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.

Politics and urban geography: Do the poor have a voice or a place in Indian cities?

Political journalism in India is clearly divided into two camps, at least the way my eye sees it. There is the neo-liberal camp that at present has Modi as its poster boy. And there is the socialist camp that has defeated communists at one extreme and liberals floating around in it without a particular form of organisation. Intertwined within this dichotomy are the strains of religious communalism, identity politics (region, caste, class) and nationalism, that both camps use in their own way to justify their stands.

My specific interest in all of this has been the status of the urban poor, a community I’ve had the opportunity to work with and that I respect for their tenacity and street-smartness (that often contrasts with a certain surprising innocence). That political battles are increasingly being played out in urban geographies in our country is apparent.

This morning, I read a very interesting post by George Ciccariello-Maher, who is an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, on the intersection of politics and urban geography in Caracas. In tracing the history of the rich and poor settlements in the city, the author sheds light on some the mutual mistrust between the elite and the urban poor over time. Many of the phenomena the highlights are visible in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, in the past and in the present.

Synthesizing Ciccariello-Maher’s piece: Exclusion, segregation and the enduring nature of class conflict

1- Deliberate forms of exclusion: Gated communities, militarised exclusion and the creation of municipalities within the city to further enhance inequalities and ensure resources for the elite were some ways the rich separated themselves from the poor at a time when the barrios sprang up everywhere. Ciccariello-Maher’s points out, of course, that this was a reaction of fear of the poor (add to that the element of racism) who had risen in rebellion in ’80s (pre-Chavez) and had to be controlled per force!

2- Discomfort with the new-found voice of the poor: Social housing appeared as a key ingredient in Chavez’ socialism, in multiple forms. Not just new housing units built by the State, but also more recently, a strong demand for the granting of title for the poor so that they can live in self-managed housing. Ciccariello-Maher speaks about how the strengthening of housing for the poor is something the elite fear very much, inducing out-migration of the educated young from Caracas. To me, its interesting that his discourse is still focused on segregation and suggests that decades of socialism have not given the poor a leg-up or eased the social segregation in any significant way. If true, it does support my hypothesis that housing security is vital for larger social transformations.

The poor in urban India: Do we fear them? Hell, no!

What does this mean for India where the voices of the poor are still not loud enough, where the elite have an enormous sense of entitlement and security (they don’t foresee a rebellion) and where the government continues to refrain from taking bold decisions on providing housing security to those who do not have any? If one assumes that the rebellion is a long time coming, it only means inclusion still remains a distant dream. As long as professionals and practitioners like us, who belong to the elite but empathize with the poor, continue to remain apolitical, its not likely the status quo will change. Is that case for renewed activism? Or a case for a change in profession for people like me!

Does the government really understand? #Modi #oversimplify

I was taking an undergraduate class for architecture students this morning on housing and urban poverty in India. The discussion was long and winding. We spoke of how the informal city is created and how city managers are trying to resolve issues of varying magnitudes with scarce resources. I tried to bring in a bit of the realism and build on the interconnection of architecture with the social sciences in the classroom.

And then, one student raised her hand and asked me: “All this that you are telling us, does Mr Modi understand it? They way he says things, it’s like a magic wand needs to be waved and stuff will get done!”

Well, well, well! We’re all waiting and watching here….but a lot of us are beginning to worry about how much deep diving government departments are really doing into issues that matter when they are given 100-day diktats to conceptualise schemes to be unrolled in the near future and their prime motivation is to please the PM? Efficiency and speed are commendable, but I do hope it is not at the cost of quality and inclusiveness, especially of those still trapped in poverty.

 

Why are Indians not concerned about #inequality?

I came across this graphic today on twitter.

B0cuO8iCQAAiFm-.png_largePredictably for Indians, the top concern is religious and ethnic hatred and not inequality. While I understand that communalism, regionalism, casteism and all the other ‘isms’ are media favourites, political favourites and hot topics in drawing room discussions, I find it strange that ‘poorism’ is not of much concern to the Indian people. I’m not getting into the methodology that Pew might have used for this and whether their sample was sufficiently representative of the varying income levels in India, but what the survey is saying corroborates well with what I observe around me.

Those of us who research and practice in the area of poverty and human development are usually preaching to the choir when we express our concerns. Most Indians, sometimes including the poor, are not really concerned about the issue of income inequality in India. Is it that we have normalised inequality? Or is it that we believe in the passiveness of the Indian poor who will never rebel? Or do we really believe that India is decimating poverty rapidly enough for it to not be a concern?

I don’t have the answers, but I sure find it interesting. Also, perhaps if we focused more on bringing down inequality, the other ‘isms’ might matter less? What do you think?

London as a #primate city: Some interesting opinions

Isn’t it funny that when you’re experiencing something, it seems like you see a whole lot of the same around you? When you’re pregnant, you tend to notice other pregnant women. When someone you know has a road accident, suddenly everyone seems to have had one!

Having thoroughly enjoyed the sights and sounds of London, I seem to find my virtual world filled with information about the city. I found it very interesting that, while cities like Bangkok and Jakarta are constantly criticized for their absolute primacy (primate cities are those that dominate a country, capturing most of its population and economic activity: Mark Jefferson, 1939) in the the context of their national economies, London is rarely seen in that negative way. Of course, it is a more international cosmopolitan city, one that a Londoner acquaintance pompously touted as “the most wonderful in the world”!

_DSC7690But its also true that about 7 million people live in London while the nation’s second city Birmingham has only about a million people. UK Think tank Centre for Cities finds that London has created 10 times more private sector jobs than any other city since 2010, and that nearly 1/3rd of young people (aged 22-30) who changed cities in the UK moved to London. Real estate prices in London are through the roof and affordable housing a serious crisis; plus, the poor are being pushed further out while the inner city is more and more gentrified. Many of my Londoner friends work in real estate, housing and architecture and I heard this from them as well as at the RGS IBG conference I attended.

Centre for Cities is claiming that London’s domination is because other cities are not performing well enough and it asks for more power to be devolved to smaller cities. On the other hand, a survey of non-Londoners shows that they believe that the capital gets a much better deal than the rest of the country. Not hard to believe when you see the cranes and construction equipment that dot the city skyline working on many big ticket buildings and redevelopment projects!

This sort of situation has other interesting consequences. I read somewhere that one in five Londoners are in favour of London becoming a city-state! An unlikely possibility, but the sentiment says a lot about how London’s identity is distinct.

Clearly, policymakers need to think hard about balancing growth among cities within a country to create wider access to job opportunities and for a more equitable distribution of resources and yet, there is something to be said for the sheer energy created by a concentrated wealth of resources and capabilities.

Here in India too, policy has been hugely tilted towards metropolitan areas and attempts to support smaller cities have not met with much success, for various reasons. Beyond the constant refrain of smart cities that we hear from the present government (it’s like a broken record, stuck!), I really hope there is some thinking in place for how to revitalize cities of various sizes and on how to empower State governments to put their urban agendas in place.

 

Fabricating hope from ingredients like poor education & poor ideas

I see a child at the traffic light. He is about two years old, in tattered clothes and howling away. He looks like he has been abandoned, perhaps temporarily. What’s new about that, you might ask? It’s a regular sight in any Indian city. Life is harsh for many out there! *shrug*

One the same day, our Finance Minister was presenting the nation’s annual budget and there was much talk in the air about the revival of investment, the promise of growth and development, the changing fortunes of India.

I was having a hard time reconciling the two strains of thought. I gulped and what I had the taste of bile in my mouth.

Of all the dismal facts about India, it is the ones about children that are the hardest to come to terms with. The trafficking, the child labour, the sexual exploitation. Today’s Hindustan Times carries a full-page editorial about the number of children out of school in our part of the world and this is disturbing too.

Two aspects of the editorial struck me. First, that it wasn’t just poverty that keeps children out of school. India has unleashed a slew of legislation to reinforce primary education- the Right to Education (RTE) Act, the National Programme of Nutritional Support and others. Yet children stayed out of school. Experts attribute this to the poor quality of education that is unable to keep the kids interested. In my research with migrants in north India, I find access to private sector education for their children drives poor households away from villages to small towns, but they are hopelessly disappointed in the quality of these private schools, that offer English-medium all right (as compared to govt schools that teach in Hindi) but no knowledge whatsoever. Also, experts point to the availability of funds but the utter poverty of good ideas that means new investments in the sector are hardly ever realised, especially at the primary and lower secondary levels.

The other idea that struck me was the familiar argument that couches the entire issue of children’s education in the garb of productivity and loos of potential on a national level. To me, more tragic is the experience of the child herself, the family to which she belongs or worse to which she does not if she is an orphan or being trafficked.

We aren’t able to create enough jobs for the ones we do manage to educate, so perhaps instead of worrying about creating a higher volume of educated workforce, we should focus on improving the quality of the education and the experience that children have in school. And higher education? The majority of youth in rural and small town India do not actually attend college, but get their degrees through correspondence and part-time engagements or by simply appearing for exams without ever being taught.

I find it hard to be hopeful about a generation that is barely getting a real education. And yet when you speak to young people, it’s hard to feel so low. They are charged with energy and ambition and I can only hope that we can find a way to not let them down!

Ajjee, family rockstar: Nearly 100 and indomitable still!

We’ve never seen her sit still. We grew up eating home made sheviyo (fine noodles cooked in multiple ways) and paapad (typical to Indian food, hard to explain but is spicy, made of pulses and eaten as an accompaniment with meals) made by her. We helped her make vaatiyo (baatis or wicker sticks for lamps) from raw cotton. And we swaddled babies and ourselves in godadiyo (quilts) hand stitched by her. Ajjee, my father’s mother, my beautiful grandmother, has been a constant in the lives of all her children and grandchildren and many many more of us.

Made usually of leftover pieces of cloth, Ajjee builds intricate patterns and designs, often a peacock or a cat for kids or a pattern of geometric flowers for older people or even a simple quilt made out of an old sari put together by a complex and even running stitch. Her talent and industry has been the stuff of legends. It wasn’t just family, she would make these precious quilts for anyone who came in to appreciate, ask for help and even those who made a simple, honest request (it’s getting tough for her now to be equally productive, but not for want of trying!).

This morning, the family proudly read her name mentioned in an interview in The Hindu with Patrick J Finn, who has just finished a book on quilt-making in India and I simply had to write this tribute to the most inspirational person in our family. Our very own rockstar- Hirabai Naik! Ajjee for some, Maee Ajjee for others, Ayee for many, a symbol of grit and determination, a beacon of kindness and love and hope. A person who rises above us despite all her human failings.

_DSC1797Always built small, Ajjee has become frailer with time but her spirit is indomitable. Today, even as she complains of feeling fatigue, her mind is still working on the latest designs. Beyond quilting, she is a master of re-use, making hundred of cloth shopping bags and gifting them to everyone. She doesn’t actively advocate their use, simply because she belongs to the generation that never made the switch to the plastic shopping bag! She just assumes everyone still carries their own cloth bags with them and I think it is remarkable that within her lifetime we have moved so far away from cloth bags and are now firmly marching back towards them, aided by supermarkets that charge us extra for carry bags in a bid to encourage some environmental sensitivity.

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

In small but fantastic examples like this, I increasingly see reasons for Indians to look back at the small things we are losing- skills, recipes, habits and ideas that make for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle that puts community and family first, but is also is eager to learn from others. To me, that (not religion, not ritual, not caste or creed, nor regional identity) is the essence of an Indian culture and I always look at Ajjee with amazement for all these values she taught me, without ever preaching but entirely by example!

Museum day for kids: The Body in Indian Art @ National Museum, Delhi

Taking the kids to the museum on a hot hot day in May makes perfect sense. Except that museums aren’t really the coolest places even in India’s capital city New Delhi. I really wanted to catch the National Museum’s exhibition titled ‘The body in Indian art’ curated by Naman Ahuja. I had read about it and thought it would be interesting.

I didn’t know how the kids would take it though, but summer vacations are made for experimenting. And we found ourselves in the curiously circular National Museum building, embarking on a journey of artistic interpretation that views the body in the light of thematic constructs like spirituality, death, fertility and perfection.

I quite enjoyed the display, but it was quite a bit for the children to take in. Aadyaa and her friend Myrah amazed us by how many characters and situations they could recognize from the popular epics as well as the number of Gods they could recognize from what they wore, what they held in their hands, their expression or posture! Far from us haviong to explain to them, they ran ahead pointing out – “See, Ram, Lakshman and Sita are in vanvaas!” or “Radha and Krishna are on a swing!” or “Vishnuji ke haath mein sudarshan chakra hota hai, dekho!”

At one point, the girls and Udai debated over a figure that had snakes in his hair. The girls thought it was Shiva, while Udai who can read was trying to convince them it is Nagdev (even though he pretended to be bored for the larger part of our time there)! IMG_6699IMG_6697IMG_6702IMG_6703IMG_6704

I was struck repeatedly by waves of nostalgia. Childhood memories of visiting Belur, Halebid, Somnathpuram and later Khajuraho, all of which are full of carved stone statues; many many trips to the Cauvery Emporium on Bangalore’s MG Road where older relatives admired bronzes in tones of awe and admiration. You get the drift- I had been indoctrinated early!

We wrapped the visit up with Udai running up to see the swords and guns, while my friend Hansa and me ensured the girls had something to eat and drink. Of course, the ice lollies we ate in the car park were the highlight of the trip for the kids. Did you really think statues and paintings can compete with ice cream?

 

Citizenship starts with making your community better: Thoughts on the AAP manifesto

I watch Kejriwal’s antics and I laugh, along with many who make fun of him. I doubt his capabilities, I wonder about his future. But I also admire his courage. Not just him, but all those who has taken the ultimate step towards making change possible. All those who have joined the AAP, given up being ordinary citizens to become people with a cause. I am excited to live these moments of history, experience these cataclysmic changes.

I, like many of you, am afraid to commit. I am shy, scared, ambivalent. I do not understand politics as deeply as I think I should. But I do care, about myself, my family, my nation. And I firmly believe that the way ahead can only be with the participation of all of us in the democratic process, in ways deeper than just pressing the button on the EVM every now and then!

I, like many of you, am loath to take either side on the Cong vs BJP, RaGa vs NaMo debate. I see them both as part of the same problem. Even though I abhor right wight politics, I do not see the Congress being able to, at this time, provide any stability or direction. AAP’s short stint in Delhi confused me. Like many of you, I wondered if this was the end before the beginning. I also went over the various choices again and again in my head.

This morning, though, something clicked. I was tired of hearing people make wild calculations about who would win and then try to take sides as per these estimates. It seemed to be a lot like betting on the horses. This is not a horse race, I thought. I’m not gambling, I’m trying to take a rational decision about who to vote for! I decided to vote by gut feel, for the sort of politics that I am willing to live with.

I read the AAP manifesto and it echoed a lot of things I have felt and said about how I want my nation to be. It, most of all, was rooted in the idea of giving power back to the people, the idea of deepening democracy. A few analysts feel it toes the Congress line and in a sense, there is a common left of political intent. (Aside-All manifestos must talk about the same stuff; modus operandi, collect a list of current hot topics and put in a point about each!) But therein ends the similarity. In tone, the AAP document empowers citizens. The Congress manifesto reads in a top-down fashion. It sort of lords it over us, the masses. It is a critical difference, I think. The AAP’s document is also a lot   more succinct and well-organised. The BJP is still silent, as of this moment (I just checked their website).

The idea of devolution of power is problematic, especially for us Indians who have been used to someone or the other being our mai-baap for centuries. But it’s time gave a chance to party that says of itself: “It is not a party that will solve your problems. It is a party that wants Swaraj; that wants power to return to your hands, so that you can solve your own problems.”

This is just my own personal point of view. Each of you reading this is entitled to their own perspective. I am not trying to convert you. But please, those of you who follow the strange logic that they should vote for XX because they will win anyway, please rethink. Either you should just admit that you agree with XX’s political agenda, or you should follow your heart and vote for the right candidate in your constituency. Please remember, citizenship starts with making your own community better!

Quick clicks in Jaipur

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to Jaipur for a wedding and while I will take my time to process the few hundred pictures I took of that gorgeous evening, here are a few quick snapshots of a halt we took in the market to buy a few knick knacks.

All the time in the world...

All the time in the world…

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In siesta hour

In siesta hour

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Lovers click each other, man watches them, tourists stroll by...quintessential Jaipur!

Lovers click each other, man watches them, tourists stroll by…quintessential Jaipur!