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The Happy People of Shiuwei #ShenzhenDiaries

If you were to force me to pick the best from the myriad experiences Shenzhen offered, I would choose the morning we met the ‘Happy People’ of Shiuwei (term coined by Partha that morning, using it with due credit). When Mary Ann told us we were going to meet women of the community, I expected an informal conversation. Instead, we walked into a hotbed of community activity in which village women had congregated to cook together in preparation of the Dragon Boat Festival.

The sights and sounds of the semi-open enclosure located within the compound of the village office reminded me strongly of childhood visits to my native village in Goa. There was a certain aura of ritual and a sense of comfort in the practiced way these women were working together, very similar to culinary preparations during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at our ancestral home (read about chavath elsewhere on my blog). The dishes themselves, called zongzi and made of rice with multiple fillings that are carefully wrapped into palm leaves and then boiled in water, reminded me more of Kerala’s culinary repertoire. Besides the plain sticky rice, we observed fillings of cane sugar and peanut as well as duck eggs, pork and beans.

As the women worked, they chatted and laughed incessantly. I drew up a plastic stool next to one group and let myself be hypnotized by their rhythmic actions. They weren’t shy, sometimes making eye contact and smiling, but largely they seemed too engrossed to be distracted by my staring and filming (watch video below).

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Unlike the group cooking sessions within extended families or religious groups in India at occasions like weddings and festivals (increasingly being replaced by catered food or contracts to professional cooks, sadly), I was surprised to find out that cooking together is not traditional in this part of China. Instead, a few women in Shiuwei village with the patronage of Shuiwei Holdings Ltd, the village corporation or ‘company’, have taken on the responsibility of bringing women together thrice a year for ten-day periods to cook traditional food items together as an expression of community solidarity and feeling.

Behind the scenes, company employees and retired husbands of some of these women sat around smoking and chatting. They also cooked meals for the group making zongzi. In contrast to the cooking ladies, the men were a curious lot, asking about us and why we were here. On hearing I was from India, one of the men got very animated. “Indian women are always wearing clothes from which their fat tummies can be seen,” he exclaimed, “but you are not dressed like that!” In between feeling shocked at his lack of tact and laughing at the way he said it, I was tempted to show him the pictures from my #100sareepact page!

For me, meeting the Happy People was a great entry point into thinking through the social issues around transforming urban villages in Shenzhen. Located in Futian, Shenzhen’s commercial and administrative epicenter,  Shiuwei is among a clutch of urban villages that had the business savvy to redevelop land in a profitable manner. Rural land in China is collectively owned and by setting up shareholding corporations with village families as shareholders, villages have been able to partner with construction companies to build modern apartment buildings, factories and commercial blocks. In Shiuwei, a well-connected, educated and business-minded CEO (who also incidentally has a fascinating collection of stones housed on the ground floor of the well-landscaped corporation office that also houses recreation spaces for the elderly) appears to have played a crucial role.

Walking around Shiuwei, we saw ‘handshake’ housing blocks located on family plots similar to the ones in Baishizhou, though general standards of infrastructure were much better. We also saw the towering higher-end ‘commercial’ apartment blocks. A set of twin blocks, one carrying the village logo and the other the signage of the construction company, we learned, is a tell-tale sign of village-led redevelopment. On ground, shops specialized in fashion, massages and spa treatments, targeting tourists and rich Hong Kong merchants. The enormous amount of fresh housing stock created is let out to migrants (some of them second wives for the aforementioned rich Hong Kong merchants!).

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Redeveloped into commercial apartment towers, you can see the Shiuwei logo on one of the two

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In the foreground typical handshake buildings

It stands to reason that cooking together assumes enormous meaning for a community of village folk that is so vastly outnumbered by migrants from other parts of China. Savvy business strategy and increasing wealth cannot a community replace, that’s the takeaway here. Even as the exclusion of migrants from redevelopments processes in urban villages in Shenzhen is an area of significant concern, Shiuwei is a reminder of how transitions are not easy for native groups either.

Vibrant Baishizhou: An urban village endangered #ShenzhenDiaries

All the while Mary Ann and Fu Na were with us in Delhi, we talked about urban villages. The discussions often left me confused and I had realized that we weren’t talking about quite the same animal. Our walk through Baishizhou, the first urban village we saw in Shenzhen, was all about finding the similar and understanding the different.

We take a narrow road into Baishizhou, walking alongside tall iron fencing that contain the various gated housing condominiums of OCT, privately built and owned, expensive, home to the better off, orderly, landscaped and pretty. At a cluster of shops at the village entrance, we find the little mobile phone with the resourceful entrepreneur who can fiddle around with sim cards and Indian mobile phones and get us connected, something the uniformed salesperson in the branded telecom store hadn’t been able to do. The cheerful shopkeeper’s daughter entertains us as he works. The lady next door selling buns cannot mask her curiosity. A number of village folk sit around, play mahjong, gossip. I feel at home, the hustle bustle is comforting.

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Inside Baishizhou, the shop-lined narrow streets are thronging with hundreds of children who are spilling out of the school gate ahead. The blue and checked uniforms appear to move with a sense of purpose towards whatever is scheduled next for them. We get some stares and shy smiles, hear a lot of chatter.  Conversation moves from child sex ratio to schooling practices and parental ambition. The busy streets, all manner of shops including the barber shops with the characteristic twirling striped cylinders, an excess of signages, walls pasted with advertisements for rental space and narrow, cluttered side alleys and narrow market lanes  are strongly reminiscent of similar bustling informal settlements in Delhi. We see the ubiquitous 25-liter water here in Baishizhou, the same as Mary Ann and Fu Na saw in Chakkarpur village, Gurgaon. Cables run along external walls and across the street. It’s a familiar kind of chaos.

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As we get accustomed to the eye level and crane our necks upwards though, we begin to  see how an urban village in Shenzhen is different from what we’re used to back home. The famous ‘handshake’ buildings are much taller here, 7-10 floors high as compared to the 3-4 floors in Delhi. They have tiled facades. Whoever built them had certainly used a plumb line!

Like in Delhi, villagers had redeveloped their plots to build high-rise apartments that they rented out to migrants. From the height and quality of the buildings, however, it seemed that they had access to more capital and better construction expertise. Once, we came across a single family home, a couple floors high and with space for a front yard and this offered us a glimpse of what Baishizhou might have been a few decades ago.

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At the edge of the village, we stare at a row of factory buildings slated for demolition. This is the first bit of Baishizhou to go in an inevitable cycle of demolition and redevelopment that has been ongoing in Shenzhen. Many more conversations about the inequitable impacts of redevelopment in Shenzhen are to follow, through which the relevance of the Baishizhou we see was brought home to us. The famous ‘chai’, the Chinese symbol for destruction, is stenciled across the structures, stark and grim.

As the shadows lengthen and we head back to the hotel, we watch an endless stream of people walking back to Baishizhou at the end of what would most likely have been a long working day. The prospect of hanging around till the streets became a frenzied den of leisure activity, largely focused around food (apparently people from Guangzhou atake care of their taste buds!) is welcome, but we haven’t had much sleep and rest is on our minds. And so we walk away.

Luckily for us, we do get a chance to revisit Baishizhou by night, the last evening before we head back to India. And though we miss the crowds, we do get a different sense of this village that probably never really sleeps.

 

What do doodles tell you? #ShenzhenDiaries

Looking through my notes as I write about Shenzhen (I learnt to pronounce it correctly around Day 2 of our trip- it’s Shun-jun for your information), I try to reconstruct the thoughts behind some of these doodles in my notebook. Order, structure, urban forms, technology, the incorporation of nature into cities, human adaptation are some themes I see.

Doodling has been a habit for as long as I remember, predating my training as an architect, usually geometric forms. The doodles usually emerge out of the subconscious, barring the odd sketch of a scene here and there, and its hard to see patterns at times though I keep trying. I’d love to hear about how other people interpret their own doodling. Do share!


  
  

Shenzhen Diaries: In anticipation

I first heard of a possible trip to Shenzhen in mid-March from Partha (we work together at the Centre for Policy Research) during a taxi ride from Delhi to Gurgaon. The name Shenzhen triggered memories of conversations we had about the buzzing Chinese city across the water from Hong Kong back in the early 2000s when Amma and Papa (my in-laws) lived in Macau. Those were the years shortly after Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macau (in 1999) were handed over to China and much was changing in the Pearl River Delta. Papa was flying helicopters for a private airline at the time; and in addition to his usual stories of the rich folks he ferried between Hong Kong and Macau on the famed casino circuit, he was talking about the rich business investors he was flying to Shenzhen and Zuhai, both among 5 Special Economic Zones set up by China along the Eastern seaboard in 1980 as key elements of economic reform. On my trip to visit them in 2000, a year before my wedding, they even took me on a day trip to see the wonders of Zuhai’s swank streets, tall glass buildings and sparkling amusement parks. I wondered if I should expect Shenzhen to be something similar. Over the next few days, however, Shenzhen slipped my mind and I got busy with other things.

Then, in the last days of April Mary Anne and Fu Na arrived in Delhi from Shezhen, full of immense curiosity and enthusiasm, surprisingly unaffected by the oppressive heat of the Delhi summer. Over the intense conversations we had while showing them around the urban villages and slums of Delhi and Gurgaon, I began to piece together a different picture of Shenzhen. Of spaces similar to the ones we work in here in Delhi where migrants and long-time residents squeeze together, feeding off the glitzy growing city and yet, strangely distanced from it. Of a city of hope and entrepreneurship but also struggle and despair.

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Our plans to visit Shenzhen began to crystallize over the month of May and I crammed as much reading about the city and its environs as I could. The picture became fuzzier with every paper I read. Facts and figures, strains of urban history and theory mingled together, shapeless and drifting. I stored as much as I could in a mental shelf labelled “Shenzhen, China”.

We landed in Hong Kong airport in late May and the mountains rising out the water greeted me like familiar friends. On the ferry across to Shenzhen, I finally allowed myself to give in to the excitement of anticipation coming to an end, of the relief of seeing and feeling a city that I’ve tried in vain to conjure out of mere words. Join me on my journey as I attempt to synthesize and interpret what we saw over an intense week of exploration in Shenzhen. Presenting, the Shenzhen Diaries.

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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.

Comments on social engineering and urbanization in China, India

I won’t say I am shocked by the news that China is moving 250 million rural residents to newly created towns and cities over the next 12 years. In keeping with an economic policy restructuring that aims to rely less on exports and increase domestic demand, China is re-engineering the lives of rural people in a bid to convert them into urban consumers who will boost their economy in the future. As rural homes are bulldozed and replaced by highrises, people’s lives are being thrown into turmoil and I can only imagine the sense of loss and outrage being experienced by those who are the guinea pigs of this economic experiment.

It seems to be standard for governments, not just in China, to simply decide what’s good for thousands of their citizens; no skin off their backs, just a steely face and a shrug!

It’s not just China, where in the absence of democratic institutions, it is perhaps easier to implement sweeping decisions like this. When Delhi decided to relocate slum dwellers to far-flung resettlement colonies before the Commonwealth Games 2010, it also subscribed to a notion that world-class cities were those that did not have slums, were exceedingly clean and I would say, devoid of anything spontaneous at all! What gives governments the right to take decisions that benefit a small minority in the name of the greater common good, decisions that often follow no proven success mantra (indeed defy everything suggested by previous experience!) and put those who are poor and disadvantages through suffering and misery? When such massive changes are carried out without consultation, without debate and without any window for recourse, it violates not only democratic principles, but humanistic ones as well. What is the hope then for societies, indeed civilizations, based on the premise of exploitation?

Yes, yes, I know. The poor cannot hope to move toward prosperity if there is no economic growth and therefore they need to sacrifice their lives at the altar of national growth. I am familiar with that line of thinking and I find it hard to agree.

Urban planners like me are trained in the great tradition of modernism and taught that everything can be planned. I have come to believe that there is much to be said for not planning, simply leaving things be. A balanced perspective would mean that we neither over-plan, nor abandon planning completely. We try to propose the future based on an informed understanding of the present, including physical and socio-economic conditions as well as aspirations of the people whose lives will be impacted by what you propose. This is not just a question of human rights, but also a matter of common sense, if our objective is to build a society where people can hope to lead happy lives and contribute meaningfully to the collective progress of their communities, cities, nations. I am suggesting that the desire for growth needs to be balanced with measures that allow people to opt for alternatives ways of life.

In China, would it not be possible to identify areas slated for urbanization and then allow options for farmers to either opt for urban jobs by retraining for them and changing their lifestyle, or be offered alternative space where they can continue to live rural lives. I am sure enough young people would opt to join to new economy, while others would still be able to live lives of dignity and earn enough to feed themselves. This way, reports say, the old and the infirm are reduced to playing mah-jong all day without having any useful role to play in these new cities and towns.

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