Alarming! Politicians are as obsessed with the urban dream as the rest of us!

I was researching an article about the governance of privately built cities recently and one of the experts I spoke to commented on the obsession of the Indian State with being answerable to the urban middle class, to the exclusion of other categories of citizens like the rural folk, the urban poor etc who have traditionally been the ‘vote bank’ in India. After Ayona seeded that thought in my head, I began to notice that it was indeed being pointed out by several journalists and experts in mainstream media. For instance, this piece talks about Modi’s obsession with the urban. It’s not just Modi, our nation is seeing a disturbing shift in which the youth aspire to everything that is urban. Symbolism is important and cars, mobile phones, branded clothes and a ‘liberal’ lifestyle have become outward signs of a change in outlook (not mindsets though, as we are reminded time and again!).

Sanjoy Narayan’s editorial in Hindustan Times this weekend describes how painfully aware young people are of the stark inequalities. I imagined, as I read, this sea of young people gravitating towards a lifestyle they couldn’t sustain, leaving behind a familiar life that they look down on.

At the India Art Fair, a panel of photographs from the South Indian countryside of homes that mimic urban architecture paints a clear picture of how the city is a major part of the dreams of people across the country.

Sneaking in one of my amused moments, a whole bunch of pics of homes taken mostly in Kerala representing the urban dream! All paint companies very much in business!

As an architect and urbanist, I clearly see how people with “one foot in the city and one foot in the village” (am borrowing these words from Rahul Srivastava of URBZ), carry back home the symbols of their city life, recreating in villages and small towns across the country the palatial urban-style homes of their dreams that the city doesn’t give them space for! Often times, no one lives in these countryside palaces!

Mohan, a passionate and inspiring young man I know quite well, built such a home back in Odisha while he made money running a grocery store in Gurgaon. His aging parents lived in this large home by themselves for many years. Mohan’s frustration with the anomaly of the situation has been growing for a year or so and he recently made the brave decision of moving back to start a business in a small town near his home. I sincerely wish him well. His brothers refuse to move away and they are absolutely certain Mohan will fail and the relatively big bucks in the big city will bring him right back (his tail between his legs!).

Everyone, politicians and bureaucrats as well as educated people regardless of caste and class, have fallen for the urban dream hook, line and sinker. The few who, like Mohan, dare to dream different are laughed at. We’ve bought our own bullshit, literally. We believe that an industrialized future is the way forward. We prefer not to think about how the food will get to our table, where wild animals will live, where we will go when we want to escape the city, where our water tables will get recharged….. it’s too painful to think about, we hope that there are rules to sort that stuff out!

The truth is that most of us are entitled to live in our own imagined worlds or urban prosperity. It alarms me, however, when politicians do the same. That those in power and those in line for power propagate this imbalanced situation as a dream we must dream, it’s worrying indeed! Cashing in on the urban aspirations of rural folk, politicians are shamelessly painting a false picture. They are showing us dreams that will never be fulfilled and that will push us further into environmental disaster, food insecurity and sharpened inequalities.

Sobering thought, if you needed another one- To be able to vote in people who see the whole picture at some point in the future, we would need to see the whole picture for ourselves.

How can renters demand improved sanitation? #migration #rentalhousing

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.

All of the families on this floor share 1 toilet! Men go first, then the schoolgoing kids, women wait their turn...

All of the families on this floor share 1 toilet! Men go first, then the schoolgoing kids, women wait their turn…

Terrible maintenance levels, usually blamed on disinterested landlords, is the normal in rental tenements

Yes, this toilet! Terrible maintenance levels, usually blamed on disinterested landlords, is the norm in rental tenements

Jhuggis and other semi-permanent rentals often have bare minimum sanitation facilities and open defecation is not uncommon and very dangerous for women

Jhuggis and other semi-permanent rentals often have bare minimum sanitation facilities and open defecation is not uncommon and very dangerous for women

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.

Families living in slightly upgraded rental rooms share amenities among fewer households are able to negotiate better maintenance

Families living in slightly upgraded rental rooms share amenities among fewer households are able to negotiate better maintenance

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.

The bald story: We need migrants and we need to talk about diversity

The buzz on migration has been growing the past few years, but it is hard to connect the dots on economic, social and right-based approaches the to the issue and even harder to understand migration in the context of urbanization and globalization, both forces that are fueling and shaping the mobility of human beings across the world.

The tragedy off Italian island Lampedusa with the drowning of 300 African migrants served to highlight the conflicts and contradictions, and how confused our understanding is on the issue of migration. This morning, The Hindu carries an excellent interview of Francois Crepeau, who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. A few points he states helped me put things in perspective and am paraphrasing the highlights here for you.

1- Economies need migrants (widely rewfering to low-wage, illegal migrants in the international, esp European context) because they do unskilled, low-paid jobs that no one else wants to do and are regularly exploited while doing so

2- They subsidize industries (he cites the example of strawberry picking) that have low margins. If we really want to do away with illegal migration, we would need to subsidize or improve these industries, not clamp down on migration, which clearly is the backbone on which these industries survive. This sort of analogy holds equally true of internal migrants from rural areas to cities, except that there is no question of illegality (except for countries like China where systems like hukou restrict mobility).

3- The sovereignty of nations is hugely compromised by globalization and there is a sense of loss of control, hence an over emphasis on the protection of boundaries and clamping down on migration. It’s a misfit solution to a complex problem.

4- The plain fact is that politicians are “not up to the task of telling their populations that we need migrants-doctors abd engineers, but also we need low-skilled or unskilled migrants.” Crepeau states that this is because the discussion on migrants becomes about national identity and societies are simply not ready to accept change. There is therefore the need for a great discussion on “diversity policies- on who we are and how we see ourselves in 50 or hundred years.”

I couldn’t agree more. We do not need to see migration from a perspective of paranoia and suspicion. We cannot protect our boundaries of caste, clan, class forever. We, in India and especially in urbanizing areas of India, need a civic engagement and dialogue about diversity. In our schools and colleges, in our drawings rooms, in our workplaces, we need to talk about inclusion, humanity and human rights, we need to learn to accept the ‘other’. If we refuse to do so and continue to build the walls higher around us, we will leave behind for our children a world unlivable- a battleground, a barren waste.

Internal migration and urbanization: Why we need a nuanced view of how these intersect

UNESCO’s Internal Migration in India Initiative launched an important publication yesterday (see here for details). ‘Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India‘ draws focus to an issue we often sweep under the carpet, asking us to confront head-on the issue of India’s large population of internal migrants- some 326 million, close to 30% of India’s population as per estimates by the NSSO. I’ve been working in the area of migration and as an architect and urban planner, I see substantial linkages between urbanization and migration. Linkages that we need to scrutinize minutely if we are to create urban living environments that are equitable and enjoyable to all of us.

ImageTo begin with, we need to understand which urban areas migrants are opting to move to. In this regard, these figures from the report stand out- 43% of Delhi’s population comprises internal migrants. However, it is not just the metros, but cities like Surat (58%), Ludhiana (57%), Faridabad (55%), Nashik (50%), Pune (45%), Lucknow (28%), Patna (27%) and Kanpur (19%) that need to gear up to support migrant populations urgently. Cities often without strong planning and governance frameworks, and low capacities to create and implement sensitive city level planning programs. Yesterday Minister Jairam Ramesh mentioned, for instance, that data from the 2011 census highlights the presence of 3900 Census towns that fulfill various characteristics of being urban but are still managed by gram panchayats! Clearly, these places have no way of understanding or managing the rapid changes they are experiencing and we see a catastrophic impact on social cohesion as well as the environment. There is no doubt, therefore, that urbanization in the country needs to be seen with new eyes and local municipal bodies be strengthened substantially.

In all this, the migrant plays a significant role as a contributor to the economies of the cities that receive them. As we go about our daily lives, whatever we may be busy with, we interact with migrants across social class and from various parts of the country. We are migrants as well, often enough. The discussion at the book launch yesterday therefore, distinguishes between educated migrants that opt to migrate in search of better opportunities (like many of us) and those who need to migrate in order to find paid employment; in other words, they migrate as a survival strategy and this is often termed as distress migration. In that sense, the story of migration into urban India becomes a story of class, in fact another dimension to the class issues that urban Indians are facing on a day to day basis.

I make two observations out of this. As a citizen, I see a keener analysis of migration as a way to develop a more nuanced approach to how we lead our lives in the city. I have written often in this blog about middle class bias, our suspicion of the ‘other’ in our midst (on intolerance here and on the need for idealism here) and also of the shrinking of public spaces that help us interact with people from various walks of life (on community driven public spaces here) and retain our tolerant attitude towards those who are unlike us. Bringing to the fore the stories of migrant families, their experiential journey as they adjust to urban lives is an effective way of highlighting that they are not so much unlike us, their aspirations are not so different, and it may not be unthinkable to treat them in a humane manner and welcome them into the community. A friend told me yesterday that upper class women (madams) in the Durga Puja pandal in my neighborhood had literally shooed away Bengali women who are migrant domestic workers; the same women who are their support system in taking care of their homes, who cook, clean and babysit for them! Clearly, this sort of bias needs to be addressed.

Second, only by being able to understand the type of migrants in a specific city can city planners hope to cater to the needs of the future. Cities like Gurgaon may have, unfortunately, missed the boat. But all those new urban areas scattered across the nation might benefit hugely from research that creates fine and nuanced distinctions between circular/seasonal migrants and more permanent ones, as well as from studies that map migrant consumption choices  of both goods and services.  Urbanizing areas need to have in place systems to monitor incoming migrants. It is debatable, but perhaps the Aadhaar could be a means of tracking data as well as providing portable services to migrants, as was discussed at yesterday’s event.

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

My research focuses on housing, which is one of the most challenging issues cities are facing today. Nuanced data on migration (in addition to other forms of data on employment, labour, industry, demographics, etc),  is imperative to be able to decide what sort of housing must be planned in a city- how much rental and how much ownership, what sort of affordability slabs must these be in, etc. The role of governments in this is critical, as land is a crucial resource. The earlier we recognize the urgency of this need and use it to create new data collection, analysis and planning systems for upcoming urban areas, the better we will be able to reap the benefits of urbanization, as indeed as a nation we should and will.

The hidden jewel of Dhanachuli #heritage #architecture

It is a running joke between me and my husband Rahul that I’m not really interested in travel destinations that do not involve foraging around among ruins. I vehemently denied this the last time we discussed a possible vacation. I love the beaches and the cruise ships, the road trips and the backpacking just as much as everything else, I said. But I can tell you I was delighted and amused in equal parts when Sumant mentioned a visit to the abandoned ruins of the original Dhanachuli village during the first evening of our weekend getaway to Te Aroha earlier this month!

Our planned excursion was delayed by a day thanks to nightly precipitation that left the path wet and slippery, but we were determined to go. Sunday morning found an enthusiastic group (comprising Vijay, Vibha, Aaditya and me guided by Sumant and a kind and generous staffer from Te Aroha) making its way down into the beautiful valley. Shortly after we had crossed the existing settlement that hugs the road, we got a taste of what was in store for us. An abandoned home, colonial in its proportions and bearing, but with the wooden carved doors and windows characteristic of the original homes in these parts. The stop vetted my appetite for more. I could see from Sumant’s expressions that this was the tip of the iceberg and an excitement gripped me for what was in store further below._DSC2261

Eave detail

Eave detail

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Exquisite door

Exquisite door

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesnt quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesn’t quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Detail

Detail. I would surmise this is a relatively newer home and the carvings aren’t as intricate as the older ones. Perhaps the type of wood available changed, perhaps the better craftsmen were no longer available…

Port hole?

Port hole?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top...great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top…great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into....

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into….

After maybe twenty minutes of walking alongside fields of corn, cabbage and peas, we started seeing the first homes in the settlement below. I was struck by the play of light on the beautiful stone masonry on these homes. Some roofs were caved in and the roofs were overgrown with grass. Hindu symbols like the trishul were clearly visible. Our sense of anticipation heightened and soon we were rewarded with the beautiful sight of the little cluster of original village homes that we had trekked all the way to see._DSC2305

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

The story goes that upper caste Hindus from the plains, from areas as far as Rajasthan and Gujarat, escaped forced conversion to Islam and moved into hilly terrain. The homes in the village therefore date back to anywhere between 150 and 200 years. Here, they settled down, amassing large land holdings and building these beautiful homes using local materials and the skills of local wood craftsmen from the Jhonsari community. However, they influenced the craftsmen substantially in the motifs they would use, typically snakes, fish, elephant and various other revered Hindu symbols with hints of Islam-influenced motifs as well. And in the shape of the niches, which are exactly like Rajasthani jharokhas. We could see Islamic influences in the types of arches used as well as in the typical geometric patterns of the carvings on some of the doors and windows. We stared, stitching the narrative of this fascinating time in history in our heads, imagining what it must be like for families who made this drastic move and how they must have hankered for small motifs and icons that served as reminders to what they left behind, that became a fragile but intensely beautiful link to their shared history and identity.

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs.

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya :)

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya :)

Sumant...Framed!

Sumant…Framed!

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

_DSC2433

Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Living heritage!

Living heritage

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

_DSC2444

Notice the geometric patterns like the floor patterns in Mughal architecture

And this arch....

And this arch….

Delightful nuances of life

Delightful nuances of life

There would have been an archaeologist’s pleasure in walking through these ruined homes, but it wasn’t just history we were looking at. We found occupied homes as well in this little hamlet. Cows tied in the lower level under the exquisitely carved windows. A dish antenna screwed onto one of of the carved panels. This is living heritage, a cultural landscape that deserves attention. The contrast of the abandoned homes, to the ones that were used only for storage and the few that were still lived in told a story of economic change and loss of patience. Families had migrated up the valley towards the road, where livelihoods could be found catering to the tourists that passed by on their way to Mukteshwar as well as to the locals who lived in the village still. These homes still stood because they mean something to these people. Some are even propped up by new wooden pillars in a bid to save the roofs from caving in, but clearly no new investments are being made here.

The pictures clearly show that there is value in this heritage–the value of craft, architecture, a slice of history, a way of life. One way to conserve this heritage is to buy these beautifully carved frames and doors from these owners and cart them off, to be lovingly restored and installed in a swank, elegant and even opulent residence or heritage hotel in Delhi, or Mumbai. The other option is to find a way to conserve these homes in their original location, involving the local community in an effort that would not only augment revenue through targeted tourism and a renewable of the crafts, but also renew their bond with their rapidly disappearing material culture. A culture that spoke the language of wood and stone rather than brick and reinforced cement concrete and one that had space in it for art.

Sumant mentioned he would be happy to support, in part, a group of enthusiasts who could get together to showcase this delightful slice of heritage. Filmmakers, conservationists, artists and people engaged with the concept of responsible and sustainable tourism can join hands to save this hamlet from destruction. I think it is a fantastic seed of an idea that we could develop into a more meaningful pursuit.

Water tales: Drowning and thirsty at the same time!

Water is on my mind these days. how can it not be, when some parts of our country struggle to deal with floods while millions of others depend on erratic and expensive sources of water to survive! To top it all, we have a roof leaking at home and, as gathering clouds strike fear in my heart, I am reminded everyday that water finds a way to get in everywhere. And become the heart of many a problem.

Clearly, India is at the brink of a gigantic water problem. We know it. A recent study by the Earth Policy Institute warns us of food supply problems because of overdrawing of water for underground aquifers, dropping water tables, contaminated water sources…a bleak picture with India being one of the regions most certainly at risk.

“India has a regulatory vacuum with regard to groundwater, and it is a free-for-all market when it comes to extraction and pricing.” writes Saritha Rai in her article in The Forbes that highlights the risk posed to businesses from water scarcity. This was brought home to me today this morning when I was interacting with a private landlord who builds and rents out units to migrant workers in Gurgaon’s urban villages.

I am neck deep in research to figure out ways in which the private informal rental market in the city’s urban villages and illegal colonies (link to HT article in which I was quoted, on this issue) can be catalyzed to be a legitimate and thriving source of rental housing supply in Gurgaon. Interestingly, while local landlords do not consider policy as a hurdle, choosing to stay outside the ambit of government surveillance with the freedom to do as they will, it might be the need for water that will push landlords towards seeking alliances with the government. Just like independent electrical meters help landlords track usage and allow them to charge for power separately from migrant tenants over and above rent, there are moves to meter water and pass the rising costs of water to the tenant as well. Landlords do fear that their ‘fail-proof’ rental business will, despite all their innovations and adjustments, meet its nemesis in water!

Dark clouds loom outside today. Rain threatens and my home also gears up to meet some aquatic challenges! Are we destined to drown in water without having any to drink?

Need to support private informal rental market urgently

Policy makers are making noises about a rental housing policy for India, which currently does not have one in place save for some anti-eviction and rent-protection laws in certain States. The renewed interest in rentals has been triggered by a report that finds 11 million out of the 18 million units built between 2007-2012 lie vacant, ostensibly because owners are hesitant to lease them out to renters who they fear will be hard to evict when they need to. A 19-member panel set up by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA) headed by Jaithirth Rao, Chairman, Value and Budget Housing Corporation Private Limited is now looking at ways to encourage developers to construct rental housing units.

Historically, housing policy worldwide and in India as well has had an inordinate emphasis on home ownership. In India’s growing urban centres, rental housing is highly in demand owing to mobility patterns and also as a result of high land prices and high cost of home ownership. Highly distorted land markets mean housing affordability will continue to be an issue; it is not merely a demand-supply game for sure. A policy that will put more rental housing on the market, protect the landlord but more importantly protect tenants too against arbitrary rent increases is welcome.

However, policy makers seem to have missed entirely the huge amount of rental housing already being provided by small landlords in the informal areas of our cities. Walk through slums, unauthorized colonies and urban villages in any city and you will see homeowners adding floors to accommodate tenants (sometimes they call them relatives, but this is also a form of tenancy after all). In Gurgaon, my research as part of the Future Institute Fellowship Program shows large-scale construction of rental units by small and mid-size landlords in urban villages located close to employment centres. These erstwhile farmers have been meeting the housing needs of low- to middle-income for years successfully even as the government continues to mull over affordable housing as a problem.

This sort of rental construction is right under the noses of the authorities, yet they seem to feign ignorance about it. Local councillors tell me that villagers do not allow census enumerators to enter their homes and do not divulge the presence of tenants as far as possible, fearing interference with their business of rental housing. Landlords remain unclear about the legality of rentals, fear they may have to pay service tax. To refrain from showing rental units, they do not construct kitchens in the housing they provide, and also give minimum amenities like toilets and bathrooms. Yet, no one will be fooled that these tenement homes are for any other purpose but rentals!Image

We find ourselves in a strange conundrum with this sort of rental market. Like we refuse to see slums and accept them as part of our reality, we do not wish to really know where maids, cleaners, security guards, drivers, cooks, retail assistants and even BPO workers live. Within the same city, people are interdependent yet ignorant of each others’ lives.

From a policy perspective, it is a huge challenge indeed. We do need to legalize the informal rental market so that we can regulate the safety of the buildings that house migrant workers and so that landlords are encouraged to offer decent amenities- water, sanitation, etc. Yet, we want to ensure that these rental rooms remain affordable to the poor, which probably means offering some sort of incentives. From what I know, these landlords do not really make money off the rentals. They rent partly to keep their property from remaining vacant and being grabbed by political goons, and to keep busy after having lost their land in the process of urbanization. It is a delicate balancing act, but it needs to be addressed.

It is my appeal to Mr Rao and the HUPA to include the informal rental market in your considerations while formulating a rental policy. If needed, HUPA can set up a parallel panel of experts to look into this. Supporting and engaging with the informal rentals market will being down the pressure on the government to provide affordable home ownership options, especially in cities that are experiencing high rates of rural-urban migration. It would protect the poor, who often have to face arbitrary rent increases and are powerless before their landlords who are ‘locals’. It would also offer better business models to landlords, who will find ways to improve their offerings and expand their business without fear of the law.

The larger question: What are our strategies for survival as a society- vilification or empathy, us or ‘them’, paranoia or rationality?

I read this morning with mixed feelings about the arrest of an illiterate teenager from Bihar who is the co-accused in the latest shocking—no, deeply saddening—rape of a five year old in East Delhi’s Gandhinagar area. Of course I am happy that the perpetrators are being brought to book. But just for a moment and because I have been intensely interacting with migrant workers in low-income communities, I thought this through from Pradeep’s point of view.

Getting into the perp’s mind, for a moment

Illiterate, with no opportunities in his village, Pradeep moves from city to city finding work on construction sites. He lives away from the social fabric he has grown up in. He has to make new friends wherever he goes. Violence, as Nilanjana Roy’s editorial in The Hindu yesterday points out so well, is an inevitable and integral part of his life. Several times has he had to fight for survival against cheats, sexual predators, thieves, rivals at work. His self-esteem is often eroded and no normal family life exists to restore the balance. And then, of course, there is his daily search for livelihood. A daily struggle for basic needs- water, toilets, food. Shelter, a rented room shared with any others, is just a place to sleep, offering no solace. Entertainment is film music, songs from back home traded through memory cards and heard on the phone, B grade flicks watched on the phone. Images of sex flood his mind. He has little or no sexual opportunities. He has little or no economic opportunities, no real skills, no value, no real self-worth. Soon his family back home will find him a wife. More responsibility, still very little income. He has no future. He just has to get on with life. And yet, he aspires to live well. In his imagination, like the heroes of the movies he watches, he finds wealth, love, sex, power and popularity. In reality, he is less than a Nobody. Starved even of dreaming with a semblance of hope, in a moment of depravity, he finds the most vulnerable target and an act of thoughtless unpardonable violence follows.

The gravest crime

I am not advocating for Pradeep. I am only saying that the problem is of a magnitude so large that we are unable to comprehend it. We are breeding millions of Pradeep’s in our country and as a nation, our crime against them of offering them promises that we cannot deliver is the gravest one yet.

Let me explain. In an evangelist mode, we have enacted the Right to Education. Our public, private and non-profit institutions have drilled the importance of education into our citizens. Yet, we are unable to provide the education we advocate is necessary for every child. In my fieldwork among migrant families in Gurgaon, I repeatedly see parents save and scrounge to send their children to schools that often are not even registered institutions! Further, we are unable to provide meaningful and dignified employment opportunities for those who emerge from or fall out of this less-then-efficient education system.

Many young people are resorting to migration as a means of economic survival, and this has been well established by leading economists like Kundu. The inability of agriculture to support rural families, the lack of non-agricultural employment in villages and the lure of economic growth that is concentrated in urban centers all contribute to the massive internal migration India is experience.

 Need to understand the migrant experience

A part of my mixed reaction to today’s news was that, until now, voices in the media were not vilifying the other, that favourite scapegoat, the migrant. Perhaps it is a small indication that the phenomenon of migration has become an accepted and inescapable reality. This is a migration necessary to sustain the economy, but it is also a migration that renders a large section of our population without rights and without identity. Migrants find little recognition in public policy except as the ‘other’.

The intense alienation and confusion that are characteristic of the migrant experience, especially among youth, is no small factor in understanding the crime statistics in our cities. The intangible is easy to ignore, but only in understanding these psychosocial phenomenon, in listening and analyzing the thousands of stories that migrants can tell, can we hope to ease their transition and lift them from the sheer hopelessness they feel and that triggers depraved and abnormal behavior in these young men (and women).

Taking a call: Barbarism vs humanity

What must be going through Pradeep’s mind as he awaits his transfer to Delhi and a confrontation with his partner-in-crime Manoj? Does he feel shame, revulsion, remorse? Does he see his entire life flash before his eyes? Does he imagine the grief of his mother? Does he understand how the nation is reacting to what he has done? Does he hear people baying for his blood?

I just finished reading another book of Alex Rutherford’s series on the Mughal emperors, who meted out the most barbaric punishments to traitors in order to deter any others who might contemplate treachery. Perhaps their times demanded such barbarism and violence. It pains me to hear those who denounce the Islamic invaders as barbaric and hold up the superiority of the Hindu civilization as examples of ‘Ram Rajya’ propose the exact same measures to punish rapists and sex offenders. Clearly, these leaders and organizations do not think we have evolved or need to evolve.

Many other ways to address the issue of punishment have been discussed infinitely in the press and blogosphere since December 2012 and there is sufficient evidence worldwide that disproves the theory that the death sentence, castration and other barbaric means to deal with convicts deter future offenders. However, just as there has been little finger pointing to the fact that the miscreants are migrants, there is also very insufficient debate on the preventive measures we need to take to prevent future crimes—how migrants are to be offered opportunities to assimilate with the society they choose to live in; how communities are to find mechanisms to educate their children about sexual predators and how they are to deal with those who exhibit predatory behavior, for instance. If we were to work to reduce the huge amounts of stress and insecurity in our society rather than do all we can to fuel these feelings, wouldn’t we all be better off?

The larger question: My survival or ours?

I saw my daughter Aadyaa off as she got on the school bus this morning. She is five. Innocent, with a huge zest for life and unlimited energy, she waved her goodbyes with a twinkle in her eyes. Inadvertently, I shuddered at the thought of something terrible happening to her that would destroy her innocence forever. Even something as small as a touch or glance could do that damage and that moment will come, sooner or later, I know. But let me not make it worse by feeding her with suspicion and paranoia. Let me believe that most people are good. I intend to take her and my son Udai on my interactions with migrants later this month, to see for themselves how other people live and work, deal with problems in their lives, how they are as normal as we are in what they wish for, in how they struggle to reconcile their dreams with their realities (except that the difference between the two is achievable for us and impossible for them). I hope that, as they grow, they will discover that there are beasts among us, aberrant personalities that have tipped over and fallen out of line. I hope they understand that they need our help and our empathy more than they need our hatred. How do they learn this even as they learn to protect themselves and fight for survival? That’s the larger question that we are dealing with, isn’t it?

Shy

Shy

My camera is fast becoming my best friend as I explore the by-lanes of Gurgaon’s urban villages and unauthorized colonies interviewing migrant workers for my research. This child dived endearingly into his mum after staring at me unabashedly for 15 minutes, the minute I whipped out my camera..and then he re-emerged. And that’s when my shutter went ‘click’!

Heritage under your nose: Observations from Nathupur Village, Gurgaon

My first few visits to Nathupur village were way back in 2004-05 when we drove there all the way often to eat at Italiano’s. At the time, I recognized that this urban village adjacent to posh DLF Phase 3 had the potential to be for Gurgaon what Hauz Khas village is for Delhi today, a place full of boutique shops and eateries, an exotic locale with an earthy feel. I did not know then what lay inside.

In a few years, DLF Cyber City mushroomed in the vicinity. Along with the millions of square feet of office space, came a demand for residences for low-income workers who did not have the options of commuting from afar and Nathupur (along with Sikanderpur and Chakkarpur) became the default absorbers of this burgeoning population of migrants coming in to tap this new opportunity for work.

My later visits to Nathupur were more related to this new economic reality. At one point, we tried to look for office space here for Minerva in a bid to be located closer to some of our clients. At another point, I had a frustrating encounter with a placement agency for domestic help located here. I then perceived Nathupur as a messy warren of human habitation, dense and disorganized.

Today, as I explored Nathupur in the company of team members from Agrasar, an NGO working to assist migrants in Gurgaon, these disparate perceptions came together in a climactic realization of Nathupur as a hapless victim of rapid urbanization and changing realities. In the part of the village where we conducted our community interactions today, I saw strewn many stately old havelis, rock solid and beautiful. I saw proud villagers inhabit old homes fashioned in a colonial style. I also saw the old homes half knocked down, making way for higher builder-style construction that would house migrant families, shops and businesses. Amid the buffalo-ridden lanes of this clearly old village, change was evident. The few who are clinging on to their old life of open space and rural habits (we saw women drying grain in the sun, men smoking hookahs and chatting) would be eventually outnumbered. But for now, these older homes in the context of rapid change seem like moments snatched out of a tornado of sweeping transformation.

I am wondering if it would be possible to preserve some of this older lifestyle and architecture. Some sort of adaptive re-use perhaps?

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