NEW DELHI, India — Last summer John Atchley was working for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and writing his application for a Fulbright scholarship to study India's water crisis when a serendipitous discovery of "The Power Broker" caused him to rethink his plans.
Reading Robert A. Caro's book about the legendary urban planner Robert Moses and the building of New York, including its highway system, Atchley saw parallels to modern-day India.
The country, he says, is "in the midst of a huge highway-development scheme that rivals the building of highways in America post-World War II."
Atchley, a 2006 English-literature graduate from Bates College, had long been interested in infrastructure projects and had spent a semester in India in 2004. His revelation sparked a completely new grant proposal — one that focused on the transformation of India's roadways. This year he will study the Golden Quadrilateral, a 3,332-mile highway that connects more than 30 of India's largest cities. The project is almost complete.
A decade ago, an American college graduate interested in India might have researched Indian literature or studied its social systems. But Atchley represents a new kind of Fulbrighter here, a scholar doing research on what Fulbright administrators call "new India" fields.
"American students are able to take many more India-related courses on U.S. campuses now than before, and you can see that translate into the kinds of research Fulbright scholars in India are doing," said Adam Grotsky, executive director of the United States-India Educational Foundation. They are "all different from the traditional Fulbrights built around social sciences and humanities, though there are those too."
For five years now, Fulbright administrators have asked the Fulbright committee in the United States to recruit scholars to India in fields such as agricultural sciences, public administration, environment, energy, law and civic engagement, and governance and democracy.
"The board wants to have a diversity of scholars across disciplines focusing on issues of contemporary importance not just to India but also to the U.S.," said Grotsky.
Research topics are not the only things that have changed. Beginning this year, India is jointly financing the program with the United States, with each country contributing $2.3 million. Many of the recipients are now called Fulbright-Nehru scholars, after India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The infusion of new money has allowed for an 80 percent increase in fellowships over last year.
Atchley's research is focused on the Delhi-Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) leg of the highways project. Relying on archival research and interviews with local stakeholders, policymakers and government officials, Atchley hopes to assess the impact the project is having on the public and to gain insight into the ability of the world's largest democracy to modernize its infrastructure.
"There is a lot of talk out there about competition between India and China, and everyone thinks China has more robust growth because it has an authoritarian government and is able to implement unhindered by democracy," Atchley said. He wants "to show there is an effective way to build large-scale infrastructure that also serves a socioeconomic agenda in a democracy."
Since his arrival here, Atchley has been doing groundwork in New Delhi. But he already feels like he's watching history unfold.
"I have a powerful sense of being connected to a system that is connected to millions of people, the spider web of infrastructure reaching across the continent. It is fantastic," he said. "And a bit eerie."