Once upon a water treatment plant
An urban development specialist, Shinjini has always been taken by cities and their changing nature, but it was when she saw a clariflocculator for the first time that sealed the deal.
“No, I’m not a Type A personality. I’m very polite. I think a lot of it is God’s grace. I don’t think of success and just follow my heart.”
Shinjini Mehta, an urban development specialist for the South Asia Urban Development and Water Division (SAUW), has carved out a career in urban development from the onset. In 2014, she was one of four young professionals chosen out of over 4,000 applicants for the ADB Young Professionals Program, and prior to that she already had about eight years of work experience in the field. Ever since Shinjini was a child, though born to a family of economists in New Delhi, India, she has always loved architecture and cities. When she went to college, it was a natural choice—she studied architecture.
She then worked for public sector infrastructure projects. “At that time, although we were doing a lot of integrated transport and urban design projects, I felt a calling for something more meaningful, to help underprivileged people,” she said.
In late 2009, she decided to get a master’s degree in urban development planning at the University College London, where she earned a distinction on account of her master’s thesis on coproduction of WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) services with the urban poor. And after working on a city-wide water and sanitation planning project for four African cities (Kinshasa, Lagos, Lusaka, and Maputo) for WaterAid UK, Shinjini then moved to Africa. This time, she worked for another British non-profit organization called Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor.
In ADB, Shinjini now manages the Bhutan portfolio for SAUW, aside from supporting various other projects and handling two regional technical assistance projects. Part of the investments in Bhutan is developing a new town area, almost from scratch, and it cannot go unnoticed how this seems already like a full circle for her, the child who was enamored with how cities grew. “I just think I have a feeling in my heart that I want to do this, so I will find a way to do it,” she said, timidly shaking off the notion of being a go-getter.
For her, it is simply how she is built—and urban and water are part of her system. She recalled back in college how they were able to enter a usually no-entry high-security water treatment plant in Wazirabad. It was there that she saw the water treatment process for the first time, with the clariflocculator and sedimentation tank, and was blown away. “I felt somewhere something happened to me that day,” she mused. If her current career path is any indication, well then, indeed a childhood fairytale come true.
“I want to eventually look at urban systems more. If we get the systemic vision right, then everything else could be overlaid on it. But if you don’t get that basic system correct, then it’s just piecemeal. You’re just putting something there hoping it works out. ”
Urban Development Specialist
South Asia Urban Development and Water Division (SAUW)
How did you get into ADB and why did you join?
Shinjini: This is really my dream job. I always wanted to work as an urban professional, but in developing areas. When I was a child my family used to travel a lot. I was fascinated with the architecture and I would just sit there and look at the buildings and old monuments. When I would get home, I would reconstruct the structures in my head and draw it. This expanded when I went to university. I studied architecture and urban design and the growth of cities, how they’ve grown from small old town centers to metropolitan areas. I’d look at the patterns and the overlay or patchwork of systems. So this has always been my interest.
I think eventually I wanted to work for an international organization because I grew up with people from all across the world. I find it very stimulating to be in a work environment where there are people from everywhere, because yes it is difficult, there are cultural differences and sometimes people don’t understand each other, but there’s also a huge opportunity to learn and also respect other people’s cultures.
Tell us about your Mozambique and southern Africa experience. What was the most memorable experience?
Shinjini: I’ll never forget it. It’s very different from other countries. I’m very familiar with the Asian scenario, the European and even the American and Australian scenarios. But in Africa, the city morphology is very different. In Maputo, Mozambique, there is only a very small planned portion in the city. About 70% of the population resides in informal settlements. However, it’s not as dense as South Asian slums. There are a lot more space but the situation is very, very bad. The roads are like dirt roads, the areas are prone to flooding when it rains, and there is little public infrastructure. Every house does not have a water supply connection, and most don’t have toilets.
The worst for me was the absence of toilets in the schools. The schools were not too bad but there were some with no toilets, which especially posed a challenge for the girl students—the dropout rates were very high. Our project was helping the water utility to expand the water distribution infrastructure – including piloting DMAs (district meter areas) and providing individual connections to informal settlements – to build toilets in the schools and in four barrios of the city, as well as a decentralized wastewater treatment system for fecal sludge and supporting a small fecal sludge management enterprise. The best part about the job was I could see the communities on a regular basis and liaise with them. It was truly a consultative process of development, which I found very rewarding.
Some staff have shared that they would like to do development work in their own country. Do you find it doubly fulfilling that you’re working in the region you’re from?
Shinjini: I’ve never thought of it like that. I don’t care so much as I have a natural tendency to be adaptable, so regardless of the context and situation I can understand very easily how to function and how not to function. But now that you do mention it, I do think it is fulfilling. I’m just happy and fortunate that because I work here I am able to help in development regardless of the country. I am so grateful for that because I know that what I’m doing is helping somebody. That’s my real motivation to be here in ADB.
I went to a PCR or project completion report mission once in north Karnataka. That was my first mission, although I had not processed or implemented the loan. We interviewed some of the beneficiaries of individual household toilets funded by the loan, and there was a lady there from an all-female household – a mother with three daughters – whose toilet we went to visit. I was so happy upon seeing their very clean toilet. She said, ‘It has given us real dignity and I’m very grateful for it.’ And there was another lady where we did a microcredit scheme. Through the support of the project’s gender action plan she was able to open a bank account, take out a loan, and start her small shop. This lady said, ‘I have never stepped out of my house apart from the groceries and all. I didn’t know what was outside my four walls.’ She was totally dependent before on her husband and so she said: ‘It has given me real freedom to live my life.’ For us in ADB we may care more about big projects, disbursements, and contracts, but really our biggest impact is that.
How about from your own projects, what project has been special?
Shinjini: I think Bhutan is very special because I’m leading the portfolio. Also, for me what’s really special is how we work with our clients to find solutions. Usually when you go to the table they will say, we want this, this, and this, and you say okay and let’s see what’s possible. Let’s figure it out. Then as this dialogue continues, both parties eventually change their initial outlook and come to a more shared vision of how the project should be based on a combination of local needs, local and global contexts, budget availability, and tailor-made solutions. I’ve built a good working relationship with the government counterparts. They become very good friends of yours. You can just pick up the phone and discuss any issue—that level of working together. I think that’s something we’re very, very lucky to have. When you are working with an international NGO, a consulting company, or private sector, you may not necessarily have that level of access to government and decision makers. That’s what I find most valuable about this job.
As you continue to build your career, what aspect of urban development would you like to be more proficient at?
Shinjini: I think a lot of what we do in the urban sector is water supply but my background is more urban planning. I want to eventually look at urban systems more. If we get the systemic vision right, then everything else could be overlaid on it – water supply, sanitation, transport, and smart systems… But if you don’t get that basic structure and the basic system correct, then it’s just piecemeal. You’re just putting something there hoping it works out. Of course it makes sense in the short term because people get water, for example. My personal view – and I don’t say this very openly – yes there is a lot of emphasis on smart systems, technologies, robots, artificial intelligence, but we do have to take a step back and look at the actual urban system and the resources that urban systems are dependent on and where those resources are coming from in terms of sustainability. It’s involves doing a systems analysis, because everything is linked. Most cities are now sourcing their water from farther and farther away. My city, Delhi, is no different, with a bulk of the water being sourced from nearby states. We run out of water and keep building pipelines to more distant sources. There is a limit to our natural resources and somehow we are not connecting that limit to our urban development, which we need to. That’s my philosophy. And of course all these smart systems and devices can also help achieve that.
What’s one thing that colleagues don’t know about you?
Shinjini: When I was in London I was also studying their urban infrastructure system. The government has this thing called Open Day where they open up such facilities for the public to visit. Do you know Crossness Pumping Station? London was one of the first cities in the world to build a piped sewerage system. It’s antiquated now and I don’t think they use it anymore, but they opened it up during Open Day. It was far from where I lived and it was a cold and stormy day, but I thought I would never be able to see this again so I braved all the bad weather and went. I saw the two pumps and I remember these have names. They were actually working that day. I was so happy I could not tell you. I love seeing these kinds of infrastructure and facilities so whenever I get the chance I go.
That’s one of my hobbies, to see the water source of a city or the water supply and sewerage treatment plants. I’ve seen so many, like in Bali. I went to their water supply source, a lake, and I was super surprised to see how pristine the catchment was—definitely a work of strong policies and equally strong enforcement of regulations. The funny thing was I found a resort by the lake and everybody there was on honeymoon while I was by myself. Some people were staring at me, probably thinking what is she doing here! [laughs]