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Quest for security and empowerment

David Lobell in India

David Lobell’s (center) investigation of environmental and technological changes affecting Indian agricultural productivity translates into real-world guidance for farm management decision-making. | Credit: David Lobell

Jul 22 2020

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Research Spotlights, In the News

By Hillary Hoppock
 
The King Center advances a wide range of data-driven research in India by Stanford faculty and students, which provides insights into key issues affecting India’s public and private sectors. Significant contributions to this effort have been made by two Stanford professors.
 
In the quest for food security, Professor of Earth Systems Science David Lobell’s investigation of environmental and technological changes affecting Indian agricultural productivity translates into real-world guidance for farm management decision-making. The research of Assistant Professor of Political Science Soledad Artiz Prillaman, on the other hand, explores the link between Indian women’s social mobilization and civic engagement to affirm the government’s current efforts to improve the lives of millions of the country’s women.  

Studying food security

Lobell credits his graduate school investigation of crop yields, as well as his first-hand experience with food insecurity during his travels, for his focus on agricultural productivity and global food security. His early studies of wheat systems involved looking at the crop’s water needs and management of sowing. “During my first trip to India in 2006,” says Lobell, “I was struck by how many issues like climate change, groundwater decline, soil degradation and late sowing were affecting agriculture. Yet, how little was known about what to do about this.”

Lobell became convinced that satellite data analysis, used in tandem with on-ground observations, could help measure how agricultural systems are changing. “It became clear that satellite technology is well matched with agriculture and does a much better job of helping us understand plant growth and finding ways to improve agricultural systems,” he says.

The practice of using color (or greenness) of reflected sunlight to show plant cover on Earth was pioneered by NASA in 1972. While helpful for mapping, the satellite data had limitations when used for measuring plant growth. But recent advances in satellite imagery data have led to near real-time measurement of a plant’s tiny flow of residual energy after photosynthesis, manifested as fluorescence or “the glow.”

 “I think of it like crumbs falling to the ground as people are eating. It’s a very small trail,” says Lobell. “This glow that plants have seems to be very proportional to how fast they’re growing. So, the more they’re growing, the more photosynthesis they’re doing and the brighter they’re fluorescing.”

According to Lobell, this opens up a whole new set of questions about what the focus for the next generation of crops should be. “For example, we can compare historical data with the continuous satellite data now available to measure changes in plant growth related to surface soil water, aquifer depletion, sow timing, reduction in soil tillage and other elements that influence crop yield,” he says. “Using fluorescence to monitor global food production drives the science forward, improving agriculture and people’s lives.” 

Researching gender gap

Prillaman’s career was influenced by her political scientist grandfather’s work in India in the 1950’s and 1960’s. She traces her resolve to understand the inequities around Indian women’s participation in politics to her study of microfinance in India at Texas A&M University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in political science and economics in 2011. Her Harvard University research study of gender issues in India, as she earned a Ph.D. in government in 2017, strengthened her passion to engage and empower women politically in South Asia.

Prillaman began her Book Project to better understand why women in India are particularly disengaged from politics and to identify the mechanisms through which the prevailing gender gap in political participation can be reduced. “Women’s unequal bargaining power in a household is exacerbated by social norms in many communities where women are expected to defer political authority to men,” she says. “My data suggests women participate in politics at one-fourth to one-third the rate of men under these circumstances.”

 The Book Project details an extensive research project of rural women’s engagement in politics, using a data sample stretching across 375 villages in five districts of Madhya Pradesh. Research findings yielded a range of women’s participation rates of 20 percent to 25 percent in some villages; almost twice or 45 percent participation in villages where women were active in self-help groups; and an uptick to 70 percent of women participating in politics—the same rate as men—in villages where self-help groups had received a pilot gender empowerment intervention.   

“The surprisingly high participation rates are driven by outside interventions intended principally to improve women’s economic livelihoods,” says Prillaman. “I studied how the NGO PRADAN [Professional Assistance for Development Action], with a 25-year presence in the area, specifically the Kesla block, had mobilized women into self-help groups with the aim of financial inclusion and improved livelihoods and had, in turn, contributed to substantial gains to women’s political engagement.”   

According to Prillaman, these effects go further with the incorporation of a gendered civics education program. “Recognizing that social networks build solidarity when women realize they have a shared struggle, the NGOs went into existing groups to talk about gender and politics,” she says. “As a comparison, areas in the Ghoda Dongri block in the same district, with no NGO presence, serve as evidence of the status quo with a much lower political participation rate amongst women.”

 The Indian government rolled out the National Rural Livelihood Mission, establishing self-help groups across the country with, at present, around 69 million rural women participating. Prillaman’s research shows that these groups, designed to create financial inclusion for women, are having a big impact on women’s political participation. “The expansion of these programs is likely to have important consequences for women’s political lives,” she says. 

In locations where the gender gap has decreased a bit, Prillaman found that women’s self-help groups provided structures for women to combat backlash and social pressure, empowering them to make demands from their government. “A civic education is not just providing information about how to vote,” she says. “It’s equally important that it’s happening in the group setting; turning what were economic groups into spaces for political dialogue.”

This article originally appeared in SPAN Magazine, a bimonthly general interest ezine on India and the United States published in English, Hindi, and Urdu by the Embassy of the United States in New Delhi.