Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

#Demonetisation as ritual sacrifice: In light of a recent trip to Inka territory

Anthropologist and friend Durba Chattaraj, in this insightful piece, compares the ‘inconvenience’ experienced by ordinary and honest people as a consequence of Modi’s bold demonetization announcement to the ritual sacrifice of innocents in ancient civilizations across the world. “In many cultures across the world,” she writes, “the logic of sacrifice to expiate collective sin demanded that the purest, rather than the most corrupt, be offered up to the gods.” She goes on to wonder whether this concept is still valid if the majority, and not the symbolic few, are on the sacrificial altar.

Durba’s analogy has appealed to me because I am fascinated by the emotional logic and perhaps habitual hopefulness with which the poor in this country have taken this enormously disruptive move in their stride. And because I had the fortune of spending some time amidst Inka ruins a few weeks ago, I’m equally fascinated by her bid to compare the mores of a territorial and if I may say so, fairly aggressive people to the supposedly civilized and democratic setup of modern India. So let me take the opportunity to recall that journey….

Our journey to Ingapirca, an Inka site in the Canar district of Ecuador in October this year took us through winding mountain roads and fertile terrain. Far less dramatic that Macchu Pichu, the ruins of Ingapirca hug the terrain close but the Temple of the Sun, probably built as an astronomical observatory stands out. These were a people obsessed and vastly knowledgeable about the movements of the sun, which they worshiped as the ultimate power not unlike contemporary and even older civilizations across the world. What makes Ingapirca different though, in a departure from the usual script of war and conquer, circumstances forced them to settle differences with the local Canari people and they ended up intermarrying with them and living peacefully. The Canaris worshipped the moon and the Ingapirca ruins clearly demonstrate that both lunar and solar worship became part of the unique Inka-Canari culture.

We were fortunate to be assigned a passionate guide, whose enthusiasm and knowledge enabled him to surpass his language difficulties. Whenever he was unsure, he didn’t hesitate to take help the lady in our group who spoke both Spanish and English reasonably well. Interacting with him not only revealed the deeper secrets of the site but also offered some insights into the ongoing attempts by Ecuador and other Andean nations to preserve the language and oral histories of the indigenous people; his own attempts to learn Kechwa, the indigenous tongue, made an interesting tale.

Getting back to the ruins themselves, and the starting point in my post today, we had an animated discussion in Ingapirca about the practice of ritual sacrifice. We stared down at the grave of the High Priestess, with whom over a dozen children had been buried alive  to tend to her in her journey after death. Children were considered the purest beings and hence ideal for sacrifice. They were fattened and treated well before the sacrifice and usually drugged to make it painless. In Ingapirca, archaeologists believe they were given a highly intoxicating drink made of coca leaves (we found the plant growing right there on the site!).

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The Inka Temple of the Sun looms up in the background but in the foreground are Canari vessels for lunar rituals

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Grain storage

 

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Granaries, residences, and sacrificial spaces

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The sacrifical stone, aligned with solar solstices

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Nestles low amid the spectacular Andean mountains

 

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The Temple of the Sun dominates the valley

 

The Temple of the Sun

Walking away from the Temple of the Sun

In present day India, the poor may well be the innocents who have made sacrifices post-demonetisation, losing work and wages for sure, and the state has indeed ordered rather than requested that they make it. While the Inka fattened the innocents for sacrifice, the poor have been promised redistribution or reward at a later date. The parallels make me want to question a bit our belief that choice, rationalism, debate and dialogue are hallmarks of the modern era we live in. In evolutionary terms, the span of time between the Inkas and us is only a blink and maybe as citizens we are still very much in that psychological space: content to not have a choice, accustomed to the powers taking our fate in their hands, always placing the survival of the clan above our own, happy for the rewards we might get but not necessarily assuming they will come….

Transitioning to 2017: Of gratitude, hope and confidence

In the rumble-tumble, scramble-ramble life that I lead, moments of reflection are snatched and savoured like rich Belgian chocolate. As I end the first day of 2017, I am filled with gratitude for the year gone by.

At a personal level, 2016 was a spectacular year for me, a year marked by extraordinary focus on research and learning, a year of achieving clarity in terms of not just my career but also how I see myself. It was a year that saw me blur the lines between mother, daughter, colleague and wife and make giant strides towards being just me, regardless and in spite of all of those relationships. A year in which I grew that thick skin that I had been wanting for so long, the type that accepts constructive criticism but stonewalls any negativity that does not teach me anything.

A year in which I leaped ahead and simply assumed that the safety nets would be there when I fell. And miraculously they were! People in my life who held me together, supported me in ways never imagined before. Events that unfolded before me unplanned.

A record year for travel, especially international. I visited Shenzhen in China, made three trips to Indonesia- one to Bali with friends, to Surabaya for a UN conference and then a whirlwind 12 day work trip covering 5 cities in that vast and fascinating archipelago. To top that, the dream trip to Quito in Ecuador did materialize and a short hop in Amsterdam and Paris was like the icing on the cake! I soaked in this travel year like a sponge, reveling in the new sights and sounds and smells, the conversations, the energy that comes with endless novelty. I fell in love with people and places, cultures and architecture all over again. I learned to pack better, plan better and be more organized. I also learned to un-plan and un-think and let things unravel. More importantly, on my travels I was reminded repeatedly of the inherent goodness of people, the sheer beauty of this world. And so, I have been filled with hope and positivism even as I have despaired and feared this year, as political and social events in India and abroad have threatened to shake the very foundations of what I believe in- rationality, humanism, equality, empathy and love.

I know the year ahead will be full challenges, but I feel far more prepared than I have ever felt before. For once, I seem to have accepted that things will be crazy, that there will be serious limits, that it is in my nature to go off script and that there is always learning in that. I feel less pressurized by the passage of time. I turned 40 this year, and that number sits very well with me, urging me to focus on quality, to savor the experience, to run my own unique race.

There is much to be done this year and I have my hands full. I pray for balance, for the ability to unplug and reset myself, for objectivity and for resilience. I pray for good health for everyone around me, I pray for sanity for the world. But most of all, I pray that we can all become children again for a few precious moments in this year ahead, so that we may remember that it all can be very very simple and yet extremely complex at the same time; that there is no contradiction, or that contradiction is the point!

Happy New Year everyone!

59, Rivoli: A glimpse of the alternative in Paris

Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.

In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.

On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!

59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?

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Fascinating chats with kids and a confrontation with misogyny 

I’ve always been fascinated about the trajectories of everyday conversations. This morning, Aadyaa complained about the days getting shorter and we started talking about the forces and mechanisms of nature. That you can’t pick what you want, it’s a package deal!

That reminded me of Ingapirca (watch out for that post, coming soon!), an Inka ruin I visited in Ecuador where the intimate knowledge developed about solar and lunar cycles was evident. I commented on how amazing it was that man had learnt so much through observation and analysis even very far back in time. Udai, whose grade 7 history syllabus includes the European Middle Ages, reminded me that medieval Europe, to the contrary, went through a ‘dark’ period in which science was ignored and reviled. He went on to educate me about how he saw rationalism and empiricism as the two main approaches to scientific thinking.

The jump to present day politics in our conversation was inevitable. Is the rejection of rational thought as seen in majoritarian political behaviour the world over (especially in the use of unsubstantiated information as part of a communication strategy) part of a cyclical process? Could poor basic education that does not grant people the ability to engage with content, leavealone have an independent opinion, be part of the problem? Has credibility in post colonial India been (wrongly) built on status, class and the ability to speak English instead of facts? And is a backlash against liberal intellectuals about a re-evaluation of whether these attributes constitute credibility or is it built on something entirely different like effective communication that feeds into people’s fears?

By this time, the kids were in a contemplative mode, realising just how privileged they were to be in a good school, where standards of education are high and teachers competent. The bus arrived and they left.

When I got back home and checked my social media feed, an abusive comment from an acquaintance on a post that critiques India’s recent demonetisation policy brought home to me that we are fighting a very real war, one which is fuelled by resentment against those who are capable of providing the empirical evidence. Combined with an odious level of misogyny and low self-confidence, rendering those with an opinion legitimate targets of abuse. Especially if they are women.

Thoughts on the impending creation of the Gurugram Development Authority

The Government of Haryana has recently concluded a massive spate of consultations in Gurugram ahead of setting up a development authority for the ‘millenium city’. The demand for Gurugram Development Authority (GDA) has been articulated amidst a growing sense of frustration about the lack of infrastructure and services in a city that is not only growing exponentially, but also one which a sizeable number of corporates and upwardly mobile families have decided to call home.

Certainly, this sort of thorough consultation process is unprecedented in the State and rare in India. I was fortunate enough to attend one of these meetings about ten days ago and was pleasantly surprised at the open spirit with which it was conducted by IAS officer V Umashankar, who is the Officer on Special Duty looking after the creation of the GDA. A look at the consultation schedule will offer an insight into the range of stakeholders brought to the table and I have reports of many smaller meetings in addition to these.

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Gurugram’s rapidly changing skyline: Upcoming sectors seen from my balcony

 

Cart before the horse: Create, then consult, in usual sarkari style

One of the main issues on the table was the need for the GDA in a city where multiple institutions are already in the fray. Many of the roles outlined in the Draft GDA Bill (see draft bill and other GDA related documents here), including its major role of urban planning, can be taken on by the municipal corporation (MCG) as per the 12th Schedule of the 74th Constitutional Amendment. Further, State agencies like Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) and the state’s industrial development corporation (HSIDC) maintain control over lands that they have acquired and developed over time. The justification for the GDA, therefore, emerged in the context of the need for coordination among multiple agencies. Ironically, this must happen, as has elsewhere, through the birth of a new institution. The urgent need for capacity enhancements within the MCG were discussed, but overall, despite the open discussion about the need for the GDA, its creation appeared as a foregone conclusion. The text on its official website (yes, it already has one!) is a giveaway in this regard and, in my opinion, puts a shadow on the intentions of the consultation:

The Gurugram Development Authority created in 2016 under the provisions of the Haryana Development Act 1975 “to promote and secure the development of Haryana”.
Key role of GDA would be to manage orderly-yet-rapid development of Gurugram and regulate planned development activity, to control building operations and regulate land usage. 

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Looking over Nathupur: It’s not all hunky dory, the urban poor are not on the table as yet when it comes to consultations in Gurugram

 

Where’s the moolah?

Institutional design, therefore, will emerge as a significant challenge in the process of setting up the GDA and indications that the new agency will desist from taking on roles like change of land use (CLU) and building permits, which often create internal conflict, is heartening. But more worrying will be the struggle with finding sustainable sources of funding beyond State government grants. By the accounts of eminent citizens, relying on the HUDA to transfer unspent external development charges to create a corpus for the GDA is a futile expectation. It is hard to imagine acceptance for additional levies on existing taxes in a city where residents are already feeling very cheated about the poor payback for being one of the highest tax contributors in the country!

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Conversations in the backdrop of the tanker: Despite its wealth concentration, Gurugram is at the cusp of the rural and urban

 

Opportunities to change the game: Participatory planning, accountability, transparency

As a planning agency, the GDA will have plenty on its table. The failure of Gurugram as a planning model has been widely acknowledged and the challenges of overcoming existing systemic challenges and putting in place a fresh planning vision (and regime) cannot be underestimated. However, this is a city that has unique strengths as well in the form of an engaged civil society, plenty of technical expertise and substantial corporate clout. Institutionalizing a process of participatory planning in the Bill itself, through the involvement of a sensitively constituted citizen committee, will be absolutely essential. This point was brought forth by many experts during the consultation including former Planning Commission member and Gurugram resident Arun Maira. The involvement of such a body, and perhaps other mechanisms of broad-based feedback and greivance redressal, through the planning and implementation process but also while monitoring will also boost accountability and transparency, essential elements that will go a long way in acquiring the trust and cooperation of Gurgaon’s citizens and stakeholders.

In conclusion, I would say that change is a constant and in the status quo situation that this city has faced for so many years, something had to give! If the creation of the GDA is a foregone conclusion, I would rather spend my energy in shaping it with the right intents and architecture so that it can be of some service to a city that is as much capable of brilliant achievements as it is in the brink of disaster.

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There is much to love in the city…all the more reason why so many of us will fight to get the best out of the system

The gnarled truth: Community voices on #Demonetisation

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.

Paris: Where grey is beautiful

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.

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Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and Eiffel Tower, Paris je t’aime!

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The perfectly grey sets off the pyramid very nicely. Located outside the Louvre, it is one of the most understated architectural icon in the world

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Inside the lobby of The Louvre Museum

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Looking out

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Looking in

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Art for everyone

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Crossing the Seine in line with La Institut

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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!

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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!

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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.

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Through the door….

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To the narrow court inside

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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!

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Another serene space in busy Paris

Another serene space in busy Paris

 

No more self-censorship: Civil expression & debate are cornerstones of democracy

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

What next, after the #DelhiSmog?

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!

Ooh-ing and Ah-ing at the renovated Rijksmuseum

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! 

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