Work and Play: Month two in Chennai

Myself and some of the other interns on a day trip to the Dakshina Chitra Cultural center in Chennai
Myself and some of the other interns on a day trip to the Dakshina Chitra Cultural center in Chennai

So phew, I can safely say that since I hit the midpoint things have gotten very busy here at Transparent Chennai. Just as I hit week five, my team (Public Toilets and Sanitation) held a “Process Mapping and Work Plan” meeting. Over the course of two afternoons, we used various participatory activities to help us step back and look at the larger picture which was super helpful for me. Since I have almost no prior experience with this sort of work, the first month I spent here included a lot of quick learning, secondary research, and scrambling to get a hold on all of the work I was doing. A meeting like that right at my midpoint was great timing.

This also resulted in a discussion of how the rest of my internship would play out, and rather than simply assisting in the work on Public School Toilets, I would now be leading it. This means making sure the kinks get worked out of the survey tool (including running pilot surveys) organizing and leading mapping exercises, and preparing and holding some kind of community meeting before my internship ends (among other things.)

I’m feeling pretty on track with my goals for this summer. I am gaining research skills and learning a lot about data analysis, and, while I’m learning about urban planning from sort of an inverted perspective, I think that’s actually incredibly useful. I’m learning a lot about what not to do! As far as cultural immersion and my other personal goals go, I don’t think one can get more immersed than this:

Wearing my new 'salwar kurta' in front of my apartment in Chennai
Wearing my newsalwar kurta in front of my apartment in Chennai

I have been having a fabulous time adjusting to life in Chennai, figuring out what grocery stores to go to, how to have water delivered to my apartment before I run out, and – by far my favorite activity – bargaining with auto (rickshaw) drivers. This is a big deal here for everyone, even the locals, because drivers in Chennai NEVER turn their meters on, are super aggressive, and always try to jack up the price. Learning how to deal with them was pretty essential because taking an auto is my main mode of transport, and initially the whole process terrified me.

It was really difficult for me to push back when the drivers would start telling me how “very far” somewhere was and how I should pay thirty extra rupees and so on. I had no sense of whether a location was far or not! One of my friends (another intern at Transparent Chennai) taught me a few words in tamil to use with the drivers and by the fifth or sixth auto ride, something changed. Suddenly I was enjoying these interactions! If I’m not tired (hungry… in a hurry… etc…) it can be fun, and I’ve become proud of my ability to talk a driver down to a fair price. I’m really enjoying this newfound assertiveness and it’s definitely helping me feel more outgoing, although I think I could still work on being more assertive.

For example, one goal that I didn’t include in my initial projection for the summer was learning how to collaborate with other people. I’ve been doing a lot of this at Transparent Chennai, and sometimes it’s an honest struggle. Being a student can be such a solo operation, and at the end of the day, it usually comes down to making decisions that only impact me.  I’ve realized that this process is very different from most of the work I’m doing at Transparent Chennai. Through self-reflection, I’ve learned that making compromises is often difficult for me, particularly when I feel that I should better advocate for me ideas.  This is something that I hope to continue to work on throughout my internship experience.

A public toilet on the outskirts of Chennai
A public toilet on the outskirts of Chennai

I’m also simultaneously having to learn how to be a leader in a situation where I am very new to the world of work. I’ve been in leadership positions before, but the difference was that I had three years of experience under my belt. I felt confident in my decisions because I had prior evidence that I made them well, and I knew everything there was to know about the place where I was working at the time. At Transparent Chennai, I’m still figuring things out and while it’s more of a collaboration than anything, I still have to make decisions about what I should be doing and what work I should be asking other people to help me with. I feel that this is an ongoing learning process, and probably the most important thing I’m learning through my internship outside of the work itself. 

This is where I go to work every day!
This is where I go to work every day!
The main building at IFMR
The main building at IFMR

In my experience, you’re never really alone in India, and I’ve grown to appreciate that part of my living here.  Whether you are on the bus and someone’s two year old falls asleep on your arm or someone passes you their bus fare to pass to the conductor, there are always people interacting with you. Sometimes this can be really difficult for me, but it’s also something I’ve really come to love and inspires me.

Sophy Burns ’14 

Chennai: One Toilet at a Time

Street market outside of railway station near Corporation of Chennai
Street market outside of a railway station in central Chennai

I arrived in the city of Chennai, India on a steamy evening in June and it has been a whirl of crazy auto rides, dosai, mangoes, toilet mapping, and new colleagues at my internship with Transparent Chennai ever since.

Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is located in the south-eastern state of Tamil Nadu, on the Bay of Bengal. With a population of 4.68 million people, it is the 6th largest city in India, and struggles considerably to meet the needs of its citizens, partly due to the incomplete and inaccurate nature of the data surrounding public infrastructure held by the local government body (the Corporation of Chennai.) Transparent Chennai, a research based organization at the Institute for Financial Management and Research, strives to fill in this gap. Its mission is to collect and redistribute information about civic issues to the citizens and government of Chennai and provide a platform for the people to have greater input in city planning and governance and to advocate for a safer, healthier city.

Public toilet near Marina Beach - Chennai, India
Public toilet near Marina Beach – Chennai, India

The majority of my work in the coming months will be on the cleanliness and availability of public toilets; a key issue for sanitation and health, particularly in a city like Chennai with a large population of informally settle people who do not have private bathrooms. Women are particularly affected by this as they are vulnerable to sexual assault when using the toilet and require more privacy as there is greater shame surrounding the act of relieving themselves, while low quality facilities in schools can contribute to girls dropping out once they hit puberty.

My work will involve organizing mapping of the city streets to gather information on all existing public toilets and assisting the development and implementation of a survey for mapping out toilets in public schools. Digitizing this information, creating maps for the public, analyzing the data and making reports for the government will also take much of my time. In addition to this I will assist in the copy editing the blogs posted on our website, as well as writing two of my own blog posts.

(The first of which can be found here! )

My interest in working at Transparent Chennai stemmed from an Anthropology of Development class I took last fall. We studied how development projects often came about without any consultation of the people whose lives were being “improved” and provided what was not needed (or wanted) if they managed to produce anything at all. This experience inspired me to try to find an organization that recognized and addressed this seemingly common problem in development work.

I started getting in touch with people I knew that were involved in urban development work and it was these conversations that ultimately led me to Transparent Chennai. I got in touch with the director directly, and despite her busy schedule she took the time to email with me and talk over the phone about how Transparent Chennai came to be, the challenges associated with living and working in a developing country and my professional goals.

From the start I felt that Transparent Chennai would be a good fit, and so far that has proven to be the case! As it is a relatively small organization there was a lot of flexibility in the work I wanted to do, and continues to be in my first weeks. Everyone here cares about their job and works really hard, while also being incredibly welcoming and social! I was able to immediately jump right into it, organizing and co-leading a mapping session for 46 student volunteers, editing four blog posts, learning how to use QGIS, and digitizing the data all in my first week!

My goals to improve my data analysis skills, my writing — particularly in a professional context — and to gain experience in the field of urban planning, are already being met, and so far I feel very lucky to have found this internship.

Toilet mapping orientation for student volunteers
Toilet mapping orientation for student volunteers – Marina Beach, Chennai

Sophy Burns ’14