[Assam] Dr Udoy Sankar Saikia (Melange, The Sentinel,13.05.07)

Buljit Buragohain buluassam at yahoo.co.in
Sun May 13 07:00:37 PDT 2007

    Dr Udoy Sankar Saikia                Atifa Deshamukhya in conversation with the talented academician. 
In a bid to reach out to the community of North-easterners worldwide, to know and understand the conditions facing our people in distant parts of the globe, we at mélange sought out a few distinguished personalities who have made a mark for themselves outside the comfort zone of the motherland.
Presenting here excerpts from a dialogue with Dr Udoy Sankar Saikia, lecturer/ co-Director for the Population Studies programme at Flinders University, South Australia and also co- founder of SASCWA (South Australians Supporting Women and Children in Assam), a community based organization looking into Early Childhood Development. He is also the international consultant for United Nations development Programme at Papua, New Guinea. 
  Q. Tell us something about your early life.
I was born in Jorhat. My father Late Dr. Padma Dhar Saikia was the director of Agro Economic Research Centre, North East India. My mother Mrs. Santi Prova Saikia is a housewife who has dedicated her entire life for her three children which according to her is the definition of happiness. My schooling was in Balya Bhaban, Jorhat and I completed my undergraduate degree from JB College. In 1989, I stepped out of Assam for higher studies and since then I have been on the move.
Q. Any childhood impressions that are still fresh in memory?
In fact the entire childhood is still fresh in my memory. If I compare the current situation of the children in my community to my childhood life, I definitely consider myself lucky to be the last generation of kids who had access to a big open playground, less stress from studies, and less exposure to materialistic world. My regular visits as a child with my parents to my grandma's place in Titabar is still fresh and this particular experience has been inspirational to me in many aspects. Moreover my regular participation in various debating and extempore speech competitions during my school days has left an unforgettable impression in my life. 
Q. How did you fare as a student? What was your favourite subject, and why?
Overall it was quite good though there were ups and downs. Geography used to be my most favourite subject in School though later in my student life I fell in love with Economics. This was probably because of a strong influence of my father who himself was an Agricultural Economist. My love for Economics grew even stronger when I joined the premier educational institutes- Gokhale Institute of Economics, Pune and later London School of Economics (LSE), UK. 
Q. Where did you undertake higher education? What do you feel about the education scenario in India, and how does it compare with that abroad?
As mentioned above, after my graduation from J B College Jorhat, I joined Gokhale Institute and then LSE. I also completed a postgraduate course in Population Studies from International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai. In 1999, I joined Flinders University of South Australia for my PhD and the same university offered me an academic position while I was still doing my PhD. 
I have the unique experience of getting the opportunity to study in educational institutes within and outside the state of Assam and also overseas. Definitely it has given me some insights to compare their standards. The biggest weakness of university education in Assam is probably the continuation of very old course materials and excessive reliance on text books. There is no or very little scope where students can learn how to critically look into the content and analyze the same. This particular aspect is given the utmost importance in university education overseas. This helps the students to prepare themselves in a most efficient way during their transition from student life to working life. As a lecturer I have observed this weakness (lack of skills in critical reflection) among most of the students who arrive from India for higher studies in Australia. There is also a huge difference between educational institutes in India and overseas as far as the amount of
 facilities students as well as academic staff can avail. 
In spite of the fact that students are valued quite high in the society; the education scenario is not that rosy in Australia as far as enrolment is concerned. While recently there has been some dramatic increase in overseas students (especially students from India) coming for higher education in Australia, the local students are increasingly dropping out from the same. Many people blame the strong Australian economy for this trend as it is easy to get jobs even if you do not go for higher education. 
Q. How do you compare the Indian youth to their counterparts abroad?
This is very difficult question to answer as to a large extent human identity is shaped by social and cultural construct and also the scope one gets to know the outside world. While Indian youths are probably more energetic and skilled compared to their counterparts abroad, due to lack of scope and exposure the energy and skills mostly remain hidden, underutilised or unutilised. 
Youths overseas are very much independent. To remain supported by parents after the age 15 is considered a shame. 
Q. Are you fond of any particular activity? Did games and sports interest you as a young man?
I love painting, especially oil painting. Yes, I used to be crazy for various sports- predominantly cricket and volleyball. 
Q. Tell us about your career. 
After completing my higher studies in Gokhale Institute, I came back to Assam and joined the Assam Institute of Research for Schedule Caste and Tribe (formerly known as Tribal Research Institute). During that time I was selected for a scholarship (Indian Friends of LSE scholarship) for my higher studies in London School of Economics. I was quite happy to be selected for the same as every year only three students from India were selected through a round of interviews to study in this prestigious School. After successful completion of my studies there, I came back to India and joined Oxfam (India/Great Britain) as a consultant. I was the key researcher with Oxfam Research Team for a major publication called India Disasters Report - a national level report published by Oxford University Press. This report is the first document widely accessible to the government and civil society to come out with a strong and clear policy on environmental and natural disaster mitigation. 
In 1998, Flinders University of South Australia selected me as a PhD candidate under the International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS) scheme. My doctoral research was carried out in Population and Human Resources program of the School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management. The title of my thesis was: "The paradox of high fertility in a matrilineal tribe in northeast India", which examines the impact of proximate and contextual factors on reproductive behaviour in two tribal communities of north-eastern India. This research work has established that in pre-transitional societies decisions regarding reproduction are not only influenced by individual level factors, but also by a host of contextual factors. The thesis argues that perceptions and behaviours related to reproduction are strongly determined by the prevailing socio-cultural norms, which form the basis of socially-sanctioned realities in the communities studied. This research also highlights
 the strong linkages between women's empowerment and reproductive decision making. 
While still I was a PhD student, the same university offered me an academic position and appointed me as course coordinator for a brand new course called Master of Health and International Development.
Currently I am working as a lecturer/ co-Director for the Population Studies programme at this university. 
Since 2006, I have been assigned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as an international consultant for a project on Human Development Report for an Island called Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. 
Q. Would you share with us some of your achievements?
A research paper submitted by me at the Sixth Berlin Roundtable on Population Policy and Human Rights, organized by Irmgard Coninx Foundation was nominated for an international award and I was invited to present my paper in Berlin in February 2007. 
I have presented various research papers in conferences held in India as well international conferences held in Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, France, and Australia over the last six years. 
In 2001, my research paper titled "Reproductive decisions among Tribal communities in Northeast India" was awarded the most outstanding research paper by the Council of Australian Geographers. 
I have won funding in 2006 for the ongoing research that investigates the fertility decision making by women in Timor Leste which currently has the world's highest fertility, thus adding to the socio-economic burden of women living with HIV.
My research work mainly focuses on population and development issues and developing countries. 
Q. How do you keep yourself upgraded on the latest developments in your field. Tell us something about Population and Environmental Management.
As a lecturer and at the same time as a researcher we need to upgrade our knowledge and skills at a very regular basis. While this is possible through participation in various national and international conferences and developing network with researchers, the University also provides excellent opportunities to develop our skills through different staff development programmes. With the process of globalisation it has also become easy to keep ourselves up to date with the latest development worldwide. 
Moreover, as social scientists we try to build our research capacity by keeping in touch with the community at grass-roots level. For example, throughout my work with UNDP, I visited and lived with the remote communities in the island of Bougainville. This was an excellent opportunity for me to understand the community and conduct my research in a more participatory manner which is probably the key component of any successful social research. 
As a lecturer I am currently teaching topics related to population, environment and sustainable development issues. In the wake of global climate change, the debate on population, environment and economic growth has recently gained tremendous momentum both in developing as well as in developed countries. Although population growth in developing countries is still an issue of major concern, we need to remember that developed countries with a much smaller population are the biggest contributors to global pollution and overall environmental degradation. The highly materialistic consumption pattern of the so called developed countries is mainly responsible for depletion of world's resources. 
Q. Is India doing well in controlling population growth? What loopholes do you see, and how can they be rectified?
Yes, definitely India has progressed quite well in reducing the population growth rate. But it is lagging far behind in reproductive health matters. We need to remember that population issue is not just a question of numbers but it carries a much broader meaning including the gender context. Over the last 100 years, the sex ratio (women per 1000 men) in India has been continuously declining. This clearly indicates the presence of female infanticide especially among the poor families where birth of girl child is considered to be an economic burden. This is a tragedy in our country which has not received adequate attention so far. 
Indian population policy has utterly failed to address the gender context (specially the issue of women's empowerment). Moreover the policy never had any provision for reflecting various cultural and social issues, some minority communities feel threatened when family planning programmes were imposed on them. In such a situation any policy aimed at increasing the welfare of these vulnerable groups should focus on creating an environment where they can feel more secure. Such an environment can be achieved through a decentralised, bottom-up, holistic policy approach with the provision of built-in safeguards to protect the rights of individuals as well as of the community. Fortunately very recently there has been some shift towards this approach in India's population policy.
Q. Are you a family man?
Very much so. My wife Rupali and I share common interests. We worked together for Oxfam in New Delhi for one year before we moved into Australia. Currently Rupali is working for a welfare organisation based in Adelaide. We have two beautiful and adorable children - Aditri (5 year old daughter) and Rian (6 months old son). 
Q. What about the Indian diaspora in the country you have adopted? Do you enjoy an active community life?
Indian community in Australia has drastically increased in last five years. In Adelaide city itself, there is around 10,000 Indian population and majority of them belong to the student community. There are three families (including us) from Assam in Adelaide. 
I do enjoy an active community life not only with friends from India but also with friends from Australia. 
Q. How often do you visit India? How do you celebrate the festivals away from home?
Almost every two years we visit India. There is a Hindu temple in Adelaide and each and every religious function is held in the temple throughout the whole year. The Indian community organises Indian Mela every year with a variety of Indian entertainment and food stalls from different Indian states. 
Q. What is your take on brain drain? What is the contribution of Non-Resident Indians towards the mother country?
Yes, obviously there has been a brain drain to overseas countries. But in the wake of globalisation, the issue of brain drain is becoming least important. We need to remember that the world is getting smaller through technology! 
Regarding the contribution of NRIs', I do not have a straight forward answer. But there is always a strong willingness to contribute. It is important to remember that it is not an easy life for the Indian migrants in overseas countries. They struggle very hard. 
Q. Are you associated with social work? 
Yes, I am. My PhD work itself was in the Khasi community in Meghalaya. With the initiative from me and Rupali, we have started an organisation called SASCWA (South Australians Supporting Women and Children in Assam), a community based project on Early Childhood Development. This project aims to address maternal and child health issues among tribal communities in Assam and Northeast India. We have received unbelievable support from local community here in Adelaide and you would be happy to know that Assam is quite well know among the Australian's in Adelaide. The project has successfully established a Toy Library for the socio-economically disadvantaged children in a village called Dhemai near Guwahati. We have also sent around 40 baby blankets and clothes for the kids in that village.
We are planning to expand our initiatives in other villages in Assam and very recently we organized a very successful fundraising event in Adelaide. We are determined to carry out our future activities. 
I am also actively involved in People's Health Movement (South Australia), which organises regular events to create awareness about global health issues. 
17. What is the popular impression about Indians, there in Adelaide? Did you face any prejudices?
Australia considers Indian migrants as very highly educated and highly skilled. They have very high regard for Indian culture and tradition. Bollywood dance is becoming very popular among the Australian community here in Adelaide. 
In general Australian society is extremely friendly and we had never faced any single incidence of prejudices. But this is my individual experience and it highly depends on one's attitude towards the western culture. 
18. How does the weather here compare to that back home? Do you miss Asom much?
The weather is completely opposite to what we have in Assam. It rains heavily in winter here and the summer is pretty dry. The most beautiful season is obviously the spring which starts in the month of September. During the spring, the city blooms with beautiful roses everywhere. 
Of course I miss Assam! I miss the innocence of Assamese people in villages. 
Q. Has there been any turning point in your life?
Not particularly. But I consider getting selected to London School gave me tremendous confidence in life. 
Q. What inspires you? Tell us about your philosophy of life.
Anything positive inspires me. But if I want to be more specific here, some of Dr. Bhupen Hazaraik's songs inspire me at times. 
To remain positive and determined is the Philosophy I follow. 
Q. What, according to you, are the strengths and weaknesses of the young generation in India? What is your message to them?
The strength of young generation in India is that they have a strong sense of their cultural identity. This helps to keep the social bonds intact- a challenge that many societies are recently facing due to economic globalisation. 
I can not see a common weakness which can be defined for the entire young generation. 
My message will be for them to remain positive.
(Dr Saikia can be contacted at udoy.saikia at flinders.edu.au)

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