New professor explains complexities of sustainability with ease

9 December 2015

Priya Kurian
FASS Dean Professor Robert Hannah, Professor Priya Kurian and Vice-Chancellor Professor Neil Quigley.

Environmental action, gender, cultural diversity and ideas of deliberative democracy and the governance of science were interwoven with ease at Priya Kurian’s inaugural professorial lecture last night.

The political scientist, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, delivered her lecture to more than 100 people last night and talked about her journey from journalism in India, to graduate studies in the US, to her research in New Zealand.

Sparking interest

As a journalist for the Times of India in Mumbai, Professor Kurian’s interest in sustainability was sparked when she covered a protest against the building of a mega-dam, the Narmada Valley’s Sardar Sarovar Dam, a construction that would have displaced thousands of tribal people from their ancestral lands.

She says it opened her eyes to the impacts government decisions have in the name of development, particularly on the poor.

“Watching democracy at work shaped my vision, and I became hooked on the multi-faceted nature of sustainability,” says Professor Kurian.

Multiculturalism and identity

Professor Kurian went on to postgraduate studies at Purdue University, which was “a leap of faith” and where she would come to see the subtle intricacies of race relations play out in front of her.

“In the US, I was no longer a person like anyone else. I was ‘the other’ – from India and therefore a ‘third worlder;’ and no longer a woman, but a woman of colour.”

She also recounted experiences of living in New Zealand during the mid-90s, where concerns about immigration and the perceived ‘Asian invasion’ were occupying minds. She recalled applying for residency, after taking up a teaching position at the University of Waikato, and being asked by an immigration officer to prove she spoke English.

“My MA and PhD were apparently not enough to prove that I spoke English – because the certificates failed to explicitly state the medium of instruction – English. So I had to get my PhD supervisor from Purdue to write a letter explaining that he did teach in English, and that I did indeed speak it.”

Current research

Most recently, Professor Kurian, alongside Professor Debashish Munshi, has been working on the idea of sustainable citizenship. A focus of their project is to find creative ways for public engagement on issues around controversial new technologies, such as nanotechnologies, and they are now using this concept to address the most pressing issue of our time – climate change.

Earlier this year they were awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Grant to host a Climate Futures Symposium in Bellagio, Italy, with a focus on social justice and creating frameworks that take into account the world’s most vulnerable.