Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua

When we found a slice of our Friday free in Jakarta, we seized the chance to walk around Kota Tua, the old city. Located in the northern part of the city, generally considered the poorer part, Kota Tua had a run down but distinctly historic feel to it.

Most predominant here is the old town of Batavia built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early 17th century around what is called the Fatahillah Square. Over the next decades, the Dutch expanded the city to swallow the old Hindu settlement of Jayakarta (the origin of the modern city’s name). From what I could see, they followed the planning style of the cities back home in The Netherlands and built a town square, public buildings, canals and tree-lined streets.

Standing in that town square, I was instantly transported to the many historic city centers I have visited in The Netherlands – Haarlem in particular, because I am more familiar with it. The clean rectangular geometry and scale of the town square and the arrangement of buildings around it were very similar, but while inner city areas in Holland have been carefully preserved even as modern activities fill them, erstwhile Batavia felt neglected and even desolate, with a smattering of touristy activities.

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Disappointed, we moved on quickly, briefly glimpsing the interiors of Cafe Batavia that offered a peek into what colonial life might have been and then moving out from the square to explore a bit more of the neighborhood. The Kota Tua area has had its ups and downs through history, especially because of posher developments in the southern areas of the city even within the colonial period. Independent Indonesia was not quick to recognize the historic value of this neighborhood, giving it an official heritage status only in 1972. Revitalization plans did start up in 2004 and have received particular momentum in 2014 under Jokowi’s governorship of Jakarta, when a public-private partnership called ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR- Indonesian’s LOVE abbreviations) was set up. A section of Kota Tua was cordoned off for restoration work under this project, but to my eyes the scope of the intervention seemed very small.

Greg and I walked along the neglected and dirty canal (Kali Besar), ruing the deterioration of the buildings on either side of it, structures that must have been rather magnificent at one time. Even a building like Toko Merah that have been through successive iterations of renovation and has a rich history stood locked and empty.

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In the lanes behind the mainstreet, we found small factories and godowns, many hawkers and warungs, a quietly bustling working class neighborhood. Walking further westward, we crossed underneath the railway tracks, sensing we were closer to the sea while we were surrounded by dense kampungs on either side. My radar for colonial architecture led me to a set of relatively well maintained structures that had once been part of the VOC shipyard. The shipyard had been shut in 1809, but recently this small group of buildings seem to have been revitalized, housing a cafe, restaurant and a music school (which had intelligently played with the historic acronym to name itself ‘Voice of Indonesia’!). Stepping inside, I felt a distinct vibe. The building felt like a grand old dame, with polished woodwork and manicured landscaping combined with a sleepy old world charm. We sat down and grabbed a beer, taking it all in and gathering our breath before the stressful dash to the airport in Jakarta’s legendary messed up traffic!

We did make it to our plane in time and we’re in Jogjakarta now. Look out for upcoming posts on Borubudur and the special hipster vibe of Jogja!

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1740 map of Batavia (Source: Wikipedia commons)

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Street life at midnight #Jakarta

After two days of meetings that started post breakfast and went on all day, we felt we deserved some beer and decent music last night. And so we headed to the Camden Bar next door. Great vibe, cold beer, lovely music and lots of energy but the food was nothing to write home about. 

On the short walk back to the hotel, I see what looks like a street party. Music from a mobile karaoke vendor was the start attraction from me but also the wonderful idea of claiming a bit of public space to talk, eat, laugh, click pics and even sleep! I was so excited but Greg pointed out it’s not unusual in Indonesia cities at all. Me likes! Me likes a lot….


Conversations with co-travellers

A journey from Delhi to Jakarta. What’s so special about that? Two flights, some time to kill at Changi. Ho hum….

I’m not one to think like this before a journey starts. I’m always super excited about travel but some journeys are made special by the people you meet and the conversations you have. This one certainly was. Trying to sum them the best I can….

Conversation #1 : book buying advice from a stranger

When someone stands next to you at WH Smith and proclaims that a particular title is ‘the best book in the world’, it’s hard not to pull his leg right? “The best book in the world?” I challenge him. “For now…” says he, with a twinkle in his eye. He is recommending to me Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis and I’m skeptical as hell. It sounds very pseudo self-improvement to me, a genre I detest but he protests vehemently, saying it’s just the opposite. At this point we are joined by a 50-something Indian woman who announces her absolute dismay that the book section of the store has been slashed by half. “Change your name!” she cries, waving her hands about at the shop attendants, who launch into a long babble by way of explanations. As I bill and leave, I hear hip Aunty offer free book advice to the free book advice giver! 

Conversation #2 : dreams never die

Looking for a place to drink my coffee, I end up sharing a table with X. I have no intention of chatting but his gentle face and curious smile draws me in and I venture to ask about where he is from and where he is going. Over the next half hour, I hear a story of innovation, ambition, pride and disappointment that moves me. X is from Sydney, Australia. After winning a food innovation award for odourless garlic in 1990, he embarks on a journey of entrepreneurship, manufacturing and selling cosmetic and food products made from garlic, which he believes has medicinal properties especially in regulating respiratory conditions like asthma among other diseases. From what I gather, the business environment changed and one way or the other he ended up losing his business. Now, in the end years of his working life, he is trying to revive his business and traveling to explore partnerships in manufacturing technology, marketing and distribution. He is thinking of new markets and is fascinated to hear about the popularity of Ayurvedic and natural cosmetics and food in india. X is well read and reasonably well travelled but old world, still hoping to sell his ideas basis a spiral bound documentation of his past success. 

We talk about brain drain and economic policy, jobs and aspirations, the world order. I’m struck by his optimism and how his eyes light up when I ask if he has a sample of his product! He pulls out a small box of cream and I rub some on my arm. It’s anti ageing and full of garlic, all natural and aromatic too. He glows with pride as he sees how pleasantly surprised I am. “You gotta have a dream” he says “to do something for your country”. Clearly it’s not profit but something larger that drives him. And the fact that his beautiful wife and daughter have used his products for years is endorsement enough! His parting shot to me: “it was lovely to meet someone who thinks and cares”! 

Conversation #3 : fearless parenting 

The guy sitting next to me asks to borrow some part of my gigantic copy of The Strait Times and I comply. We start talking. Careers, business, the state of Indian roads, politics…staple conversation for two educated urban Indians meeting on a plane.  We even speak about cultural aspects of doing business in south east Asia and I hear him eagerly, soaking in information that might help the project we are starting in Indonesia. And then I ask him about his family. It’s a different guy talking now. A father with a five year old son and a two month old daughter. And we talk about how it’s fear and paranoia that drives modern parenting. To my utter surprise, he agrees with me about how we need to change that and give our kids the chance to find their own survival mechanisms. We argue as well. He loves the tech solutions- get the kid a phone and data card and google maps will be the solution! I argue for a belief system that trusts people, even strangers. It is a delightful and intelligent conversation that I enjoy. 

I end the long day with another long conversation with my dear friend and project partner Greg. This one meanders all over the place like it does with us but hovers somewhere around the themes we work on nevertheless. We can’t be blamed for losing focus! I go to bed and wake up a few times at night, excited for dawn. And here it is….

Tales from Grandma: Are our children missing out?

At the end of a busy day, it was refreshing to go to my mum’s place for a special dinner yesterday. Ma had made a special effort to put together a simple but tasty version of the Onam Sadya, the traditional feast eaten during the Onam festivities in Malayali homes (and now, as food becomes a popular medium of social connection, everywhere!).

Before we sat down to dinner, Amamma gathered us together before her deities for a few moments. She used her walker and slowly lowered herself onto a chair in front of her puja ensemble. She gave us instructions and we performed the traditional aarti together. And then, to our delight, she asked my kids if they knew the story of Mahabali and Onam. Without waiting for a response, Amamma launched into an enthusiastic narration of the legend of Mahabali. With a liberal use of words from Tamil, peppered with Malayali expressions and strung together by some English and Hindi, her narration was driven more by her expressions and gestures than words. The children listened in rapt attention and so did we. Partly because mythology and legend is ever fascinating, but more because the act of storytelling had transformed Amamma from a placid, pleasant and largely inactive old lady into an animated, beautiful and expressive matriarch.

In those few minutes, I watched my children’s reactions but simultaneously I regressed to being a four year old in Amamma’s care, being fed and nurtured by her warmth, enjoying her wonderful cooking and listening to her unending stories about her life and times. That relationship with her remained through my life but of late has stagnated because she, sadly, has withdrawn into a shell born out of partial deafness and an uprooting from her native environment to Gurgaon where language and cultural context are drastically different.

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Amamma and me, Diwali 2015

The image of Amamma telling the story has lingered in my mind all morning and I’m thinking of the immense value that grandparents and great-grandparents bring to children’s lives. I worry about the problems arising out of an increasing focus on English, how grandparents are no longer able to communicate as well to the little ones as they used to in my childhood, when the primary languages at home were of their choice despite the pressures exerted by English-medium schools for us to be fluent in English.

The other thought on my mind is how mythology, while certainly mostly religious in origin, is being increasingly appropriated and intertwined with religion. In Kerala, though, the legend of Mahabali is widely narrated and Onam a statewide celebration across religious communities. Growing up in Lucknow, non-Muslims only missed the namaz bit of Eid, participating fully in the feasting that follows. On Diwali, whether children burst firecrackers was more about the economic status of their parents than their religion. Things seem to have changed today, sadly. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could revive traditions of storytelling and shape them into a collective format so children get to share legends across religious and regional lines, and also maybe share storytelling grandparents?

101 and still counting: Ajjee, you are never far away from me

What is one year in a life lived over a hundred years? Only 365 days or so, one may so. In contrast, a year after the loss of someone so great who lived a century but felt immortal, who looked diminutive but towered over us all with the force of her persona- this year has felt like an eternity.

Ajjee left us a year ago. But she isn’t really gone. She was there when I was born, she was there when I struggled through nights of studying and stress, she was with me when I fought to comprehend the grief of losing my father even as she dealt with her own immeasurable loss. And she is there now.

It isn’t her physical presence, but her immense stoicism that I carry around with me like a lamp with a steady flame. It isn’t her material memory but her vast empathy and broad-mindedness that I try to nurture everyday, and use as a shield against the injustices and pettiness around me. I don’t hear her words when I shut my eyes and think about her, but I feel those bony fingers down my spine telling me that all will be well, that I must have faith and the doors will open.

Our ancestors are all within us, giving us the strength we need to go on, to scale those new heights, to conquer what we set our sights on. And of all of them, Ajjee’s smiling presence is the most comforting of all.

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To keep the momentum on #housing inclusion, we need mechanisms to ground-truth and innovate

We live in a deeply divided world. Significant shifts in global economics and geopolitics have meant that countries are desperate for economic growth and increasingly intolerant of any events that derail them from achieving their targets. In this milieu, migrants have been caught in the crossfire. No one seems to want them, but what’s more, the unwillingness to include migrants has severe repercussions on how nations are planning, managing and financing their cities.

What is inclusion? Attitudes towards internal migrants shift, very very gradually

At Prepcom3 in Surabaya, Indonesia in the last week of July, I was disappointed to see India join the European nations and the United States to object to the inclusion of the Right to the City framework in the New Urban Agenda, which will be further negotiated by United Nations member states in New York a few days from now. Allegedly (see Indian Express report), while Europe’s concerns stems from the migrant crisis and the US is loath to recognize immigrant rights, India is also worried about the repercussions of taking on the responsibility to provide social justice to all, extending the already thin benefits of State welfare and largess to those who might not be legally recognized citizens.

This is the heart of the problem. In a policy environment in which the word ‘inclusive’ is bandied about rather casually, the meaning of inclusion bears repeated and deep exploration. Gautam Bhan put a spotlight on this issue of citizenship recently with reference to the Delhi Jal Board’s historic decision to provide universal access to water.

Who does India consider illegal and what are the various kinds of non-citizenship that people experience has been a subject of much study. Internal migrants, despite a Constitutional right to mobility anywhere within India, have been described as ‘illegal’, ‘encroachers’ and ‘polluters’ in numerous policy documents and court judgements. Even where policy has recognized their economic contribution, migrants have been steadily excluded – or inadequately considered – from provision of basic services (like water, sanitation), housing (negligible supply of affordable housing, no focus on incremental housing), transportation services (low priority to  affordable public transport including NMT), health, education, subsidized food (no access to PDS at destination) and even conditions for livelihood (harassment of street vendors, regulations that prevent home-based work).

The good news is that this seems to be changing. We can see now the very humble beginnings of a new mindset that sees migration less as an intrusion and more as an inevitable consequence of economic transition (and climate change). Parliamentarians have been debating migration in a more healthy manner and that has resulted in the creation of a Working Group on Migration particularly to assess linkages with housing, infrastructure and livelihood. I understand the debates within this group comprising several ministries and government department, academics and industry representatives have been encouraging.

Inclusive housing takes heartening steps forward

Besides changes like the Delhi government’s inclusive stand on water, there is much progress in the field of housing as well. At a consultation co-organized by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA) along with Magic Bricks and GIZ this past week, I was pleasantly surprised to see not only more supply of lower income group (LIG) and economically weaker section (EWS) housing by state governments (representatives from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu spoke), but also much movement on progressive housing policy.

This morning’s interview of Mr Sriram Kalyanaraman, MD and CEO of National Housing Bank, who also spoke at the event, offers much hope. We see the confluence of the government’s flagship housing scheme Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY) and technology solutions (e-gov, m-gov, intergated MIS) that work to educate housing buyers and link them with accessible bank branches. The uptake of low ticket size home loans is especially encouraging. Kalyanaraman reports that home loans for under Rs 10 lakh comprised a whopping 30 percent of the total in FY 16! I have a personal sense of victory in this regard, having been involved with organizations like mHS City Lab that persevered long and hard with the government and finance sector to push changes that allowed banks to devise means to underwrite loans to informal sector workers. A huge change indeed that will have rippling effects going forward.

MoHUPA’s support of rental housing and attempts to bring in some policy reforms to encourage it are also heartening. Particularly brave are its efforts to understand the informal rental market, for any discussion that talks about the middle ground between the formal and informal pushes us towards a deeper understanding of how human beings survive, negotiate realities and experience the world; the exercise reveals the limits of defining people through their economic functions and shifts the focus on aspects of human dignity, safety and livability. Even more, it shows us that our understanding of their economic realities is also deeply flawed at present. These discussions are critical if we are to move towards long-term inclusive growth.

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Migrants regardless of income live in informal rental housing in spaces like urban villages

 

The contradictions must remain on the table, in plain view

And so, even as we celebrate the early wins, we need to highlight the contradictions in our approach. For example, those in the field know that any discussion on subsidized housing inevitably leads to the question of tenure and title. This consultation was no different. One cannot logically argue with the traditional defense of no-sale and no-lease clauses stipulated for a period of time (5, 10, even 15 years). This defense rests on the logic that people have no right to profit from something the government has subsidized entirely or partially. But if we happen to be in that moment when we are looking at market realities and the reality is that mobility of labour is a defining feature of India’s (rather painful) structural transformation, isn’t it a tad discriminating that we continue to devise schemes that tie the poor down to a specific location, disallowing them full tenure and denying them rights to sell or rent their properties? Is there no way around this? Could rent-to-own schemes be a solution so that the poor pay their way to ownership if they want to? Could private sector rentals that are currently in the informal domain be legitimized and even supported by mutually developing frameworks that ensure minimum quality standards and provide mechanisms to redress grievances?

Any number of questions come to mind, but if the government were to truly engage, solutions are also just as many. Beginnings have been made and now its  a question of innovation, experimentation and perseverance.

Eye-opening conversations with adoptive parents

Recent legislation in India around maternity leave and surrogacy have generated much debate around the idea of family, and the importance of parenthood and childcare. In all of this, the role of fathers as caregivers and parents and the challenges of single parenting are issues that have particularly been on my mind.

In this context, a recent experience to interact with a group of adoptive parents offered some interesting and unusual insights. I accompanied my dearest friend Nupur, and may I add mausi (translation: mother’s sister) to my kids, to Ludhiana’s district courts to attend to formalities related to her adoption of baby Bela, now about seven months old. When we reached the lawyer’s chambers on Monday morning, we were pleasantly surprised to meet three other families who had adopted babies from the same adoption centre. To an observer, it felt like a family reunion of sorts. Baby names and eating habits plus experiences with the adoption process were the main topics of conversation. The atmosphere was charged with happiness, and gratitude. Everyone there felt like life had given them that rare chance to fulfill the dream of parenting, a dream they had obviously harbored for a long time. The years of disappointment and pain, the feeling of emptiness that preceded adoption were unspoken but nevertheless evident part of their narratives.

The couple from Rohtak, whose baby girl was a bit over six months old, told us about the ingrained prejudice against the girl child that they faced everyday. The mother was pained about the mindset around her. She described it as a wall she could not penetrate. “Our neighbours advise was to wait for a few more years till the adoption centre had a boy for us. They felt that since we were adopting, we had the luxury of the choice of gender. The obsession with sons carrying the family’s name forward is disgusting,” she told me. “We have decided our baby will carry both parents’ last name,” she added.

In all three couples, I saw the fathers completely dedicated to the child and attentive to their wives needs through the day. I wondered about how fatherhood must appear a miracle to them and how little we think about the desires of a man to have a child. That came home to me when, in a rare moment of emotion, one of the fathers shared his feelings with me about being a parent. Their adoptive child was nearly a year old when they brought her home. His wife, a teacher, had been bold and bargained for a full six months of paid maternity leave from her school (before the law came through), asserting that adoptive mums need the time to bond with their children before joining work again. The father, on the other hand, said he was back to work in a week. He was pained about the fact that being away at work all day and spending only a few hours a day with the baby meant it took him much longer to get used to the idea of being a parent. More interestingly, he spoke about his passion for his work and how he did not like compromising on that either! “If I love my work, how can I do justice to it when emotionally I feel the need to be with my family?” he said, his anguish clear as he expressed his opinion on how employers need to think about offering options for leave periods up to two years for fathers/mothers to attend to childcare needs.

The reactions and opinions of these ordinary people in the midst of an extraordinarily beautiful and emotional experiences reinforced my suspicion that we need  to re-examine not just gender stereotypes but also our ideas of what constitutes an ideal family and ideal parenting. There are many ways to offer children love, care and a nurturing environment that operates around a sound value system. Why not create a policy framework that empowers parents and guardians to do so?

Why must I choose? — Ramblings of a Sanky Maniac

I look at my son running around the office. He giggles and laughs and takes forty rounds around the printer console. Plays with the calculator, block sections, paint catalogues. And I wonder why must I choose. The thought came from another article which a working mother friend forwarded to me about being a working mother. […]

via Why must I choose? — Ramblings of a Sanky Maniac

Ms Gandhi, let’s bring in enabling policy to influence a change in gender roles

Even as Indian society remains gripped by patriarchal values and gender roles have barely changed in the Indian family, the sands are shifting slowly but surely among urban youth. I claim no statistical evidence and I’m well aware that this is just a very tiny group, but those of us who live in urban India just have to look around to see more fathers engage with tiny tots in your neighborhood park, more women taking on weekend hobbies and enjoy social engagements while their spouses take care of the home and hearth, more shared parenting overall. An opinion piece in Live Mint today refers to the growing number of men taking on or at least sharing cooking responsibilities as well. These new trends fly in the face of Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s ludicrous assumption that men will misuse paternity leave. Meant as a rejoinder to criticisms of the recent landmark law that mandates employers to give women six months paid maternity leave (and full marks to her for championing that cause), Gandhi’s response could have been far more nuanced.

I admit, the issue of paternity leave has been problematic across the developing world, influenced by ideas of what constitute good family life as well as economic development imperatives. The international experience shows that the Minister’s concerns over the uptake of paternity leave are legitimate. Brazil’s maternity leave program, already voluntary, was amended to extend paternity leave from five days to 20 this year, but is expected to have limited uptake. China has also extended the leave entitlement for fathers recently, with the hope it will encourage couples to have more children, but commentators are not hopeful it will have impact as most couples now prefer single children. Overall, fathers are not seen as equal partners in bringing up children, but the benefits of parents spending more time with young children (and the critical role models fathers can be) are more widely recognized. Intersected with better education among women, there is a need to revise the outlook on the role parental leave policy can play.

My submission is this: Instead of making policy that is merely reactive and a long time coming, why not think of policy changes that will reward those families that engage in more gender equal behaviour. It’s not just a question of gender equality either; bringing women into the workforce is a critical task for India’s economic performance, and preventing educated urban women from dropping out of it the low hanging fruit.

India doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel either. Many countries have experimented with parental leave. The much-lauded Swedish model offers a total of 16 months of parental leave, two of those to dads. Sweden is considering extending that to a third month. Germany’s experience is interesting too. In 2006, the maternity leave was amended to parental leave, allowing dads to have two months of the total parental leave time (like Sweden). A 2012 evaluation of the reform showed, however, that families of young children tended to take on traditional gender roles and critiqued the policy for disproportionately benefiting families that had single/one-and-a-half earners. In order to encourage a healthier work-life balance so both parents get to spend more time with young children, the parental leave policy was amended in 2014 to incentivize flexible work and also allowed parents to use the benefits in many different ways. Also motivated by the prospects of falling workforce numbers, Singapore has recently announced government subsidy for a second week of paid paternity leave.

India can also consider taking baby steps forward by opening discussions on providing a framework for:

(a) parental leave instead of only maternity leave

(b) how best to encourage employers to offer flexible work hours for mums and dads; and incentivize uptake of paternity leave; and on

(c) how parental leave laws can extend to benefit low-wage earners and those in the informal sector who are currently left out.

Through consultation and public debate on these issues, it might be possible to build a new consensus on how we could, as a society, offer more men and women opportunities to balance their careers and enjoy parenthood simultaneously.

 

Obsessive reading!

Nothing like books to bring alive people and places! A lovely post indeed

sitanaiksblog

I have watched with fascination the obsession that revolved around the Harry Potter series. I remember the pictures of the lines outside stores for the release of each new book and my sister-in-law using all her contacts to get a pre-release copy sneaked out for my niece. These compelling, addictive series seem to be the fashion of the day, especially for young and young adult fiction. I watch my own grandson, addicted to various mythology based series – Maybe at that age I too went through the rage of the time – various Enid Blyton series, Bily Bunter and a great favorite, the William books.

Even for a fairly rapid and compulsive reader, I have not been obsessive about a series or a fictional character for a very long time.  The first Henning Mankell book I read was  Daniel which I picked up one of  my increasingly infrequent visits to…

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