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!

 

 

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.