Finding new meanings through meetings with strangers

Earlier today, I shared my mother’s blog post recalling her assistance to unknown fellow travelers years ago. Knowing her well, I account her actions to a strong sense of duty, a following of the Hippocratic Oath so to speak. Her post has prompted a discussion on whether times have changed and would well-meaning people still help strangers if they find them to be in trouble.

Right on cue comes news about the #Illwalkwithyou campaign in Australia, where citizens are helping Muslims afraid to commute fearing religious backlash and hate crimes following the hostage situation in Sydney. Started by an individual, the campaign snowballed into several citizens tying up over twitter with Muslims to offer them their company while using transit in the city.

Reaching out to strangers in need without fear is an act of bravery, no doubt, but beyond that it is an act of humanity. How many strangers do you, on an average, meet with and interact with? Of these, how many are ‘curated’ and ‘filtered’ through formal and informal processes? I include here surveillance and security mechanisms as well as pre-decided appointments in a business or social milieu that involve some form of deliberate selection. Are there any opportunities, or indeed any desire, to meet people you don’t already know? Moreover, would we be open to meeting strangers across the barriers of class, gender, religion, etc?

As an urban professional, I’m raising two questions that I feel rather concerned about:

1- Are we, as urban citizens, inside a ‘zone of fear’ and averse to initiating contact with strangers?

2- Are urban spaces and systems designed to make meetings between strangers happen?

I find it important to raise these questions, especially in the political climate that we are experiencing in India at this time, where segregation, insecurity and fear are prominent themes. If we are to ‘develop’, I  think these are issues we need to think about and, at least as individuals, deal with.

On a personal level, I try to have meaningful conversations with everyone I meet. Since I’m interested in the urban informal sector and in migration, I make it a point to especially speak to those who offer urban services- auto drivers, fuel pump attendants, vendors, cleaning staff. What I hear from them has a profound impact on how I think and behave; it also informs the way I look at cities and people. And my biggest takeaway is that we are all human. If we lose that sense of humanity, I’m not sure life will have meaning any more.

Recollections of a strange night in a train

ramblinginthecity:

For all our sakes, I hope not much has changed.A riveting account from my mother’s life. As always, inspiring….

Originally posted on sitanaiksblog:

It was in early winter of 1995 , in late November if I remember right. I was returning from a cousin’s wedding in Mumbai, many years before personal travel by air became a possibility. I had taken a Mumbai-Delhi train and then the Lucknow Mail.  It had been a short trip and I was traveling with a small bag containing a few clothes including a couple of silk sarees and a little jewellery. An elderly couple got in and occupies the lower berths (I think it was 2-tier coach) and  I remember noting that they had a lot of luggage with them! Somewhere late into the night, I was woken up by a lot of activity below (I always opted for the upper berth in those days) – and listening to the talk, gathered that the gentleman was not well. On enquiring what the problem was, the wife told me…

View original 1,137 more words

Conflicting thoughts on the Uber rape #safety #women

The Uber rape is the latest in the never ending saga of the lack of safety for women in India. The focus of media discussion on the issue has been on verification processes and law. As a number of twitter discussions highlighted, there isnt enough hue and cry about the rape itself. Alarming and depressing as it may be, the idea of India being unsafe for women is no longer news. We have normalized the lack of safety, the patriarchal nonsense, the injustice of it all, the trauma, the shaming, lock-stock-and-barrel.

This could be a moment of the deepest of despair. However I do see two small, tiny, fragments of light. One, the raped woman was alert and brave enough to click a picture of the number plate and report the incident. The media attention on the issue of gender and sexual violence is, I think, breaking the silence in many ways. More and more women have been emboldened to report sexual crimes in recent times, reflecting bizarrely in the crime stats but also subtly on the confidence levels of other women.

The second is that victim blaming has not been the focus of the reportage and discussion this time round, though there were some who drew attention to the fact that the lady had fallen asleep in the cab (that, of course, is a crime for woman!)

Another take on this by a well-meaning but cynical friend was interesting too. She said her first thought was that the woman had been planted in the Uber cab by a rival cab company! Chew on that, people :)

Conference paper: Vibrant small cities can keep rural youth closer to home

I was in London late August this year to present a paper on small cities in the context of internal migration in India. Read the full paper here.

I chose as a case study for this research project a small, I would say tiny, city called Narendra Nagar located in the Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand. Here, out-migration is a familiar phenomenon. Men have traditionally left hill villages for employment opportunities to metros- Delhi, Mumbai and the like. More recently, young men and women are moving out to industrial and service-sector cities in the plains an hour or two away, to seek education and employment, a better life.

IMG_6150

Its been eight months since my field visits to Narendra Nagar and the faces of the youth I interviewed are still fresh in my mind. I can recall their names, their words, their enthusiasm for life, their innocent narration of life in a small town. To the surprise of many who heard me in that cozy room at the RGS IBG conference, this is what I found:

  • Small cities like NN are at the cusp of two migration flows, (1) from the village into the city and (2) from the small city out to larger cities
  • The perceived migration costs are high for rural youth who commute to Narendra Nagar for work on a daily basis. Under-confident of their ability to secure well paying jobs in larger cities, they are satisfied to work close to home where they can continue to support and be supported by their families.
  • In contrast, youth who already live in Narendra Nagar whose parents are already in secure government or private jobs are more ambitious and see eGramServe as an opportunity to gain experience that will secure them better jobs in a larger city.
  • For women, employment near home allows them to continue to work despite the bindings of a patriarchal society that denies them independence in movement and decision-making.
  • Migration decisions of young people appear rational, albeit complex and a number of interesting patterns including multiple cycles of migration as well as return migration exist
  • The study questions the notion that educated youth in rural and small town India aspire to migrate to the big city fulfill their dreams. Instead, it indicates that it is worthwhile to find ways to support small urban entities like Narendra Nagar in terms of investment and governance to enable rural youth to be meaningfully employed closer to home.

Global #capital and the impending #housing crisis in India’s #smartcities

With the Indian government easing FDI norms in real estate and construction, the country’s large and ambitious real estate sector is hoping that an influx of global capital will up business. For a country that is looking to urbanize rapidly and is opting for a ‘smart cities’ route to do so, global capital is particularly vital at this time.

Mumbai skyline: Global capital is the driving force for cities and city imaginations too

Mumbai skyline: Global capital is the driving force for cities and shapes the way we imagine cities too

Visualization of smart city Dholera in Gujarat, which is on the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor

Visualization of smart city Dholera in Gujarat, which is on the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor

In the imagination of real estate developers (private and public), capital inflow translates into greenfield developments, sprawling out of existing urban centers as well as in the form of utopian visions like smart cities proposed by PM Modi and propagated by the likes of Amitabh Kant. The 100 smart cities mission of the government, being taken up by the Ministry of Urban Development, proposes the retrofitting of existing cities (satellite towns and mid-sized cities). Clearly, developers and politicians have their sights not just on bringing rural land into the fold of urban, but also are looking at redevelopment of inner city land to fit the new idea of the ‘world-class’, networked, efficient and competitive city. In other words, a smart city, that will be attract global capital and be built by it as well.

This same ideal of the smart city also hopes to achieve better standards of living for its citizens. Better informed and networked citizens are envisaged to be more skilled and productive, more robust infrastructure is expected to deliver services and amenities “comparable with any developed European city” (as quoted in the concept note on smart cities on the MoUD’s website).

This is the vision. In reality and on the ground, how will global capital transform our cities? As an urban planner with a specific interest in housing issues, I think this is a critical question.

The experience of cities like London, which faces a debilitating housing crisis, is telling. Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece in the Guardian eloquently describes the bizarreness of the London situation: Here is a city where global investments in real estate have meant that poor and even middle class Londoners cannot buy a home in the city, end up paying substantial rental payouts to absentee landlords who live in Singapore and St. Petersburgh!

In India, both Delhi and Mumbai have historically used slum clearances as a tool for freeing land in the inner city; land that is often used to attract capital, some of it global. With the influx of global capital, one can argue, evictions and mismanaged resettlement schemes will become more common, unless a real effort is made to find a socially sustainable way to accommodate the urban poor in the city. The discussion on ‘right to the city’, while trendy among academicians and rights-based activists, has unfortunately  found little resonance with private developers nor a buy-in from the State.

Evicting the poor to acquire land for development is not uncommon in Indian cities. Gurgaon takes it to a whole new level; first allowing the poor to rent undeveloped land, then torching down the hutments to reclaim it and forcing them to move out after their lives have burnt to ashes. Photo: March 2012, Gurgaon

Evicting the poor to acquire land for development is not uncommon in Indian cities. Gurgaon takes it to a whole new level; first allowing the poor to illegally rent undeveloped land, then torching down their hutments to reclaim the land! Photo: March 2012, Gurgaon

Gentrification, that is the ousting of older (and usually poorer) residents of a neighbourhood with newer (and better off) ones, is likely to be the norm in the era of urbanization driven by global capital. As late Scottish geographer Neil Smith, who taught at the University of New York wrote in the Antipode, “the impulse behind gentrification is now generalized; its incidence is global, and it is densely connected into the circuits of global capital and cultural circulation” (Article titled ‘Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy’ Volume 34, Issue 3, July 2002)

The rapid conversion of inner city areas in Indian cities to posher, more expensive real estate is happening right before our eyes. What’s more, relatively new cities like Gurgaon have been planned and built entirely for the educated elite, leaving no planned spaces for the urban poor and indeed, with the rise of global capital, for the middle class. So, similar to London, many of Gurgaon’s middle income families rent from NRIs who live abroad and will continue to do so for a long time. This is because the houses they want to live in that are in the city centre is unaffordable and the housing they can invest in will be inhabitable (in the sense of being linked to functional needs like services, roads, schools, offices and shops) for a long time to come!

As for the poor, housing is only available in the form of rentals in under-serviced areas of the city like urban villages, illegal colonies and slums. The link between poverty and housing  is water tight; secure housing is a necessary ingredient in addressing poverty. And if cities (which are oft-quoted as the engines of economic growth) no longer have addressing poverty as one of their prime objectives, what exactly is the purpose of urban development? Making the rich richer, an end in itself….?

It takes no rocket science to figure out that the Indian smart cities in the offing will need to do some smart thinking on the issue of creating housing (and infrastructure) for a wider variety of its inhabitants. The pursuit of global capital would need to be tempered with some even-headed thinking on utilizing this capital for long-term benefits, chief among which must be reducing poverty and improving living conditions for all. There are lessons on land markets, spatial integration and participative planning out there that must be taken into account while planning these smart cities.

Could we – should we – stop migrants coming to Britain?

ramblinginthecity:

Immigrants take and create jobs. A basic tenet of economics that is ignored far too often!

Originally posted on AC:

37ce4b64-8aac-44ca-9fd7-bfad444f9ea4-460x276Britain is convulsed with anxiety about immigration, with claims of too many EU citizens coming here, the benefits system being abused and wages being forced down. An expert on immigration looks at the evidence.

(By Jonathan Portes/Observer)

1) Didn’t the European Union just start off as a Common Market? When did free movement of workers start?

Long before the UK joined in 1973, the Treaty of Rome (1958) established what was then the European Economic Community, with four basic principles, called the “four freedoms”.

These were: free movement of labour, capital, goods and services. The objective was to establish a liberal market economy, where people could trade with each other across borders; free movement of labour was seen as part of that.

And the expected benefits were very much those that economists in general think you get from removing such barriers, allowing goods, services, capital and people to move freely…

View original 1,225 more words

Property and the political elite

ramblinginthecity:

A lot of this resonates with the connection of Indian politics with land and housing!

Originally posted on Jules Birch:

It’s now received wisdom, and a key part of UKIP’s appeal, that we are ruled by politicians who are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. How much of this is down to house prices?

Perceived divisions between politicians and voters are nothing new of course. Nor are accusations of champagne (or Islington/Hampstead) socialism and a huge gap between Labour leaders and their core vote. However, if these are US-style ‘culture wars’ over the politics of identity and national flags, they are being fought in the language of house prices, as shown only too clearly in this week’s Mail on Sunday story about the ‘Thornberry set’ and the North London ‘liberal elite’.

The issue was highlighted by last week’s tweet by Labour MP Emily Thornberry about a flag-festooned house in Rochester & Strood and then brought home by media coverage of its Sun-sponsored owner knocking on the…

View original 1,460 more words

Addicted to writing and missing it!

It’s been over two months since I started working full time. My job is great. Intellectually stimulating and the right mix of freedom and discipline. What I miss most about working full time, though, is my blogging routine.

My blog has, over time, become a really important part of me. As I go about my day, I park certain thoughts as they flow. Invariably, these disparate ‘parked’ musings coalesce around a hook to create a post. Sometimes I don’t really know how it happens. It’s magical and it’s therapeutic.

Now, with work deadlines and a commute of over two hours everyday, I find the thoughts aren’t being parked anymore and writing a post is becoming an effort again. I’ll have to find a way to get the blogging back into my life. And I’m sure I will!

Panaji wakes up

ramblinginthecity:

Panaji, close to my heart. Love this post that describes the city waking up….

Originally posted on sitanaiksblog:

This morning I decided to give the beach a skip and walk along Campal into Panaji. And what a pleasure it was, since the pavements have been done up since my last visit.

IMG_3039.JPG
And this stretch goes past the lovely bungalows of Campal and the sports complex ( which had a fair no of walkers and joggers). Here I saw a board announcing a ‘Senior citizens park’ – so I wandered in that way, past the very pretty Fabindia outlet to a large parking lot of the Sports complex and a small stretch along the riverside with seats – a quiet and pretty spot. Along this stretch is also the local Bal Bhavan, in which I could see a lovely children’s park.

IMG_3045.JPG

IMG_3040.JPG
Panaji is the IFFI venue and the 13th edition is to be inaugurated tomorrow. All preparations are on and further along Campal was the stretch with Kala Academy…

View original 232 more words

Why the world’s largest democracy has the most modern-day slaves

ramblinginthecity:

Makes me sad, but some would say this is the ‘price of development’. I do not buy that logic!

Originally posted on Quartz:

India has the highest number of enslaved people in the world.

More than 14 million out of India’s population of over 1.2 billion people are living in modern slavery, according to the second edition of the Global Slavery Index. Produced by an Australian human rights body, Walk Free Foundation, the survey defines modern slaves as those without individual liberty, by being subjugated to forced labor, trafficking and sexual exploitation.

An estimated 35.8 million people worldwide, or 0.5% of the world’s population, live as modern-day slaves.

In terms of the highest number of slaves as a percentage of a nation’s population, India is ranked fifth, with 1.14% of the country’s population trapped as slaves. The worst affected are people belonging to lower castes or tribes, religious minorities and migrant workers.

Of 167 countries surveyed, the worst 10 countries are home to 71% of the world’s slaves.

Population-enslaved_chartbuilder

Government response

The Global Slavery Index gives…

View original 248 more words