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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!

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Excited to be off to Dhanachuli. Kumaon, here I come!

It’s a few hours before I take a train into the hills. Particularly, I love Kumaon, having visited the area a few times as a child and recently as well. I am already imagining stepping off the train and getting borne into the breezy, green mountainsides of Mukteshwar and beyond to Dhanachuli.

I am taking my first trip after the massive floods the Himalayan regions experiences earlier this year.  Part of the motivation of the Blogger’s Meet being organized by Te Aroha is, as I understand it, to imbibe to aftermath of this traumatic event and try and understand what it has meant for people who live here and work here. Life is hard in the hills and hill people exhibit the patience and solidity of a civilization that has nurtured the attributes of patience and perseverance. A natural disaster tests their limits and I am curious to see how these lovely people have coped. Kumaon, particularly, is perceived to have not received adequate media attention or relief efforts despite being as affected and vulnerable.

I am also excited to experience Te Aroha, which I have heard and read so much about. I hear it’s more like a work of love than a resort and that is such a tantalizing description anyway.

My bags are packed and I’m ready to go…. do watch my blog for thoughts and observations, and pictures of course from Dhanachuli!

Meanwhile, here are two of my older posts from my trip to this region in January this year…

Portraits from Ramgarh and Nainital

Skygazing at Ramgarh and surrounds

Of celluloid fantasies and the human penchant for intelligent stupidity- July 12, 2012

Every time I brush my teeth, I fleetingly remember that the last time I visited dentist was years ago. And she had showed me a super scary image of certain waiting disasters inside that needed to be filled in at some point, sooner or later. Life has gone on since and I have ignored the cavities. I know, somewhere inside, that I will attend to them the day the toothache gets unbearable.

That’s what we humans are like. We are intelligent enough to know we are making mistakes, even to work at finding possible solutions, but prevention is not something we really buy into. We wake up to reality when disaster strikes.

No wonder fantasy and science fiction fire us up like nothing else can. I just watched The Amazing Spiderman tonight. I’m not one for green and blue liquids in glass viles, transmutations and reptilian creatures that emit ghastly noises. But even I, who cringes when the suspense gets too much (I do know where Udai gets that fear factor from!), am a sucker for the good over evil theme. As long as things get all right in the end, I’m willing to sit through the horror and the gore, the absolute idiocy of celluloid sci-fi.

Unfortunately, real life guarantees no happy endings. We have played dangerously with nature over the past few centuries. Toxins that humans created are now omnipresent in our food chain and no amount of organic labeling can ensure a toxin-free food item anymore. Drugs, toxins and dietary changes are probably responsible for a worldwide epidemic of lifestyle diseases- obesity, heart disease, diabetes. We like to think the human race is immortal, but we do not know for sure. Perhaps we will mutate and adapt to our environs, perhaps we will perish and turn the Earth into the hands of less meddlesome species! Intelligent stupidity is a hallmark of ours certainly…let’s see where it takes us?

I write this as the date changes to Friday, the 13th and I smile…the more we know as a race, the more we cling to elements fantastic, bizarre, illogical…perhaps that is our escape from the reality we know we must face someday.

No value for human life: How I prepared myself to be a thick-skinned Indian citizen! June 24, 2012

The anger at the death of little Mahi (whose lifeless body was rescued from the borewell she fell into 85 hours after she went missing!) across social media is genuine. The anger is, of course, directed at those who let such things happen, but even more so, it is directed at us. At the public memory of Indian newspaper readers and news channel watchers, who have gotten so used to stories of pointless death that we scarcely bat an eyelid anymore!

I always remember it being like this, though. When we were little (I was 8, same as Udai is now) and Indira Gandhi died, I was actually amazed to see so many people crying because someone on TV had died! I simply could not understand it. There were people dying in newspapers and TV all the time. Why did some people get tears and others shrugs? To my eyes at the time, many of the people shot by militants in Punjab or dying in train accidents seemed more like us. People with kids, who went to offices, carried tiffin boxes, wore nondescript check shirts and brown/grey trousers or bleached fading cotton saris. And so their dying seemed somehow to talk about the vulnerability of us. I once dreamt that my parents held hands and jumped off the Worli seaface into the sea…..perhaps a fallout of all the violence, distant and yet surrounding me.

Later, as a teenager in Lucknow, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I clearly remember a few of us took responsibility of a small pinboard in the faculty club, our venue for evenings full on table tennis, carrom and gossip! That pinboard became our canvas for expressing our feelings. We put up a daily tally of lives lost in the J&K insurgency. For months, those figures leapt at us everyday. I don’t remember the reactions of the adults round us, but our group of kids was very much affected by the sheer number of innocents losing their lives to a cause they didn’t perhaps understand or subscribe to fully.

Even then, we were steeling ourselves to become adult Indian citizens. Part of that preparation was developing a thick skin about death, killing the tears before they sprang to the eyes, stopping yourself from caring too much, convincing yourself that there is precious little you can do, so its best to get on with life and not think about the negatives.

It’s not easy to really be like that though. Many of us still get seriously disturbed by death that could be avoided if we were more careful, more sensitive, better organized, more prepared. And while I try and fight the feeling of total helplessness, I rack my brains to think about what I can possible do to change this, the deaths themselves and certainly, the apathy!

Good governance can only come out of good intention! Not feeling optimistic about Gurgaon- April 7, 2012

In May 2011, Gurgaon residents elected its first set of councilors under a newly formed Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG). Nothing dramatic seems to have happened since then. In fact, from what I hear, many initiatives remain mired in conflicts between councilors and contractors, contractors and MCG officials and MCG officials and councilors. Voters who dare to ask questions are pretty much told to shut up and show up to make changes at the next election!

So when Shashi Tharoor says that good governance must become the passion for governments, I can only laugh! In the context of Gurgaon, good governance does not even seem to be in the vocabulary of the government. Day after day, residents struggle with the same issues–bad roads, frequent power cuts, lack of policing, traffic mismanagement, no system to streamline private developments with mainline government-supplied infrastructure, poor maintenance of public spaces, no street lighting, mafia-run public transport, nuisance liquor vends at every crossing….I could go on and on. And councilors continue to not care. Clearly, they ran for public office with the sole intention of filling their personal coffers. I sincerely hope they are not being able to achieve even that, which is probably the case since contracts would need to be given out and some work shown for pockets to be lined!

Of course, part of the issue is that Gurgaon’s educated urban population doesn’t really turn out to vote. And priorities of rural voters and urban voters do differ. Councillors, therefore, do not really feel the need to be answerable to you and me. I am tired, however, of trying to divert the blame for lack of governance on lack of motivation by citizens. We deserve good governance because we pay the taxes that fund the government. Gurgaon’s urban citizens may not vote, but they pay hefty taxes to the state government and deserve not just basic, but world class amenities.

Gurgaon is an opportunity gone waste for Haryana. Yes, the government’s made a killing on land, but opportunity for continued revenue generation is being wasted as the city languishes in a semi-developed state. If Kingdom of Dreams is not making enough money to pay the government taxes, something is terribly wrong indeed! I don’t feel optimistic at all about a city that fails to make its entertainment destinations economically viable, a city where the transition from ‘scattered islands of population’ to ‘community’ is painfully slow and receives absolutely no government support, a city where no one really seems to care and those who do….. don’t vote!

 

Positivity in the face of disaster: Our experience at Gurgaon’s burnt down slum- March 31, 2012

A slum of about 80 houses burnt down in Sector 57 in Gurgaon yesterday.  When a group of us visited this morning, the sight was not pretty (see pics below). The fire happened in the daytime when everyone was at work but all the children were in the slum being watched by a few adults. By some miracle, no lives were lost. Everything these poor families possessed- clothes, vessels, savings, documents- was lost to the fire, that consumed the jhuggi in 12 minutes flat!

Staring at empty space where their homes stood just a day ago!

Charred remains of things essential

At site, we found people sitting around in various moods. Despondent, sad, industrious, belligerent, curious, resigned and even indifferent. We gathered within minutes that this is a community of migrants, predominantly Muslim, coming from West Bengal. A few families from Bihar, MP and UP live here as well, but relations are strained between the various linguistic groups.

Nobody is aggressive towards us though and they are more than willing to share information, talk about their lives, what they need, how things work or don’t work in their jhuggi, etc. In fact, some of the conversations are so normal to almost be surreal if you consider these people, who are already living on so little, just lost everything they have! They don’t focus on what they lost, they want to talk about how to rebuild their lives.

The realities of their lives hit me over and over, walking through the charred remains of their homes. Kids don’t go to school. Most residents are cleaners, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, etc. Cellphones are common. The homes are tiny, most able to accomodate only about three adults sleeping side by side. Yet there were no tears, kids played around cheerfully, I saw little anguish and no greed for what we would possibley give them. Only an expression of genuine need.

Jhuggi dwellers told us that the first response was by the local mosque, which distributed clothes and provided food. The maulvi assured us when we spoke to him later, that the mosque would continue to supply food. Some government departments have reportedly provided some bits of help- a water tanker, some clothes, food. Our team that has had experience with disaster relief before (they ran the super successful Mission Julley in the aftermath of the Ladakh flash flood), felt immediate and sustained and above all, organized efforts are required to really meet the needs of these families.

A positive experience came in the form of a couple of contractors who were building on plots nearby. They had seen the jhuggi burn down yesterday and they were shaken. They promised to get together a group of their friends working in the vicinity to support our work monetarily or in whatever way possible, promptly sharing their contact information and standing with us till the end of the visit.

There’s a lot to be done and fast! We’re chalking out a plan to move ahead and help these families. I will convey the details soon via facebook and twitter.

My blog will continue to follow the story of this jhuggi for the next few days. I have in mind to write about the condition of housing and the system of administration in such communities, the unique systems they develop for survival in a harsh urban environment, the lack of initiative I observed in then to form a community and analysis of why, and of course, how we are able to help and our experiences whole doing so…..Keep reading!

We need a no tolerance attitude towards bad driving- Feb 21, 2012

When you wake up to news of disastrous car crashes two days in a row, you know its time to seethe about the poor traffic sense of the average Indian. Yes, poor road sense is one of the defining features of Indian urbanity- shocking, irritating and amusing, all at the same time!

This morning, as I drove back after dropping my daughter to school, I encountered some classic cases of road misbehavior in a short 15-minute drive. A smart executive was attending to his urgent business call while behind the wheel bang in the center of the road, hogging one half of two lanes. Clearly, the call was more important than his life or other peoples’ time! Impatient drivers continued to drive across a four-way crossing long after their lights had turned red, drastically bringing the time down for our side of the traffic to cross the intersection. Clearly, they needed to get to work before all the rest of us! I could go on…you get the drift, I’m sure!

The thing is, we all condone this sort of behavior. If not indulging in it, we certainly turn a blind eye when our cabbies, drivers or colleagues do the crazy stuff on the roads. Yet, we tut-tutted for real this morning when we read the front page news about two people being run over and killed by a Swift Dezire gone nuts. The media highlighted, of course, the fact that the deed was done by a car cleaner who had driven off with his master’s car!  The fact that many of us who are masters of cars ourselves drive irresponsibly is, apparently, besides the point. Case in point: Yesterday, we read about the guy who killed himself speeding his Lamborghini on narrow, grade-separated city roads!

We need a lot more awareness, stricter licensing and policing, education about road safety and rules starting school level to make things better. But how do we address the larger malaise of impatience and irresponsibility, a feeling that there will be no consequences to bad behavior? How do we understand that on the roads, irresponsibility could mean harm and even death and that someone else may have to pay for our mistakes? And how do we stop blaming the ‘other’ and look to fix ourselves up first!

Have I (in leading the comfortable city life) gone too soft? Thanking my stars! Jan 29, 2012

A week ago, plans we had made for a family weekend out were placed in doubt when my daughter (all of nearly 4) realized her annual play was planned the same saturday and simply refused to sacrifice it for our carefully planned outing! No grudges against her, but the news threw me into a day-long tizzy. A part of me was really really upset and the other part of me could not stop laughing about how little it now takes to upset me!

Last night as we received news of a grandparent’s demise, I revisited the thought of how we seem to have lost the art of being able to take the hiccups of life in our stride. I certainly find I have gone much softer than I was about a decade ago. I reasoned a large part of this is because the consequences of bad news simply did not occur to me way back in my twenties. The other major cause is there are a lot more responsibilities, commitments, stuff to be taken care of. Third, we are so used to the humdrum of our routines, that the slightest uncalled for deviation is hard to handle, no matter how much we complain about that same humdrum routine!

I also suspect that life is too darned comfortable. I have no major struggles, only trifling existential ones! Since the day of discomfort and sniggering at myself a week ago, I have been thanking my kismet that this is all I need to worry about, nothing more fundamental and life-threatening looms like a dark cloud over my existence. As I skim the papers everyday, this is not what I can say for a lot of people in this city and nation. So here’s to showing some gratitude and hoping that, when disaster does strike, I will have the strength of mind to cope!

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