Blog Archives

Inclusion, Contestation and Identity in Indian Cities: An event report on recent talks

ramblinginthecity:

A week of exciting talks at CPR!

Originally posted on cprurban:

By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR

With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.

Inclusion in public sector housing

On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of…

View original 721 more words

Finding new meanings through meetings with strangers

Earlier today, I shared my mother’s blog post recalling her assistance to unknown fellow travelers years ago. Knowing her well, I account her actions to a strong sense of duty, a following of the Hippocratic Oath so to speak. Her post has prompted a discussion on whether times have changed and would well-meaning people still help strangers if they find them to be in trouble.

Right on cue comes news about the #Illwalkwithyou campaign in Australia, where citizens are helping Muslims afraid to commute fearing religious backlash and hate crimes following the hostage situation in Sydney. Started by an individual, the campaign snowballed into several citizens tying up over twitter with Muslims to offer them their company while using transit in the city.

Reaching out to strangers in need without fear is an act of bravery, no doubt, but beyond that it is an act of humanity. How many strangers do you, on an average, meet with and interact with? Of these, how many are ‘curated’ and ‘filtered’ through formal and informal processes? I include here surveillance and security mechanisms as well as pre-decided appointments in a business or social milieu that involve some form of deliberate selection. Are there any opportunities, or indeed any desire, to meet people you don’t already know? Moreover, would we be open to meeting strangers across the barriers of class, gender, religion, etc?

As an urban professional, I’m raising two questions that I feel rather concerned about:

1- Are we, as urban citizens, inside a ‘zone of fear’ and averse to initiating contact with strangers?

2- Are urban spaces and systems designed to make meetings between strangers happen?

I find it important to raise these questions, especially in the political climate that we are experiencing in India at this time, where segregation, insecurity and fear are prominent themes. If we are to ‘develop’, I  think these are issues we need to think about and, at least as individuals, deal with.

On a personal level, I try to have meaningful conversations with everyone I meet. Since I’m interested in the urban informal sector and in migration, I make it a point to especially speak to those who offer urban services- auto drivers, fuel pump attendants, vendors, cleaning staff. What I hear from them has a profound impact on how I think and behave; it also informs the way I look at cities and people. And my biggest takeaway is that we are all human. If we lose that sense of humanity, I’m not sure life will have meaning any more.

Does the government really understand? #Modi #oversimplify

I was taking an undergraduate class for architecture students this morning on housing and urban poverty in India. The discussion was long and winding. We spoke of how the informal city is created and how city managers are trying to resolve issues of varying magnitudes with scarce resources. I tried to bring in a bit of the realism and build on the interconnection of architecture with the social sciences in the classroom.

And then, one student raised her hand and asked me: “All this that you are telling us, does Mr Modi understand it? They way he says things, it’s like a magic wand needs to be waved and stuff will get done!”

Well, well, well! We’re all waiting and watching here….but a lot of us are beginning to worry about how much deep diving government departments are really doing into issues that matter when they are given 100-day diktats to conceptualise schemes to be unrolled in the near future and their prime motivation is to please the PM? Efficiency and speed are commendable, but I do hope it is not at the cost of quality and inclusiveness, especially of those still trapped in poverty.

 

Be careful what you advertise #BJP #Haryana #Assemblypolls #land #realestate

Poll season is about the strangest of radio ads. While driving to work this morning, I was surprised to hear a BJP ad for the Haryana Assembly elections that directly addressed the issue of State-sponsored land grab by developers. In the ad, a Haryanvi farmer talks about how the government has used the ruse of wrongly declaring fertile lands to be infertile to hand land over to developers, thus disenfranchising farmers and leaving them out of the development process. Another ad in the same campaign talks about the challenges farmers face to access water for irrigation. Clearly, BJP is aggressively wooing the rural voter in Haryana. Which is all well and good.

800px-Green_farms_of_Jats_in_HaryanaWhat intrigues me is the implication that the BJP, if elected, will NOT develop agricultural land if it is fertile! Is that even possible for a State that seems to have put most of its eggs into the urbanization basket over the past few years? Leveraging its border with Delhi seems to be an important objective for the State from its recent planning documents.

Of course, Haryana has had a Congress government and these policies could, in theory, change if a new government were to come to power. But, as a colleague cynically quipped, if the BJP were to rule then the land taken from the farmer might go to a Reliance instead of DLF, with nothing really changing for the farmer!

We see a general disillusionment with agriculture across India and a decline of the farm sector, but in Haryana, farming is culturally ingrained. Land and farming are a very strong part of the identity of the Haryanvi people. I’m no expert, but perhaps the State has the opportunity to re-focus on the agri sector, for which it needs to think about compact, transit-oriented, well-planned cities instead of the sprawling, poorly conceived urban stretches we see when we drive around the State.

Allowing Indian cities to grow: Can we be bold enough to adopt global FAR densities?

I wanted to share this fascinating piece in the Next City about Indian cities and density. The article argues that low FAR (floor area ratio, that essentially controls how much you can build) makes no sense for Indian cities. We’ve known this for a while. To me, the constant back and forth about FAR and the obsession of planners and private developers with it has been a source of frustration and amusement in equal measure. Why? Because FAR alone cannot determine urban form, or infrastructure, or anything unless it is rationalized with other development controls. Unless there is a vision of what we want the city to be. The obsession with FAR is, I think, yet another symptom of the disease of technocratic planning that India suffers from.

pune.jpg

Why are we scared to allow our cities to go vertical? High-density slums don’t scare us, then why high-rise?
Picture of Pune: Slums and mid-rise dominate out cities. But Pune is relaxing its FAR and might go the global way, as per the article!

But to get back to the article. What fascinated me was the revelation that Indian cities do not really account for the fact that the per capita consumption of space will increase over time, as people become more prosperous. We need to, therefore, stop planning cities at “essentially slum densities” and be more real about the kind of people that will come to occupy, say the areas around a Metro corridor as time goes by. I also liked that the piece points out to another paradigm shift that is needed- one in which we see increasing populations as a good sign and not only as a problem. If more people want to come in, then something is happening right in a city and we need to 1-create more space inside the city for these people and 2-enable them to come in and leave more efficiently, and support meaningful suburban development.

Author Stephen J Smith cites the work of Alain Bertaud, a former World Bank researcher in the piece. Bertaud advocates that Indian planners junk the idea of low FARs and allow cities to grow out “to the same height as its peers across the world”. Can we handle that?

Do the new cities being proposed for the UK spell an opportunity to rethink city design?

I’ve been following UK’s housing crisis with a lot of interest. Without knowing a lot about the history and political context of the housing industry in that country, it amazes me to read the stories coming out about homelessness, huge shortage of units and now, the idea of building new ‘garden cities’ to solve the problems (read about it here). With housing production at an all-time low and the industry being declared incapable of meeting demand, prominent people have been advocating for changes in the planning norms to allow a slew of new cities to be built in what former BBC Chairman Michael Lyons (who has been given the task of drafting a plan for more homes by the Labour party) calls post-war spirit (read here)!

Of course it is logical and of course, greenfield developments have the power to jump start the economy and of course, this means an opportunity for a new kind of thinking about cities. With all the analysis and knowledge, all the criticism out there (some days my head spins with the number of media articles analyzing cities) about what has gone wrong with the cities we have built over the last couple of centuries in the Global North and the Global South, I’m looking forward excitedly to what will be proposed as the model for these new urban entities.

I hope they will not be boring replicas of what we already have. I look forward to at least some space for a new architectural language. More public spaces, more walkable and cycle-able networks, a lower carbon footprint, an exploration of cutting edge research on high-density, sustainable urbanism. There is a long wishlist out there. I know all of it cannot be achieved, but some of it certainly can and it would be fitting for the UK to show the way ahead in doing so.

Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!

Internal migration and urbanization: Why we need a nuanced view of how these intersect

UNESCO’s Internal Migration in India Initiative launched an important publication yesterday (see here for details). ‘Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India‘ draws focus to an issue we often sweep under the carpet, asking us to confront head-on the issue of India’s large population of internal migrants- some 326 million, close to 30% of India’s population as per estimates by the NSSO. I’ve been working in the area of migration and as an architect and urban planner, I see substantial linkages between urbanization and migration. Linkages that we need to scrutinize minutely if we are to create urban living environments that are equitable and enjoyable to all of us.

ImageTo begin with, we need to understand which urban areas migrants are opting to move to. In this regard, these figures from the report stand out- 43% of Delhi’s population comprises internal migrants. However, it is not just the metros, but cities like Surat (58%), Ludhiana (57%), Faridabad (55%), Nashik (50%), Pune (45%), Lucknow (28%), Patna (27%) and Kanpur (19%) that need to gear up to support migrant populations urgently. Cities often without strong planning and governance frameworks, and low capacities to create and implement sensitive city level planning programs. Yesterday Minister Jairam Ramesh mentioned, for instance, that data from the 2011 census highlights the presence of 3900 Census towns that fulfill various characteristics of being urban but are still managed by gram panchayats! Clearly, these places have no way of understanding or managing the rapid changes they are experiencing and we see a catastrophic impact on social cohesion as well as the environment. There is no doubt, therefore, that urbanization in the country needs to be seen with new eyes and local municipal bodies be strengthened substantially.

In all this, the migrant plays a significant role as a contributor to the economies of the cities that receive them. As we go about our daily lives, whatever we may be busy with, we interact with migrants across social class and from various parts of the country. We are migrants as well, often enough. The discussion at the book launch yesterday therefore, distinguishes between educated migrants that opt to migrate in search of better opportunities (like many of us) and those who need to migrate in order to find paid employment; in other words, they migrate as a survival strategy and this is often termed as distress migration. In that sense, the story of migration into urban India becomes a story of class, in fact another dimension to the class issues that urban Indians are facing on a day to day basis.

I make two observations out of this. As a citizen, I see a keener analysis of migration as a way to develop a more nuanced approach to how we lead our lives in the city. I have written often in this blog about middle class bias, our suspicion of the ‘other’ in our midst (on intolerance here and on the need for idealism here) and also of the shrinking of public spaces that help us interact with people from various walks of life (on community driven public spaces here) and retain our tolerant attitude towards those who are unlike us. Bringing to the fore the stories of migrant families, their experiential journey as they adjust to urban lives is an effective way of highlighting that they are not so much unlike us, their aspirations are not so different, and it may not be unthinkable to treat them in a humane manner and welcome them into the community. A friend told me yesterday that upper class women (madams) in the Durga Puja pandal in my neighborhood had literally shooed away Bengali women who are migrant domestic workers; the same women who are their support system in taking care of their homes, who cook, clean and babysit for them! Clearly, this sort of bias needs to be addressed.

Second, only by being able to understand the type of migrants in a specific city can city planners hope to cater to the needs of the future. Cities like Gurgaon may have, unfortunately, missed the boat. But all those new urban areas scattered across the nation might benefit hugely from research that creates fine and nuanced distinctions between circular/seasonal migrants and more permanent ones, as well as from studies that map migrant consumption choices  of both goods and services.  Urbanizing areas need to have in place systems to monitor incoming migrants. It is debatable, but perhaps the Aadhaar could be a means of tracking data as well as providing portable services to migrants, as was discussed at yesterday’s event.

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

My research focuses on housing, which is one of the most challenging issues cities are facing today. Nuanced data on migration (in addition to other forms of data on employment, labour, industry, demographics, etc),  is imperative to be able to decide what sort of housing must be planned in a city– how much rental and how much ownership, what sort of affordability slabs must these be in, etc. The role of governments in this is critical, as land is a crucial resource. The earlier we recognize the urgency of this need and use it to create new data collection, analysis and planning systems for upcoming urban areas, the better we will be able to reap the benefits of urbanization, as indeed as a nation we should and will.

Urban themes galore at the India Art Fair

Of course, as an architect, my eye gets drawn to works of art that express themes that are urban in nature. But this time at the India Art Fair in New Delhi, there was no escaping the fact that artists are thinking of urban issues and concern, romancing the city, and expressing the nuances of urban life like never before. Not only does this mean that our urban identity as humans is now perhaps mainstreamed, at least for art appreciated by city folk, it also means an increased focus on urban issues that need urgent attention. Art contributed to enhancing awareness about these issues among a wider audience and we need all the help we can get to fix our cities if human life has to be sustainable for the future.

Here are a few glimpses of the fair.

The facade augured well for happy viewing. I loved the colours...

The facade augured well for happy viewing. I loved the colours…

The skyline and the streetscape were the most common representations of urbanism and featured in the work of many artists, even those who were prolific in the ’60s. However, new forms of expression that used mixed media, digital art, recycling of waste etc was interesting to see. Some of these works moved into the realm of activism and highlighted issues related to migration, urban identity, ecological concerns, etc. I was tickled to see that many of the artists exhibiting here were trained as architects.

Sachin George Sebastian is an architect and his work clearly reflects the skills and sensibilities of one

Sachin George Sebastian is an architect and his work clearly reflects the skills and sensibilities of one

A close up explains more clearly what I mean....

A close up explains more clearly what I mean….

Hema Upadhyay’s work ‘Mute Migration’ particularly impressed me. Firstly, migration is my area of research and I am passionate about the need to accomodate migrants into our cities. Her mural highlights that informal settlements are where migrants get absorbed, where the type of mixed-use lifestyle flourishes. Certainly, we need to learn from the amazing tenacity of these self-evolved informal settlements rather than constantly shun them in a bid to redevelop and relocate!

'Mute Migration' by Hema Upadhyay makes a mean point and is spectacularly large!

‘Mute Migration’ by Hema Upadhyay makes a mean point and is spectacularly large!

A close-up to show the kind of materials used. This was first exhibited in Japan

A close-up to show the kind of materials used. This was first exhibited in Japan

Suhasini Kejriwal's enormous pen and ink drawing depicts the teeming vibrancy of urban life. I loved this one!

Suhasini Kejriwal’s enormous pen and ink drawing depicts the teeming vibrancy of urban life. I loved this one!

Sheba Chhachhi's Moving image Lightboxes highlighted the plight of the River Yamuna and made a mute appeal for help

Sheba Chhachhi’s Moving image Lightboxes highlighted the plight of the River Yamuna and made a mute appeal for help

And on a humorous note, another architect Gautam Bhatia brought tears of laughter to my eyes through his sculptural commentary on the Indian politician. The text on his sculptures uses his classic tongue-in-cheek over-the-top style to push the point through. The Minister for Public Health has to leave for New York for a stool test after gas build up post a meal at Parliament Annexe. The Minister for Women’s Rights sells his wife to the private sect…you get the drift!

Lok Sabha Rajya Sabha by Gautam Bhatia...a humorous but cynical view of Indian politics to be sure!

Lok Sabha Rajya Sabha by Gautam Bhatia…a humorous but cynical view of Indian politics to be sure!

It’s always a fun experience to see this Fair. I have watched it grow and it’s great to see so much interest in India both as a nation that produces great art but also for its buying power. I watched many deals negotiated, haggling and also the satisfied smirk on some faces after buying a Chagall or a Raza in the original! As for me, I had no urge to buy. I was here for the visual treat…..perhaps some day……

The exhibits outside were interesting too...

The exhibits outside were interesting too…I clicked this for the colour effect!

Paresh Maity's 'Delhi 7' did not inspire

Paresh Maity’s ‘Delhi 7′ did not inspire

'Triple Gandhi' by Pakpoom Silaphan- Quite an interesting concept

‘Triple Gandhi’ by Pakpoom Silaphan- Quite an interesting concept

An absolutely lovable idea with old books!

An absolutely lovable idea with old books!

Think! What can we change around us this National Girl Child Day?

So today is National Girl Child Day. The ubiquitous mugshots of Sonia Gandhi and our PM stared at me from every newspaper I read this morning, along with a poorly designed full page advertorial with the colour pink all over it! Yech!

What does this mean to us ordinary folks? I thought I’d come up with the strains of thoughts and conversation I consider relevant to the theme.

In 2012, Aamir Khan’s TV show Satyamev Jayate put the spotlight on the issue of female foeticide and infanticide, getting the issue more attention than years of government sponsored advertising or content issued by health institutions. The average middle class TV viewer spent more minutes (or seconds) thinking this issue through than they did when they signed on that ominous declaration while getting pregnancy-related ultrasounds done at the radiologist’s clinic.

I found interesting that this month, there have been several articles, like this one, pointing to China’s skewed sex ratio as well. Of course, much has been written in context of the rising concern over women’s safety since the Delhi gang rape last month. This particular piece conjures a picture of frustrated unemployed men roaming city streets, a potentially hazardous situation, and too few women! In both India and China.

All of this makes us wonder about what we can do, as ‘ordinary’ people? None of us are ordinary and I believe we are enormously powerful in our own spheres of influence. As mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, role models to colleagues and students, etc. I have had many discussions with friends about how to communicate the harsh realities of the world to their children. Much of this concern stems from an urgent need to ‘protect’ our daughters, with very muted attention to how we raise our sons I must say! I’ve admired Natasha Badhwar for writing about the need to tell kids the truth. My own mother wrote an eloquent piece, a year ago, on how fathers need to set the tone for gender neutral thinking inside a home. And now, a dear friend Monolita in Kochi has started a movement to get women in her city and across the nation on an online platform to share experiences, plan strategies to bring about a radical change in attitudes. The initial discussions on the email group she started show how scared even educated middle class women from privileged homes are to speak their minds, how they would rather accept status quo. It has also shown how some of us are willing to work hard for change, to leverage each freedom that we have won or been lucky to get so that women across the world get the same. After all, as Mono puts it, “all I have ever demanded is to be equal!”. Do read our initial posts on our blog and you could follow the blog for activities that we are planning in the future.

Today, as we celebrate the girl child in India, let us not only feel ashamed for the wrongs we have done, but also remember the sheer joy that children have brought to our lives. And resolve that all the little girls we know, along with the little boys, are the seeds of our future. We owe it to them to instill in them values of equality and tolerance, to lead by example lives that are ethical and sensitive, and to see together with them the sheer beauty in our lives….even as we dream of a better world.

Pics below: Aadyaa and a little girl in the Sundernagari slum, where mHS has designed a redevelopment project. Both represent hope and the future. What are we going to do now to ensure they can both reach their potential and enjoy a safe world?

Imagegirl child

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,119 other followers

%d bloggers like this: