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Experience the ‘moment’ by #walking in your city: The good, bad and ugly of Gurgaon

Exploring a city isn’t necessarily about visiting a heritage site, park, entertainment hub or any other place of tourist importance. It can also be about experiencing the everyday. In my (often unsuccessful) pursuit for opportunities to get in a little bit of exercise into my routine, I ventured out onto the streets of Gurgaon for a walk. I consciously decided not to drive up to a park and walk inside it, a decision I partly regretted when I tried to navigate a heap of pig-strewn rubbish that came my way!

My adventure, which I will shortly document in pictures, did not strike me as blog-worthy until I came across this piece in Guardian on walking in the city. The article refers to French poet Louis Aragon’s book Le Paysan de Paris in which he writes about the walker’s ability to experience a ‘moment’ if “sufficiently alive to the nuances of place and atmosphere.” A bit of a philosophical conflict, but also intermingling, between surrealism and rationalism here, I agree. But it is exactly what I felt and enjoyed, the ability to experience my city the way it was, without curation or choreography.

My walk started from Shikshantar School in South City 1, where I dropped my son Udai for a football match, and ambled across a major road, then through a city park, via a small slum and default dumping ground for construction waste, through an urban village and finally back to base. I won’t dwell on the gaps in infrastructure. Broken footpaths and traffic lights that do not program for pedestrians are business-as-usual in Gurgaon, as in most Indian cities.

I do want to talk about the joy of seeing the city wake up, in a leisurely fashion, between eight and ten on a Saturday morning. I enjoyed the lack of reaction to a lone female walker in deserted parks and less populous roads of the city. I reveled in the absence of pre-meditation, in taking turns that led God knows where. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to experience my city, I thought, and I should do this more!

Shutters down, but so colourful in Village Silokhra

Shutters down, but so colourful in Village Silokhra

It's green and relatively clean, but deserted. One of the smaller parks in Leisure Valley

It’s green and relatively clean, but deserted. One of the smaller parks in Leisure Valley

Some drama in the sky....

Some drama in the sky….

Trying to get out of the park without back tracking. I knew I was in for some adventure here...

Trying to get out of the park without back tracking. I knew I was in for some adventure here…

Not so much fun walking through a pile of smelly malba (construction waster) with pigs for company

Not so much fun walking through a pile of smelly malba (construction waster) with pigs for company

Back inside South City I, where there is a beautiful public edge designed to offer seating/interaction space for the community...

Back inside South City I, where there is a beautiful public edge designed to offer seating/interaction space for the community…

Unfortunately much of this well maintained seating and green edge is cordoned off by ugly fencing, presumably to prevent "unwanted" elements from entering and using these spaces

Unfortunately much of this well maintained seating and green edge is cordoned off by ugly fencing, presumably to prevent “unwanted” elements from entering and using these spaces

Curious to know if these pretty spaces get used at all with only one tiny entry in an obscure corner! Frustrating to observe how communities take steps that reinforce class bias and make a city less livable

Curious to know if these pretty spaces get used at all with only one tiny entry in an obscure corner! Frustrating to observe how communities take steps that reinforce class bias and make a city less livable

An hour later, Silokhra is busy and active

An hour later, Silokhra is busy and active

This paint store was so cheerfully over the top!

This paint store was so cheerfully over the top!

Peek into Silokhra's lanes!

Peek into Silokhra’s lanes!

Better design of city roads can and must deliver safety

My twitter feed and today’s newspapers are full of lament over the tragic death of Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde, who is considered a rising star in the newly elected BJP government. Munde died of internal injuries sustained in a road accident caused by speeding and rash driving (it’s controversial who was the culprit, his own driver or the one who hit him).

The tone of the lament heavily leans towards the political implications of losing an important political persona. A few articles here and there talk about the issue that stares us in he face- If a Minister on the central government dies in a road accident in the central part of the capital, what hope is there for the millions who use this country’s roads everyday. Should we not use this incident to highlight and drive home the need to do something about killer roads?

India’s road safety record is perhaps the most dismal in the world- 140,000 ppl died in 2012 alone as per official records, one death in every 4 minutes! Often we consider only fatal motor accidents. Many pedestrians and cyclists die every day and many more are severely injured. The fact that the majority of those injured and killed are the urban poor, whom no one mourns except their families, is one of the reasons these issues never make it to the government’s priority list!

Mulling over the the press coverage and adding knowledge gleaned from friends and colleagues (Special thanks to Bharat Singh, Romi Roy, Nipesh P Narayanan, Monolita Chatterjee, Amit Bhatt and Sarika Panda Bhatt), I’d like to make a few points about the issue of road safety in India.

On policy: A revised Motor Vehicle Amendment Bill has been pending in Parliament for a decade, which will bring in stricter consequences for traffic violations like speeding and drunken driving. However, experts say that the provisions in this law are outdated already. The Hindu today carries a piece on how UN goals need to be actualized, in which Save LIFE Foundation founder Piyush Tewari says: “The sole statute governing road safety in India, the Motor Vehicles Act-1988 (MVA), has proved ineffective in addressing any of these issues decisively. Even the last tabled Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2012, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2012, was archaic and contained recommendations which will not solve the current situation on Indian roads.” 

On road design: Of the three factors- human behavior, driving behavior and infrastructure- the third is the most easily fixable while the other two take time and a combination of awareness building as well as stringent policy formulation and implementation. The best way to fix transportation infrastructure is through improved road design. There is considerable evidence to show that flyovers and pedestrian foot overbridges are NOT the way forward for city roads. Rather, controlling speeds and offering cyclists and pedestrians at-grade crossings is the humane and intelligent way to design roads in the city. This means accepting that the automobile is one of many modes in the scheme of things and not all-important and this is a huge mindset change that needs to come in if we want safer cities to live in.

Let me use an example closest to home to explain what I mean. As mentioned in coverage in Hindustan Times today, one fatal accident happens every month on the road that I live in- Sohna road in Gurgaon. The road is designed as a highway instead of a city road, complete with crash barriers on the median, slip roads and minimum crossover points. The automobile is encouraged, by design, to speed up to 60-80 kms per hour and experts tell me the road is probably designed for over 100 km per hour speeds!

Stand on the road at any time and you will see pedestrians run across the road, climb over or under these ugly metallic barriers and then dart across the remaining stretch on the other side. There are no traffic signals for pedestrians to cross at all on the entire 4 km stretch despite heavy residential and commercial activity on the road. This is a complete design failure and therefore the roads deaths are also designed to happen. The authorities mus take cognizance that they are responsible for people dying and losing livelihoods owing to injuries every single day!

The HT Gurgaon edition carried a piece today on our citizen activism to make Sohna Road safer. Let's start with our own neighborhoods.

The HT Gurgaon edition carried a piece today on our citizen activism to make Sohna Road safer. Let’s start with our own neighborhoods.

Friends and acquaintances within the design community have started various initiatives to convince the government to involve both designers and citizens during the conceptualization of infrastructure projects. A failure to do this will only create more inhuman cities to the detriment of everyone.

On changing ourselves: I harp on this all the time, but I see merit in self-reflection on these issues as citizens. We all care for our own lives and the safety of our families, but do not do anything about it. Starting with changing our own behavior behind the wheel. So sensitizing ourselves to better road behavior and above all, including pedestrians and cyclists in our scheme of things, is important. We plan to take this up on Sohna Road through RWAs soon.

In another way, it is our reluctance to engage with local politics that allows government officials to get away with ad hoc decisions, poor planning and design resulting in unsafe neighborhoods. It is our duty to be aware of what is happening in our neighborhood and the more who involve themselves to raise a voice for improved governance, the better our lives will get!

Join us in our fight for better roads in Gurgaon by spreading the message that Better design is the most effective solution to safer roads and decreased casualties. By better design we mean roads designed to control speeds, proper at-grade crossover points for pedestrians and cyclists, footpaths and cycle paths to be included, properly designed speed brakers (not the poorly constructed car breakers we get), etc. There are guidelines available for urban roads with Ministry of Urban Development and UTTIPEC and we need to pressurize MCG and HUDA (and other local authorities wherever you are) to follow these and not bring in ad hoc designs that kill more people and make driving and walking a nightmare in our city.

An afternoon with the Traffic Police: Learning about citizen action

People like me, those who read a lot and write a lot and talk a lot, tend to be armchair activists. Especially when you work in the development sector, it’s hard to actually wear the hat of the citizen activist. I’ve put the tips of my fingers into several pies and then pulled out, feeling confused, under confident and sometimes just disillusioned.

Mine isn’t a novel story, I know. But last week,  I had the opportunity to take off my thinking & analysis cap and became a do-er. Inspired by Aparna, who lives in my community and believes in taking the bull by its horns, I joined a group approaching the Traffic Police to engage in a constructive conversation about specific traffic-related issues in our neighborhood.

To offer a background, I live in a housing condominium on Sohna Road. It is a significant six-lane highway that connects Gurgaon to the Sohna town and then further to Palwal, which lies on National Highway 2. The road sees huge amounts of traffic. In addition to inter-city traffic, Sohna Road has some of the densest residential developments in the city and the volume of local traffic generated is also a lot. Gurgaon’s infrastructure is patchy and constantly under development. After a painful few years in which the road was being upgraded, widened, dug for sewer lines and so on and so forth, we now more or less have the 6 lanes in place with service lanes on both sides. However, erroneous placement of cuts, wrong parking on service lanes, intersections without traffic lights and many such niggling issues make this stretch of the Gurgaon-Sohna road very dangerous for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

crossing3

No traffic lights at this very busy junction. Result: Chaos and a huge strain on traffic police personnel

Video credit: Siddharth Chopra

Our demands

We (Aparna, Siddharth and me, who all live in the same condo) went in with a letter that Aparna had drafted to the Traffic Police asking for:

1-More effective traffic management at Subhash Chowk, a major intersection where a flyover is being constructed. The construction will go on for many months and there has been no temporary solution provided for managing traffic with the roads in very poor condition.

2-An erroneously designed pair of cuts on the divider and the opposite service lane on this stretch  because of which vehicles cut across and drive on the wrond side of the highway!

3-A solution for a poorly managed T-junction right outside our condo that is a traffic nightmare. The picture and video depict that point.

4-Removal of vehicles parked along the service lane that also causes traffic blockages at entry and exit points for residential and commercial complexes

Our experience

The officer we were to meet wasn’t available when we landed up at the Traffic Police office, but a junior policeman was kind enough to hear us out and advise us to catch hold of the Deputy Commissioner Police (DCP) for Traffic who was just about to head out with a pair of smug and smart looking men driving an expensive car! The DCP, upon learning we were residents of the city with a list of concerns, retreated into his office and heard us out. He was a bit high handed, but he did instruct the concerned Assistant Commissioner Police (ACP) to attend to our needs. This gentleman, who was newly posted to Gurgaon and barely familiar with its roads, called in the Traffic Inspector (TI) for our stretch and opened up his duty roster to us in a very transparent manner to discuss how we could delegate people more efficiently for smoother management of the traffic. Unfortunately, the police can’t do much to improve infrastructure and it has to petition the development authorities (HUDA- Haryana Urban Development Authority) or the local government (MCG- Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon) for making any physical improvements including improved street lights, traffic signals, road condition, speed breakers and even for cranes to carry away wrongly parked vehicles!

What we learnt OR  Things to remember while making requests to government departments

  • Government departments are restricted in terms of their jurisdiction, so we need to have a clear knowledge of who can do what
  • Writing letters is not in vain. Officers do get concerned when complaints come in, but follow up meetings and phone calls are important to drive home the points being made
  • A tone of consultation and partnership works better than one of confrontation; we do need to remember that officers are stressed and overworked. In this case, we felt bad pushing the TI Mr Jai Singh further because we all know how hard working and helpful he usually is. But we were upset by the casual attitude of the DCP, who seemed to want to deflect the blame for accidents rather than addressing the problems
  • Persistence is key. We now need to follow through on our requests and join forces with more concerned residents to place relentless pressure on the authorities till the important problems find solution

The real issue is one of poor road sense and attitude

While we pushed the police for solutions and while we are pushing the authorities for infrastructure, the real problem lies in the horrible way people drive in our city. There is a certain culture of driving each city has and in Gurgaon, that culture is aggression and a blatant flouting of traffic rules. We’re all in a blame game about who the offenders are, but the fact is everyone does- executives in big sedans, taxi drivers, young people, local villagers, drivers of public transportation, we are all to blame. We were, on our way back, talking about how we can change this in Gurgaon. How can we change the conversation from They drive badly to Let me not drive badly. Road attitude and etiquette, following traffic rules and thinking about safety for pedestrians and cyclists are important and it would be great to begin an awareness drive towards this.

Do write back if you have innovative ideas about such an awareness campaign or have seen something like this being done in your community, or elsewhere. Would love to hear from you.

Soaring like kites on a windless spring morning!

One weekday morning in mid-March, when the kids were enjoying Spring Break, Rachna came up with the brilliant idea of flying kites! None of us are experts at this clearly skilled job, but then Rachna owned some fancy Chinese kites sourced all the way from San Francisco. We were all delighted and we showed up in full strength at Gurgaon’s Tau Devi Lal Park- Mum (nani), Udai, Aadyaa, me, Rachna and Nupur, who was to get to work after this morning adventure.

IMG_5719IMG_5750As it happened, it was one of those lovely spring morning with a delightful nip in the air, BUT no breeze. Zilch! Not a leaf moved and we spent a few moments of despair, breathing in the scent of the roses, delighted with being out at dawn, but wondering how the hell we would fly these kites!

Not ones to give up, we found another way to do this. And get in some serious exercise at the same time! We taught ourselves to float the kite up in the air and then RUN. Run, run, run as fast as we can so the kite lifts into the air just as the wind rushes into our lungs! Oxygen rush coupled with the excitement of getting the lovely kites into the air- what a heady start to the day!

IMG_5723IMG_5733IMG_5731IMG_5737IMG_5748IMG_5769IMG_5774IMG_5778IMG_5779IMG_5784IMG_5785IMG_5787IMG_5788IMG_5802IMG_5804IMG_5856Of course, we were so tired in a bit that we call sort of crashed into one of the covered gazebo the park designers have obligingly built. Here we proceeded to eat a picnic breakfast, receiving indulgent and slightly mocking smiles from a few young men from nearby Wazirabad who were into a serious workout session in the same space! After a bit, we noticed a little boy, about the same age as Udai, curiously looking at our kites.

Finding an opportunity to sidle out of more running, we tired adults made the necessary introductions. Aman (he’s a village kid, same grade as Udai, studies in Scottish High where he claims the English is too tough!) , Udai and Aadyaa spent some more time running around with the kites till they too were tired out and the kites were too heavy from being dragged through the dewy grass! We promised to do this again, on a windy day.

IMG_5821IMG_5824We can’t thank Rachna (the kids call her Bausi!) enough for that wonderful morning! Looking forward to more bright ideas from the brilliant Bausi soon…

 

 

A sporty weekend [2]: Kids do Raahgiri on cycles

After a taste of the Raahgiri experience last Sunday [read about that here], the kids weren’t giving anybody any choice. In fact, the word had spread as it is wont to among the young ones and we had a larger group now. Udai was enthused about the idea of cycling around the Raahgiri route this time and I was requested to figure out the logistics. However, on Sunday morning, we were looking at a very flat front wheel and I was scurrying around in my head for a way to handle this. Our neighbor and friend Deepak came to my rescue, offering an adult’s bicycle from his home, but over and above that ensuring Udai test rode it at home before we loaded it on.

Despite Rahul not being around (and we all miss him sorely), the dads in the group Ananth and Deepak worked overtime as did the mums (Shruti, Preeti, me), dadis (Amma) and masis (Gauri) to ensure the kids had a lot of fun. Quite a bunch they were- Udai (9), Aadyaa (5), Avandeeta (6), Candy (3), Deepika (8) and Priyanka (not yet 1!!). All except the last one cycled the route, the rest of us running alongside in turns. Exhausting, but immensely satisfying, this past Sunday at Raahgiri, Gurgaon.

For those of you not in the know, Raahgiri is the name for a car free route designated for citizens to enjoy the streets in Gurgaon, otherwise known for its traffic congestion, pseudo glitzy mall culture, poor infrastructure and corporate prowess. It’s an effort spearheaded by dedicated citizens and supported by government, a win-win partnership that has inspired many of us to hope for a better world._DSC3863_DSC3873_DSC3876_DSC3883_DSC3886_DSC3888_DSC3892_DSC3896_DSC3907

Thoughts and snapshots from Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon

I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!

Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.

Races for kids on at full swing!

Races for kids on at full swing!

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

 

Nupur's expression says it all!

Nupur’s expression says it all!

 

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed :)

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed :)

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

 

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

 

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too...

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too…

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 100-watt smile!

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 1000-watt smile!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear....wow!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear….wow!

 

 

And the pooch had his day too!

And the pooch had his day too!

Watching each other...fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society...Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Watching each other…fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society…Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line...safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line…safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Can you see her?

Can you see her?

Do do mobile!

Do do mobile!

Most colourful bystanders!

Most colourful bystanders!

 

All agog, but not yet ready to join in...

All agog, but not yet ready to join in…

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum's shoulders!

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum’s shoulders!

 

And Raahgiri Day goes on...Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

And Raahgiri Day goes on…Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Weekend workshop: A fitting start to a delightful week of the classical arts ahead!

You know you aren’t so young any more when you are too tired to sleep at night after a few hours of intense dancing during the day. But you know you are young at heart when you wake up the next morning eager to begin again!

This sums up my experience of a 2-day kathak workshop held in Gurgaon at my guruji’s home. Shrimati Roshan Datye, eminent and senior disciple of renowned guru Late Smt Rohini Bhate came from Pune to teach us, bringing into my consciousness a whole new level of nuance and detail, enhanced attention abhinaya and an awareness of the theoretical aspects of natya that bind kathak to the great performing art forms across India.  It is this sort of exchange promoted by the guru shishya parampara that, in my view, demarcates the mundane from the truly meaningful in the world of the classical arts. My sincere gratitude to my guru Jayashree Acharya and to my daughter Aadyaa’s kathak guru Sushmitaji for giving us such a wonderful opportunity.

So much to learn, so little time! So thankful for the opportunity...Pt. Birju Maharaj, showing us the nuances of kathak and how we can relate it to our lives. 14th Oct 2013

So much to learn, so little time! So thankful for the opportunity…Pt. Birju Maharaj, showing us the nuances of kathak and how we can relate it to our lives. 14th Oct 2013

Smt. Roshan Datye who taught us for 2 days. A lady full of grace and energy

Smt. Roshan Datye who taught us for 2 days this past weekend. A lady full of grace and energy

Mere ghungroo...earnestly trying to learn, but a long long way to go...

Mere ghungroo…earnestly trying to learn, but a long long way to go…

Over two days, Roshanji taught three batches of students, ranging in age from about seven all the way up to 40! And at least 80 in number. She taught all three batches distinct stage-appropriate compositions. But beyond the compositions themselves, I was impressed by her own energy levels, her attention to detail and her innate ability to be a good teacher- a robust communicator who knows when to pick up the pace and when to slow down and her instinctive use of humor to highlight concepts or lighten awkward moments! Kathak thrives on analogies from our daily lives. A few days ago, we were blessed by the presence of Pandit Birju Maharajji (also at my guruji’s home) who also presented numerous examples of how kathak is drawn from simple everyday actions and emotions. Roshanji took forward that line of thought for me, helping me form many links inside my head, never mind that the body will take many more years of riyaaz to actually translate that understanding into graceful movements!

1240221_10151712498407851_1100834892_nThe two-day workshop set in motion a week of celebration of the arts by the Aakriti Foundation, run by a group of erudite artists including my guruji. This is an annual festival called Tasmai and is dedicated each year to a great artist this year Smt Rohini Bhate, Smt Datye’s guru. On the 22nd at the Habitat Centre at new Delhi, we look forward to none other than Pt. Birju Maharajji grace our festival with his presence on stage, preceded by a performance from the students of Nritya Bharati, Pune. On the 23rd, Pt. Sarathi Chatterjee and the Kedia Brothers will take the stage also at the Habiat Centre. The festival draws to a close on the 25th with dance performances by Maharajji’s children- for the first time, we will get to see both Deepakji and Mamtaji on stage and I really look forward to this. Students of Jayashreeji and Sushmitaji will also be on stage at Epicentre, Gurgaon on Friday the 25th. For those of you in Delhi and Gurgaon, there is plenty on offer. Do come forward to support the arts, for the love of beauty but also for the sake of the continuity of parampara (traditions) that are, as Roshanji reminded us yesterday, at least 3000 years old!

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.

The pleasures of the cozy, mom-and-pop eatery: Ki Hangla in Gurgaon #loveforfood #regionalcuisine

I am now sorry that I have insufficient images to support my story, but last night Rahul and me had a really good meal in Gurgaon. We set off after putting the kids to sleep in pursuit of a small, cozy place to grab a tasty, well prepared meal. We didn’t have a preference for cuisine, but the discussion had started with finding that the biryani joint that we wanted to try happens to be close on Mondays (Biryani Blues, which I hear great reviews of from reputed food enthusiast friends, you know who you are!). So we were predisposed to Indian food, which we rarely ever eat out of the home.

We decided to go to one of the local markets in DLF Phase IV where we hadn’t been for a long time. Roaming around, we chanced on Ki Hangla. It struck a chord with Rahul, who had read a review somewhere and in any case, he needs no excuse to try a new place! The lady at the door with her warm smile and quintessential Bengali look probably sealed the deal and we went on to order (trust Rahul’s excellent food instincts) and eat an excellent Mutton Chop, filled with succulent pieces of cooked mutton. For the main course, we tried the Pabda fish cooked in mustard gravy with boiled rice.

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Our lady the shop owner was endearing, as she spontaneously broke into Bangla as she took our order, so totally into the flow she was! She was eager, attentive and upfront about her reccomendations. The contrast between her genteel elegant presence and the crazy dance-and-song numbers playing on the Bangla TV channel created a quirky real-world atmosphere that I quite enjoyed. If you’re awkward about conversation with someone, this is a good place to go to, you could spend the evening commenting on the strange costumes and bizarre choreography in current Bangla films!

 

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