What’s the role of the online political armies post-election? #citizenship #election2014

I saw a tweet this morning that wondered: Will the politicians who had built their social media presence because of the elections would stick around to continue to engage with their constituents post-elections. A valid point! We all laugh at but believe in the caricature of the politician who comes around once in five years to beg for votes, but never shows his face otherwise!

This time round though, the political fervor has given birth to a new breed of social media enthusiasts who form a sort of bridge between the politicians/political parties and the voter base. Call them trolls or mobilizers, they have been the virtual foot soldiers of political parties this election season.

I’m unsure about how organized these things are, but I am wondering if we might see some sort of consolidation and institutionalization happening in this space. I’m also thinking ahead about what sort of roles these social media groups that support specific political alignments, or are specialized in specific sectors (like industry, health, employment, finance, agriculture, rural development, urbanisation, etc) could play in influencing government policy and thinking. Would we see the emergence of influential online think tanks, consolidation of individuals who find synergies online and work together to think through the changes they would like to see or critique existing policy to offer constructive suggestions? Would we see, or are we already seeing, lobbies forming (like in the US) that aggressively push certain agendas and argue against others.

The middle-class urban voter has engaged politically in this election, perhaps far more than before. The data will show, but that’s what the sense is. At least in terms of thought, there is increased engagement that could well drive the above sort of groups. But will the decision makers engage with online groups and heed them? Or will these online groups have to create offline persona to physically to rounds of the ministries and petition the concerned people?

And so runs my overactive brain this morning, trying to contemplate how best citizens can engage with their elected leaders.
Coming up: My first hand experience of teaming up with fellow citizens to approach the Gurgaon Traffic Police to ask for safer roads

India is still a good story

As election fever grips the nation with Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh in poll mode; as the mind grapples with the several grey areas in the charges of sexual assault leveled at erstwhile respected and now much maligned citizens; as I worry about a nation pushing its multitudes of poor further to the sidelines in its current state of enamor for a particular strain of neo-liberal thinking…

In the midst of all this, I read with delight the news about India’s Mars spacecraft successfully exiting Earth’s orbit on its way to the Red Planet. I realized I had been worrying in my subconscious mind about the craft going off track and the profound sense of relief and pride that washed over me was both amusing and heartening.

I have to remind myself everyday that India is a good story. Not just because it is my country and I have more than my share of patriotism inside me, but because I see immense positives everyday. We are not a nation that has given up, we are on the street trying our best everyday. I refuse to believe in that self-created image of Indians as a people happy with status quo. No, we are restless for change and that is hugely hopeful. Let’s not give into the media-created hype of negativity, but look around us at all the success stories and brave attempts being made every day by ordinary people who want to live a good life, do a good job and leave a sound legacy behind for an undoubtedly capable generation to take on.

Designed to fail! The truth about the Indian city #urbanization #governance

I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!

I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.

What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.

This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.

The big questions we constantly ask are:

  • Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
  • If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?

Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.

Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has  many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.

Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.

Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.

In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.

We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.

Delhi HT BoylePaul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.

We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.

Crowd control vs management: Getting shoved around while the police stared!

Stampede. Crowd management. Not a national strength, certainly. The unfortunate stampede in Allahabad during the Kumbh has once again made us think about how we behave in a crowd and how under-prepared authorities are to deal with such situations. To shrug and say this will happen is not acceptable!

On Republic Day this year, as we made our way to see the parade at India Gate, we experienced something akin to a stampede, a mini-stampede if you will. How it happened might give us a clue on what is awry in the handling of these situations.

So here we are, two couples with their kids, one of whom is a one year old baby and my friend is pregnant with her second. There are no clear signs on how to get from your parking to where your seating is. At one point, there is a barricade with a very narrow gap in it. The crowds surge towards this little gap. I hear people saying “dhakka do! dhakka do!” (push! push!). I panic, move to position myself behind my pregnant friend. Yell at a young man for pushing. I see Udai stumble over uneven ground. I manage to stop him from falling. I do not know where Rahul and Aadyaa are exactly.

In all this, the policemen near by are doing nothing to help. Instead they keep telling us the gates are going to shut soon and we must hurry!

Even at that time, I remember us discussing how idiotic their attitude was. They did not seem to have any training or skills in “managing” a crowd. Worse, they had no inclination to do; apparently it was ok for people to fall over each other, push and shove. It came right for us in the end but it was a few moments of sheer terror.

Clearly, controlling is not the same as managing in such a situation, though in this case the police weren’t doing either. In the context of experiences at protests in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape as well as outside SRCC when Narendra Modi was speaking there and in the context right now of curfew in sensitive areas like Kashmir as well as for dealing with huge gatherings like the Kumbh, it becomes imperative for the police to have a strategy that encompasses aspects like proper signages, volunteers who can guide people, proper communication as well as working with other involved agencies like the Railways in the Kumbh context. I remember this was done decently during the Commonwealth Games by using college students as volunteers. It can be done, we can do it; but we must have the will and appreciate the value of human life!

Missing the point! Delhi police ad to aid women’s safety

This ad is in the papers this morning and its good to see the police sending out a strong message about something that has really become a talking point in Delhi and where the police have taken a huge beating to their reputation.
In a presentation to the LG, DDA body UTTIPEC had suggested pro active campaigns that used images of men to reinforce that men need to take the initiative on an issue like violence against women as opposed to constantly showing a woman as a victim. Looks like the suggestion was well taken. I am a bit concerned about the copy here though. It suggests that men should take personal action (beat them?) against perpetrators of crimes against women. It’s only the small print that clarifies that the suggestion is for men to report other men who they observe committing such crimes!
While I think it’s a great idea to start a campaign that calls on citizens to partner with the police, I am not sure this sends out the right message! Comments anyone?

20130131-085809.jpg

Using the ‘Right to the City’ approach to include migrants and other “others”

I was reminded today by various organizations on twitter that it is International Migrants Day. Migrant, a term that has fascinated me for a long time. What is it that makes someone uproot his or her life and go to a new place, start from scratch, face all sorts of hurdles including social rejection and cultural deprivation, to eventually carve out a new life in this adopted place? On the face of it, migration sounds rather unpleasant and yet, it has been a recurrent phenomenon for centuries!

Migration may be forced (slavery, bonded labor, displacement due to war, infrastructure projects, etc) or voluntary (usually to avail of a real or perceived opportunity), but the status of the ‘migrant’ is fraught with difficulty. In India, economic growth and a changing economic structure along with urbanization has meant an increase in rural to urban as well as urban to urban migration across the country. There are several aspects of migration that are fascinating and need to be studied to develop a contemporary understanding of how our urban centers (these ‘engines of economic growth’, yea!) function and grow. However, citizens and governments usually perceive migrants (esp low-income migrants that belong to the informal economy) as unnecessary and unwanted, people who are competing for meager resources, and would like to wish them away regardless of their dependence on migrant labor for a large proportion of informal and often difficult (read undignified) jobs in the city.

For my research on housing for migrants in Gurgaon therefore, I have been trying to put together a rights-based case for why the city needs to accept the migrant situation and address it squarely, with a focus on housing and employment. I was struggling with something that appeared obvious. I was heartened therefore to hear today from some of the contributors to the newly released book titled ‘Urban Policies and the Right to the City in India: Rights, Responsibilities and Citizenship‘, brought out by UNESCO and CSH and edited by Marie-Helene Zerah, Veronique Dupont, Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal. The book draws on Lefebvre’s ‘Right to the City’ approach, which the UN hopes to leverage to urge governments to adopt a more inclusive approach to city planning and governance.

At the workshop I attended today at the Centre for Policy Research, Ram B Bhagat, author of the chapter on ‘Migrants’ (Denied) Right to the City made a hard hitting point. He pointed out that policy makers in India refuse to acknowledge or address the issue of migrants squarely. There is no policy that accepts migrants and attempts to give them the basic rights they are denied by virtue of having no identity or documents in their adopted place of residence. He spoke about representation by civil society before the 12th Five Year Plan requesting the inclusion of migrants’ rights and the subsequent exclusion of any such provision in the Plan.

In the chapter, he clearly outlines the contradiction between an Indian citizen’s Constitutional Right to relocate to any other place within the country and the refusal of local governments to grant a migrant a form of identity via which he/she can avail of the basic services and amenities required to live a life of dignity. The paper identifies several exclusionary practices and advocates for the use of a Right to the City approach to include the voice of the migrant in the policy discourse. At the very core, Bhagat argues for the recognition of migration as an “integral part of development” and the placement of migration at the core of city planning and development. I couldn’t agree more and I’m happy to find validation for my thoughts and the assumptions on which I am carrying forward my research work.

On a larger scale, such a Right to the City approach that accommodates multiple viewpoints and consultations and redefined citizenship, imbuing it with a participatory framework is the way ahead for many of the situations that disturb us today. I am reminded of this as I observe the rabid hatred and suggested use of violent and retaliatory actions to “teach a lesson” to the rapists in yesterdays heinous incident on the Delhi bus. While the rapists deserve to be punished swiftly and severely, I question the construct that we have, positioning the rapist as the convenient “other” in general discourse even as we know that may incidents of rape in the city are perpetrated by men known to the victim (though not in this case)! The “other” is omnipresent in all our critiques of the failures of our cities- slum dwellers, beggars, municipal workers (or shirkers), apathetic policemen, the ‘system’, the rich, the poor, the flashy bourgeois, they all threaten us while we remain helplessly virtuous. It is a ridiculous situation, for surely we are the “other” for someone else!

To build an inclusive city, we would need to begin with inclusive mindsets that promote dialogue, debate, awareness and provide space and opportunity for free speech and expression. Even as we speak about the need for safety and improved security, better law enforcement, etc….. we all know that moving towards a society of intense and perpetual surveillance is not a viable proposition. Though theoretical, the Right to the City is a good starting point for the State (especially local government) to build a relationship with citizens and radically change the way cities are governed. Idealistically, I believe that there is a collective action that can be taken to address many of the issues that we urgently need to resolve.

India on the cusp of change: States must shun exclusive growth policies,opt for inclusion

With the election fever on in Gujarat and the hugely pro-Modi mood in the state, from what little I have heard from family and acquaintance living an visiting the state, an editorial that questions the Gujarat growth model certainly gets attention! Atul Sood’s piece in The Hindu today points out that the state’s growth path is exclusionary. He argues that compared to other states with similar growth rates- Maharashtra, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat has not done well in the traditional indicators for development. Employment has remained stagnant, including manufacturing employment. The manufacturing sector is also showing a slow growth of wages (less than the other three States) and increasing use of contract workers. Sood points out that “the worsening condition of workers in the manufacturing sector is accompanied by increasing profitability and growing investment in the sector.” Both rural and urban per capital monthly consumption expenditure in Gujarat has grown at lower rates these past five years than before that and is also lower than the other three States.

The author, who is one of ten independent researchers who have been published in a recent study ‘Poverty Amidst Prosperity: Essays on the Trajectory of Development in Gujarat’ cites Gujarat’s experience as a window to really understand the limitations of market-led growth without a policy vision that equally works to mitigate the negative impacts of this development model.

For those of us who work in the development sector, or are aware of the issues associated with it, this is an essential dilemma. How will the trickle-down effect happen? Or the trickle-up for that matter, for those who believe the demand will be led by Bottom of the Pyramid customers, who would need a certain amount of disposable income and a fairly stable quality of life to actually spend, right?

How do you reconcile situations where enormous economic growth is concurrent with rising levels of incoe disparity, and we see this in other developing economies as well. For instance, Brazil is 85% urbanized, has a hugely social emphasis on city planning and governance but has a Gini coeffieicent of 0.54 in 2009, where 1 indicates absolute inequality. That is considered fairly unpalatable and there is a fair amount of literature on how Brazil’s tax system in pro-rich, how the urban-rural divide is too stark and certainly there is now considerable focus on improving this figure.

As per economists Laveesh Bhandari and Suryakant Yadav, the urban Gini coefficient in India went from 0.35 in 2005 to 0.65 today (taken from Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s article on ‘How India Stumbled-Can New Delhi get its groove back?’ in Foreign Affairs, July/August 2012). Now this is really worrying, to me. And I tend to agree that we really need to look beyond purely pro-market moves to a more balanced vision of growth, even if it means bringing GDP down a few notches but actually ensuring a slightly more equitable distribution of that wealth.

I know that is a very socialist view and not appreciated by many (esp in the bourgeois wealth-driven mindset that we currently inhabit), but we must not forget that India was established, as per our Constitution as a “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic.” Along with compromising on democracy (ref: FB arrests and the PIL filed by Shreya Singhal against Section 66A), and of course now and then questioning whether secular is really how we feel about ourselves, we are also moving away from our socialist intent as a people. I agree with many experts, who believe that India is at that place where it can choose its development path, and we can actually opt for a more inclusive, longer term vision of growth. Unfortunately, the political compulsions do not allow for that sort of decision making. And it falls on civil society, NGOs and other sorts of practitioners in the development space to find innovative ways to include the poor into the process of growth; and to constantly clamor for better policy, better implementation, better political will!

Improved citizenship is a must to provide good governance: Synthesizing Patrick Heller’s talk @ CPR, India

When I set out to work this morning, I didn’t know I would end up hearing Patrick Heller speak at the Centre for Policy Research. I’m glad I did attend his talk, though, for it informs a critical area of my research on Gurgaon’s housing scenario. Patrick is a professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University and works in the area of democratic deepening, institutional design and participatory forms of governance. The aspect of citizenship and the relationship between civil society and government that he spoke of today is one that has tremendous potential to make or mar cities as places to live in and is certainly a very weak area for Indian cities, a stumbling block- indeed, one of many.

Patrick led us through the three major theories that have informed our understanding of cities in the last few decades during which urbanism has really come to the fore of research in sociology, political sciences and economics. The Global City thinking, a term coined by Saskia Sassen and which proposes that a global city is one which is an important node in the global economic system and attempts to envision the world as an hierarchy of cities, rather than nation states. Unfortunately, as Patrick pointed out, cities across the world have misinterpreted this term liberally, and in their hunger to move up the hierarchy of cities, have taken drastic and often thoughtless measures to simply ape another city without considering its own special position and needs. Hence, Mumbai is to be Shanghai and Delhi is to be London, and so on and so forth…

The Urban Regime thinking focuses on the politics of cities and looks at a city as an entity that has an agenda (usually growth), is supported by a coalition, is reasonably successful in achieving coordination, can mobilize resources and resolve collective problems as well as mediate conflicts. Prototypical of this is the growth machine model adopted by American cities. The real estate developer plays a key role here, and development is seen (in the US, but I could say this of India as well) as the adding of value to land to extract surplus value from it. The obvious criticism of this model is the absence of ‘people’.

That brings in the third construct- Citizenship theory, largely attributed to Lefebvre. Here, the city is viewed as an entity created by and for, governed by people, a democratic entity. Citizenship is a practice, not just a right and the intersections between state and civil society become very critical. In this, the ‘right to the city’ concept seems relevant to my attempt to build the argument that shelter is something every citizen must reasonably expect.

Patrick mesmerized the audience with his presentation of case studies from South Africa and Brazil, where citizenship takes absolutely different forms. It was revealing to learn that, in South Africa, there is deep discontent among urban populations against the African National Congress. The discontent is rooted in the alienation of the ANC from the activist bottom-up roots it had during the struggle against apartheid. While service delivery is efficient, citizens are upset that they are being treated like clients and that there is no participatory governance at all. In fact, ANC leaders have mostly become rich and move out of black neighborhoods. In a sense, they are the new whites. Yet, South Africans vote the ANC in every time because they feel they cannot vote against the party that Nelson Mandel founded and that led them to freedom from apartheid. Strong parallels with the Indian voters allegiance to the Congress in the many decades post Independence and the current sense of intense disillusionment with their politics, even as we struggle to find political alternatives.

On the other end, Brazil has moved away from the growth-obsessed autocratic model of governance to a social city model where both participatory processes as well as devolution of power have taken place. Innovative mechanisms like participatory budgeting and sectoral councils have changed the game, and Brazilian cities are seen to have consistently invested in socially beneficial areas like healthcare reforms, land regularization, social welfare, etc. Participatory budgeting is an example of how moves to strengthen citizenship have captured the nation’s imagination. PB, in which councilors as well as ordinary people paralely decide on municipal budgets, is not formally institutionalized but helps bring in transparency and breaks the deal-making, ‘clientelism’ that we have come to expect from govt-business (elite) decision makers. The changed relationship between politics and civil society is allowing new forms of co-production and making governance accessible to people like never before.

Patrick’s attempt to compare his work in these two nations with India are still in preliminary stages. However, it is clear that the essential issue in India is the lack of political autonomy and incapability of cities to govern themselves. Cities in India are not yet autonomous, usually in poor fiscal health and clearly do not have a sense of where they are going. Civil society is fragmented and the outcome is what Patrick calls “growth cabal”, a situation in which a regime of land-grab operates, with politicians, bureaucrats and the rich colluding to appropriate assets and hijack growth while the citizens are excluded from the process of wealth creation and the benefits that come from it. Moreover, we can all see that citizens in Indian cities continue to be, akin to South Africa, steeped in feudal/caste/class allegiances and have no systems for participation that help them participate in and influence their city in any way. Can South Africa’s experiences and the Brazilian success story teach us lessons on how to go forward? Can Indian cities find ways to involve civil society, strengthen civil society across classes to act as a check and balance? These ideas seem still far away for a nation where even the basic services are not yet available for the majority, but we must premise our future on the idea of citizenship and the ‘right to the city’.

Violence is an easy answer when real issues go unaddressed: Cases of South Africa & India- Oct 9, 2012

J M Coetze’s Booker winning book ‘Disgrace’ is deeply disturbing. It tells the story of the cultural backlash against whites in South Africa. The story caused me to have violent and dark nightmares because of the matter of fact reactions of the “victims” of violence, in this case a middle aged man and his young daughter. I finished the book last evening in a grim mood, wondering how it would be to live in a society where being safe was apparently not even a right any more.

Today, on cue as it has happened often enough lately, The Hindu carries an editorial by Anita Lakshmni Powell titled ‘Bring my my machine gun’ about the violence in South Africa. Shocking stats: One of 4 men in a nation of 50 million admitted to committing rape, half of them say they’ve done it more than once. Murder is commonplace; the police system reports one million unsolved murders a year!

A report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation report, released in 2010 claims that violence is cheap, easy and the thing that works, the only answer where there are none. The report draws strong correlations with the disbalance is South African society (SA is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.7 in 2008;  the top 10% of the population accounted for 58% of South Africa’s income, the bottom 10% accounted for 0.5% and the bottom 50% less than 8%, as per a  recently released World Bank report). A quarter of South Africans are unemployed and traditional routes to prosperity, like education, simply aren’t working well enough.

To me, all of this sounds scarily familiar. Unemployment, growing disparities, rampant violence, rape as a means of expressing frustration, hatred, rage…..we see this all around us. And a weak policing system, a judiciary that simply cannot cope, political apathy.Is this where pockets of our country are going as well (13 rapes in Haryana within a month!)? Is India destined to be a violent nation? Will we also be no longer able to step out of our homes without fear? Will our children live a gated, over-protected life and never experience freedom, for fear of reprisal from their youthful counterparts who happened to be born on the other side of the social divide?

The real bad news in South Africa, the editorial claims, is that violence is a language that was endorsed as the rightful means for recourse even during the anti-apartheid movement. The establishment turns a blind eye to violence and politicians glorify violence in their campaigns. Violence is culturally acceptable.

Fortunately for us, we did not win our freedom through violent means, but the aftermath of Independence saw a nation steeped in blood and gore. Our system still frowns on violence and there is no social endorsement yet for it. In SA, a gang rape of a mentally deficient girl was distributed brazenly as a video on mobile phone; here rapists still try and run away from the law. But that’s neither here nor there. Increasingly, we are become inured to violence and perpetrators are becoming bolder. Increasingly, we want to believe that the bad things happen to someone else and live in fear of becoming victims. The larger issues are taking way too long to be addressed and in the meantime, paranoia is taking hold of our society.

The South African experience should be a wake up call for us. Inclusiveness is not a warm and fuzzy type of concept that idealists (like me, I have been told recently and yes, I am a bit angry about that) promote. Inclusiveness is a necessity, so that we do not become an inhuman, abnormal, highly stressed and unworkable society. Equal opportunity, as much as possible at least, regardless of religion (ref: Sachar Committee report), caste, ethnicity, gender, income level, is the goal we must adopt, as a nation. Otherwise, we are doomed indeed. I shudder, I hope. I fervently hope for change.

Venturing beyond the realm of what I know- Oct 7, 2012

Sometimes life simply overwhelms me. Interestingly, these are not the occasions when something momentous, fantastic or traumatic, have happened. That sense of life being larger and more complex than I am able to comprehend overcomes me without warning, swiftly and sharply. Caught unawares, I bumble around for a while. Reason some. Eventually, the feeling passes, but not after the collateral damage (mouth ulcers, kids screamed at, spat with the husband) has already happened.
At work though, the feeling of the insurmountable drives me to make more effort. The more nebulous and threatening the brief, the more I resort to the simplest of strategies. To use the powers of logical reasoning, the steps of problem solving, the confidence in my intelligence.
But what happens when you set out to do something you have never done before. And that something is an opportunity you have waited for, one you sense will change the shape of the future.
I am currently embarking on a research fellowship in which I know I will have to synthesise all the knowledge and skills I have, and some. At this point, I am struggling for clarity. How do I resist the urge to fit the vision and scope into the boundaries of my knowledge and skills? If I presume I can acquire the skills I need but do not currently have, would that be compromising my research? How do you ‘think big’? How do you imagine a future you haven’t seen?
I flit between feeling inadequate and knowing that the clarity will come. I know that, after years of anchoring in a safe harbour, I have taken myself out to sea and there will be rough weather to face. At some level, this is a test of discipline and survival as much as it is an exploration of my capability to find data, critically analyse and find solutions. But most of all, it is about letting go of self doubt, of soaring above the clouds and making the impossible possible.
To retain the passion and idealism that I feel even as I negotiate the harsh realities of urban planning and governance will be the mother of challenges. To evolve a template for an inclusive city seems like taking a crack at an unresolvable problem. To shed the skin of socialism I live in and approach the issue of migrant housing with a market-based solution that can be sold to government and private sector alike is a tall order indeed.
You would agree then, that this time round, the feeling of being overwhelmed is entirely understandable! While I go on with the rituals of my weekend (music class, family outing, errands and chores,doses of mainstream and eclectic entertainment), I carry inside me the excitement and fear of the huge distances I must travel and the leaps of faith I must make. The calm on the outside belies the tempest within.