Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

Experience the ‘moment’ by #walking in your city: The good, bad and ugly of Gurgaon

Exploring a city isn’t necessarily about visiting a heritage site, park, entertainment hub or any other place of tourist importance. It can also be about experiencing the everyday. In my (often unsuccessful) pursuit for opportunities to get in a little bit of exercise into my routine, I ventured out onto the streets of Gurgaon for a walk. I consciously decided not to drive up to a park and walk inside it, a decision I partly regretted when I tried to navigate a heap of pig-strewn rubbish that came my way!

My adventure, which I will shortly document in pictures, did not strike me as blog-worthy until I came across this piece in Guardian on walking in the city. The article refers to French poet Louis Aragon’s book Le Paysan de Paris in which he writes about the walker’s ability to experience a ‘moment’ if “sufficiently alive to the nuances of place and atmosphere.” A bit of a philosophical conflict, but also intermingling, between surrealism and rationalism here, I agree. But it is exactly what I felt and enjoyed, the ability to experience my city the way it was, without curation or choreography.

My walk started from Shikshantar School in South City 1, where I dropped my son Udai for a football match, and ambled across a major road, then through a city park, via a small slum and default dumping ground for construction waste, through an urban village and finally back to base. I won’t dwell on the gaps in infrastructure. Broken footpaths and traffic lights that do not program for pedestrians are business-as-usual in Gurgaon, as in most Indian cities.

I do want to talk about the joy of seeing the city wake up, in a leisurely fashion, between eight and ten on a Saturday morning. I enjoyed the lack of reaction to a lone female walker in deserted parks and less populous roads of the city. I reveled in the absence of pre-meditation, in taking turns that led God knows where. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to experience my city, I thought, and I should do this more!

Shutters down, but so colourful in Village Silokhra

Shutters down, but so colourful in Village Silokhra

It's green and relatively clean, but deserted. One of the smaller parks in Leisure Valley

It’s green and relatively clean, but deserted. One of the smaller parks in Leisure Valley

Some drama in the sky....

Some drama in the sky….

Trying to get out of the park without back tracking. I knew I was in for some adventure here...

Trying to get out of the park without back tracking. I knew I was in for some adventure here…

Not so much fun walking through a pile of smelly malba (construction waster) with pigs for company

Not so much fun walking through a pile of smelly malba (construction waster) with pigs for company

Back inside South City I, where there is a beautiful public edge designed to offer seating/interaction space for the community...

Back inside South City I, where there is a beautiful public edge designed to offer seating/interaction space for the community…

Unfortunately much of this well maintained seating and green edge is cordoned off by ugly fencing, presumably to prevent "unwanted" elements from entering and using these spaces

Unfortunately much of this well maintained seating and green edge is cordoned off by ugly fencing, presumably to prevent “unwanted” elements from entering and using these spaces

Curious to know if these pretty spaces get used at all with only one tiny entry in an obscure corner! Frustrating to observe how communities take steps that reinforce class bias and make a city less livable

Curious to know if these pretty spaces get used at all with only one tiny entry in an obscure corner! Frustrating to observe how communities take steps that reinforce class bias and make a city less livable

An hour later, Silokhra is busy and active

An hour later, Silokhra is busy and active

This paint store was so cheerfully over the top!

This paint store was so cheerfully over the top!

Peek into Silokhra's lanes!

Peek into Silokhra’s lanes!

Bliss is rafting down the Jia Bhoroli on a sunny afternoon

It caught my fancy. Jia Bhoroli, what a lovely name for this lively river that we had the wonderful opportunity to enjoy that last week of 2014 on our visit to Assam. Known as the Kameng in the Indo-Tibetan glacial regions and flowing through Arunachal Pradesh, the river gets this typically musical Assamese name as soon as it enters this state.

We rafted down a picturesque stretch alongside the Nameri Tiger Reserve, with the Himalayas behind us, navigating one gentle rapid after another, enjoying a delightful picnic on the raft. Three rafts, five families, many excited and boisterous children. It was a blissful picnic ending in a meal at the Eco Camp, which sports tent accommodation and local produce & handicrafts.

I must ask my Assamese friends what Jia Bhoroli means. If I can take a guess, I would say I agree…something about these waters, their lyrical rhythm, their sweet taste, their meandering gait filled my heart with satisfaction. A unique pleasure that only being with nature can give.

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Rafts being set up for us…

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The ugly side effects of irresponsible tourism. The State should fine the operator, methinks!

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Excitement as we watch the chips and cold drinks being loaded and take in the fresh, clean air!

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We begin to see the first of many winged friends….most of them visitors for the season, some native to Nameri…

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We flow with the currents, gentle at this time of the year, and watch the mountains recede further and further

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Dramatic pieces of driftwood, trees long dead, emerge every now and then, giving a desert-like quality to one of the lushest landscapes in India!

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Over the rapid, the currents would seize us and whirl us around for a bit. The kids would shriek in joy and it would be over far too soon…

More winged friends, taking in the lovely warm sun

More winged friends, taking in the lovely warm sun

Or in flight with a hawk eye on the water, waiting to dive for the fish...

Or in flight with a hawk eye on the water, waiting to dive for the fish…

Or just enjoying the joy of flight...

Or just enjoying the joy of flight…

Looking back again, not really wanting this journey to end...willing the mind's eye to capture what it was seeing for posterity

Looking back again, not really wanting this journey to end…willing the mind’s eye to capture what it was seeing for posterity

[Case note] Poverty, wealth and a developer’s obligations in Maharashtra

ramblinginthecity:

The dovetailing of urban planning and development is incomplete even as development authorities and private real estate developers continue to fraternize and collude. What happens, then to low cost housing or private property rights? Is this an issue of class conflict or of irresponsible governance? Raeesa Vakil’s case note sheds light on these essential questions…

Originally posted on cprurban:

The development of the Powai Area Development Scheme (“PADS”) in Mumbai, has been fraught with legal controversy for the last twenty-odd years. In 1986, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (the “MMRDA”) entered into a tripartite agreement with the original landowners to develop 93 hectares of land in Powai, Mumbai. The land was leased to the Hiranandani group for development at a nominal rate of Rs. 1 per hectare. In return, Hiranandani was to construct low cost housing of two types – one of 40 square meters, and the other of 80 sq.m. The original owners would get housing for themselves and an 80-year lease over developed property. Of the remaining housing, 15% would be sold back to the state at low rates for allocation to government employees. The rest would be sold for profit by Hiranandani.

The original agreements with Hiranandani also had requirements for the provision of open…

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Rights, capacity and control: Debating issues around the ability and willingness of cities to extend social services

This post was first published on the SHRAM blog. SHRAMIC (Strength and Harmonize Research and Action on Migration) seeks to bring together academia and NGOs to develop a richer understanding of migration in South Asia. 

The economic benefits of migration to the city is often offset by expenditure towards schooling, healthcare, food, sanitation and other services that the State is meant to provide.

Rights vs capacity: Are cities able to service the needs of the needy (migrants included?)

One dimension of this issue is the mechanisms of accessing social services. The question of portability of rights has been debated time and again and there is no real solution in sight. However, attempts are constantly being made to push this rights-based agenda that help let migrants into the social security net. For example, the National Health Policy 2015, the draft version of which was made public on 31st December 2014 talks the language of universal health coverage and portability of the Right to Health, which it advocates as a fundamental right.

The other dimension, and an important one, is that of the capacity of cities to provide these services. Large metropolitan centres like Mumbai and Delhi are unable to service residents, regardless of whether they came in yesterday or have lived there for generations. Small cities are stretched for finances and have barely any capacities to service residents.

Don’t let them in: The idea of entry barriers

In this context, I find the idea of allowing cities to define limits to their growth fascinating. Historically, land use planning has been a popular instrument to contain growth. By specifying densities, types of land use and building controls, it was possible for cities to imagine what kind of people would live there, what they would do and how communities would function and interact. In theory, at least. Urban growth boundaries, for instance, were used widely in the US through the ’80s and ’90s to limit growth and contain urban sprawl, with mixed success.

Closer to home, China is in the process of reforming its hukou system, which is a legal system of house registration that has historically acted as a formidable tool in controlling rural to urban migration. The reforms, which were announced in mid 2014, boldly delink hukou and entitlement to welfare, allowing city governments to decide on the level of social service provisioning that is possible. The larger intent of the policy seems to be to redistribute populations, urging rural migrants to move to small and mid-sized cities.

Professor Bingqin Li, who teaches at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, recently wrote a piece on the hukou reforms on the website of the East Asia Forum. Her article illustrates some of the ways in which different cities have reacted to the reforms,

“Cities that are either unwilling or unable to invest more in social services can use the flexible settlement criteria to set up alternative barriers for entry to replace the older hukou barrier. The largest cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, have made it even more difficult for migrants to settle down permanently than before. A number of medium-sized cities have also introduced policies to favour highly-skilled migrants at the expense of low-skilled ones.” 

In India, the question of entry barriers is not on the table, but somewhere under it! Prof. Amitabh Kundu and others have commented that Indian cities (esp large ones) have become “less welcome to migrants” (Kundu and Kundu 2011) by using processes of formalisation and sanitisation that discourages the inflow of the rural poor.

A case for strengthening capacity

In her article, Bingqin Li subtly points out that the apparent merit in permitting autonomy of decision at city level masks the fact that cities are not equal in being able to provide services; and that inequalities would likely result in higher entry barriers for migrants coming in from rural China. A strengthening of the social services system is her ask.

In India too, rights-based approaches like that of the new health policy are critiqued for the same reason; inequalities across States in being able to provide the coverage and quality of primary health services threaten to render the most progressive of legislation ineffective when it comes to the ground. The same goes for education as is seen from the recent results of the Aser Survey, which pronounce dismal education outcomes, more in some States than others.

Better delivery of services for the urban poor is clearly an issue that merits both introspection and investment, regardless of whether the urban poor are migrants; however the removal of barriers for migrants to access government-subsidised social services can go a long way in helping migrant families truly reap the economic benefits of migration.

Why retrofit the ‘burbs? Incorporating reality to the paradigm of ‘buzzword’ planning

Our understanding of the ‘urban’ is dynamic, fed by a glut of information coming out of organisations across the world that are keenly contributing to the buzz on urbanism. It is no wonder that we tend to want to simplify the information around us, in a bid to ‘make sense’ of cities and how they are shaping the world in which we live. I cannot count the number of press articles and academic reports I have read that begin with something sweeping and dramatic like  ‘66% of the the world will live in urban areas by 2050’!

In the world of urbanists (planners and writers, researchers and politicians, all of us), we also tend to glorify some trends and make villains of others. The suburb, for instance, has been the villain for years now. It’s been blamed for everything from social exclusion and snobbery to making the world unsustainable! Density and walkability are back in fashion and the urban who’s who look down on those who opt for a life in the ‘burbs.

Yet many sane (and perhaps naturally cynical) people have been trying to see this debate in a broader context. I’ve been coming across plenty of literature that makes, broadly, the following points.

1- Suburbs aren’t going away. In fact, cities are expanding outwards more than ever before. In the US, about 85 percent of people who live in the major metropolitan areas live in suburban neighbourhoods (Joel Kotkin mentions this in his piece titled Don’t boost cities by bashing the ‘burbs).

2- Suburbs are not always richer, though there seems to be a positive correlation between income and sprawl (the theory being that the richer you get, the more space you want to occupy). Many suburban areas are impoverished, often as a result of global investments into inner city areas to the neglect of working class suburbs (London, case in point as illustrated by the case study on Croydon in this wonderful essay on suburbs in The Economist). If seen in a historic way, many upscale urban areas can attribute their clean, gentrified existence to an exodus of populations to the ‘burbs!

3- The relationship between the inner city and the suburb is critical and the walkable, transit-oriented inner city cannot survive without the spread out, car-oriented suburb. People move back and forth between these two types of spaces and in many cities (Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and more in India, for example), jobs have moved to the suburbs too, taking people with them.

The solutions clearly lies in rethinking the suburb. First, by accepting that there are many different ways to experience the city and many myriad types of ‘urban-ness’. Second, by understanding linkages and inter-dependencies between different neighbourhoods within metropolitan areas. Third, by finding solutions for the environmental and social issues that suburbanisation creates but also celebrating the positives that it brings (play spaces and amenities for familial life, a proximity to the rural hinterland, etc).

To me, the Modi government’s vision for a 100 smart cities, which as per the Ministry of Urban Development’s concept note focuses on small and medium cities and satellite cities, can do exactly this. This is an opportunity to use technology to increase efficiencies, but also address inequity. All the stuff that Sam Pitroda spoke about when the Innovation Council was the talk of the town, the business about home-based work and optic fibre connectivity and data networks can feed into this reality of a city where commuting is a choice not a necessity. Suburban cities can use efficient and well-designed transit to connect to the larger city centres but also to create self-sufficiency so that they function well within themselves and offer residents a sustainable, community-centric and self-contained lifestyle.

Above all, in India, there must be a focus on creating forward looking infrastructure and providing quality services in upcoming suburban areas. Not just technology but processes are also in the spotlight here. The ‘smart citizen’ can play a vital role in making garbage segregation mandatory, for instance, or in ensuring that traffic rules are followed by all.

If Indian cities are the sites for emancipation and upward mobility (as per the recently released World Bank’s report on  Addressing Inequality in South Asia), they deserve to be seen in their entirety and without rose-tinted glasses. Not by creating utopian visions that are an amalgamation of all the buzzwords of our times, but by building a vision upwards from the realities that surround us and teach us everyday about how people experience and influence the city around them.

Through a child’s eye: Our ‘vaddo’ in St. Cruz, Goa [2 of 2]

As promised yesterday, here are the set of images from Aadyaa. She was 4 when she clicked these. I’m completely biased here, so I won’t venture my opinions at all. Only wan to say that the finger blocking a bit of some of the frames is so cute!

Would love to know what y’all think though! Please, please write in.

(Psst…she’s all set to start her very own art blog now, so your comments will only encourage her!)

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Through a child’s eye: Our ‘vaddo’ in St Cruz, Goa [1 of 2]

I’ve written before about our stately, though slightly crumbling family home in Goa. It’s been a constant part of my life even though I’ve always lived outside Goa and I’ve blogged before about my nostalgic associations with the home, our vaddo (neighbourhood) and family.

Today I found a set of really interesting pics taken of our vaddo by my children a couple of years ago. Udai (then aged 8) and Aadyaa (then aged 4) were a bit bored. We had a few hours of lull in the midst of the hectic Ganpati celebrations and they wanted to explore. Our home is at the end of a narrow street and they wandered off, with me behind them. I remember trying to keep them occupied by giving them my iphone for 10 minutes each. These are the photos Udai came up with! I’ll post Aadyaa’s in a consecutive post simply because I am struck by how differently they captured the same spaces.

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IMG_3562IMG_3563IMG_3564 And finally, back to our home…

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I’m amused by his obsession with tyres and happy with his eye for landscapes and interesting roofs (that’s the architect in me speaking)! What do you think?

To read more about Ganesh Chaturthi or Chavath celebrations at our Goa home, look at the posts below:

Chavath in Goa Day 0: Matoli time!

Chavath in Goa Day 1: Dedicated to Gouri-Mahadev and easy bonding!

Chavath in Goa Day 2: Ganapati Bappa arrives!

Chavath in Goa Day 3: The joy of Au revoir, till we meet again!

How many voices will be silenced?

ramblinginthecity:

For the many Indians who support free speech by carrying the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag, but won’t talk about how that freedom is being taken away in India! Disgusting indeed

Originally posted on sitanaiksblog:

Perumal Murugan is a name that will not be familiar to most – although those of my fellow Indians who follow the news a little bit more intensely would have seen the name recently, and for all the wrong reasons.  I, too only heard the name last week. On January 11th, an FB friend posted this article with a congratulatory post to the translator (Aniruddhan Vasudevan) who she obviously knew. While the story seemed interesting, the news of the agitations against the book were a little disturbing. ANd all this in the shadow of the global focus on freedom of speech!! I looked up the book, and put it on my ‘to read’ list.

This morning, I learn from the newspaper that Mr Murugan has quit writing!!  This increased my resolve to get the book immediately.   And both my usual sources, Flipkart and Amazon, had only the e-book, the book…

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Where is YOUR Chennai?

ramblinginthecity:

There are so many ways of reaching out to communities. Really found this interesting!

Originally posted on Urban Design Collective:

One afternoon during the last week of November, I received a call from the editor at The Alternative.in. She insisted that UDC be a part of their upcoming edition of Green Bazaar- an all-day sustainability experience carnival to bring conservation into focus- scheduled for 7th December in Chennai. It was a stretched-to-the-limit phase… we were in the middle of preparations for the upcoming puppet theatre workshop in Pondicherry and the launch of the ‘Sidhpur Stories’ exhibition in Dakshinachitra. I told the editor that it was rather short notice but that I would try figuring something out… perhaps do a repeat of a previous installation. A day later, I looked up their website to see what the bazaar was all about. That’s when I knew exactly what had to be done.

‘Where is YOUR Chennai?’ is an installation conceptualized and presented at the 2nd edition of Chennai’s Green Bazaar on…

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Stunning Skies in Assam

Woke up this morning to a series of stunning pics sent to me by friend Vishal, who we visited recently in Assam. He took them when we were all together one evening, watching a mesmerising sunset in Misamari.

The skies in Assam took my breath away, from the creeping light of dawn to the dotted white puffs scattered over the tea gardens during the daytime right down to the spectacular sunsets.

Here are some of the pics we took from assorted cameras and phones. When I look at them, I remember those beautiful shared moments when we were all, regardless of age and background, awed and humbled by Mother Nature.

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