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InConversation with Anu Ramaswami

By Pooja Makhijani, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies

Anu Ramaswami, an interdisciplinary environmental engineer who is recognized as a pioneer on the topic of sustainable urban systems, was named Sanjay Swani ’87 Professor of India Studies, professor of civil and environmental engineering, the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, and the Princeton Environmental Institute, and the inaugural director of the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India. She assumed her new duties at Princeton on August 1, 2019.

What excites you most about your new position as the inaugural director of the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India?

I’m excited about the opportunity to work with amazing colleagues at Princeton to create a distinctive center focused on the new concept of global India. Quite different from the study of India, our center will address those interactions between India and the rest of the world that have the potential to profoundly transform the wellbeing of people and the planet and to change our imaginaries of the world. A few quick examples: Indian urbanization, which will bring 400 million people to cities in just 

30 years; technological innovation and leapfrogging; new visions of art and music; and the global impact of India’s diaspora. I am excited to grow a center at Princeton that brings together faculty and students to develop the highest level of research and scholarship on these important themes that are changing the world.

How do your research interests intersect with the mission of the center?

My background is in engineering, environmental science and public policy. My field is sustainable development, particularly sustainable urban systems. I focus on the infrastructure systems that provide water, energy, food, shelter, mobility, waste management and public spaces to more than half the world’s people who live in cities. Urban infrastructure systems affect all aspects of human wellbeing, and Indian urbanization will affect the whole world.

I am also passionate about connecting science to action in cities, and I have had some experience doing this boundary-spanning work in both India and the United States. There are many types of technological, policy and entrepreneurial innovations all over India that are ripe for study, to explore how we could scale them up for broader benefits to society.

Why is it important to explore global India from a multi-disciplinary perspective?

Drawing upon my own work, when you start thinking of the broader dimensions of sustainability, like health, wellbeing, social justice and equity, these cannot be studied from just an engineering perspective. Our engineered systems are inevitably subject to the vagaries of nature, and intricately linked to the people who use and manage them. These are so intertwined; we call them social-ecological-infrastructural systems. Systems that work so closely together, you can't really just look at one of them. That's why urban sustainability needs a much broader interdisciplinary frame that integrates science and engineering with urban planning, politics, public health, the arts and the humanities.

What is your vision for the center?

There’s already so much activity at Princeton related to this concept of global India. I would like to see a lot more formalization of this work, so that global India-related topics are truly embedded in the curriculum and integrated across a wide variety of research projects.

We're also not going to study global India just from Princeton. We hope to engage in and develop culturally sensitive and appreciative partnerships in India, and various international networks, multiplying our efforts by working together. We seek to have actual, measurable positive impact through such partnerships. This means co-producing new science and new datasets, new creations from engineers and artists alike, and becoming a holding place — a repository — for all this fusion between India and the world.

PHOTO: David Kelly Crow