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Government Major Studies Development and Inequality in India
January 10, 2011
Deven Comen (C’12) has traveled across South Asia searching for a balance between East and West. Studying abroad in India this past fall, she witnessed instead a tug of war between the nation’s rapid expansion of urban developments and the potent inequalities of the slums that surround them.

Working as a research assistant in the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, Comen found Indian society and its surging social inequalities intriguing. “My studies of global development sparked my curiosity of India's explosive growth and simultaneous inequity,” Comen explained. “As a Government major, I am intrigued by India's growing democracy and the division of power among local panchayats,” or municipal governments.
Under the guidance of Berkley Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor of Government Kathleen Marshall, Comen applied to participate in the Berkley Center’s Junior Year Abroad Network. The network provides a forum for students studying across the globe to reflect on their experiences abroad. For Comen, new experiences in Pune—India’s eight largest city—surprised her academically and in her daily life. “Besides academic classes like Public Health and Issues in Political Economy and Development, my hands-on internship and rural and urban development field trips widened my perspective on Indian development,” Comen explained. “I interned and conducted field research in an urban Pune slum, specifically examining educational access among families taking micro education loans and families participating in micro health insurance,” she explained. Drawing upon her research and interviews, Comen made recommendations to the overseeing aid organization about ways to improve their poverty alleviation programs.
After working in the slums, one of Comen’s most striking experiences came in the form of a trip to Margapatta City, an innovative housing and work development just meters from Pune’s urban tumult. “The development of the city emphasizes a growing popularity towards Western convenience living and desires for security, leisure, and transportation,” Comen explained. Yet in person, she found the perfection and uniformity of the development unnerving. “There is no way to categorize this westernization as all-negative; many Indians beam with pride at the many measures of domestic growth. But I also wonder about the priorities of developers in a country where more people have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet,” she added.
What Margapatta City lacked, Comen noted, is exactly what she came to find most intriguing about India itself—the colors, noises, diversity, and character. “Daily life in India cannot be generalized,” she explained. “I think the most striking difference was the emphasis on the collective over the individual in every aspect of life.” She marveled that there was little concept of “alone time” in the family and community. “While the strong social ties and communal bonds of Indians enthralled me, I never appreciated my sense of individualism and how much I value personal decision making until I lived in a place less personally autonomous.” In the end, she noted, “India shook my formally predictable habits, bringing frustration and also excitement.”
Her semester in India was not Comen’s first experience in South Asia. She spent the summer prior to her junior year teaching English to middle school children in Phitsanulok, Thailand. Life in the two countries, she found, varied widely. In Thailand, “I had to adapt a degree of Buddhist oneness with all things in the rice paddies, letting go of all the stressors and learning to accept situations as they arose,” she noted. “In India, where the battle of modernity and tradition wages each day, I learned to examine myself inwardly to try and understand where my values came from.”
In the end, “Both countries taught me to observe more, speak less, and appreciate my relationships, opportunities, and conveniences at home,” she explained. “I’ll appreciate the experience beyond my Georgetown years for the way I discovered my values and myself in South Asia.” For students hoping to follow in her footsteps, Comen advised, “an open attitude is mandatory. There are going to be so many moments where one has to just ‘let go’ and let things be.”
--Jessica Beckman
Photos from top: Comen shows a little boy his photo in Dharavi, Mumbai; Villagers in Jawhar, Maharashtra; Comen with her second grade class in Bangkratum, Thailand. 
Photos courtesy of Deven Comen. 
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