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.

 

The elephant in the room: Will/Can the BJP address environmental concerns?

A surprising number of people I know reasonably well, who had offered no opinions or shown enthusiasm all through the build up and during the polls, broke their silence yesterday after BJP’s victory was safely established. My first thoughts are about why people are so reticent about their political leanings or current feelings. If you’re right wing, it’s OK! Why be apologetic about it? As I began to read what people put up on FB, I began to see that for the majority of people on my timeline, their vote was in favor of stability and development. They believe that Modi can provide the sort of leadership that can bring the bounce back in the economy. For people like my driver and maid, they are hoping Modi brings life to the agro sector and most importantly, brings prices down. Fortunately, I do not know too many people who would like Modi to send the Muslims to Pakistan, etc etc. I do know a couple though, but like they say, one doesn’t always choose one’s acquaintances!

Let’s agree for the moment that the mandate is for a better economy and better governance. Looking at the analysis, I think its pretty remarkable that entire communities chose to abandon their traditional leanings and voted for the BJP, at times against the logic of caste or region. It’s a big responsibility for the BJP now, to steer the nation back onto course. Media is working overtime to offer opinions on what Modi’s priorities will be- economic growth, foreign investment, controlling inflation, reviving the farm sector, taking away the malaise of the subsidy, making people more self-reliant, assuring justice for all especially minorities, etc etc. No one is really talking about the big elephant in the room: environmental sustainability.

Kafila promptly carried a piece on this yesterday, on the dangers of the BJP government being a surrogate of the corporate sector sans checks. Among other concerns, environmental sustainability is something that those of us who work in the development sector have been really worried about. It seems that a government that plays to the corporate sector won’t bother too much about this. [For those who will jump on me at this time and tell me the UPA was as much a corporate surrogacy as Modi’s will be, let me tell you that this is not the time to compare the Congress’ crony capitalism to the BJP’s. That point is moot now, with the majority mandate. ]

When it comes to the environment, big the problems still remain. India’s record is dismal. We’re going downhill fast! Food security is a concern, toxicity in food and water is causing epidemics of lifestyle and other diseases. Pollution levels in cities are peaking. We’re not healthier humans, we’re probably getting sicker and sicker. I don’t think we can afford five years of turning a blind eye to environmental concerns, especially if we are looking to make more investments in infrastructure and industry. I don’t buy the idea that its all right for the developed world to worry about the environment, while developing nations like India should first focus on growth. Climate change is a reality, however much the extreme right in the US denies it! India’s only salvation will be in finding innovative ways to achieve growth in a sustainable manner. This impacts every sector. Our ways of production, of eating, living and traveling, of disposing waste, all need to change if we want to build a better future, sustainably.

I am also equally concerned about social equity in the context of neoliberal economic thinking, but am less paranoid there because I know the BJP will have to, in some way, benefit the vast electorate that has supported it this time. In my work, especially at micro Home Solutions, I’ve always pushed for a market-based approach, but its not always possible to do that owing to the lack of transparency in our system. How Modi will address social concerns therefore remains to be seen? The Gujarat model hasn’t any good answers and its something the new government will need to work on, I think.

I’ve made no bones about my own political leanings. They definitely do not veer towards the right. As a proud Indian, however, and a believer in the democratic system, it is my duty to support the government in power with good counsel in my own field of expertise. This piece has been written in that spirit. I see myself in the role of the enabler as well as the watchdog and critic, as a person who can make a small contribution to ensure India doesn’t take the road to disaster while thinking it’s taking the road to progress!

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?

Baby steps forward! First reactions to Haryana Affordable Housing Policy 2013

For a low-income person in a city like Gurgaon, owning a legal home is a distant dream. During my field trips, I have spoken to scores of families that belong to Gurgaon and its surrounding areas that have invested in unauthorized colonies (usually plotted from agricultural land) bought on power of attorney basis from landowners. This, they say, is their only option to own a home in the city.

A city of impossible dreams, a home in Gurgaon is unaffordable for most consumers

A city of impossible dreams, a home in Gurgaon is unaffordable for most consumers

Plots in illegal colonies are the only affordable option. Many buy plos and set them up as tenement housing to rent out to migrant labor. This picture was taken in Devi Lal Colony in Central Gurgaon

Plots in illegal colonies are the only affordable option. Many buy plots and set them up as tenement housing to rent out to migrant labor. This picture was taken in Devi Lal Colony in Central Gurgaon

The new Haryana Affordable Housing Policy 2013, the details of which are now out, seeks to address this issue by setting new rules to bring on private developers into the low-income housing game. In a city where land prices are through the roof and housing is unaffordable for middle-income people as well, it remains to be seen how transparently and efficiently such a policy can be implemented so that the intended ‘beneficiaries’ get to buy and occupy these homes.

How the policy is to work

Essentially, the government plans to grant special licenses to developers to build these projects. The carrot on offer, of course, is increased density and FAR norms. Under the proposal, the projects licenses would get to build out to a density of 900 people per acre as opposed to the current maximum of 300 people per acre. The units are to be 28-60 sq m in size, however 50% of the units must be less than 48 sq m.

The developer has to qualify in a point-based system that takes into account the condition of existing infrastructure (roads, water, sewerage, developmental works) and the developer’s presence in the specific sector where the project is proposed; thus encouraging projects in areas where infrastructure is better developed to come up first as well as preventing developer monopoly over certain areas. Only one project will be approved per sector as per Master Plan. Once the license is awarded, the project is to be developed with 4 years and cannot be converted into a normal project.

Projects on plots upto a maximum of 300 acres are permitted in the State’s larger cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad, while maximum plot sizes go down to 150 and 75 acres for smaller cities. The allotment process is to be stringent and in the hands of a panel and will be done at the rate of Rs 4000 per square foot in Gurgaon, Faridabad, Panchkula and Pinjore-Kalka, and Rs 3600 per sq ft in other development plans.

Out of the subsidy mindset, finally!

In a rare and progressive gesture, the policy refrains from labeling any units as ‘EWS’ and categorically does this to prevent any cross-subsidy from applying to these projects. While there is a concern that the Rs 15-30 lakh price that these units are expected to be sold at will not really be affordable to the ‘urban poor’ in Gurgaon, keeping these out of the ambit of subsidy certainly prevents gross misuse of the policy. By this I mean that there will be no perverse incentive for middle and higher income people to buy the subsidized units, nor for poor people who get them to sell for profit and exit the investment. The units will go to a section of people who are still under-served, even though they technically will not come under the EWS and LIG categories who can afford homes priced between Rs 5-10 lakhs typically.

Some things slightly off….need to be thought through further…

Cars are a reality, transport planning on urban scale needed urgently: Parking, a typical problem area, rears its head here too. Half car parking space per unit is to be offered as stilted/covered parking but not to be allotted to flat owners, who will get two-wheeler parking instead. Visitor parking is to be uncovered parking. We are talking about middle income people here and I would wager every unit will own at least one small car, so this is a highly impractical situation and we are staring at a parking disaster in these projects. It would be more practical to incentivize such projects along transit corridors and plan an efficient transportation system that links these areas with employment centres. So that people who are hard pressed to buy a home are not forced to buy cars in the first place! From an aspiration perspective, a four-wheeler is a craze. We regularly see families that have no savings to speak of buying second hand cars, partly because a car is a status symbol, and mostly because there is little public transit to speak of. There is a desperate need to align this policy with other larger, more ambitious transit initiatives, both public and private.

What’s in it for the developer besides FAR/FSI? Developers are to provide bank guarantee as well, in addition to putting their lad on the table AND putting in the money to develop the project. Seems a hard ask to me!

Migrants allowed? Eligibility criteria not so clear: The eligibility criteria prevent the allottee or any family member from owning another govt allotted unit in urban areas in Haryana and limits the number of applications to one only. However, this is only applicable to ‘licensed’ colonies, so those currently living in illegal colonies are eligible. Plus, the newspaper reports that this scheme is for residents of the State. The draft policy makes no such specification. Does this mean that no domicile will be asked for? Private property does not restrict higher income migrants from buying; will these units also be available to migrants from other States with no identity papers from Haryana? I find that hard to believe in the light of the general drift of State housing policies, but if this is so it would mean a huge step forward as well.

The other issue is the one-year limit on reselling the flat. How will that be monitored?

No clarity on O&M: The developer is to maintain the project free of cost for five years, after which a resident association takes over. While this policy is an improvement over the existing one, this is a tough issue with affordable housing and needs definition certainly for a sustainable solution.

Imperative to learn from failures elsewhere: This policy has been a long time coming and it takes a few very bold steps forward; however, I wonder if the failed or partially successful experiences of other States have adequately been considered while drafting this (O&M experience of SRA scheme in Maharashtra, a case in point).

NCR cities might be special? The situation in Gurgaon and Faridabad is drastically different from other cities in Haryana. It seems to me that a differential approach could have been taken for these two cities to position them better within the NCT of Delhi.

Dovetail with other schemes critical for a sustainable and viable solution

It is clear to any practitioner in the housing space that this policy will serve middle income customers and not EWS/LIG and that is fine! However, other solutions like employer-built housing, rental housing dormitories and family units, public housing projects as built by Housing Boards as well as regularization of illegal colonies are critical to addressing the issue of affordable housing in the larger context. Otherwise, the truly under-served section of the urban poor will continue to be denied quality housing or a right to improve their socio-economic conditions; surely, that is fundamental to planning the cities of the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appalled by government apathy towards providing affordable shelter: The case of Gurgaon

The longer I work in the low-income housing sector, the more appalled I am by government apathy towards providing shelter, one of the most basic human rights upheld by the Constitution of India as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is not merely a signatory but a nation that has played an active role in drafting the declaration!

Over the years, governments have distanced themselves from the role of provider of housing, citing the need for private investment. The bald truth is that private developers have no reason to build homes for lower income groups as long as the middle and high income markets continue to offer good returns. Government intervention is therefore essential. Various models to deliver affordable homes are being adopted by States across India. However, much distance lies between promises made and achievements on ground.

Take Haryana for instance. In 2009, the Haryana government declared it would build 100,000 low cost homes across the state- 40,000 in Gurgaon, and 30,000 each in Faridabad and Panchkula. These are urban centers in the state that border the cities of Delhi and in the last case, Chandigarh.

In Gurgaon, the State government intended to build homes on 200 acres of land and these homes were to be prices between Rs 4 and 16 lakhs. Unit sizes were to be 270 and 520 square feet. Clearly, these homes were targeting LIG households in the city.

In a departure from the way governments have traditionally acted in building homes themselves (DDA in Delhi, for example), the Haryana government decided to distribute licenses to private builders to construct these affordable homes. A planning department official has told the media that about five such licenses have been granted, but refused to divulge the locations of these projects or any other details. The land for these projects, however, has not been acquired. The state town planning department’s website apparently shows that only 21 acres out of the total 200 (11.26 acre at Sector 67 and 10.06 acre at Sector 93) are actually available for this scheme. Meanwhile, developers have rapidly acquired land in the sectors demarcated in the Gurgaon Manesar Master Plan 2031 and it seems that the government is playing into the hands of the builder lobby rather than protecting the interests of the citizens.

Citizens groups and the media has alleged that HUDA has not acquired any land to build government housing or sell plots that would be affordable to the middle class either, leave alone provide shelter options to the poor. The last time plots were auctioned at affordable rates was in 2008 in Sector 57.

My fellowship research is attempting to study the possibilities of evolving an inclusive approach to housing in this city. My initial sense is that there has been a definite (and deliberate?) failure of the government to do its duty. Now, with land prices extremely high on the back of anticipated rapid development of the demarcated sectors in the city, there is little hope of the poor being accommodated easily. How is this city going to survive if it continues to deny shelter and even the most basic living conditions to its supply of labor, that essential workforce that is an important pillar that supports the city’s economy? My research attempts to prove that the poor have a stake in this city’s story, that they do have the resources to survive and they will, if only they were given a chance and recognized as stakeholders rather than as nuisances to be swept under the carpet!

Power in the hands of the poor: Why are we uncomfortable with that? Oct 17, 2012

A few days ago, I mentioned that I feel angry when someone calls me an idealist. It’s not the word, it’s the tone that implies that idealism is foolish that really gets to me.

I get called an idealist by fellow professionals essentially for being pro-poor. Architects and urban planners, being trained in the ‘technocrat’ mode, like to pose physical solutions to problems that ail our cities. Hence tools like zonal and master plans, design proposals and such like are seen as change drivers. However, because these and many other tools for change lie in the hands of bureaucrats, policy is used to steer and obfuscate what is actually happening on the ground.

Neither policy nor the tools for physical planning are completely rooted in the realities we exist in. The realities are political, social and economic. The realities are the stuff we want to shove under the carpet- class divides and political gain, vested interests and goon power, caste-based thinking and skewed gender equations. If I am an idealist for believing that we need to make a strong political, economic and social case for uplifting the poor, then I am proud to be one indeed!

At this stage in my research on migrant housing in Gurgaon, urban designers and planners I interact with are telling me that I cannot influence the sociology and politics of any place, so its best to focus on a physical solution. So propose some mixed use, opine on resource distribution, talk about land values, density, the magic word FAR, etc etc. On the other side are the activists and NGOs who work with the community. They advise that I look at the problem squarely in the eye and find out what stops governments from providing migrants housing and more importantly, what will convince them that this is unavoidable. So basically, they ask me to place the political and socio-economic considerations at the center of the problems.

These two aren’t essentially different opinions; they both intend to arrive at physical solutions perhaps, and yet they look at the issue in two very divergent ways. It appears to me, and my judgement is informed by various interactions in the sector, that mainstream professionals  in fields like architecture and urban planning have begun to view themselves as service providers, and are disconnected from a sense of their role in society. They view the government as a significant client and the migrant worker as a beneficiary of a policy. Therefore, the proposals are not intended to empower the community, but to find a solution palatable to the government.

Activists and not-for-profits in this space, on the other hand, intend to give power directly into the hands of the poor, equipping them with information and arguments that will help them carve a space for themselves in urban India, where they compete for resources with the upper classes while at the same time being a huge part of the ecosystem.

Clearly, solutions that place decision making in the hands of the poor are clearly uncomfortable for decision makers. Perhaps we can blame it on the general need of both bureaucrats and technocrats to find the sort of solution where there is a measure of control and predictability. Solutions that involve incremental steps, are long-term in nature and do not come with guaranteed results are hard to buy into.

No one has a crystal ball that tells us the future, but it doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that the workable solutions will emerge out of a skilful, considered mix of both approaches. That it is necessary to consider the poor a vital part of India’s growth story, while at the same time being pragmatic in the means we employ to give them their rightful place in this unfolding saga of a rapidly urbanizing India. In the end, we must confront our discomfort with handing power (especially in aspects as vital as health, education, housing, basic services, etc) to the poor.

 

The other life, how little we know: A peek into the mind of the homeless laborer- Sep 15, 2012

I’m reading ‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi. It is a peek into the lives of homeless laborers living in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and follows closely the stories of a certain group. I know now why my mother left the book on my table a few days ago. She has read it before me and she must have known how greedily I would lap up its pages, seeing as I am soon to embark on primary research work in Gurgaon’s immigrant labor community, many of whom would have compulsions and circumstances much like the men in the book.

And yet, a homeless man is a very different sort of person. Much misunderstood, much maligned, not even considered inside the frame of reference of society as we understand it. ‘A Free Man’ hits you with the immense intelligence with which its protagonist Ashraf, a safediwala who has spent a couple decades living in Sadar Bazar’s Bara Tooti Chowk, views his life and situation. An intelligence that can make incredibly complex questions appear simple. Consider these-  Why does a many run away from home? Why do people disappear and never return? Why does the government run homeless shelters for three months a year? Where do they think those people will go the rest of the year? And then, why do they have a cell that randomly locks up homeless people considering them beggars? Who is a friend? If you have only two rupees to your name, what would you do with them- buy chai or pay for a shit?

In our work at mHS, we have tried to look at the problems of the homeless from a shelter perspective; but it is truly hard working around the government’s conflicting policies. However, the real problem with addressing homelessness is that in truth, we do really understand why someone would choose to be homeless and vulnerable (mHS is a part of a task force that is working to make homeless shelters an integral aspect of municipal infrastructure and specifically. We are working to develop a construction manual to aid local governments. Harsh Mander is spearheading this and his understanding of the homless is a lot better than anyone else’s).

In a vague sense, we all know that people leave their villages in search of employment and land up in a city. We assume most of them come for employment because their land can no longer support them. But many come for trivial reasons. Someone could have stolen a few rupees from their father and got slapped when he got found out. Another got drunk on local liquor and simple sat in a bus and found himself in a city. Yet another was insulted by his employer and did not work without honor. Yes, these are people who dream, who have a certain self respect, who hope and aspire. In that, they are much like us and we can understand that.

But because it is unimaginable for us that we could live without a roof above our heads and enough money to feed our needs, whatever they may be, we cannot understand many things. The book reveals that the homeless are also people with emotion, who react as much to heartbreak as to poverty. They value friendships and yet live lives so fragile that they dare not question when a friend disappears. They live in suspicion, yet trust everyone. They form bonds so close and yet they can walk away from everything. They drown their sorrows and the ache in their bodies in drink and smoke, but they cannot drown their sense of rootlessness, and the feeling that they have come far away from identity. They cling to classifications- bihari, rikshawala, charsi (substance abuser), gappi (teller of fantastic tales) and so on. They are laawaaris (belong nowhere), akelapan (loneliness) is their only true friend, they will always be ajnabis (strangers) to many and even to themselves and yet, in a sense, they are the only ones who taste true azadi (freedom) as they have no maalik (owner), no family, no one to answer to at all; these are the four overriding emotions around which ‘A Free Man’ tells the stories of the people we don’t really know.

In the sense of really feeling what these people are all about, this book has opened my eyes and my heart. I know it will become an important reference point for the research I am about to begin.

Building citizen consensus, influencing decisions is a must-do if we want livable cities: Who will rise to the occasion? June 2, 2012

I really like the model that the Philips Center for Health and Well Being has developed to measure the success of cities from the perspective of livability. They use three spheres-Authenticity, Inclusion and Resilience- each of which include socio-economic, technological and environmental aspects, among others.

I like this construct because it addresses the ingredients I believe most valuable in a city.

Authenticity pertains to identity, history, nature and natural heritage, architectural heritage, connections between people and between the citizens and the city, sense of place, etc. In short its about a city’s character and how it navigates change as time progresses.

Inclusion is about equal opportunities, equal access to amenities and resources, justice, freedom, participation, quality of public spaces, etc- about creating a city for everyone.

Resilience is about adapting innovations, diversity, attitude, accepting and adapting to changes in environment, economics and cultural manifestation, about tradition and modernity and the conflicts.

They call it the AIR model and I think it is an interesting way to look at things, considering the enormous challenges and opportunities cities offer in today’s context. I do wonder how many of these aspects can be measured though. For the past two weeks, I have struggled with finding ways to quantify things like community interaction and inclusion for the ratings for affordable housing that we are working on at mHS, along with Ashoka housing for All.

It worries me that while many cities worldwide have recognized the benefits of good stuff like walkability and inclusive planning, Indian cities continue to be designed for cars and the common man is still excluded from decision making. Therefore, even if we do find ways to measure these soft aspects of a city, it is more critical to find means to share viewpoints across a wide cross-section of citizens, reach a consensus and get a buy-in, influence policy using the power of community buy-in…..all monumental tasks. Who has the energy and commitment for all of this in a situation where we have to fight the system for something as simple as a plan approval or to get the road before our house repaired? It looks bleak, but somehow somewhere someone will have to find the strength to do this!