Author Archives: ramblinginthecity
This morning I was roped in to speak about the impacts of demonetisation on migrant workers by Gurgaon ki Awaz, a community radio station in Gurgaon, where I live. I was speaking on a live show with the mandate to highlight systemic problems that might impact migrant workers in particular ways in this predicament, when cash is hard to access. To offer context to those outside India, currency notes of particular denominations (Rs 500 and 100) stopped being legal tender at midnight on 8th November 2016, in a bid to eradicate black money (that has evaded taxation). In a cash-driven economy like India, this had a severe immediate impact and though, the mid- and long-term impacts are yet to be seen, some sections of society have been particularly hit.
Many migrant workers, as I outlined in the show, lack ID documents and have therefore been unable to exchange their old notes for now. The unbanked are of course in deep trouble. Many migrants are daily wagers, contract labourers as well as informal sector workers whose incomes have been immediately impacted. Further, since these workers support their rural homes through remittances, the impact on rural consumption is also expected to be substantial in the coming months.
My interaction with the station was interspersed with comments from callers, and this was an exciting and eye-opening experience for me. For one, opinions came in from opposing ends of the spectrum. The majority of callers supported demonetisation whole-heartedly, not minding the sacrifices they are having to make. The vindication that people were feeling about the dishonest rich being punished has generated much optimism. For the callers, it seemed like this move was successfully breaking down a hegemonic system that had oppressed them and kept them poor while benefiting the dishonest rich. This ‘great equalizer’ perception was reinforced by another supporter who described his experience of standing in a queue at the bank. He pointed out that the rich guy who got off his car also stood in the same line and got the same amount of money as him. Triumphant, he said, “Ameer ko do hazaar rupaye ki kadar to pata chali!”. At least, the rich now understand the value of two thousand rupees (this was the limit imposed by the government on withdrawals from bank accounts).
However, there was also a caller who were upset that those who disagreed are not being given the space to express their dissent.He brought up the importance of a strong opposition for a democracy to function well. Who will represent the voices of the minority who disagree with such a move, he asked?
This is heartening. While people are busy outshouting each other on Twitter and Facebook, debate is not dead on the ground and people are not afraid to speak their mind. Keep in mind that the community radio speaks to low- and middle-income communities largely residing in urban villages, unauthorised colonies and old parts of Gurgaon. It is has no English language programming and does not cater to the educated elite in the city.
Second, people spoke of various coping mechanisms, how they borrowed from friends or helped out an older neighbor by depositing her cash, how barter worked in some instances and credit in another. These are fascinating and deserving of documentation, for they tell of the resilience of communities when unexpected things happen.
Third, I was pleasantly surprised at the sharpness with which my suggestions about constructive ways of offering criticism was picked up by community radio audiences. I was making a point about the need for supplementary measures to help out those genuinely distressed by demonetisation, like rural households dependent on remittances, access to food and healthcare, etc. Immediately after I said this, we got calls reporting community discussions that centered around offering the government suggestions of various kinds and there was a clear call for more consultation and interaction with State. The people want a listening government was the sense I got.
As a researcher, hearing voices from the ground is critical to inform my understanding of the impact of government policies. This is not the first time we have found that perceptions differ starkly across economic class. On radio as well, local land owners and migrant workers expressed divergent views even within the dominant narrative of support for demonetisation. This is also not the first time we have seen multiple narratives bundled within even a single respondent’s story. The reality is that truth is complex. It is multifaceted, often warped and twisted. It takes enormous patience to refrain from picking out the simplest bits and making them ready for consumption as I have also (probably erroneously) done in this post. It takes immense courage to recognize and accept complexity. But the truth is also that people do accept and live with complexity and contradiction in a very effortless manner. For me, even in this supposedly post-truth era, deconstructing this gnarled truth is still the only way forward.
Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!
Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.
We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.
We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.
Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!
In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!
We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!
Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.
Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.
We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!
The high drama that has unfolded in India since PM Modi’s demonetisation announcement on 8th November has left with a nearly permanent headache. I worry about everything from how I’ll pay the milkman to how migrant labourers and informal sector workers are going to withstand the lack of cash. Most of all I worry about the extremely black and white perceptions around me. I’m scared that we are becoming a society where healthy debate is no longer possible, leaving the door open for increased compromises on the freedoms and rights our Constitution entitled us to have.
One of the saddest fall-outs of the past few years has been the sort of self-censorship that people like me have begun to practice and in this, I suspect I am not alone, but. For fear of the vicious trolls, many of whom are ordinary people and even ‘friends’ and because the shrill pitch of the non-debate is violent and counter-productive, further dividing opinion into two opposing camps rather than invigorating discussion as opinions are supposed to. No one likes getting outshouted and abused. And so we self-censor. We don’t speak out, we don’t write, we steer away from political discussions, we change the subject. We stop liking the posts we want to. We stop commenting on posts we disagree with, even if our closest friends have posted them. It is becoming hard to be friends with someone who has a different political leaning and this was not always so. We spoke about these fears in 2014 in the run up to India’s general elections and in the past two years, other transitions notwithstanding, the tone and tenor of public debate has deteriorated beyond measure and the politics of divisiveness and hatred has been normalized in a very sinister fashion.
The past two weeks have convinced me that self-censorship is a very bad idea. Today, on Constitution Day, I vow to do the following:
- Educate myself: Move beyond my bubble and read/hear opinions beyond the ones I agree with. This takes more effort but I’ve been reading arguments on either side of the demonetization debate for the last few days.
- Ground-truth: I plan to go to the field to hear more about the coping mechanisms of people, especially those I consider vulnerable in an economic and social sense.
- Express myself: I’m going to resume writing my blog everyday. Not all my posts will be about politics or citizenship. In any case, I am not an expert and my blog functions as an urban diary rather than an opinion column. I want to write so that I process and release what I’m thinking into a public domain. It is as much self-preservation strategy as a measure to show myself I’m not going to run scared anymore.
We shall see how this experiment fares, but at the very least I will not be a mute spectator anymore. And that might even make the headache fade for a few minutes everyday!
This past weekend, I returned after a three week long international trip to the worst smog Delhi has faced in 17 years. Yes, it was bad. My nostrils felt the stench immediately and my eyes watered. My daughter wore a mask to go out and play. Non-stop media reports and social media feeds placed immense pressure on the government to act, forcing stop gap measures like shutting down schools, construction sites and power plants.
Three days later, the winds are blowing and the air is already clearing up. Believe it or not, the smog is beginning to fade from Delhi’s memory. New, more exciting stories will be out. This will soon be old news. Till the next time!
Mismatched! Short-term memory and long-term solutions
My friend Amit aptly calls the interest in smog “seasonal” in his succinct piece today. He also focuses on the need to address the problems of air pollution with long-term measures. This is the dominant line of thinking in the community of urban professionals I interact with. It is not with glee, but with extreme sadness that we want to wag the finger and say “I told you,so!” to Delhi’s residents and policymakers. Because public imagination is, for the moment, captured by the problem of pollution, we see the opportunity to hammer home the harsh reality. And also offer, once again, the solutions that we have been talking about for years.
The truth is that there are no magic bullets. Combating pollution and ensuring air quality needs a multi-pronged and long-term approach. Because the source of pollution are so many, including automobile emissions, waste burning, construction dust, industry and cooking (see this excellent piece by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda for a deeper understanding), several strategies need to be deployed at the same time. Because cities are ever-expanding creatures in these times, the magnitude of these problems will also keep growing, so solutions will have to be planned for the present and in anticipation of the future. Most of the solutions likely to yield results involve difficult decisions on the part of the government, but also substantial changes in behaviour on part of citizens. This change can be triggered by alarm, nurtured by a sustained awareness campaign and sustained by incentives. For example, investments in public transport and good pavements need to be accompanied by measures to discourage private car usage, like higher parking charges or congestion pricing (Another piece by Dr. Sarath lists a set of solutions in this vein).
Professionals have been talking about these measures for years, but only sustained pressure from citizen groups can result in these kind of changes. To do so, we will have to transform our short-term memory to a real awareness of the problems at hand.
A matter of survival: Reducing consumption, community action, sustained pressure are small steps towards long-term change
This is hard to do, primarily because of the extremely confused (and shrill) discourse we have had around this issue. We’ve quibbled and played blame games about who caused the problem and we’ve pointed fingers at who should be accountable for it. In all of that, we have forgotten that year-round pollution levels in Delhi are high; so anything seasonal like fire crackers and stubble burning tips the balance and the situation spirals out of control.
Like many commentators have already pointed out, high levels of pollution should be a cause of long-term concern. The harsh impact of air pollution on human health, including premature births and deaths, is being recognized widely and especially in Africa and Asia, where the majority of urban growth is taking place (see recent report on African situation). It is not about apportioning blame, but about understanding the seriousness of the problem and finding solutions.
There is a lot we can do at an individual level. We can consume less so that we waste less and dispose waste in a responsible way; we can walk, cycle, car pool or use public transport wherever possible; we can prevent the burning of dry waste in our neighbourhood; we can bring down dust by planting more trees and bushes, using permeable surfaces for parking and driveways, and storing construction material properly. At a community level, we can do all of this and more! Garbage segregation and composting is an obvious example. So is discouraging of car use to walk to bus stops and local shops by creating walking infrastructure & community help groups to help children and elders cross roads etc. Efforts at a larger scale are also a great idea. Some of my friends have been running Facebook groups on air quality where information on problems and solutions are shared. All of these measures not only help us but also make it possible to influence the direction of government policy and public investment.
This is not a problem that is going away, folks! And it is not someone else’s problem either! It must mean something that the words ‘disaster’ and ‘resilience’ featured in nearly all of the conversations I had at the United Nations Habitat III conference I attended a few weeks ago. There is a tangible sense now that the significant economic benefits of urbanisation are coming to us at a terrible price and that humans are responsible for much of the damage. Reversing the course of climate change and protecting ourselves from disaster (including episodes like the Delhi Smog) is possible only if we all take responsibility. And make governments heed our concerns! It is a matter of survival.
It would be remiss of me to not thank my friends and family for fueling my thoughts and pointing me to several credible sources while writing this piece. Thank you, you know who you are!
I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012!
This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place.
Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work.
Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings.
Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred!
I must confess that I’ve been saving the best one of the three churches we saw for the last. I don’t know whether it because we were lightheaded from getting off a flight and heading directly to see the sights, or whether it was the novelty of being in a new city but it seemed to me that this little church threw open for us its heart and soul in a way that few places in the world have done before. We walked in and bought tickets, expecting a standard walk around the church, but what we got was an involved leisurely tour that allowed us to caress each piece of wood we fancied and linger at each pillar we liked.
It was here that we, once again, had the standard Ecuadorian conversation……
“De donde eres? Where are you from?”
“Eso es tan lejos! That’s so far away!…….Bienvendio a mi paid…. Welcome to my country….”
….but with the extra warmth and pride that Cuencans seem to have.
In Todos Santos, the oldest church in the city, those words came from the lips of a nun of the Oblate Order, which was set up in the late 19th century here and have played a key role in adding to the church structure as well as setting up community infrastructure, chiefly a school in the premises that was the first to permit Indian women to attend (and is still in existence today). Many of the Oblate nuns lived under an oath of silence inside the convent here and continue to be highly regarded in Cuenca. With this conversation began the most detailed tour of a heritage site that I’ve ever had.
In the late 1530s when it was constructed, the Iglesias Todos Santos or the All Saints Church was instrumental in helping the Spanish conquistadors establish the Catholic faith in a terrain steeped in Inca practices intermingled with the pre-Inca Canari culture (many pre-spanish graves were found during restoration). In fact, it is rumored to have been built on a site called Ushno, which was sacred to indigenous people and used for religious rituals by them.Even after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca in 1557 and began to hold their religious services in El Sagrario (read here), Todos Santos continued to be the primary church for the ‘evangelising’ of native people.
Architecturally, like in other monuments we saw of the period, Todos Santos was a curious mix of native technology and art with Spanish aesthetic sensibilities. Originally, the church was built on wooden frames and filled with adobe walls, built with a special mud-brick called bahareque, which the Canaris made with a mix of sugarcane, straw and clay.
Phoenix-like, this beautiful building underwent significant restoration between 2010-12 after being nearly destroyed in two fires in 2005 and 2007. The restoration uncovered the exquisite murals that had been unfortunately painted over in 1960. What we saw, therefore, was a church proud of its second lease of life. Locally made terracotta tiles, the detailed paintings over the stucco walls, the use of bright colors like cobalt blue, gold, red and yellow, the bright blue and gold ceiling tiles all clearly spoke of the influence of local art on this church, perhaps inevitable in those early years.
As we climbed higher and higher into the bell tower and beyond, we could see the surviving original wooden beams replaced and reinforced by new ones labeled 2009 and 2010. Standing high above the terracotta roofs of the city, with stunning vistas all around us, it wasn’t hard to imagine the awe a religious structure as well-proportioned and intricately decorated as Todos Santos might have evoked in the Canari and Inca people back in the 16th century. After all, even we had our jaws dropping to the floor and our eyes agog!
On a lighter note, I discovered while scouring the Internet later that we weren’t the only ones who had got the full detailed tour of Todos Santos! Many others had given it rave reviews citing the care with which they had been shown around. Far from feeling bad about it, I’ve been feeling delighted that the little church is in such very dedicated hands!
This is the first church we encounter our walk from our hotel to the main city square. Its pretty but unassuming white exterior and well proportioned bell towers does not prepare us for the treasures inside. As we purchase our tickets and enter, it glitters and dazzles, it awes us into silence, just as it did the small congregation in the early years after the Spanish established the city of Cuenca. Built on Inka ruins (I really like this spelling, used commonly in Ecuador, so I’m going to stick to it!) starting the year 1557, the church was likely the centre of religious and social life for the Spanish in colonial Cuenca (it appears indigenous people were not permitted to worship here) and in fact, was built through private donations. It remained the heart of the city till the New Cathedral was built much later in the 19th century (read post).
Though longer a consecrated church but rather a carefully preserved museum, it still feels very much like a place of worship. The elegant, elongated proportion of the building translate into elegant arched hallways, richly decorated. Parts of the original paintwork on the walls have been restored, especially in the elaborate chapels along the sides of the main hall and the richness of colour and the beauty of the carefully crafted human forms are striking indeed. A three-dimensional depiction of the Last Supper now dominates the space before the gilded altar and the paintings in the altar section are particularly vivid. This is also the only place I have seen oil paints done on marble from the 16th century! The quality of the artefacts and the quality of restoration is impressive. Especially striking is the balance between restoration and preservation, with many places where the original paintwork or masonry has been left partially revealed just as they might have found it, giving the visitor a sense of how much changed over time.
Another interesting fact about this Cathedral is that its spire was used by the French Geodesic Expedition in 1739 as a point of reference to establish the arc of the earth. This becomes more relevant when I later visit the monument to the work of these brave scientists at Mitad del Mundo near Quito.
We’ve made the most of the four days in Cuenca, the hub of Ecuadorian art and culture. On the absolute top of my list of sights are three fantastic churches we visited. Each offered a distinct experience and was meticulously preserved.
I’ll begin with the largest of all, the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción or the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, more commonly called the new Cathedral. Cuenca a city made for walking and its only fit that two of the major churches, this one and the older Iglesia del Sagrario are located across each on opposite sides of the pretty Park Calderon that functions as the old city’s main square.
Despite the massive brickwork walls that you see of the Cathedral as you walk around the city, nothing really prepares you for its sheer size. It reminded me instantly of the Byzantine churches like Aya Sofya that I’d seen in Istanbul. And I wasn’t very wrong, for Juan Batista Stiehle, the German Friar who drew up the plans for this Cathedral was certainly influenced by Byzantine and Romanesque styles. The main altar seemed to be more Baroque revival though, perhaps borrowing from the Baroque School of Quito, which in turned emerged from the extreme skill that native Indian communities had in working wood and metal.
The cathedral is relatively new. Construction only began in 1885 and went on for a hundred years or so. The story goes that when it first threw its doors open, it could accommodate 9000 people, in a town of 10,000! Beyond its grand scale, certainly its most dominant feature, of special note are the beautiful stained glass windows designed by Spanish artist Guillermo Larrazaba, who was invited to Ecuador for this assignment and then made the country his home, going on to design stained glass in prominent churches across the country.
The most exciting part of our visit to the New Cathedral was the climb up the tower to the top to see the beautiful domes clad with blue Czech tiles. The climb also sharpened our appreciation for the exquisite brickwork that still holds this magnificent structure together so well. The view of Cuenca from above, with its characteristic red tiled roofs, was a bonus!
The more you travel, the more you admire the industry and hard work of women. In Cuenca, we saw women carry things and sell eats, flowers and knick knacks on pavements and in street markets. Women manned the entries to churches and museums, sold us tickets and showed us around. Women served us in hole in the wall eateries, scurrying between kitchen and table even as their menfolk cooked inside. Here are some clicks of the beautiful women we met today, many of them clearly from native tribes of the region (like the Otovalos and Canari), distinct in their facial features and ethnic attire.