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Guest Column: Reflecting on my dissertation field work in India

By Vijayeta Singh, Candidate, PhD in Law and Public Policy

Coal mining pit. Photo Credit: Vijayeta Singh

My much-awaited five-month dissertation field work trip to India began in October of 2017. My goal was to conduct 300 household surveys and more than 30 personal interviews with the Project Affected Families impacted by two captive coal mining and power projects in the district of Hazaribagh in the state of Jharkhand, India.

The task at hand was not only huge in its scale, but it was also very daunting given the remote access of the study villages and security concerns due to the presence of extremist groups. However, I was determined to accomplish my research goals and was not willing to go back without collecting the data I needed.

To my great fortune, I found an NGO (nongovernmental organization), Jan Jagran Kendra, that was well established and very active in developmental work in the region. I described to them my research goals and they readily agreed to support me in all possible ways.

Village discussion meeting. Photo Credit: Vijayeta Singh

First, they helped me find a decent accommodation, and I started visiting the villages and setting up the groundwork for surveys. I held several group meetings in collaboration with the village heads called Panchayat Mukhiyas.

The Mukhiyas were initially hesitant and found it difficult to believe in my true intentions. They had all the reasons to do so since they had had multiple negative experiences working with outsiders including project officials. They were doubtful their voices would find true representation, and it took me some time to build trust with them. But after several follow-up meetings that involved sharing my identification and consent forms, they began to trust me.

In the entire process of trust building, being transparent about my research goals and ‘what’s in it for me’, I think, were critically in winning the confidence of the village leaders and respondents. They understood the academic nature of my intervention. I was fascinated that they were curious about who will publish my dissertation and they wanted to see a copy of it when it was ready.

Road to field site. Photo Credit: Vijayeta Singh

Meanwhile, I interviewed six candidates for research assistant positions, and I ended up with two research assistants to support me through conducting surveys in three study villages. What turned out to be the biggest challenge in carrying out the survey was something that I had not anticipated: transportation for the research assistants.

Normally, motorbikes are the most reliable means of transportation in remote areas in India and most development professionals rely on this modest but efficient means of transportation. The two research assistants were not willing to go on motorbikes because the road to the study villages was extremely bumpy and dusty. Therefore, I had to arrange for a robust four-wheeler that could survive the terrible road conditions. I had not budgeted this kind of transportation expense and knew I would be forced to dip into my savings.

I had secured a grant via the American Institute of Indian Studies to conduct my dissertation work in India. However, the fellowship was modest, and I did not have room for luxuries like a four-wheeler and three-star hotels.

A person affected by the project shows her farm. Photo Credit: Vijayeta Singh

Conducting personal interviews was not as difficult as the more pointed surveys. People in general were open to talking about their lives and the ways in which the project had impacted them. Interestingly, they often asked me to help them get all sorts of jobs in the mining activities being carried out by the project and its contractors. As much as I wanted to help them, I had to reiterate my intentions and limitations. However, some still insisted.

I have carried out very daunting field projects in India in some of the most remote and tough terrains that include the rugged Himalayas in Spiti valley and Tsunami torn islands of Nicobar. But my dissertation field work in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand will stand out on all grounds.

Published On: July 24, 2018 |
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