Mushtaq Ahmed, Younus

Public scholarship demands a collaborative effort to ensure that while our work goes beyond the confines of academia, it is hinged on producing accountability to the community. This way, the needs of our community partners and their issues are given primacy in our collective research projects.

Research Description

My doctoral research is guided by two key questions: How does systemic inequality in India’s sanitation interventions further marginalize the urban poor? Relatedly, how do the urban poor mobilize to achieve safe and equitable sanitation in their locales? I propose to examine these questions through an ethnographic study of India’s state-led sanitation program in Chennai. From 2014 to 2019, the Indian government constructed over 110 million toilets throughout the country to eliminate open defecation. Yet, open defecation is a lived reality for millions in India. This public health campaign, known as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Clean India campaign, is the largest sanitation intervention program of its kind globally. The focus of this intervention has been solely on the construction of new toilets and the treatment of excreta. To date, the scholarship on sanitation in India has pointed out that socio-cultural determinants such as caste, class, and gender among others, dictate the acceptance of defecating within the toilets. However, caste, a ubiquitous aspect of socio-economic life in India, finds little place in mainstream development thinking and is excluded from the policy framework on sanitation. Hence, my doctoral research problematizes this technical intervention to a social problem and explores it through the lens of caste, infrastructure, and narratives of development.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

I view a public scholar as being synonymous with a public anthropologist. Both aim to translate disciplinary knowledge, riddled with jargon, and apply it to address issues of public concern. As such, this requires conducting research and producing knowledge in forms that is more readable, reachable, and accessible to the general audience and at the same time to stakeholders – such as public policy practitioners and development institutions – that inform policy decisions. Additionally, I believe public scholarship demands a collaborative effort to ensure that while our work goes beyond the confines of academia, it is hinged on producing accountability to the community. This way, the needs of our community partners and their issues are given primacy in our collective research projects.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

PSI encourages collaborative and action-oriented projects with community partners. As such, this encourages emerging scholars like me to use our training within academia to build partnerships with organizations outside of academia. The demonstration of our skill and academic expertise to our community partners in the collaborative project enables networking opportunities for careers beyond academia. Additionally, the support PSI offers from its network of professionals and scholars, in the form of professional development workshops, enhances our Ph.D. experience in two meaningful ways. One, it provides us with multiple opportunities for interdisciplinary learning; and two, it trains us to be successful public scholars.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

My Ph.D. work enables my professional goal of utilizing anthropological knowledge to address social problems in my community. The support from PSI encourages me to find space in both academia and producing public-facing scholarship. To this end, I am committed to dedicating a chapter of my dissertation to elaborate on the challenges that marginalized group face when seeking equitable sanitation. In it, I will emphasize the outcome of the collaborative project, and outline policy prescriptions that will enable my desire to pursue policy endeavours as an applied medical anthropologist. In all, my goal is to draw the attention of policymakers and the global audience to alternative sanitation intervention strategies that account for social determinants of toilet access/usage. More importantly, I hope my work will make a real difference in the lives of people who reside in Chennai’s slums and navigate through sanitary challenges daily. Through my fieldwork in the slums and later after graduation, I anticipate utilizing my research skills to provide ethnographic insights into the lived reality of sanitation interventions in the slums and play an intermediary role in connecting activists with policymakers to achieve equitable sanitation.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

Despite the Indian government's claim of an open defecation-free (ODF) India, numerous pan-Indian surveys indicate that open defecation is a lived reality for millions in India. As such my research focus is on Chennai’s informal settlements, and I’ll be collaborating with a local NGO – that advocates for the rights of deprived urban communities – to document the sanitary infrastructure in the city’s slums. The resulting data from the survey will be used to write a policy brief outlining the condition of the sanitary infrastructure and highlighting the community’s aspirations for equitable toilet access. The policy brief will be a means to amplify the voices of the marginalized groups at the local level that is often absent in sanitation policy. Additionally, we will also be translating our research into a couple of jointly published op-eds in highly visible and publicly accessible Indian media outlets to ensure our findings reach stakeholders both in the realm of public policy and the general public.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

I believe, my doctoral research is applied in nature, and through it, I could help people achieve their dignity and rights – especially in Chennai, India, where I will be conducting my fieldwork. My proposed collaborative project will be beneficial to all the stakeholders (the NGO, marginalized residents, state government and local municipal corporation), but particularly the residents of marginalized settlements in Chennai. By documenting the voices of the deprived groups, in the form of policy reports and opinion pieces, I hope that our research will enhance the capacity of the community to engage in democratic citizenship, i.e., using research findings for advocacy. Therefore, I aim to produce ethnographically grounded texts that are more readable, reachable and relevant to the local public.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I joined the Ph.D. program to equip myself with the required research skills to carry out ethnographic work and advocate for marginalized communities. I have prior background working with marginalized communities in the slums of Chennai and my current Ph.D. project builds on these experiences. In my doctoral research and academic endeavours, I’m keen to articulate systems of inequality in accessing safe sanitation for a large part of the population often living in slum localities.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

My primary reason for choosing UBC's Anthropology graduate studies program was my adviser, Vinay Kamat, whose research expertise and background in my research topic were phenomenal. He also responded positively to my initial inquiry and provided feedback on my application. Others in the department also patiently responded to my unintelligent queries. The department of Anthropology at UBC is among the oldest Anthropology departments in Canada, with top scholars in their respective fields. Before proceeding with my research, I wanted to have a strong theoretical and methodological background in anthropology. UBC gave me the opportunity to learn from experienced faculty and interact with amazing peers, not just within the department but also from other programs.