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Slums have dwindled in India! Pondering on fresh NSSO data

The latest NSSO data (Surveys done between July and December 2012) shows that slums have actually reduced in Indian cities! Liable to be missed in all the hullabaloo of politics, this is a huge achievement for India. If it is true… For one, comparing the Census, which is an actual count of the people who live in the country, with sample survey data seems a bit strange. How do you explain these differences? Nine million households live in slums in 2012 as per the NSSO as compared to 14 million as identified by the Census 2011. The NSSO counts 13,761 slums while the Census found 37,000! I would take these numbers with many pinches of salt!

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The good points

Only 41% of the slums are notified by the local authorities. I am glad the data points this out. Not being recognized or notified often means the denial of services and living in perpetual fear of eviction, as is pointed out repeatedly by the work of several organizations across the country. Transparent Chennai in particular has been vocal about this point (Read their excellent editorial in The Hindu on the India’s invisible population). So while the media is seeing the drop in the number of slums as indicative of the political mainstreaming of India’s urban poor, much remains to be done for those who reside in slums and other unserviced areas in our cities.

It is also heartening to see the improvements in services. The report says that 93.5% of slums have power supply and 71% have access to drinking water. There has also been improvement in drainage, sewerage, garbage disposal, primary education and medical facilities ranges between 15% and 45% compared to the data from five years ago. This does indicate the de-linking of the service provisioning from legality and more integration of the slum into the urban fabric. And perhaps the ability of slum populations to access services outside the slum. We know that slum dwellers are not always poor, but sometime middle class people living in slums owing to negligible affordable housing stock in the formal sector.

One strange point

The majority of survey respondents (70.8%) cites better accommodation as the reason to move out from a slum. The initial analysis seems to point to the success of government schemes like JNNURM and RAY. However, the total number of homes added to the housing stock under these would probably not add up to 5 million, methinks though I have to check on this!

One question

Those of us who work in the sector will wonder about what specific improvements in the attitudes and policies of local and State governments towards existing slums could have brought about such a decrease in number. Evidence from the ground seems to show an ever increasing diversity in the types of squatter settlements and only marginal and isolated instances of positive governmental or collaborative interventions.

More analysis needed

Sure, these are off-the-cuff comments and someone (not me though) would need to analyze the results more thoroughly. It is encouraging to see more data being generated about urban informal habitats though. Slowly, it looks like many gaps in our understanding are getting filled. It is up to us, those who live and breathe this stuff, to overlay the data and the anecdotal evidence and come out with a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Not a mean task, but important and fun too!

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Designed to fail! The truth about the Indian city #urbanization #governance

I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!

I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.

What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.

This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.

The big questions we constantly ask are:

  • Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
  • If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?

Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.

Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has  many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.

Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.

Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.

In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.

We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.

Delhi HT BoylePaul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.

We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.

Guest post from Udai: A day at the passport office!

So much fun to have my nearly nine-year old write on my blog! Udai (and his parents) had quite an experience trying to get him a new passport at the Passport Seva Kendra in Gurgaon. You could say we spent some quality time together. I would say it is a waste of time when things could be much simpler and faster! Here is his very to the point description…

A day at the passport office

I was thinking ‘how much time it would take to make the passport?’ when we reached. When the form checking person checked our form he sent us to the A.P.O [a scary dragon lady]. She checked our form too. She said an affidavit was missing. Then we made the affidavit. We got sent to the A.P.O again. This time there was a problem with an ID. Then papa went to print it in a better way. We got our brown file at last [that got us a token number].

After some time we went to counter A [where the TCS staff verified and scanned documents]. We had it done quickly. We waited to go to B counter and we made a joke- the “bees are not buzzing”! This was because the counters closed for lunch for one hour and we had to wait. Then we cleared the B counter [where the Passport officials verified the documents as well, asking strange questions and with stern expressions on their faces]. Then we did the C counter quickly [a final check and cancellation of the old passport if new one is granted] and it was finished. The whole thing took us from 10:45 in the morning till 4 in the evening.

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Done and dusted!

I must tell you though, that it has been a week today and the passport shows no signs of arriving. The status still shows it is under process even though I have a ‘granted’ receipt in my possession! I suppose I have to wait till the police bother to verify. Sigh!

Can we leverage the current mood of discontent and hunger for change?

The disturbance goes deep in urban middle class India. The events of the past few years has certainly shaken the complacency out of the average educated city dweller. Two small incidents this morning have driven this home to me.

A lady I meet every day while dropping off the kids at the bus stop, but never really gone beyond exchanging pleasantries, started a conversation with me this morning. Her statement was- It’s cold here. We just got back from Bombay. It’s so safe there. Here in Delhi, people get raped, abducted..it’s not safe here.

Well, I had just read about the 22-year old girl in Mumbai being knifed to death by her classmate right outside college. So I was really wondering how to break it to this lady- no place is ‘safe’. It could be relatively safe, but human beings especially women are always vulnerable. I took a deep breath and launched into the conversation. She heard me out about the need to change attitudes and go beyond protesting one case. But I was struck by her urgent need to discuss and express her opinions, which were not particularly well-informed.

Later, I was walking to the gate to pick up Aadyaa when a gentleman I’ve never seen before struck up a conversation with me. He was being critical about the layout and planning of the apartment complex where I live. I was amused, of course. I am a political critic; I think negative, he said! So obviously I asked him why he wasn’t spending his time criticizing the government and picking on private builders who have no incentive to design better as pretty much anything they build sells in this market. His response: Government doesn’t listen, there is no point in criticizing or saying anything, but still we do it! I discovered in a minute or two that he has been a journalist and now heads a media company.

Neither of these conversations were bizarre, but I noted a sense of discontent, frustration; a need to drive home to our government that citizen needs deserve to be speedily addressed. A cynicism, but beyond that a support of activism, a mood that leans towards demanding our rights, not sitting around waiting for them. People need to do something….there is a restlessness, a hunger for change.

Unfortunately though, we need leaders who can anchor and channelize this growing dissent. Leaders who take a stand and who can bring some rational perspectives in. Take responsibility. Listen before talking. I’m unsure if the Aam Aadmi Party can play that role. I wonder why the BJP doesn’t set up a special committee that looks into laws related to public safety and police processes. I would think a situation like this, a mood like this, would be like a fruit ripe for picking for politician. And parties would fall over each other to woo the electorate…to make the right impression, to do the right stuff, make the right noises. But no. Our leadership is bereft of ideas. Bankrupt. Lazy. Complacent.

This is the real tragedy. We are a nation of passionate people, led by a pack of indolent hyenas! I know this is a rant, but I really do wish this mood could be converted so people think of situations through multiple perspectives, come together on a platform to debate and take forward specific agendas and also to act to create more awareness, combat misconceptions and work towards a society that embraces its plurality and does not get defeated by it.

Informed and inspired by the SSA Workshop on Urban Poverty in Mumbai

Of the 40-odd people who attended this workshop on the 11th of December in Mumbai, most came in not knowing what to expect. Urban poverty is a term that confuses and confounds many, even among those of us who work in the development sector. Lina Sonne from Intellecap, which brings out the Searchlight South Asia newsletter for the Rockefeller Foundation and had organized the event, pointed out that there is still an overwhelming focus on rural poverty and a need to move away from thinking of urban poverty as a problem that stems from a failure to address rural issues. Urbanization is clearly a force by itself, the urban poor face issues that are distinct and overwhelming, and there needs to be a focus on resolving these if cities are to truly be the engines of economic growth that India is pinning its hopes on.

The workshop was held at the Dutch Design Workspace, which is intimate, well located

The workshop was held at the Dutch Design Workspace, which is intimate, well located

As the first presenter, I struggled a little bit to gauge the mood, the interest areas and the expectations of the audience, which came from diverse backgrounds. Some were here to listen and learn, and there were others with a fire in their belly who were already doing really interesting things on the ground with poor communities as well as corporations that were striving to drive change through more sensitive leadership.

So I decided to focus on mHS’ vision for housing solutions that envisages a portfolio of housing options ranging from dormitories and shelters for the homeless and pavement dwellers, all the way up to ownership housing. The idea is that the urban poor are a heterogeneous bunch, every bit ambitious and enterprising as any other citizen if not more, and they should be able to self-select what sort of housing they want to live in. (Within this portfolio, mHS is currently focused on catalyzing self-construction in informal settlements through providing technical assistance in the form of engineering and architectural services to homeowners). To make this portfolio of housing possible, not only do we need policy changes and involvement from the government, but essentially there is a need to look at urban problems from an interdisciplinary perspective with the goal to make cities more inclusive and provide better opportunities for everyone.

All the sessions and discussion were captured by posters. This one sums up the mHS session

All the sessions and discussion were captured by posters. This one sums up the mHS session

The other presentations were also very interesting and a lot of the content was new to me. Abhishek Bhardwaj from Alternative Realities spoke eloquently about the homeless in Mumbai and his proposal for “housing in continuum” aligns closely with mHS’ vision. Baby Mohite and Vishnu from Swach in Pune presented the pioneering work that an association of 2200 wastepickers has done in association with Pune Municipal Corporation in being able to bring solid waste management to about 4 lakh households in the city.  This happens through door-to-door garbage collection. The wastepickers then segregate the waste, utilizing the ‘wet’ waste to produce manure and biogas and recyclable materials of all sorts are picked out of the ‘dry’ waste. The results are dramatic and the high level of innovation impressive, like the ST Dispo Bag that allows women to dispose sanitary napkins in a distinct bag so wastepickers don’t have to directly handle soiled napkins! They sell about 50,000 bags per month and all because the wastepicker women had conversations with the middle class women in the households they serve and connected on a woman-to-woman level.

I was quite touched by the presentation by young Shweta from Kranti, which is an NGO run by two spunky women to rehabilitate young girls who have grown up in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district. Shweta, one of the ‘girls’, spoke in an endearing pseudo-accent and told us about how her confidence has grown, how she doesn’t care about what society thinks, how she is influencing her sisters to stand up for themselves back home in the red light district and how she wants to change the world. Shweta and other “krantikaris” (revolutionists) are actively involved in teaching and holding workshops with marginalized girls and children across India. Two other presentations discussed initiatives in education (Doorstep School) and health.

Looking at the posters before re-convening to discuss our takeaways from the workshop

Looking at the posters before re-convening to discuss our takeaways from the workshop

The presentations spun off some interesting discussions. One was the conflict between being innovative in addressing urban poverty through grant-funded initiatives and the need to go to scale and impact a larger number. The future of social enterprises was a concern and some felt acutely the need for social entrepreneurs to get real and find sustainable business models. Some exciting sparring happened on that one!

Another takeaway for many of us was the need for more interaction among those working in the development sector among the urban poor. There is considerable convergence in how different grassroots organizations are beginning to think about the huge problem of how to provide better quality of life for urban residents and much can be learned through sharing and collaborations.

Appalled by government apathy towards providing affordable shelter: The case of Gurgaon

The longer I work in the low-income housing sector, the more appalled I am by government apathy towards providing shelter, one of the most basic human rights upheld by the Constitution of India as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which India is not merely a signatory but a nation that has played an active role in drafting the declaration!

Over the years, governments have distanced themselves from the role of provider of housing, citing the need for private investment. The bald truth is that private developers have no reason to build homes for lower income groups as long as the middle and high income markets continue to offer good returns. Government intervention is therefore essential. Various models to deliver affordable homes are being adopted by States across India. However, much distance lies between promises made and achievements on ground.

Take Haryana for instance. In 2009, the Haryana government declared it would build 100,000 low cost homes across the state- 40,000 in Gurgaon, and 30,000 each in Faridabad and Panchkula. These are urban centers in the state that border the cities of Delhi and in the last case, Chandigarh.

In Gurgaon, the State government intended to build homes on 200 acres of land and these homes were to be prices between Rs 4 and 16 lakhs. Unit sizes were to be 270 and 520 square feet. Clearly, these homes were targeting LIG households in the city.

In a departure from the way governments have traditionally acted in building homes themselves (DDA in Delhi, for example), the Haryana government decided to distribute licenses to private builders to construct these affordable homes. A planning department official has told the media that about five such licenses have been granted, but refused to divulge the locations of these projects or any other details. The land for these projects, however, has not been acquired. The state town planning department’s website apparently shows that only 21 acres out of the total 200 (11.26 acre at Sector 67 and 10.06 acre at Sector 93) are actually available for this scheme. Meanwhile, developers have rapidly acquired land in the sectors demarcated in the Gurgaon Manesar Master Plan 2031 and it seems that the government is playing into the hands of the builder lobby rather than protecting the interests of the citizens.

Citizens groups and the media has alleged that HUDA has not acquired any land to build government housing or sell plots that would be affordable to the middle class either, leave alone provide shelter options to the poor. The last time plots were auctioned at affordable rates was in 2008 in Sector 57.

My fellowship research is attempting to study the possibilities of evolving an inclusive approach to housing in this city. My initial sense is that there has been a definite (and deliberate?) failure of the government to do its duty. Now, with land prices extremely high on the back of anticipated rapid development of the demarcated sectors in the city, there is little hope of the poor being accommodated easily. How is this city going to survive if it continues to deny shelter and even the most basic living conditions to its supply of labor, that essential workforce that is an important pillar that supports the city’s economy? My research attempts to prove that the poor have a stake in this city’s story, that they do have the resources to survive and they will, if only they were given a chance and recognized as stakeholders rather than as nuisances to be swept under the carpet!

The other life, how little we know: A peek into the mind of the homeless laborer- Sep 15, 2012

I’m reading ‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi. It is a peek into the lives of homeless laborers living in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and follows closely the stories of a certain group. I know now why my mother left the book on my table a few days ago. She has read it before me and she must have known how greedily I would lap up its pages, seeing as I am soon to embark on primary research work in Gurgaon’s immigrant labor community, many of whom would have compulsions and circumstances much like the men in the book.

And yet, a homeless man is a very different sort of person. Much misunderstood, much maligned, not even considered inside the frame of reference of society as we understand it. ‘A Free Man’ hits you with the immense intelligence with which its protagonist Ashraf, a safediwala who has spent a couple decades living in Sadar Bazar’s Bara Tooti Chowk, views his life and situation. An intelligence that can make incredibly complex questions appear simple. Consider these-  Why does a many run away from home? Why do people disappear and never return? Why does the government run homeless shelters for three months a year? Where do they think those people will go the rest of the year? And then, why do they have a cell that randomly locks up homeless people considering them beggars? Who is a friend? If you have only two rupees to your name, what would you do with them- buy chai or pay for a shit?

In our work at mHS, we have tried to look at the problems of the homeless from a shelter perspective; but it is truly hard working around the government’s conflicting policies. However, the real problem with addressing homelessness is that in truth, we do really understand why someone would choose to be homeless and vulnerable (mHS is a part of a task force that is working to make homeless shelters an integral aspect of municipal infrastructure and specifically. We are working to develop a construction manual to aid local governments. Harsh Mander is spearheading this and his understanding of the homless is a lot better than anyone else’s).

In a vague sense, we all know that people leave their villages in search of employment and land up in a city. We assume most of them come for employment because their land can no longer support them. But many come for trivial reasons. Someone could have stolen a few rupees from their father and got slapped when he got found out. Another got drunk on local liquor and simple sat in a bus and found himself in a city. Yet another was insulted by his employer and did not work without honor. Yes, these are people who dream, who have a certain self respect, who hope and aspire. In that, they are much like us and we can understand that.

But because it is unimaginable for us that we could live without a roof above our heads and enough money to feed our needs, whatever they may be, we cannot understand many things. The book reveals that the homeless are also people with emotion, who react as much to heartbreak as to poverty. They value friendships and yet live lives so fragile that they dare not question when a friend disappears. They live in suspicion, yet trust everyone. They form bonds so close and yet they can walk away from everything. They drown their sorrows and the ache in their bodies in drink and smoke, but they cannot drown their sense of rootlessness, and the feeling that they have come far away from identity. They cling to classifications- bihari, rikshawala, charsi (substance abuser), gappi (teller of fantastic tales) and so on. They are laawaaris (belong nowhere), akelapan (loneliness) is their only true friend, they will always be ajnabis (strangers) to many and even to themselves and yet, in a sense, they are the only ones who taste true azadi (freedom) as they have no maalik (owner), no family, no one to answer to at all; these are the four overriding emotions around which ‘A Free Man’ tells the stories of the people we don’t really know.

In the sense of really feeling what these people are all about, this book has opened my eyes and my heart. I know it will become an important reference point for the research I am about to begin.

Let’s campaign for Indian cities to create long-term spatial plans: It’s a matter of survival- Sep 12, 2012

Despite the numbers being thrown at us everyday, it is hard for many of us to truly grasp the fact that the world is becoming irreversibly urban. Urban in the way we live, think and function. At the same time, even those of us, like me, who thrive on everything urban, long to escape to quieter places from time to time. We enjoy nature, we crave fresh food, we pine for the sight of green.

How are we going to reconcile these two worlds- the urban and the rural? Deliberations at the World Urban Forum, held recently in Naples, suggest that cities across the world need to wake up to the fact that endless sprawl is counter-productive, resource-wasting and a terrible way to deal with urban expansion.

Urban areas need to be dense to be efficient. In being dense, they demand intelligent planning of resources, but offer opportunities to optimize investments, for instance, in services like public transport. In being dense, they also accommodate more people on less land, leaving land that can be used for other purposes. Urban farming is one such opportunity that cities in India must think about actively. Parks and urban forests are also critical groundwater recharge zones, also recreation and breathing spaces for human inhabitants.

All this can only be achieved by stringent spatial planning, as experts in the WUF concluded. I read about this in an article published by the Global Urbanist, with much satisfaction, but warning bells went off in my head as well! Hold on, hold on! There is a problem here!

Founder member of mHS (where I work) Marco Ferrario was also at the World Urban Forum. He reports that there was a scarce representation of both India and China, the two most populous nations in the world and among the fastest growing economies (there was more representation from Africa though). Also, these are nations that are really struggling with the problems of urbanization. Local governments in India are struggling to keep their heads above water and long-term planning and vision is not something they have the capability to do at this time. There are many minor success stories, but largely, the landscape is bleak and urbanization is haphazard, gobbling up vast amounts of land with no thought for balance and sustainability, food shortages and long-term survival.

This is a strong case for the involvement of urban professionals, ecologists and environmentalists in developing long-term area plans for Indian cities. If we do not heed this advice, we will disintegrate at a speed faster than we can imagine and we leave a world devoid of hope for our future generations. If we do take heed, we might have the rare chance to steer our civilization away from disaster to an existence that is as vibrant and efficient in its urbanized networks as it is sensitive and joyous in its conservation of nature.

I am tempted to start a campaign across India to impress the urgency of spatial planning upon state and local governments. If institutions and professionals join hands, perhaps we could wake up politicians and bureaucracy from their slumber! On that note, my FB page is resounding with the success of a citizen’s effort to clean up a certain area in the city and Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon’s laudable response. Efficiency in rendering municipal services is essential, but so is the creation of a sustainable future through long-term spatial planning that has essential not-for-sale (how naive, what is not for sale? I hear the sniggers people!) components like green areas, urban farms, parks, public spaces, revitalized natural water bodies and forest zones, etc. The right densities, people-centric development, walkability, all that good stuff- it’s high time we demanded it for our cities instead of being happy to read about interventions in nations far away!

We need to demand, adopt, practice a new social code: Looking for the positives- July 15, 2012

I desperately have been wanting to focus on the positives the past few days. As the stories and opinions on the Guwahati molestation case trickled in on Friday and the twitterati made infinite comments on the regressive UP panchayat, I felt my heart sink deeper and deeper. I was delighted, therefore, to hear that khap panchayats can be positive as well. (I’m referring to today’s news coverage of a panchayat in Jind district, Haryana resolving to fight against female foeticide and the institution of dowry.)

In fact, in light of the 73rd amendment and from whatever little I know of community development across the world, local governments are immensely impactful. Chidambaram’s request that State government take action against panchayats that impose undemocratic diktats sound like damage control measures, but can hardly be effective. Once again, I think it is a case of the negatives getting picked up by the media. I am sure panchayats across the nation resolve many situations in justly, and more importantly in a manner that is acceptable to citizens.

Wikipedia tells me that panchayats are in place in some 96 percent of India’s villages and that the gram sabha system in place now is “largest experiment in decentralisation of governance in the history of humanity.” In a nation as large and diverse as India, ground realities and local priorities will always differ hugely from the policy and economic needs as perceive at the Central and State levels. The challenge is in reconciling these differences and establishing a clear line of communication and process.

The conflicts between traditional mindsets and the modern (perhaps more liberal, but hard to say at times!) value system is glaring. Not just in rural India, but in urban situations as well. It is easy for many to correlate the decreasing safety of women to this new social order where men and women socialize more freely. Needless to say, it is easy to impose restraints on women than educating men to honor a basic code of right and wrong. I find it hard to entirely blame panchayats for taking the easy way out. Mostly, they do not have the exposure to know better. There is where campaigns and initiatives to increase awareness should come in. The long-term benefits of creating a secure environment for women to study, work and live even within the family structure, must be communicated to local leaders and citizens alike.

We live in a new India where there is a tremendous drive to prosper. We must learn to use the aspirations of the people to our best advantage. An educated mother makes for substantially improved chances of the second generation succeeding in life. A woman who gets respect in her home nurtures children who have strong values and are more likely to have stable marriages and a normal family life. The world over, family values are given high social priority. It is through this lens that we must talk about women’s rights.

In the same context, the commoditization of women in any form must be strictly censured. The urge for men to control women (wives, daughters, daughters in law, even mothers) in the name of safety would come under the same umbrella. The “:we do it because women don’t know any better’ is an archaic way of thinking and no man who thinks he is fit to live in modern society must subscribe to it.

Who would implement all of this? Us, for starters. And hopefully, in some version of the future, governments and civil society would actively work towards mechanisms to put in place a new social code with the intention to create a world fit to live in.

Dissatisfied citizens of India, let’s reinforce the positive please! July 13, 2012

So it’s official. No less than 59% of us Indians are dissatisfied with the state of India and most of us blame the government for the sorry state of affairs. I agree, it’s frustrating. When we read the news, watch TV, talk with friends about politics, caste wars, molested women, apathetic cops, poverty, torture, espionage, violence, potholes, road rage, it is natural to feel helpless. We think of ourselves as victims, powerless figures that cannot make a difference. I feel that way too. But I know that is the root of the problem, this viewing of problems as residing on someone elses plate.

Each one of us are contributing to the state of affairs and we need to look into ourselves first. Little things matter, and not just in the sense of little drops constituting an ocean. Rather, they matter because if you get the attitude right for little things, there is a chance you will have a more balanced perspective for the larger picture as well.

For instance, I can visualize many homes that tut-tut at the Guwahati molestation incident, but do not raise their sons to respect women. Many middle class parents talk about gender equality, but refuse to send their daughters to study away from home because she is a ‘girl’, even at the cost of her missing an excellent opportunity. And so and so forth, issues related to safety and dignity for women seem particularly hard to crack. We’ve been a chauvinistic society for centuries, but this degeneration into completely obstinate and meaningless gender disparity is scary on many levels. We live with so much fear that its impossible to view the problem in an objective manner. We’ve got so used to this discourse, that the anger that seethes over every time something horrific happens simply vanishes in a while, leading us back to our state of complacence.

So what can we do? For starters, let’s reinforce the positivity in our life. Let’s renounce the philosophy of fear and protectiveness. Let’s make small efforts to be nice to people around us, the people we meet in the lift, on the streets, on the way to work, the office boy, the maid, the person next to you in the Metro. It’s made a huge difference to my personal attitude since I decided to smile at everyone that catches my eye on my way to work. Perhaps some people think I’m batty, but at least I give them entertainment!

As I read endless tweets denouncing the Guwahati molestation and the crazy Panchayat decision from Bhagpat, UP that trates women like cattle, I made a decision. On the days I find negative information washing away my enthusiasm for life, I shall look for the positives and blog about them. Enough in enough! I do not believe this life isn’t worth living any more, nor am I prepared to give up on the future. Against reason, I seek the positives…take special note, my friend who wants me to change my blog name to grumblinginthecity! 🙂

 

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