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Art empowers: How kids from Kanhai urban village tell the story of Gurgaon

I knew something very special was brewing when my friend Swati called me to tell me about the kind of work kids from Kanhai gaon (village) were doing as part of the art project she was mentoring in Gurgaon. She sounded excited about both the process and the outcome. That I had interacted with Shikha from NGO Udaan-ek meetha sapna before through another dear friend Sarika further connected me to the project. And I waited in great anticipation of the final result of what had been titled the Growing Gurgaon Community Art Festival.

What I saw displayed in the public space at Good Earth City Centre in Gurgaon blew my mind. I saw 12 very confident young adults, who not only had original ideas but had put in a lot of research and contemplation into their paintings and installations. Their projects commented on class structures in the rapidly growing city and articulated the acute environmental crisis that residents (humans and non-human) find themselves in. The projects highlighted the flawed model of urban development that Gurgaon is an example of, a model that does not include original residents, that is insensitive to the environmental conditions and that does not anticipate growth well. With the innocence of childhood and the power of art, they were saying important things that the city needs to hear. Read more on what the individual projects are on this media article as well as see more pics on the process and outputs on Udaan’s website and FB page.

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Kids imagine their dream home!

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The artist has made a model of her neighbourhood depicting the condition of water supply. It shows a clear class distinction, with poorer areas getting few hours of water. Second, she superimposes her village pond (that was filled by the govt to create urban infrastructure some years ago) as a way to highlight how the city has swallowed its natural water bodies and now complains of inadequate water

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The star attraction- the cow filled with plastic milk bags. The artist spent time at a gaushala to understand how the process works, had followed a cow around to observe its routine. The irony of the milk-giving cow fated to die because it eats plastic milk packets is too clear to miss here!

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Beautiful collages showing the artists themselves

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The hexagonal box depicted the past (fields), the moment of change (the farmer selling his land) and the future (skyscrapers) interspersed with mirrors. A wonderful commentary on how urbanisation changes places, leaving us with memories and spaces residents cannot often relate to.

As an urban planner and urban researcher, I saw particular value in this endeavor and wish we had many more of its kind. Below are some thoughts I had while seeing the exhibits:

1- We adults need to be told the truth and the clear vision that children have does that very well. As a corollary, we need to listen more to kids and instruct them less.

2- Children perceive the world around them in particular ways. Their observations offer clues to how we should plan and design cities and public spaces. The lack of play spaces was a prominent thought that told us clearly about how urbanisation has impacted children. That public space is shrinking and becoming less accessible must concern us all. Interestingly, the exhibition of the artworks held inside Kanhai village drew hundreds of visitors and intense participation. In Good Earth, an elite space, people were less forthcoming and crowds sparse.

3- The particular background of these children, mostly underprivileged children from governments schools and residents of Kanhai urban village, offered specific insights that are not available to the well-heeled residents of the city. The empathy exhibited by the child artists was rare. In one installation, the artists spent time with the night security guard to tell his story. Their idea was triggered when they saw the guard being yelled at. They wondered why the guard does not get respect instead for helping keep us safe. Their project also highlighted the difficult lives migrants in the city lead, often working two jobs to support their families. This empathy touched a raw nerve in me. I often worry the elite, protected upbringing I am giving my children is causing them more harm than good. I am not sure they will have the depth of observation, empathy and freedom to investigate that I found in the artists. Food for thought!

I was also invited to speak at the festival. I decided to speak about urban villages and the transitions these spaces experiences as this has been a subject close to my heart for years, with much of my research time dedicated to documenting these transitions in Gurgaon.

I’m summarising the main points below, for those who don’t speak Hindi.

Gurgaon has grown rapidly. Urban villages are those spaces that have contributed their agricultural land to accommodate the city but where the spaces where people lived have been left alone. These spaces, and the people in them, have faced several transformations as Gurgaon grew. I describe transformations in governance structures, from rural to urban. I talk about the methods of providing services and in the attitude of the government towards these space, using examples from Shenzhen, China on service provision and redevelopment. Third, I highlight social transformations. I describe the post-agricultural livelihoods adopted by village residents, foremost among them rental housing, which brought in a new type of resident, the low-skilled migrant. Lastly, I highlight that urban villages are filling the gaps that planned development has left, by providing affordable housing, services and even space for small-scale manufacturing. My closing point is that we need to think about the different kind of people that inhabit our city because we essentially face similar issues. Unless we come together to find community-based solutions and hold the government and ourselves accountable, things will not change. We need more spaces like this festival to be able to document what we remember of the past as well as imagine a shared future through collaborative process.

I am imagining a much larger community project that communicated citizen’s needs and imaginations at a much larger scale. I imagine the urban village as the sootradhaar (the story teller or rather the story weaver), one who is wise and old and yet, new and changing constantly. What these children have done through the Growing Gurgaon project – kudos to Udaan and mentors Swati and Friederike – encourages me to dream bigger, to shatter the false cocoons we live in and take charge of our environment as opposed to being silent, complaining and passive recipients of what can only be termed as poor governance and poor citizenship.

If you want to help raise funds for Udaan- ek meetha Sapna, you can participate in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon under their banner.

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The courts can’t resolve a crisis of faith: #BRT #Delhi #classwars- July 10, 2012

I’ve wanted to write about the BRT corridor in Delhi for the longest time, but have refrained as I have little technical knowledge on matters of transportation. In that sense, this isn’t really written from a professional perspective, but rather as a citizen. Mihir Sharma’s piece in the Business Standard says it all.

For background’s sake, one stretch of Delhi’s BRT corridor is permitting cars in the bus lanes because of a petition filed in court by an NGO called NyayaBhoomi. The BRT benefits those who use public transport and I view the shutting down of the BRT as a clear indication that upper class car users are being appeased and the needs of the larger public disregarded.

I put this entire episode down to poor governance. How? The lack of governance in India is a huge problem not just because it means poorer quality of life for us citizens, but because it means we no longer have faith in the systems and processes of democracy; we link it to the failure of governance. The article points to the grave error of letting courts decide on issues of governance….”policy of this sort should be decided by governments elected by and accountable to all Indians. There’s an additional reason: if a mistake is made by the executive, it can be swiftly corrected………unintended consequences of court judgments aren’t so easy to fix” and I agree.

Working in the housing space, I know many slum demolitions have been ordered by courts reacting to petitions filed by RWAs. These petitions typically cite hygiene, safety, unclean environs as reasons for why slums should be removed. They are concerned with their specific neighborhood getting ‘cleaned up’. Photographs of overflowing sewers and garbage dumps, even kabaadi (waste recycling) shops located in slums are shown as evidence…..never mind the shop recycles the enormous amount of wastes being generated in middle class homes. The same sort of middle class homes that want the slums out!

The court verdicts, in the case of slum evictions, are not concerned with issues of urban planning, like supply of affordable housing stock that can accommodate displaced slum dwellers or other interstitial urban spaces nearby where the squatters will move to if their slum is demolished, or the impact of the eviction on the livelihoods of slum dwellers, the list goes on. The court looks at the issue almost in isolation; it is not their job to look at the much larger context. However, it is the job of local governments to do so and when issues like housing, transport and basic services get hijacked by vested interests and taken out of the purview of governance and into the courts, it harms the democratic fiber of our cities, dis-empowering us citizens in the long run. I agree, we have no other recourse as of now. And that’s why planning needs to be done using a participative approach and local government need to rise to the challenges of governance on an urgent basis. If we are to control damages in this war.

Yes, it is a war of the classes out there. A war in which the privileged see only their point of view and the poor theirs. One in which we take sides too easily and all those empathetic with the other side are increasingly being regarded as enemies (liberals, NGO types, reds, wierdos). Which is why basic services, transportation, education and health facilities, all the good stuff that keeps us going and that only be delivered by efficient governance is so important. We need to address this crisis of faith (on governance and government) first, so that the war can at least be fought on level ground. Or alternately, and I’m being a desperate romantic here, consensus can be built to accommodate for plurality, diversity and a right to dignified living for all?

The strange episode of the driver who ran wild- Apr 22, 2012

My family has been through a strange experience this past week. We’ve had the same driver for near on five years. He’s from Pataudi, a tall, wiry young man, always smiling and enthusiastic, resourceful and agile. He started working for us as a bachelor and we’ve seen his ups and downs and shared them, in a sense- his marriage, two kids, run-ins with his parents and his brother, the usual travails of life! Just as he has seen ours, my daughter’s birth, moving house, panicky drives to hospitals, birthday celebrations and the like. It’s been a relationship. We’ve always trusted him, even with our children, and to be fair, he’s never really broken that trust.

Why am I telling you all this? Because one fine day, about a week ago, things changed all of a sudden. He had an altercation with a security person in the apartment complex. There were fisticuffs, I had to intervene and talk to the security supervisor, who agreed to sort the matter out if the driver apologized. Well, he simply refused to do so!

Not just that. He lay outside the gate in wait and, aided by some friends, beat up the opponent after working hours the same evening! We heard of all this the next morning and of course, we had to consider him fired, since there was no way he would be allowed to work in our complex again.

If you thought the matter ended there, you’re wrong. While we were trying to make sense of his unexpected behavior (we actually thought he staged all this to escape paying us back the money we had loaned him; someone even told us he had landed a better job with Reliance and had nothing to lose, etc), he did the even more unexpected. He stole a bike from a neighboring apartment complex and tried to frame someone else by entering a faux name and number in the register. Unfortunately for him, CCTV cameras caught him in the act of driving out the bike and now he is on the run from the police!

Of course, we are carrying on as usual. There is a new driver in place and life goes on, but it shakes me up to think someone I trusted so much and who played a significant role in our lives ended up being a criminal! What had driven him to do this, I wonder? A fit of madness, a vendetta of some some sort, desperate need for money….could be anything! And us? We’re getting visits from the police, we’re being told to be careful..of what, I have no idea!

I wonder if the guy had been a friend or colleague and not a driver, would I so easily have dropped him from my life, not called, not tried to find out what drove him to this? ‘Don’t mess with the locals’, they say, here in Gurgaon, Haryana. This is a city where a 16-year old boy got kidnapped and sodomized in broad daylight two days ago! Where women get raped and assaulted and the police make absurd statements about their character instead of making the city safer. This is a city where its hard to trust…Yet, I feel bad for giving up on him…yet, I know there is precious little I can do here, but let things go…..and forget he existed.

And you know what, we do not have a single picture of him…after knowing him for five years…such are the manifestations of the class divides we practice, knowingly and unknowingly every day…..

Are we reinforcing inequality in our homes? Examining my attitudes towards my domestic help- Feb 02, 2012

Hindu’s op-ed about domestic help makes a few hard-hitting points that forced me to examine the following questions for myself:

Why do I employ domestic help? Is it because of what the article suggests- I need to work outside the house, so in employing domestic servants, am I using my class advantage to minimize my gender disadvantage? In my case, the latter isn’t so much about my husband not being willing to be a caregiver to my children or taking on housekeeping responsibilities (which is what the article outlines as the typical situation), but simply because of the nature of his job, when he may not be in town for long periods of time!

Do I think its unskilled labor and do I devalue it? Certainly not. I have gone with little or no domestic help for short periods of time and I think I (and most of us) employ domestic help because housework is tedious work and not intellectually stimulating, NOT because we think it is unskilled work. In fact, many domestic workers have excellent skills and many more need training, which unfortunately needs to be given by us who are relatively unskilled in this department!

What is my attitude towards my domestic help? Do I treat them with dignity? How does my behavior towards them affect my children?

Now this these are tough questions to answer honestly. Let me say I try and be fair to my help, in exchange for a sense of responsibility from their side. I do not go as far as asking them to sit and dine with me. To that extent, the class differences are ingrained, on both sides. But I do not ask them to constantly run errands for my children and certainly not my son, who is old enough to clear his toys and get himself a glass of water. My help eats what we eat and participates normally in conversations between us as far as it involves her. Fortunately, I haven’t needed full time domestic help in the past several months, so we have adequate privacy once the maids leave. Yes, I think I treat them with dignity. They get pulled up for mistakes, just like any team worker at work would get, though I admit I do raise my voice with my help, which I would never do at work.

What are my children learning? Here, I’m thinking back to an incident from my childhood. The only time by father hit me in my life was when I mistakenly said something rude to our domestic help Manda, who I treated as family and very much still keep in touch with. I must have been seven or eight, about as old as Udai is now. My father’s reaction taught me to measure my attitude towards those who help us early in life. I urge my children to form a bond of some sort with anyone who works at my place. Often that does not happen because the domestic worker rejects their affection and I have seen how deeply that affects the kids. Sometimes the kids tend to get violent, over criticize and tattle on the help. I treat that the same way I treat their friendships with their peers- ignore and intervene when I must.

I hope these are the right things to do. Undoubtedly, our children lead a life of privilege and class distinctions are deeply ingrained. I can only hope to teach them to be empathetic, by example. Even in that, I can only try!

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