I spent my lunch time today learning about a new crowdsourcing initiative from Tom Hulme – Design Director at IDEO in London. Crowdsourcing is using the power of the crowd and moving away from the idea of the lonely genius that knows everything. It can be used to obtain services, ideas, funds or content by soliciting contributions (generally on a voluntary basis and online) from a large group of people.
“This report is mainly concerned with the shelter conditions of the majority of the urban poor. It is about how the poor struggle to survive within urban areas, mainly through informal shelter and informal income-generation strategies, and about the inadequacy of both public and market responses to the plight of the urban poor. But the report is also about hope, about building on the foundations of the urban poor’s survival strategies and about what needs to be done by both the public and…
One hears constantly about how digital media is transforming us. How our attention span and even retention is shrinking. How we now use certain parts of our brain far more than other parts that will eventually dwindle away!
Well, I have always had an attention span issue. As a child, I wouldn’t be able to study the same topic for more than say 15 minutes. During my Boards in Class X and XII, I remember resorting to pacing and reading aloud to myself in the wee hours of the night to stay focused. It was never the subject matter, but the ability to sustain focus that was the big challenge.
Which is not to say that I am fickle or uninterested. I wander away and then return to things I consider important. The process of gleaning knowledge is different and I segue into other topics much like you dip into someone else’s food while eating at a communal table, only to return to your own with even more relish!
There is still a problem. The more serious matter sort of sits around for a while before I come to it. In the good old pre-digital days, it was a print out or a bookmarked chapter that sat at the edge of my study table while other relatively frivolous content (magazines, pictures, letters, cards, easier chapters from easier subjects…you get the drift) would occupy centerstage. On my computer screen, Gmail, WordPress, Facebook and Twitter tabs sit there providing the endless tempting and often unimportant snacks while the article I mean to read occupies a corner tab patiently awaiting its turn.
Now all this makes me wonder if my habits have indeed changed with digital media? It’s just the same tendency playing out on the computer screen, right?
I am also thinking that there is a certain merit in cultivating and sharpening this ability to segue, absorb other seemingly trivial inputs and then returning to consume more serious content (which you must, and give it adequate time and attention too!). Perhaps this dipping and returning adds more dimensions to your understanding and allows you to have a more enriched perspective, which then feeds into your output. Perhaps instead of constantly berating the digital age and shouting out dire warnings, we may just need to adapt a bit?
There is a group of guidelines being proposed for legacy cities in North America. Referring to cities that have experienced population/jobs loss over decades, developed around big industrial centers which no longer exist, economic weight shifted to new areas.
Mall used as refuge for 3000 persons and Torre de David office center turned into vertical favela
Cities in Venezuela differ a lot from legacy cities up North, but we certainly share their downward spiral and the challenges to reverse the forces contributing to it.
It’s World Toilet Day again. My twitter timeline is abuzz today with statistics, video links, article links, all painting a scary picture of how many people in the world live in conditions of poor sanitation, how much this costs us in economic terms, health terms, etc. (other hilarious tweets about people being conceived in and born in toilets, locked inside them, etc are also doing the rounds as is expected in the jamboree called twitter!)
I’ve seen plenty of toilets up close, recently in my fieldwork among migrant workers in Gurgaon’s urban villages and unauthorized colonies as well as over the last few years of working with micro Home Solutions in low-income areas across Delhi. Adequacy as well as maintenance of toilets is a huge issue in slums and other informal areas . Various experiences have shown that shared toilets are very hard to maintain (see post on the pathetic state of toilets in a Delhi slum); yet, it can be nearly impossible to retrofit communities to provide toilets for every household. One thing is clear though. Household toilets are the Number 1 aspiration for low-income families across India, whether urban or rural. Deeply connected with dignity and security, especially for women, and also now implying status, households seek to install toilets as soon as they have sewage connections and funding in place.
But what about those without any secure tenure? Renters, for instance. In Gurgaon, I find migrant workers living in semi-permanent shacks or relatively permanent tenements sharing a toilet between 10 or even upto 20 households! Toilets with broken doors, inadequate water supply and barely any maintenance are common in these jhuggis and tenements. However, contrary to the perception that it is single male migrants that live here and accord low priority to sanitation, I found at least half of these homes occupied by families, with women and children suffering acutely because of the poor sanitation facilities. Unfortunately, a relationship of deference and almost fear with the landlord coupled with the peculiar migrant mindset of transition combine to make demanding better toilets a difficult proposition.
Migrant workers who live in more upgraded rooms that offer more privacy share their amenities among 8-10 families and are better able to negotiate better maintained toilets and baths with their landlords. Often, improved sanitation combined with a perception of improved security (very linked, those two) become the reason for families to opt for moving to a better rental accommodation.
However, as a researcher, what strikes me most is that, despite the whining about sanitation, renters consider poor amenities as part of the deal. They live in the hope that improved income and better circumstances will given them more negotiating power to change these aspects of their lives. But for the present, many women told me that they are fine with the sharing of toilets with strangers, with the waiting for their turn as per their time of work, even with the poor maintenance! They said that conditions in their village were often worse; others said they lived in better conditions back ‘home’ but understood that poor sanitation was the price to pay for the opportunity to live and work in the city.
Access to sanitation, and its strong relationship with dignity and safety, is an important lens through which to understand the integration of the urban poor in our cities. In the context of internal migration, the denial of the basic aspects of citizenship to migrants creates a psyche of helplessness and illicits that shrug, that sense of resignation that I find so frustrating. Because the government buckets private informal rental housing as illegal and no standards and bye-laws are implemented in this context, it is easy for landlords to turn a blind eye to this issue. A dialogue that involves civil society (representing migrants), private landlords as well as government is important to arrive at ways and means by which an increased awareness of the importance of sanitation is created, where the migrant is given a human dimension as opposed to a sub-human one (yes, this is often the case!), big infrastructure to make improvements possible are put in place and new efficient means for operations and maintenance (best practices) are shared and implemented.
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.
Paul 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.
What I come back home ‘to’ and ‘for’… clicked on Diwali when they were in a real funny mood…more clicks later!