Excited about elections: Anecdotes from middle class voters across India- Feb 29, 2012

Election fever is all around. And this time round, I’m seeing the voters I know getting excited about things, for the first time in my living memory. I’m talking middle class, salaried people, not known for their love of the poll booth and most of who are happy to indulge in armchair discussions without any real political affiliations.

Perhaps we should thank Anna and his team for this gift to the nation- some sort of awakening of the middle class voter towards his responsibilities as opposed to his usual emphasis on rights (voter turnout has been increasing steadily for local and assembly elections throughout India and many voters claim to vote for development and not traditional reasons like caste). Or perhaps its my eyes that have opened, late in life.

A few weeks ago, at a wedding in Lucknow, much of the discussion among the local guests was about the impending voting in the city, which was to be the following Sunday. Rahul Gandhi’s every gesture was analyzed and Akhilesh Yadav seemed to have impressed quite  a few with moves that reminded old timers of the Mulayam of their youth! Strangely, it was unclear what the election issues were from these conversations, the focus was entirely on the personalities!

Last night, a chat conversation with my cousin Pooja who lives in Goa spoke of the absolute excitement about the elections in our constituency of St Cruz, a bit outside Panjim. The villagers are being wooed by promises of better infrastructure and connectivity and of course, the possibility of real estate development is a huge lure for politicians in wards surrounding Goa’s large cities, where several residential projects are mushrooming in a rather haphazard manner.

An infamously corrupt and flamboyant local politician Babush Monsterrat from nearby Talegaon, she told me, was contesting from St Cruz this time round. Of course, his wife was contesting from their home seat, which got us into a discussion about women often being dummy candidates.

Last week, I was having dinner with friends, one of whom is from Pune. The recently concluded elections for the 152 seats of the Pune Municipal Corporations, this friend informed me, resulted in 51% of the seats occupied by women  corporators, who number 78 as opposed to 74 men. This means that beyond the reserved seats, several women have won general seats as well. The number of woman applicants this year was 1,260 as against 2,080 men. The NCP and Congress gave tickets to 76 women, out of which 24 NCP and 14 Congress woman leaders secured a place in the House. Again, many of these could be dummy candidates put up by male politicians (husbands, fathers) who are seeing a decline in their political fortunes, or have criminal charges against them, or are embroiled in some controversy. Even so, locals feel there are many noteworthy, serious women politicians in power, which is a heartening thought.

It is unclear what these changes mean for our cities and citizens. Unfortunately, better voter turnout in a democracy does not result in better politicians, better governance or better accountability. More needs to be done to make politicians accountable to the people, and a lot needs to be done to mobilize communities to debate issues, list priorities and place adequate pressure on governments and bureaucracies to perform; but getting the middle class slightly more excited about elections is a good start, don’t you think?

Mixed feelings of delight and disgust @ World Book Fair, Delhi- Feb 28, 2012

So I finally made it to the book fair today, with mum. It was heartening to see the sprawling, enormous fair spread over many halls bustling with families, kids in tow. With nani and mumma wanting to buy kiddie books, we headed straight for Hall No 14, where the children’s book were supposed to be.

However, instead of seeing colorful story books and delightful fantasy, we were confronted with rows and rows of stalls displaying:

1- Bizarre, technical books and charts that would help your child practice cursive writing, read the alphabet better, learn the tables better, learn names of fruits, vegetables, animals and so on and so forth

Grammar, phonics, quiz, cursive writing- What, is your child not the best yet? Buy, buy!

2- Knowledge enhancing category of books ranging from plain boring to creative, curriculum related to the extra knowledge and trivia variety, many many books on science math and general knowledge particularly

3- E-learning software- We saw a screen with a voice that drones “billi, c-a-t cat, this is a cat”, with the picture of a, well, cat! We saw a stall where smart execs counseled (read gave them the spiel!!) parents about the merits of giving their children more exposure via their online programs, CD-ROMs etc. The parents looked completely zonked as if they were getting life’s gyaan and the kiddos were knee-high in most cases!

Parents begging to be conned, in my opinion

The sight of the above terrified me today. What are we wanting to turn our children into? What is this crazed competitive society we have created where kids barely out of diapers are expected to fill scores of cursive writing booklets and fill color into outlines of various objects and toon characters till eternity; then move on to solving puzzles, go through personality development modules, memorize general knowledge and trivia by rote, do math using a confusing array of techniques…and much, much more? Why are parents so paranoid? It’s not that these books and technologies aren’t necessary, but the sheer volume of labels, brands creating these had me stumped and the quality was mostly questionable, at first glance, with some exceptions of course.

I spoke with a sales manager with one e-learning stall who was giving me the ‘kids need exposure’ story. Kids already have so much exposure, I told him. What is wrong with growing up with less aids and more creativity using simple things like blocks, books, free art? Isn’t it all, ultimately, to sell your stuff? He gave up and grinned and waved me away! I was, in his head, the crazed, irresponsible parent, bent on leaving my kids in the dark ages!

Another thing that disturbed me was the emphasis on math and sciences and precious little focus on the social sciences, life skills, all round development for kids (the personality development modules did not inspire confidence; again, they looked like a con job to me!). After seeming to have come a long way, we middle class urban Indians are still stuck in the ‘sciencies are best, artsies are the losers’ trap..very sad indeed.

Lastly, the children’s fiction I saw confirmed my fears that we live in a firmly gender-divided world, from about age ten onwards. Except for classics like Ruskin Bond and Kipling, the new books were (mostly) geeky and techy and macho for the guys and flowery pink ‘n purple for the girls. Utterly disgusting, to say the least!

Genders firmly divided-flowers, butterflies and angels vs monsters, superheroes and giants- disgusting!

The stalls from Katha, Pratham, National Book Trust and some others were a saving grace and we managed to haul up a bunch of delightful books for both Udai and Aadyaa. The Indian publications are real value for money; the foreign ones often not worth the crazy prices!

As for us, we feasted on the Rupa and Penguin stalls and came home loaded with a satisfying haul of books for the entire family :)

Mum browsing

Fun elements like this orange Ambi and cheerful, helpful staff made Penguin's stall the most appealing to me

The travel bug: Why city dwellers have ants in their pants and other observations- Feb 27, 2012

When it hits me, this travel bug, it can drive me nuts! Several conversations with a diverse set of people recently have revealed to me (thank God!) that I am not alone in being struck by the travel mania. Which I define, for the purposes of this post, as the act of dreaming and fantasizing about travel while being hopelessly stuck in mundane city life.

Why is it that we city people have such an undying desire to go somewhere? One thing for sure is that we are subjected to too much exposure via TV, magazines, books and advertising about the ‘elsewhere’- juicy travelogues, tantalizing images, designed to set your heart aflutter! And then there is the social networking competition bit. Don’t deny it, we’re all in this rat race! If a friend on FB did the Chadar trek up in freezing Ladakh, you’d want to as well, never mind the fact that you never did a trek to the Delhi Ridge! And those cute kiddie pics in the snow, on the beach and the posing couple in Bangkok-and you think ‘sigh! Why isn’t that me?’!

Or is it that our lives are really that mundane and travel represents an escape from routines, from being who we are to being who we can be, from being bound to being free, from getting through the day to enjoying every minute?

The liberation of travel, though, is mostly a myth. Very few people I know are configured to truly traveling in a free, happy state of mind. Most of us (over)plan, fret and worry about what to pack, what to feed our kids when on the road, about missing flights and the quality of the hotel, the MSG and pathogens in the street food and whether the cabbie is overcharging you.

Methinks traveling, the actual physical process of going from home to ‘someplace’ and back, is usually exhausting, stressful and at times over-rated? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we shouldn’t travel. Just that it’s possible to find more value in vacations that are simple and only loosely planned rather than expensive, elaborate and packed to the brim; and find the experience of the ‘someplace’ inside your city as much as away from it!

Or like me, you can get your travel high out of the dreaming and fantasizing and fitting in the occasional trip once in a while. I don’t waste too much time researching and planning the fantasy trips or I usually end up with something close to a heartbreak experience and that isn’t nice at all at this age (as opposed to going through it every few months at 16)!

Businesses that target the poor need to look beyond sales figures: Learning from the MFI debacle- Feb 26, 2012

An independent probe has suggested that certain cases of suicides among poor borrowers in Andhra Pradesh in 2010 were, in fact, caused by harassment by employees of microfinance institutions that lent money to them (read related news). The microfinance industry in India has seen a rapid rise and a steep downfall as well, when malpractices that surfaced in Andhra Pradesh caused the government to pull the carpet from under its feet by passing regulations that have sort of paralyzed the industry.

Their experience serves as a grim reminder for all industries, enterprises and organizations that serve the poorest of the poor that this is a segment distinct from others in many ways; a tougher market to sell to, the toughest to serve. Many enter this market assuming that any value addition to the poor will be appreciated and therefore, their product/service will be successful and scalable. Many of these hunky dory business plans fail miserably. For many reasons.

The vulnerability of low-income households is in itself a double edged sword. While introducing a new product or technology (like innovations in seeds, farming technology, irrigation, new income generating skill training or equipment) could enhance lives; but its failure or incorrect application might push families further into poverty. The margins are so thin, that any investment that does not give returns hurls the family into a deeper spiral of deprivation, depression and hopelessness. Compounded with other issues like lack of awareness and education, over-indebtedness, social and economic marginalization by other classes in the community, low skill levels, large family sizes and no method of redress in case of injustice, the poor have a raw deal indeed. When they invest in a new product or service, they do so believing it will change their fortunes. When it doesn’t, they are driven to desperate measures, ranging from migration, prostitution, pawning valuables and assets and even suicide!

It is, therefore, doubly imperative for all organizations serving the poor to have a holistic view of how their new offering will impact their lives. Who will consume it (the new product or service), who within the family will be impacted and how, what will they give up in order to consume it, will it impact their quality of life or income generation negatively, will it cause the poor to be further marginalized or disadvantaged, etc, etc? What will be the impact on communities of poor, in the immediate, medium and long term?

For the argument that consumers always have choice and therefore the responsibility to choose widely rests with the consumer simply does not work for the poor. New products and services, therefore, must be introduced along with a comprehensive awareness generation drive among the target communities. Moreover, periodic evaluations are needed to ensure there are no negative impacts. Training of employees and more stringent processes would need to be put in place as well. All of this means higher upfront costs and M&E costs for those operating in this segment.

In the affordable housing segment as well, many loose ends need to be tied before scalable, workable models emerge. There seems to be a wide gap between what the poor perceive as their needs and what the market is offering them. Haphazard, self-built housing is, therefore, on the rise (mHS is hoping to target this self-construction market). Because housing is a particularly complex issue that involves higher costs and is deeply connected to quality of life and emotional stability, organizations in the low income housing space need to be extremely analytical about their interventions and have strong links with the communities where they work to be able to develop appropriate solutions and have a long-term positive impact on the poor.

 

 

The iPhone addiction- Feb 25, 2012

Much as I hate to admit it, life has changed since february 14th. Since the iPhone came into my life. I had been dithering about buying a new phone for months but when the matter was taken out of my hands and I ‘found’ a brand new iPhone 4S under the quilt (thanks to Rahul’s enduring love for creating surprises!) my first reaction was self doubt. The first few days I was floundering to do simple things, even type on the touchscreen. Having used a blackberry the past couple of years, I missed push mail and bbm.
But slowly and surely, the apple interface has won me over. I now live my life via my phone. The major value add is the ease of surfing the net and of reading on the phone screen. Because this is now effortless, I access all the information I want to on the phone. The second pleasure has been the benefits of the touchscreen in using social networking sites. The third is a great camera. I now read, process info, write some of my blogs, and share my info via my phone. It’s not like my BB didn’t do these. It did. But a personal device is not about capability; it’s about how intuitive it is and whether it is able to draw you into its fold, take on the role of being an extension of you.
With my limited experience, I see my new phone growing on me. No inanimate object has ever done this to me before, not even the iPad! I also see this as a new way of living and experiencing the environment in which I live. It’s me and my phone working as a team now, recording things we see (people, built environment, nature through pics), hear (I use voice recordings to capture what my teachers demonstrate in music class or the way a tukda is to be spoken in kathak, in meetings to record important discussions), think (write notes, blog, emails), and share (connect via Facebook, twitter, chat apps, etc).
All this is helping me do many activities in real time rather than struggling to bring my thoughts to bear at the time of the day I finally get to sit at my computer! I know I seem wide eyed in wonder about this seemingly ordinary experience in these tech-driven times. But what the heck, I’m going to record this state of wide-eyedness in real time too. Happy belated birthday and a big thank you, Mr jobs!

Action, performance and deep friendships at Udai’s sports day Feb 24, 2012

Today was all about watching the extreme sense of confidence in our children and the tremendous skills, flexibility and balance their bodies have achieved in the past year. Every time I have the occasion to observe my son Udai with his school friends, I am struck by how deep and genuine their friendships run. On sports day, it’s particularly gratifying to see how well they work as a team, how encouraging they are when their friends struggle with a challenge, how whole-hearted their enjoyment of the activities. The spirit of fun rubbed off on us parents as well as we tried out some of the activities, with some help from the kiddos! Reflecting the bonding between the kids is a genuine sense of friendship and camaraderie that parents enjoy as well. See for yourself…

A Shikshantar sports day is about displaying skills and having fun

Check out the poise! These are grade 3 kids; Udai is in grade 2

Deep run the friendships- Srijaa and Nitya watch their friends do front rolls

Candid conversations- Samsara and Khushi

Sharing secrets? Yugantar and Udai

Mums catching up

Watching the fun

Hoopla, gymnastics and finally, the obstacle course- Udai navigates it....

Mommies and daddies doing the obstacle course :)

Totally involved- cheering, clicking....

Two kites overhead flew in formation, inspired by the music and fun!

Beautiful flowers in the school!

 

A bond with art is a bond with life; Energized by Raag Bilawal today- Feb 23, 2012

If your mind is receptive, there is so much around us that can inspire us to love life. This morning, I woke up with an urgency to experience the world around me and inside me. This may sound very abstract, but most mornings I have a to-do list inside my head and the day is driven by activities dictated by it while my heart yearns for gratification on an entirely different plane. Does this happen to you? Several days like that strung together make me feel stressed and wondering what’s wrong; and fill me with a yearning to break out of a life that isn’t pulling together or making the sense I want it to.

So I decided to seize the opportunity this morning and resisted urge to be distracted by the newspaper and sundry household chores. Instead, I plugged in my electronic tanpura and sat down for my riyaaz, essential for my music but not something that I have formed a habit for despite many years of learning music off and on. Twenty minutes of practicing only the sargam- first the lower octave notes below the sa, then the middle octave notes between the lower and upper sa, and then the higher octave- had me feeling warmed up, but also seriously worrying about how much voice training I need to really be able to hit the notes right. Then I opened the music book my guruji had given me back in Lucknow and zeroed in on Raag Bilawal.

A raag using all the pure (shuddh) notes, Bilawal is sung in the morning time and evokes the emotion of love/longing (shringar ras). The words of the composition I sang ask little Krishna to wake up and come out to play, since all his friends, the cowherds, children and maidens, are eager to meet him and pining for his company. An hour of music completely rejuvenated me and set a positive, energized tone for my day, despite the fact that I was struggling to remember and reproduce the composition correctly.

For me, the arts (music, dance, painting, theatre, etc) are the perfect compliment to the hectic pace of the urban life most of us lead. In fact, in the first half of the 20th century, as royal patronage to the arts declined, leading musicians moved from the capitals of princely states to industrial hubs like Mumbai, where their new patrons, the industrialists and businesspersons (seths), resided. Urban Indians were exposed to the best of performers, especially musicians, though one could argue that this opportunity was perhaps available only to the elite.

As Indian cities have grown and taken center-stage in the nation’s development, however, I feel that the arts no longer have that status. The population growth in cities has been so immense and the focus so much on individual progress and development, that the emphasis on the arts has died away; even schools offer minimal exposure, the elite are seen attending parties and brand openings while the front rows of many worthy performances remain vacant. Who will be the new patrons of our classical arts?

There is a need to go beyond patronage as spectators and encourage individuals, especially children, to learn classical art forms, not with the objective of making them professional performers, but in order to grant each child a bond with art so special that it becomes a form of meditation for life, a way to look into yourself, escape into an alternate world, even a channel to the divine…something that centers you and grounds you and offers a point of focus even in the midst of life’s numerous crises.

 

Romanticizing the informal, loving the kitsch at Sarojini Nagar, Delhi- Feb 22, 2012

Sarojini Nagar or SN market is one of those places that evokes tremendous nostalgia in people who have lived in Delhi and especially those who went to college in this city. It’s where the middle class people in central and south Delhi gravitate for the best deals and widest variety in clothes, footwear and accessories. It’s where I now shop for veggies and fruits, usually once a fortnight or so.

I moved to Gurgaon end of 2003 and forgot the pleasures of Sarojini Nagar for a few years, especially after I was robbed of my wallet on a particularly busy Sunday in 2004 trying to find woollies for Udai, who was then an infant. I started frequenting SN market again about 15 months ago, when I needed to visit the neighboring Chanakyapuri area regularly for client meetings.

What I love most about SN is the last two lanes of the market, where all the hotch potch, chaotic shopping happens. You get the best deals, see the most interesting people and its fine to be entertained and walk through without spending a single rupee! The color, the confusion and the energy here beats the malls hollow.

In my experience, there are two distinct categories of urban experience and each has its own fan following. There is the planned development, grid sort of city that creates an ordered experience. And then there is the topsy turvy random chaos. I truly enjoy the latter. Informality turns me on and I can write ad infinitum about the benefits it brings. Its inherent mixed-use, mixed-income nature brings residents (and shoppers) choices, reduces cost of living, promoted a more interactive lifestyle. Planned areas in the Indian city are usually a disaster, where informality (and all the good stuff that goes with it) gets wiped out but short-sighted planning means that residents are denied the benefits of planned infrastructure as well!

Yes, I am romanticizing the informal, kitschy Indian development pattern and yes, it has its drawbacks (stubbornly, I will not discuss those here). Standing there in Sarojini Nagar last week and trying to shakily wield the camera of my new iphone, I was struck by how good the informality feels. What a pity it would be to lose this all, as we inevitably will if we go down the planned development path in the same manner as we have been the past several decades? Take a look!

Wires hanging, fruits, plastic utensils, knick knacks, it's a festive atmosphere every day at Sarojini Nagar

Color, color, color!

A swank new multi-level parking eases congestion, but the organized retail here is yet to take off! We'll see...

The backside view of the ad hoc temporary structures that command high rents and sell the good stuff! Part of the ambience :)

 

We need a no tolerance attitude towards bad driving- Feb 21, 2012

When you wake up to news of disastrous car crashes two days in a row, you know its time to seethe about the poor traffic sense of the average Indian. Yes, poor road sense is one of the defining features of Indian urbanity- shocking, irritating and amusing, all at the same time!

This morning, as I drove back after dropping my daughter to school, I encountered some classic cases of road misbehavior in a short 15-minute drive. A smart executive was attending to his urgent business call while behind the wheel bang in the center of the road, hogging one half of two lanes. Clearly, the call was more important than his life or other peoples’ time! Impatient drivers continued to drive across a four-way crossing long after their lights had turned red, drastically bringing the time down for our side of the traffic to cross the intersection. Clearly, they needed to get to work before all the rest of us! I could go on…you get the drift, I’m sure!

The thing is, we all condone this sort of behavior. If not indulging in it, we certainly turn a blind eye when our cabbies, drivers or colleagues do the crazy stuff on the roads. Yet, we tut-tutted for real this morning when we read the front page news about two people being run over and killed by a Swift Dezire gone nuts. The media highlighted, of course, the fact that the deed was done by a car cleaner who had driven off with his master’s car!  The fact that many of us who are masters of cars ourselves drive irresponsibly is, apparently, besides the point. Case in point: Yesterday, we read about the guy who killed himself speeding his Lamborghini on narrow, grade-separated city roads!

We need a lot more awareness, stricter licensing and policing, education about road safety and rules starting school level to make things better. But how do we address the larger malaise of impatience and irresponsibility, a feeling that there will be no consequences to bad behavior? How do we understand that on the roads, irresponsibility could mean harm and even death and that someone else may have to pay for our mistakes? And how do we stop blaming the ‘other’ and look to fix ourselves up first!

Cannot wish the urban poor away; can we try new housing solutions like rental housing to accomodate them? Feb 20, 2012

Today’s newspaper carried two stories that highlight how completely clueless we (citizens, governments, bureaucrats and planners alike) are about how to address the issue of housing the poor.

The first piece of news narrates a conflict in the numbers of homeless people in Delhi. The government figure is 55,955 while NGOs in the sector claim 150,000! A 2008 survey by IGSSS, an NGO prominent in working for the homeless, put the figure at 88,410. Apparently the government survey was done in the wake of the Commonwealth Games, when many of the homeless were evicted from the city as part of a ‘cleanliness’ drive! This is a typical example of the kind of data scenario policy makers work with in India. Very often, there is little desire to arrive at authentic, realistic figures; consequently, policies that evolve are unrealistic and do not cater to the present, leave alone plan for the future.

The second story, set in Gurgaon, highlights another typical conflict. Sector 45 residents pressurize the urban development authority (HUDA in this case) to remove slum encroachments in the area, citing poor sanitation and law and order issues. The slum, which occupies government land (apparently disputed and hence not developed), gets water supply and electricity, but has poor sanitation facilities and many residents use open lands for defecation. Whereas private property owners are fully entitled to complain against slums if they see them as threats to their quality of life, clearly governments choose to wait for complaints and fail to check unplanned illegal settlements. Further, there is a spectacular failure to provide low income housing to an urban settlement that is growing as rapidly as Gurgaon is. Conflicts such as these will continue to escalate, while the government mouths buzwords like ‘affordable housing’ and ‘RAY’, which have failed to see the light of the day and provide housing in sufficient numbers to meet even a fraction of the demand.

Poverty in urban India isn’t something we can simply wish away, yet we continue to look for stop gap solutions and refuse to adopt inclusive planing in the present and for the future. I am aware that this is a common refrain and I have no innovative or practical solutions to offer. I do, however, see enterprising landlords in urban villages in Gurgaon creating several affordable housing formats for rent, from dormitories, to single room sets and tenement style housing, there is a range of options for employed migrants who can pay rentals ranging from Rs 500 – 5000 per month. That’s taking a definite step forward. It would be heartening to see the government step in to facilitate the creation of rental housing for the poor in the city, while they continue to evolve greenfield affordable housing projects as well!