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When Mr. Joshi, the founder of SAATH, presented us with a tour of the slum museum in Ahmedabad, India during the virtual DukeEngage in India guest speaker series, I was shocked by the situation that certain populations in India had to go through. I was filled with compassion, which further fueled my passion to utilize my DukeEngage experience as means to improve the housing and health crisis in Ahmedabad. As we continued the virtual tour, I was also fascinated by the complexity of the labyrinth created by the series of informal settlements. I could not help but to think of the scenes of “The Maze Runner”, where people with limited resources reside in a maze with a goal to escape the location. My view of the “slums” as a form of a maze helped me to understand the complexity of the issues surrounding informal settlements in India — branching to different sectors of studies such as health, hygiene, and education all the while ultimately seeking to exit from the wealth disparities visually and fundamentally exemplified through informal settlements. However, solving a maze puzzle is not easy. It is a step-by-step process that also requires a bird’s-eye point of view, a holistic approach that will enable problem solvers to map out a solution before diving in. And that is exactly what my mentor, Mr. Agrawal, emphasized from day one: working to develop ways to improve WASH practices is a cumulative process. Taking one step, one research task, one branch of study at a time with the assistance of an experienced mentor, is certainly a way that I can make a real difference in the world as a participant of DukeEngage.

Step one in the process of improving hygienic conditions in Ahmedabad was to acquaint myself with the culture and the cityscapes. In order to gain an understanding of the city of Ahmedabad, I started with demographic research comparing three cities from three different countries — Ahmedabad, Seoul, and Chicago. Though in different parts of the globe, the three cities all share the same underlying difficulty: the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Despite the fact that population density drastically differed among the three cities and each city developed amongst a unique historical backdrop, the increase in the wealth gap in the three cities has been a rising concern, which was highlighted through hygiene in different neighborhoods. 

With over 93 million residents living in informal settlements in India, nearly 80% did not have proper access to sanitation. A research conducted by University College London suggested that Ahmedabad’s hygiene crisis in “slum” residences properly represented the lack of accessibility to clean water. In South Korea, people living in Pan Ja Chon (판자촌), or temporary housing, right next to extravagant skyscraper residences are suffering from job losses and economic difficulties in the face of a pandemic. In West Side Chicago, the disproportionately negative influence that COVID-19 has on the majority African American neighborhoods portrays a societal illness based on systematic racism. The world that we live in can no longer be characterized by parallel lines as wealth disparities bring about a plethora of convoluted issues pertaining to housing, health, and hygiene. With such complexity, it is also useful to take a step back and approach the maze, not from the bottom, but from the top. Although my mentor and I are starting off with a step-by-step learning approach, Mr. Joshi envisions SAATH as an organization that takes a holistic approach to problem-solving.  

A virtual DukeEngage experience is perfect for conducting research with a broader perspective as participants are able to see a bigger picture through research before diving into the problem-solving process. The virtual mode of the program also helps students to approach their project in a holistic manner, significant for solving issues intertwined with accessibility, such as health care, sanitation, and hygiene. Through literature review and direct interaction with a mentor fully immersed in the Indian culture, virtual DukeEngage will efficiently provide a bird’s eye point of view that is not only perfectly fitting with the mission of SAATH, but also necessary to bring a resolution to health issues many migrants of Ahmedabad are facing. 


Daniel Sul is a rising sophomore from Loma Linda, California. He is majoring in biology and minoring in global health on the pre-med track. On campus, Daniel is involved in science journalism, clinical community service, and campus ministries. On his free time, Daniel loves to sing, listen to music, and running.