Reflections on Winter School by Mauricio Leon

Note: A group of students and researcher toured cities in India and China in January as part of the National Science Foundation Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant.  Learn more about the Winter School 2016. The students share their observations on this blog.

Blog post by Mauricio Leon, University of Minnesota, written 1/31/2016


At the Delhi airport, I was thinking that I could be the only person from Costa Rica to fly to India that day. I think I am not going to forget that first day. I was so excited to see what the world was like outside!

I am going to start this reflection by saying that the PIRE Winter School was one of the most exciting experiences that I have ever had. I had never been to India or China before, thus for me everything was new and different and I think I learned a lot, both academically and as a human being.  I have tried to make a reflection on the different parts of the PIRE Winter School and some aspects that resonated with me regarding infrastructure and sustainability, similarities and contrasts between the two countries, cultural shocks and interactions with our peers.

Wastewater Treatment Plants

My personal academic objective for the trip was to observe the infrastructure of India and China, to see how the two compare and contrast, and to learn about specific solutions and/or research potential in these two countries.

I was interested in observing Wastewater Treatment Plants, because these provide a service that is directly related to the enhancement of environmental quality and health. The construction of these plants require intensive amounts of material such as cement and steel, and if we could quantify how much of these materials are used, we could answer interesting questions about the environmental impact of these facilities. It is also interesting because the magnitude of these waste water treatment facilities in these two countries is much bigger than what I have seen in the past.  How does a city with such population size and density treat water?

The noise of the water was not allowing us to hear each other, the plant was enormous and all I could think was that only the city of Delhi has several times the population of my home country Costa Rica, or all the state of Minnesota together. The design of that particular plant was done by a French company. It takes raw water from the Yamana and Ganga Rivers.


The city of Delhi is definitely “overstimulating”, as one of our colleagues described it. My first impression was of surprise by the constant honking of vehicles, the density of people, the driving skills of people, and the presence of a relatively new metro which crosses the city in multiple directions. Delhi is, as professor Ramaswami likes to say, “a thousand blooming flowers”: the contrast between wealth and poverty, chaos and organization, tradition and westernization, collectivism and self-interest, for me it was new and exciting to see.  The persistence of individuals trying to sell their merchandises or a rickshaw rides in order to make a couple rupees and supply their basic needs. mauricio-5

One knows that in the end, when you live in a city of more than 20 million people, every day is a constant battle for survival.

We visited the Lotus Temple, a place for religiosity and meditation. I really liked that in many aspects the Indian culture is very open to different belief systems. However, one the other hand they also tend to be very conservative, when you have more 20 million people in a single city, everything is possible. India is a quite diverse country and Delhi in particular is a melting pot of people coming from all parts of the country.


When we first arrived to Delhi, my main observations about infrastructure were the following:

  • The air pollution problem is real. I have read about this topic a lot and I know researchers who work on this topic, but to actually experience it, gives perspective on how detrimental this could be for one’s health Sometimes I wanted to go outdoors for a breath, just to remember that the air quality outside was not much better that the one inside. The feeling of helplessness made me feel grateful to live in a place with fresh air, and sad about the millions of people in Delhi who this is just part of their everyday life. It was fascinating to see the implementation of the even/odd policy on vehicles, and how only that was already reducing the levels of PM pollution on the air.


  • The metro system is already making a huge difference. The metro is relatively recent, however judging by the quantities of people who use this service; it feels like it has been there for decades. They have a special section of the train that is exclusive for women, and I think this is a great action to improve the mobility of women and not only make men’s lives easier. At every time there are people flowing in and out of the trains, everyone very focused on their routine one can only wonder what is the story behind any of those citizens of Delhi.
  • The question about centralized vs decentralized services is a really good one. Even though we might be inclined to believe that having centralized wastewater treatment is more cost effective, the reality might be different. We visited a plant that treated around 18% of the raw water for Delhi’s consumption, and regardless of their claims of quality, people seem to be distrustful of this water supply, which is evidenced by their use of remedial infrastructure.

Township in Delhi. These fenced communities are often self-sufficient with many services included inside the township, small hospitals, schools and shopping malls.

We were also able to visit some township in Delhi. These gated communities provide an example of decentralized treatment. Even though there is an equity issue with who has access to these systems, only the richer class, it cannot be denied that by these townships, by having their own treatment plant take pressure out of the system.

Rajkot and Ahmedabad

After a lovely train ride to Ahmedabad, we finally got to Rajkot, and I am so glad that we were able to see that particular city, which looks much more spacious when compared to Delhi. It made me think about the concept of “Livability”. I could see myself living in a place like that, with their BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), their bike mauricio-9share program and their better planning and infrastructure.  It reminded me that policy, when it is implemented at the right time can have substantial impacts on the well-being of people.

An important lesson is that long term planning it is always better, but it is harder to sell in the short term and when democracy pushes policy makers to go for fashionable solutions, instead of long term changes.. Ahmedabad was also really impressing; it was amazing to see how they are little by little making changes that really change the feelings of suffocation on the city. We visited the house of Mahatma Gandhi, which really helped to do my own reflection about the culture that I was contemplating.



Visiting Agra was like a dream come true. I never imagined that I was going to be inside of that beautiful edification that I had seen so many times on TV and pictures, one of the seven wonders of the UNESCO, the great Taj Mahal!


But Agra is more than just the Taj Mahal. The people of Agra have paid a high price for the treasure that they have inherited.  Air pollution is a complex issue and it is often tied to behaviors that are embedded in the culture, such as cremation of the death.  When people are asked to change their behaviors, their reactions are of frustration, like: “it is always about Taj Mahal… what about the people?” But the research that the PIRE has been pursuing is ultimately intended to benefit the people, if the air is so bad that is capable to stain the walls of the Taj Mahal, what could it be doing to our organisms?

Delhi (Workshop)

The workshop on Delhi made me feel different things. On the one hand, I was eager to hear specific solutions to concrete issues. On the other hand, it was obvious that any solution that could be proposed was not as applicable when the different policy landscapes of the three countries represented were considered.

The talks were in their majority really interesting and motivational, but it was hard for me to see how could there be lessons extracted between nations. The problems that China is facing right now are so different from the ones that India is facing.

Some of our Chinese peers expressed how looking at parts of India today reminded them of China thirty years ago. I was a little skeptical of this linear evolution that was implied in this comparison, my question was: Would India requires a sort of revolution as it happened in China? Then, I could not help thinking about the numbers. China has been really successful in lifting people out of poverty, so is the strict model of development bad or a necessary evil? Arguments can be made in both directions: one where the India’s “laissez faire” model is preferred as it does a better job in respecting the diversity of the people, and other one were the Chinese development is preferred, for the simple fact that is more effective in to creating wealth.


My first impression of China was that it was really different from India, just judging from the outside, everything looked more organized and modern, transit was not as chaotic anymore, but there was still pollution in the air that was irritating my throat and eyes. I noticed that different from India, speaking English was no longer a great advantage.

China was a new world for me, I had seen many movies and pictures of China and all of the sudden I realized how this were not accurate portraits of the place I was visiting. I was really expecting a little more of chaos, particularly after visiting Delhi, but China was so modernized. Shanghai looked quite and cold, compared to the colorful India which we just visited. That first day we went to eat outside and I was very impressed by the amount of business in the area, restaurant and stores in almost every corner, but even with so much people around, it does not feel crowded.

When we went to visit the Pu Dong District, my expectations were surpassed. I could not believe how tall some of those building were and how vibrant was that particular part of Shanghai. Director Wu introduced us to the Pu Dong District days before going there, but I can just say that one needs to see it to believe it.

At Tongji University, we were able to hear different presentation by Chinese professors. This was very illuminating, because we normally do not get perspective like this in our Minnesota classroom.  One thing that resonated with me was the idea of how to combine the agenda for development with sustainability, this is a challenge for China, they do not want to stop their growth, since this have been so effective in taking people out from poverty and improving their live standards. One of the presentations was about stocks and flows, a very innovative framework to understand material use in developing countries.

I also really enjoyed the visit to the museum of urban planning. This gave us perspective on how the city of Shanghai has changed in the last century. We also visited a solid waste treatment facility, where they take advantage of the garbage and turn into energy, bioplastics, or fertilized, having almost none residuals.


We visited a Buddhist temple outside of the city

Future of my research

I think that this visit to India and China was great for me to understand better how infrastructure and particularly wastewater treatment works in India and China. Now that I have seen it, the challenge would be to find the proper data to make a life cycle analysis that could help to answer questions regarding bulk material use in China.

mauricio-16 I really want to visit these two countries again and keep learning from their struggles and virtues. I feel really fortunate to have been part of this workshop and I know that from this experience, there are many solutions that are waiting to be researched. I really appreciate the hard work of Dr. Ramaswami, Dr. Chao, Dr. Chertow, Katja, Ajay, Rahul and all the people that put such a great effort in making this a success.

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