, and that she and her neighbors would have to break it down manually just so the water could flow.”

The wetlands surrounding Kolkata are vital to India as a source of waste water treatment and food production; the problem is that not everyone in India knows about the damage being done to the deltas. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge, paired with political corruption, has made enacting change difficult. To tackle this problem, these community-led efforts are created to grow upwards. The members are changing the way citizens think about the environment.

Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability faculty and graduate students talking with farmers in East Kolkata wetlands.

“For many of the policies in India, it’s about where the money goes,” Kasey says. “Many locals are frustrated that they aren’t able to reach the people in charge. But the reality is that the issues we see in India today are issues that will become global very soon. In the States we have the resources to deal with most of these issues, but it won’t be like that forever. But fortunately, these small Indian communities are providing us a model for how to deal with these problems when they get bad.”

Seeing these issues firsthand pushed Kasey to express her experiences in a visual way. Her online story map details the individuals she met throughout the region, along with the stories and concerns they shared with her. Through these accounts, Kasey became even more passionate about instilling ideas of sustainable living into others through her professional life as a 4-H agent.

Wetlands community leader Dhruba Dasgupta documenting illegal development.

“The passion they have shared with me is unrelenting,” Kasey explains. “I met a woman, Dhruba Dasgupta, a community leader and a champion of the wetlands. She is scared but is still fighting, trying to get people to listen to her. I asked her how she fights every day, and she told me, ‘I look at the wetlands like it is my child, and no matter how bad the situation gets a mother will never abandon her child.’ And that stuck with me. Now I want to work on this end to make sure things only get better.”

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Images courtesy of Kasey Fioramonti.