Vandita Khanna and Safa Fainian at the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development. Photo by John Cairns

  Vandita Khanna (left) and Safa Fainian (right) at the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development. Photo by John Cairns

Effecting sustainable change in India and beyond

The Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development has been supporting scholars since 2013.

The Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development (OICSD) at Somerville College provides funding for talented Indian graduate students who would not otherwise be able to take up their places at the University.

Three inaugural Oxford Indira Gandhi Scholarships were awarded in 2013, when the centre was established through the University of Oxford and Somerville College’s partnership with the Government of India. This academic year, 2019–20, the OICSD welcomes 19 scholars, enabling them to access the networks and skills they need in order to return to India as effective leaders: a dozen scholar graduates have already returned and are doing great work, of which the centre is extremely proud.

These scholarships support outstanding students working on sustainable development issues such as climate change, clean energy, sustainable cities, healthcare, food and water security, environmental sustainability, and law and governance. They exist thanks to philanthropic support from donors in the UK and India. Some are one-time scholarships while others are endowed in perpetuity, meaning that they will support generations of scholars to come.

OICSD is growing close to achieving its aim of offering 20 scholarships in total. Sara Kalim, Fellow and Director of Development at Somerville College, says: ‘We are grateful to all our individual generous donors and also to partners such as the Tata Trusts, the Supreme Court of India and the Indian High Commission, who have been instrumental in enabling our core mission.’

Indira Gandhi Scholar Safa Fainian. Photo by John Cairns
  Indira Gandhi Scholar Safa Fainian. Photo by John Cairns

Establishing water security in India

Indira Gandhi Scholar Safa Fanaian is studying for a DPhil in Geography and the Environment. Her research is in the field of water management. Safa explains her reasons for specialising in water issues: ‘In India, you see this constant lack of water. In one village that I visited during an internship, I found such difficult conditions and people working so hard to conserve water that it became very personal. After my graduate studies, I started working in watershed and participatory irrigation management: to reduce the exploitation of groundwater – one of the most exploited and accessible sources in India.’

Safa is very mindful of the value of the scholarship, both in terms of her current research and, later, when she returns to work in India. ‘There’s so much research happening in Oxford,’ she says. ‘This space – the Oxford India Centre – is trying to connect that research to the issues in India, but not in a way that becomes paternalistic. It’s a partnership that allows the equal fostering and sharing of information on both sides.

‘When I am doing my research in India, there is a lot of bureaucracy. The Oxford India Centre has provided me with a lot of avenues to talk to different people. It becomes easier to connect and get information.’

Safa admits that she was ‘in awe of the whole place’ when she first arrived in Oxford, saying: ‘You go to formal dinners and you realise that you are talking to leaders in their field and they are doing some of the most cutting-edge work. So you think: Oh wow! I am sitting and having a conversation with them. Those are the moments where you have to pinch yourself.’

Indira Gandhi Scholar Vandita Khanna. Photo by John Cairns
  Indira Gandhi Scholar Vandita Khanna. Photo by John Cairns

The cross-cutting themes of law, governance and policy

Vandita Khanna, also an Indira Gandhi Scholar, recently completed a BCL in Law at the centre. Her interests lie in criminal justice, human rights and equality law.

Like Safa, Vandita recognises that the centre offers a special experience for those working towards sustainable development goals: ‘I came to Oxford with the aim to use it as a platform to think about ways to impact society. In that sense the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development really pushes you because the work that other people do around you is informed by and affects lived experiences.

‘There is no single route to sustainable development and that’s where law, governance and policy become cross-cutting themes with other areas, such as environment or health. Engaging with my peers at the centre on ways to approach similar issues with an interdisciplinary lens has truly been an inspiring and humbling experience.’

Vandita thinks that the scholarship enabled her to pursue the BCL with a greater degree of freedom. The fact that the scholarship includes a living stipend lifts an additional financial burden. She says: ‘It allows you to think about and expose yourself to other things.’

On completing the BCL in July, Vandita proceeded to a legal traineeship at the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. What are the key learnings from her time at the centre? ‘One of my greatest takeaways from this course and from Oxford,’ she says, ‘is to understand that there is no one way to either develop sustainably or protect human rights – it all comes down to having constructive conversations across countries and disciplines. The centre certainly provides space for such conversations.’

Thanks to donor generosity, other scholarships at the OICSD include:

  • Oxford Mary de Zouche Graduate Scholarship
  • Oxford Indira Gandhi-Radhakrishnan Scholarship
  • Ratanshaw Bomanji Zaiwalla Scholarship
  • Cornelia Sorabji Scholarship
  • HSA Advocates Law Scholarship
  • Prem Suki Foundation Scholarship
  • Gopal Subramanium Scholarship


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