Category Archives: Politics & Citizenship

In India, the political is everywhere, the space for the neutral has shrunk

Everything is political in India right now. Simple pleasures are tinged with the political. Conversations, amplified and intermingled with digital social interactions, are no longer linear but imbued with multiple meanings. For instance, I befriend someone I nod at on my regular evening walks. I think this person is nice. We become Facebook friends. On FB, I find this personal has a radically opposing political stand than mine. Our evening conversations become strained. I am no longer able to separate the political from the personal. I’m suspicious about a (probably) innocent comment by the said friend about her house help’s ethnicity, for instance. I’m questioning her motivations even as I nod and listen to her. Mentally, I’m wondering if I should change my walking routine!

I’m sure this has happened to many of my friends in India. This inability to separate what used to be separate worlds for many of us middle class folks has brought an element of stress into everyday life.

This is to be expected. The spectacular rise of the BJP on the back of Modi’s popularity is rewriting the script for how we live our lives. The political thinking of our parents’ generation was dominated by post-Independence thinking and the enormous footprint of the Congress party (whether they were supporters or opposers). Young folks today are looking for change and novelty. They are accepting that the BJP is here to stay and falling in line with its new script.

For folks like me, in their 40s with a political sensibility that is part-old and part-recent, these are confusing times. Personally, I am well aware of the dangers of echo chambers. As a researcher, the easy trap of preaching to the converted is something we discuss all the time. I am used to analyzing my own speech, writing, behaviour and I put everything under the scanner.

Even so, I am deeply uncomfortable about this point we seem to have reached, when facts are junked almost entirely and we seem consumed by the political narrative. We forget that it is change driven by evidence that will eventually drive policy, innovation and investment, the factors we need to evolve, become economically stronger and deliver a better life for India’s people.

As Kaushik Basu points out in his recent piece Look at the facts of demonetisation, Modi’s ‘master stroke’ is a perfect example of a move that has been a total failure in its own stated objectives, but yet touted repeatedly as a success by a political establishment that seems to have simply erased the word failure from its vocabulary. I would be perfectly ok if they said something like: We tried our best. It did not work out as planned. I would be happy to admire the immense boldness of the move if the analysis of its outcomes were honest.

But the politics of today does not allow me to take a nuanced position. It does not allow me to be neutral if I am not also silent. For example, the critique of demonetisation offered by my colleagues and me (read our two opinion pieces here and here and listen to our podcast here), for instance, was read by several as anti-Modi anti-BJP rather than an honest analysis of what we observed in our research. Those who engaged with the content were rarely our critics, but there were many who judged us by the titles of what we wrote. There were those who refused to engage, insisting on slotting us into a particular narrow political spectrum.

Why is it that we have become so averse to complexity? Why does everything now have to be black or white, yes or no, aar ya paar? For a nation full of fence sitters, why is being politically non-aligned, or simply cautious, now a cardinal sin?

#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….

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.

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.

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!

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?

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.

 

Not a nuisance but an opportunity to include: Why you need to rethink your opinions on the kaawad yatra

For the last many years, I’ve been fascinated with the annual kaawad yatra, which takes place during the saawan month of the Hindu calendar and involves the transport of holy waters from the Ganga in Hardwar back home by pilgrims usually on foot (more here). Its a tough pilgrimage. Watching the yatris rest at the end of a long day of walking at the makeshift camps that local communities erect along the entire route, I’ve often admired their resilience and also the growing number of women yatris. I’ve observed them bandage each others tired, swollen and cracked feet. I’ve seen communities volunteering to cook, clean and heal yatris. I’ve even smiled at their obvious enjoyment of the music blaring out of speakers, as I’ve watched them dance and sing in camaraderie and joy closer to the completion of the arduous journey. To me, the kaawad yatra has always been a demonstration of India’s multiple faith-linked traditions that have the power to bring people together in a continuance of age old traditions.

For the educated classes behind the wheels of their motor vehicles, though, the kaawads are another word for traffic hold ups, mayhem and chaos that compounds the water logging caused by incessant rain and poor drainage each year. It’s an inconvenience, an injunction into the (imagined) smooth functioning of their lives. Its a faith system they don’t understand, even though many among them are deeply religious.

This divide and the vitriol towards the kaawadiyas was brought home to me last evening. I was driving  and a friend’s daughter, all of eight-years old, pointed out to a truck full of kaawadiyas and declared, with much feeling that she hates them! Hate? I was taken aback and I asked her why, were they not entitled to celebrate the completion of their yatra? And her response was something entirely unexpected: “They don’t wear clothes!,” the little girl told me. “See, that man is only wearing those short orange shorts!”

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A different kind of yatra: The influence of money and power

The transformation of the kaawad yatra itself, in the past few years, from a low key humble affair to a loud, rambunctious public party is partly responsible for the perceptions that this young girl and a large section of elite urban society. Clearly there is more money in the yatra business now, perhaps in reflection of a more affluent rural and small town middle class. The camps have grown larger, the music louder, the trucks of enthusiastic and often rowdy yatris and supporters are ubiquitous. In the past, State-sponsored protections like traffic cordons to create safe passage were a response to the unfortunate deaths of kaawadiyas in motor accidents. Today, youth in motor cycles and trucks break traffic rules with impunity in the name of religion. The little girl’s comment on how the yatris are dressed is also telling. A display of hyper masculine behavior is not only hurtful to urbane sensibilities but frankly threatening as well!

The farcical liberalism of the urban elite

On the other hand, the educated elite does not usually bother to learn more about the yatra itself. I know from my interactions with villagers in and around Gurgaon, that the yatra is deeply symbolic to these communities. It is taken with a sense of duty; it is also a means for young people to take a small holiday and earn brownie points in the process. There is also some bit of harmless competition among groups in the village on who gets back the holy waters first.

Plug the gap or prepare to be drowned

It is this big gap between the two Indias that is immensely disturbing to me. The divide of the rural and urban, the chasm between the educated well-heeled and well-traveled elite and the homegrown upwardly mobile middle classes, the totally different perceptions of the pretend liberals and the deep-rooted faith systems of the more rooted-to-the-land populations. All this is exacerbated by urban planning that puts the elite into ‘safe’ gated communities and ‘others’ those who tilled the very lands on which these gated complexes are built!

We need a new movement here to bridge this gaping chasm that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society. We talk about tolerance in our cozy drawing rooms, but we do not even understand the meaning of the world when we say hateful things that our children reproduce without understanding what they are saying. We need to start with understanding the traditions of our land and respecting them for what they are, even as we call out those who break the law and those who protect these detractors. We need to broaden our definition of community to include people from different classes. What stops the kaawad yatra organizing committees from reaching out to RWAs to contribute and collaborate in offering shelter to the yatris, as a gesture of humanity? Maybe this will lead to better ideas on how to resolve traffic snarls and conflicts of interest? What stops the police and local governments from running awareness campaigns that create empathy towards the yatris and use this enhance sense of pride to request them to remain within the law?

Of course, my comments could well be dismissed as naive. Many will say that I am deliberately leaving out the realities that confront us: the rise of the right wing that grants additional immunity to Hindu religious groups at this time, the alignment of local law enforcers with local communities that permits them to look the other way like we saw during Haryana’s infamous Jat quota agitation, the politicization of religion as seen in the capital that is now blatantly on display during the yatra. I admit there might be truth in all of this, but we must also admit that the insensitivity exists on both sides. If we do not bring empathy into the mix at this point, these conflicts will only get worse. We owe it to our children to speak a different language: one that opens the doors instead of slamming them shut; one that seeks to learn more before pronouncing opinions; one that celebrates diversity and shuns the idea of homogeneity that dangerously pervades our social lives; one that, in the true tradition of this land, refrains from violence seeks to include and find solutions through consensus.

Saving the Aravallis: Documenting Gurgaon’s persistent environmental activism

Much has been said and written about the urbanism of Gurgaon. Amidst uproar and negativity over the general failure of governance, a core group of citizens has been persistently highlighting pressing issues relating to environmental conservation. More specifically, they have brought attention to the urgent need to conserve the sections of the Aravallis that runs through Haryana. To bring these concerns to the State government, citizens walked together a year ago (I blogged about it then), and we did so again today.

What did our movement achieve and what drives us now to continue efforts to engage with the government on issues that have been particularly hard to raise in India at large, but more particularly in a State where mining and real estate interests are politically powerful and directly pitted against us?

This time, last year: A specific call to action to save Mangar Bani

The trigger for the call to action, when we gathered at Kachra Chowk a year ago on 26th April 2015, was the imminent changes in land use regulation that would permit the declassification of forest land and open it to real estate development. A group of focused citizens, some of whom are ecologists, geologists and environmental experts, made convincing arguments that underscore the need to protect the Aravallis to ensure the survival of cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad. These arguments revolve around the basics, like protecting the main water recharge zone for the region, as well as more evolved arguments that call for a different imagination of the city as a place that embraces nature. As a powerful symbol of what nature was capable of, the group decided to focus on the protection of Mangar Bani,  a sacred grove protected by local communities that lies between Gurgaon and Faridabad. I wrote last year about the movement, during which a successful online petition was floated and many citizens, children included, were involved at the time.

These concerted efforts resulted in the Haryana government announcing a protected status for Mangar Bani in early 2016. It is extremely positive that 677 acres of Mangar Bani Sacred Grove has been identified for protection, plus a buffer of between 60m to 500m will be taken up for restoration. This amounts to a buffer area of 1100-1200 acres, which will act as a major watershed for the region as well as restore the already rich biodiversity of the Aravallis. The progressive work on mapping and demarcating these areas has been encouraging, says Chetan Agarwal, who has been deeply involved in the research on Mangar Bani.

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Pushing the envelope for long-term benefits

Today’s walk was intended to demand a follow through of the promises made. The final notification for the Mangar Bani Sacred Grove remains pending and the group is highlighting the urgency of this step. After notification, corresponding changes are required to be notified in records and plans, in order for the protection status to have adequate impact on future development plans for Gurgaon and Faridabad.

And Mangar is only the first step. Much more needs to be done to protect the fragile Aravallis that are facing sever environmental degradation. First, the group urges the State government to notify the Aravallis around Gurgaon as a city forest. The city’s only forested area, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, has been developed from a brownfield mining site. A collaborative effort of the citizens and municipal government, ABP has become a paradise for citizens to experience open space and nature. But there is considerable opportunity to do much more. By protecting the existing Aravalli areas and developing them as city forests, Gurgaon will join the illustrious list of global cities that recognize and celebrate the health benefits of sensitively integrating forest areas into urban development. The benefits of forests in improving air quality, and long-term benefits of living in proximity to nature are well documented and practised by cities across the world.

Second, the group requests the State government to identify sanctuaries and national parks in Haryana’s Aravallis. Mangar Bani, for example, should be made into a sanctuary. The Aravallis as a whole should be declared a deemed forest and made part of the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ). There exist today subtle ways to keep large areas of the Aravallis out of the NCZ in a ‘to be determined’ category. This category must be deleted, so that the commitment to conservation is clear and strong. Areas of the Aravalli foothills that have been currently kept out the the NCZ are equally important and must be included. Further, the eco-sensitive zones for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary must stretch to include major lakes – Damdama, Badkhal, Dhauj, and also the mining pits which have exposed groundwater and the buffer for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary on the Haryana side increased. Finally, privatised land in the Aravallis must be restored to panchayat ownership.

These actions will give firm signals against future exploitation of these ecologically sensitive areas for real estate and infrastructure development. Furthermore, these steps appear critical for the survival of these cities, critical as they are to the recharge of groundwater in the region.

Globally, environmental gains for cities have almost entirely resulted from sustained and informed citizen activism. There is no glamour in this sort of activism. It is extremely hard work and I salute all those who are working hard behind the scenes to keep these issues burning and alive in Gurgaon. Walks like today’s gives citizens like me an opportunity to do our little bit. We must hope that every little bit counts.

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