01 Sep

Anirudh Krishna

Posted In

HOW DO YOU DEFINE A SLUM? Is it row upon row of concrete slab homes, built with the government’s permission? Is it an amalgamation of torn blue tarps, wood and tin, sheltering hundreds? Is it both? Public Policy Professor Anirudh Krishna and Hart Fellow Grady Lenkin (’14) want to find out. For two years they’ve been developing a research methodology to answer these questions in Bangalore, India. Krishna and Grady’s partnership, though, transcends just the technicalities of categorizing slums. Krishna has been an important mentor to Grady in the Hart Fellows Program, run by Sanford’s Hart Leadership Program (HLP). During the 10-month fellowship, fellows develop their leadership capacity through regular coaching and critical reflection of their work. Krishna is no stranger to HLP– he’s also mentored students for Service Opportunities in Leadership (SOL), a leadership and research service-learning track for undergraduates.

As they began planning Grady’s work in Bangalore, Krishna put Grady in charge of decisions on the ground. It was partly practical– Krishna says “I can’t be calling the shots from [Durham] through remote control. My natural inclination is to do that, both because I’m more experienced because I’m older and I’m the professor. But there’s a part of me that knows this won’t work.” But it also hints at Krishna’s teaching style, an approach he’s taken frequently with Grady. Krishna lets his students run with their ideas, shouldering them with responsibility and trusting them to make decisions, even if they are wrong. This approach, along with Krishna’s conscientious mentoring, has made Grady a full-fledged leader of the project. “The intellectual leadership of this project is shared. It wasn’t like that a year ago, but it’s very clear now,” says Krishna.

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For years Krishna has been studying how some households fall into poverty and how some escape it. This is a complicated question because poverty is not a one-size-fits-all problem. It is socially constructed within communities– families considered poor in an Indian village may not be poor in a Kenyan one. Most poverty alleviation strategies are at the country-level, because that data is plentiful. Less is known about poverty in communities and at the household level.

Krishna is changing that. He helped develop a methodology to understand poverty at the household level, called the Stages of Progress. Through thousands of interviews in Kenya, Uganda, Peru, India and the United States with diverse samples of community members, researchers drilled into what it meant for a household to be poor. They also investigated different stages of poverty in a community.

Tellingly, these poverty stages differed between villages in India and in Kenya, and even among different tribal villages in Kenya. Narratives from these interviews revealed that poor healthcare was a leading cause of falling into poverty, and informed Krishna’s book, One Illness Away.


Categorizing slums is a new take at studying poverty, because less is known about urban poverty. In Bangalore, government agencies use two categories to define slums: those recognized by the government, and everything else (officially called “unrecognized”), which include all other low-income settlements. The latter fails to capture the nuances in the “slum spectrum,” which ranges from a blue tarp shantytown, with no clean water, to an orderly row of concrete homes, with roads and modern amenities. These nuances are necessary to craft targeted policy solutions­– the needs of a shoddily constructed settlement will vary widely from those of an established slum neighborhood.  The current definition glosses over these distinctions.

As a result, officials do not know how many slums exist in Bangalore, or how their boundaries and demographic composition changed over time. Crucial longitudinal questions remain unanswered: Have some slums expanded, while others disappeared? Who is moving into these slums? How do people living in the “best-off” slums differ from those in the “worst-off” slums? Without this knowledge, it is hard to assess which policies proved helpful or harmful to residents.

To fill in these gaps, Krishna has been conducting demographic surveys in Bangalore slums since 2010. To track changes in unrecognized slums over time, Krishna had an inkling of an idea to use satellite images. But he didn’t know how to do so until Grady showed up in Bangalore in 2012.

Starting a Partnership

Grady applied to Sanford’s Internships in India Program, which Krishna founded, as a sophomore. Throughout the summer, while also working at a Bangalore NGO, Grady and another student refined the satellite image approach, eventually using Google Earth to show it was possible. Grady continued the work, taking an independent study with Krishna after he returned to campus.

By the time Grady was a senior, Krishna wanted to expand the project. Political Science Professor Eric Wibbels joined the team, along with MS Sriram, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. Krishna applied for funding from Bass Connections, a Duke fund encouraging interdisciplinary research, and included funds for an on-the-ground researcher to lead the effort from Bangalore.

In early October 2013, Krishna floated a question to Grady, who at this point in his senior year was anxiously trying to figure out post-graduation plans.

“So then I popped the question- ‘How about going to Bangalore for a year after you graduate?’” recalls Krishna.

“And then I didn’t really hear a word he said after because I was just so shocked. It took me about two days to recover” says Grady. Grady wanted in, but Krishna took the time to address the reservations of Grady and his family before Grady fully committed. Funding soon followed, and Grady received the Hart Fellowship to incorporate a formal leadership component into his work.

For his fellowship, which began in June 2014, Grady is continuing to use satellite images to identify slums and create criteria to categorize them. Field visits to slums, along with survey data, help to validate these criteria. They’ve already made significant headway–a 2014 paper by Krishna and his colleagues detailed four different categories of Bangalore slum settlements. Satellite imagery helped reveal distinctions between categories; very low-income and low-income settlements, for instance, differ in terms of shelter size and space between houses. Visiting these sites confirmed these results.

Exercising Leadership

he level of autonomy Krishna has granted Grady in the project is very intentional, reflective of how Grady has matured from a participant to a leader.

“It’s not like I’ve taken my eye off the ball, no, anything but,” says Krishna. “I have certain expectations about where I want to see this going…But it’s been easy to do because Grady has come through by being self-motivated. He’s been spotting new things, and every time he spots a new thing, I say just dive deeply into that and see what you find.”

Krishna realizes his students won’t always make the right decisions. Grady says Krishna “kept giving me gift after gift after gift” after missteps, allowing him to grow as a decision-maker.

This became clear when the team solicited summer intern applications to work with Grady. They received over 50, and Grady winnowed them down, shortlisting students for Krishna to review. While they interviewed applicants collectively, Krishna made clear that Grady should pick the final batch. After selecting four interns, Grady planned their accommodations and work assignments.

Krishna says by the time he arrived in Bangalore, two weeks after the interns, “[Grady’s] got them all bedded down, like a den mother, and he’s taking good care of everyone.”


Grady describes it a bit differently. “Nothing went according to plan. It’s one thing to be active and have responsibility in terms of strategic planning and then it’s another thing to be on the ground and have responsibility over the day to day logistics.” When Grady took responsibility for shortcomings from the summer, Krishna told him to instead think about how to improve the internship for next year.

“That was a real show of faith in me,” says Grady.

At first, Grady struggled with leading more experienced teammates, but Krishna told him his title meant nothing–he’d have to prove his worth as a leader. Now, after months of leading the project, “he knows the most of anyone, and everybody recognizes that,” said Krishna.

Grady also grappled with his role as a white researcher studying slums and working within a team of Indians. Krishna told Grady to be mindful of these distinctions but to continue producing impactful work.

While Grady credits Krishna’s nudges with helping him coming into his own, Krishna speaks equally graciously about what he’s learned from Grady.

“He’s a very good communicator. I’m never going to say that in his presence for fear that he gets a big head, but I mean, let’s give credit where it’s due,” says Krishna dryly.

Grady’s responsibilities have grown in complexity as he began the meat of his research. He finalized contracts with the Indian Space Research Organization for satellite imagery and leads a field research team, which visits slums to refine the criteria for categorizing them. Grady also brought on a Duke MFA documentary photographer, Jenny Stratton, to weave survey data, interview results and satellite images into compelling portraits of slum life.

One such portrait captures Srinivasa Colony, an unrecognized migrant settlement in North Bangalore, mostly filled with day laborers. Its scrappily-built shelters are nestled between high rises, and residents describe being worried about the health and safety of their children, who are commonly ill. This granularity of detail brings pixelated satellite images to life.

Grady now only has a few more months in his fellowship. With the project poised to continue after Grady leaves, Krishna envisions a role for a full-time researcher to test the methodology in other Indian cities. Another researcher at Duke will help crunch the data, and help contextualize it.

“It’s not just a set of numbers,” says Krishna. “It’s peoples’ lives.”

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