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Chillibreeze Interview with Dr. Binti Singh
Dr. Binti Singh is an independent social science researcher and writer currently based in Japan. A former employee of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, her work experience includes academic research and writing, project management and teaching. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and an M.Phil. in Planning and Development from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, Mumbai, India. With several academic publications and conference presentations (national and international) to her credit, she wishes to write more and explore different genres of writing.
1. You have acquired specialized degrees - Ph.D and M. Phil in Sociology. Why sociology in particular?
Since high school I had developed a penchant for writing and decided that my career would have something to do with writing. Therefore I took up Humanities in Class XI despite being good at science subjects. That decision was right and I topped the ISC exams in the Humanities stream in school in 1996.
I was interested in contemporary socio-political issues. Sociology was a natural choice because pursuing that discipline would allow me to have various employment options: development/social sector, government service, teaching, research and media.
In 1996 I ranked first in the admission test to enter the prestigious Presidency College, Kolkata in the discipline of Sociology. After that there was no looking back. I loved the subject and topped Bachelors of Arts exam in the discipline of Sociology. By then I had decided to pursue advanced studies in Sociology.
I have primarily researched in the mega city context of Mumbai where I lived and studied. Mumbai always grabs attention of the media, policy makers and academia because it is the centre of finance and commerce as everyone knows. Mumbai is also the place of glaring inequalities. Mumbai in the post 2000’s is far more complex than what it was in earlier decades witnessing a theatre of politics and struggles. The struggles of everyday life enmeshes with systems of governance, reforms, policies and programs currently underway in the city. And all of these are interlinked in significant ways. For instance we all know that Mumbai is prone to floods. The dismal status of solid waste management is often held responsible for this. Municipal authority in Mumbai has initiated programs like involving communities in the cleanliness of their environment.
Research brings out the struggles of different communities living in different habitats. For instance well-to-do citizens can segregate waste and remove centralized dustbins from their neighborhood. But slum dwellers that live there require the centralized bins because they have no space to store garbage in their homes and if they throw it outside each others' houses, it leads to fights. Thus removal of centralized bins actually leads to more problems than it solves. Therefore practices are starkly different from policies. Policies and practices are also interlinked in the ways in which they are played out on the ground. There is hardly any system of garbage collection in rehabilitated tenements under the slum rehabilitation program. So merely building "free houses" for the poor will not meet the housing needs of the poor. Without attendant infrastructure support like garbage disposal, and high maintenance costs the erstwhile slum dweller is forced to sell off the rehabilitated tenement and live somewhere further away, again in a slum. So there is a perpetuation of the problem.
3. Tell us something about your research related writing and publications. How do you go about it? Any tips that you would like to share?
That is an area that takes most of my time and energy. Academic writing and publishing undergo a series of reviews and take months, sometimes years, to complete. But it is worth the effort to see your work see the light of day. The only tips that I can share with my very limited knowledge and experience is that patience, consistency, and keeping oneself abreast with recent developments in one's discipline are what really matter if one wishes to pursue a career in academics.
NGOs and NPOs have come a long way, thanks to the democratic space available for these organizations in India. Many of the legislations like the Right to Food Security, Right to Education we see today are the result of the work of these organizations for years. The anti-corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare in 2011 proved to the world how potent civil society forces can be.
The challenges confronting civil society are essentially inner contestations and fragmentations which again are the quintessential features of any civil society especially in the context of India. Uniformity in vision and agenda can greatly minimize narrow interests. Unlike Egypt and Libya, civil society forces in India are powerful enough to question the formal structures of power but not overthrow them. I think therein lies the "civility" of India’s civil society.
5. You are currently in Japan. What are the typical social issues there? Do you think the social work you did in Mumbai can be replicated to your present location - Japan? According to you, what are the similarities and differences between these locations?
The issues that currently concern Japan are cleaner energy choices after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima last year. Disaster preparedness is always high on Japan's priority concerns despite being the best disaster prepared nation in the world. Japan is an aging society with a falling birth rate, a major concern for the government and society alike.
At the human, societal and cultural level there are similarities in terms of having to provide and take care of the elderly and an emphasis on the family, group identity, and collectivity. Women in particular have to deal with lot of pressure especially when they are working, similar in both contexts. Since a large chunk of family responsibility is shouldered by women in Japan, many prefer not to marry and have children. The declining birth rate is an outcome of this trend.
The differences are many. The first that come to my mind are safety and security, public transport, waste management, disaster management, basic services, open spaces, greenery, water and air quality
6. How does the concept of volunteerism/social entrepreneurship work in Japan. Any notes that you would like to share with our readers? Any best practices, which Indian NGOs can learn and exercise on similar lines?
Volunteerism in Japan has taken a new meaning after the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation in March 2011. People from all sections of society taketime off their busy schedules to do something for the victims and their families. Japan has already reached an advanced stage of development. Indian NGOs work under very different circumstances and with very different issues so I cannot recommend the best practices in Japan to be followed in India. Having said that, I would like to add that besides the use of advanced technology, Japan has creatively innovated in every other sphere of life. These range from the creative usage of very small spaces, recycling, to responses in times of natural disasters. These are the learnings that anyone can take back home.
7. What are your plans for the future?
To continue with my research and writing work, expand my domains and genres.
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