Student Stories

Deepa Saharia


ILR International Programs


This winter, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Southern India to complete some field research for my ILR Honors Thesis. Receiving the ILR International Programs Travel Grant allowed me to pursue my understanding of international and comparative labor through conversations with women waste workers in the Nilgiris District of Tamil Nadu, India. The grant and this experience have allowed me to develop the lens of my research and follow up on work that I had previously done in Nilgiris through the Nilgiris Field Learning Center. It was so gratifying to be able to follow up on the research that I had started through this Cornell Abroad Program and come back to India with another year of my undergraduate degree to guide my work.

While in India, I stayed with the Keystone Foundation, a non-governmental organization that started 25 years ago to improve the livelihoods of tribal and marginalized people in southern India. The Keystone Foundation started primarily as an ecology-oriented organization and in the past few years, it has expanded to work with Honey Hunting, Capacity Development, Non-Timber Forest Products, Organic Farming, Culture, Water and Sanitation, Community Wellness, and many other topics. Broadly, the organization focuses on eco-development issues. In researching with the water and sanitation team, I was attempting to look at the way that a sanitation works program was affecting a rural area. The Panchayat, or rural local government, that I worked in has been the subject of a lot of research around water shortages and springs, health and sanitation, and waste management. But in my work, I looked at the people doing the work to make the community function—the “Neat Keepers.”

The primary purpose of this travel was to conduct interviews with a range of these women waste workers across the district to understand the functionality of a government employment scheme. My project was attempting to create baseline research for the status of workers employed by the Panchayat in a sanitation initiative led by the Central Government of India. The interviews were building off of the initial research I did last year about Solid Waste Management Systems throughout the district, but this time, the work was localized and specific to a subset of waste workers—temporary women workers.

While I was only in India for a few weeks this time around, I feel like I learned so much about the community that I was working with and about myself as a researcher. I was able to connect with the women who I was interviewing because I visited them in their neighborhoods, drank tea in their homes, and spent time with them as they worked. I am grateful to have had the chance to travel to India, make these connections, and work towards completing my undergraduate Honors Thesis. Because of the ILR travel grant, I was able to continue to try to understand the complexity of the world that I live in, through the lens of work.