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Hi-tech Dutch ID cards helped Nazis identify, exterminate Jews: What does that teach us about the ethics of technology & the choices we are making today?

I can, in part, blame my fascination for The Holocaust on reading too much of Leon Uris in my teen years. This fascination intensified on the trip to Berlin in 2014 and continues to be a theme of my explorations in Europe since. So this past weekend, on a loose limb on a Saturday morning, I decided to explore the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam.  The motivation was a listing for an exhibition titled Identity Cards and Forgeries: Jacob Lentz and Alice Cohn on the IAmsterdam page. On a recent trip to China, a PhD researcher had presented at a workshop we co-organized her preliminary research on documents and identity that mentioned the use of ID card forgeries to help migrants access services. That discussion played in my head, as much as the recent heated debate in India on privacy and misuse of information collected under the UIDAI project, popularly called the Aadhaar, which the Indian government is aggressively developing in the form of a universal identification system for the country. The Supreme Court of India is currently in the midst of hearing petitions that contend that the Aadhaar identification programme violates an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. A curious me arrived at the National Holocaust Museum and the exhibition did not disappoint!

Set in an oppositional format, the left half of the exhibition space showcased the work of Jacob Lentz who, as the head of the Dutch National Inspectorate of Population Registers, had been at the forefront of designing a highly secure and for the time hi-tech system of ID cards from 1936 onward. While Lentz and some of his colleagues seemed to have designed the system expecting every Dutch citizen carry an ID card, interestingly in March 1940, the Dutch government decided not to implement this system. Their reason? That it was contrary to Dutch tradition.

But of course the highly sophisticated, and virtually non-forgeable, ID card system was ready for the Nazi occupiers to use when the Netherlands fell to German forces post the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940. The ID card system was brutally used by the Nazis to identify Jews (with a large J on the card itself), in order to initially curtail their civic rights and eventually deport them to concentration camps where they were largely exterminated in gas chambers. Lentz, as one of many bureaucrats who inadvertently aided the Nazi  genocide, is cited as an example of Hannah Arendt’s famous Banality of Evil hypothesis, which  highlights the absolute ordinariness of the human beings who perpetrate acts of evil merely by being complicit. Read in another way, one may say that the compliance of ordinary people under conditions of terror are sufficient to aid evil. Something we in India could keep in mind if we were ever to be on the scene of a horrendous rape, lynching or honour killing, all of which are alas becoming all too common!! I won’t go into the larger implications of the ‘banality of evil’ in the Indian context as manifested by, for example, widespread self-censorship in public life and social media in the face of a vindictive regime served by an army of online trolls. I have written on those issues before.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

~Edmund Burke

On the opposite side of the exhibit, was displayed the work of Alice Cohn, a German-Jewish graphic artist and member of the Dutch resistance who obsessively and often successfully forged these ID cards to help innocents escape. The work of the Resistance is marked by the very opposite of what I have discussed above, the involvement of ordinary people, often from the non-persecuted majority, in a commendable demonstration of altruism usually at considerable risk to themselves (on that note, check out this fantastic NatGeo piece on the psychology of altruism). Those stories reinforce our faith in humankind and at the end of the exhibition, I was left with a positive feeling despite the overwhelmingly “heavy” sense one has in a building that is dedicated to the memory of those persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust.


Exhibition space


The ID cards for Jews, marked with the prominent J


Alice Cohn


Some of Alice Cohn’s graphics work

Alice Cohn’s story has a specific resonance with the history of the building that houses the Museum. One of her bravest acts was the use of a forged identity for herself to be able to walk into a creche, located next door to the Museum, and rescue the child of a Jewish couple who were her friends. The creche is where the children were kept before deportation, while the parents were crowded into the Hollandse Schouwberg, a theatre building on the other side of the street. The story is that Director of the non-Jewish School that was run in the Museum building, and the woman who ran the creche collaborated to smuggle out over 600 Jewish children to safety, out of the clutches of the Nazis and into foster homes where they grew up safe and sound. I held on to these stories of altruism even as I wept at the small but evocative collection of material artefacts from families who died in the Holocaust.


Where the Amsterdam Jews were held before deportation


A bit further down the road, the Portuguese Synagogue. The Jewish population in Amsterdam immigrated from Spain and Portugal (the Shephardic Jews.) during the Reformation.

The Dutch Jews were concentrated in Amsterdam, and so this community was hit hardest by the Holocaust.  About 107,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the concentration camps, some 5,200 survived while the Dutch Underground was successful in hiding 25-30,000 Jews and hence saving their lives. Among them were these 600-odd children who were aided by the school. Franz, the volunteer who narrated us the story, told us that though a few of the parents of these children did return from the concentration camps, they were “neither right in the body, nor in the head” and the reunions were almost as difficult as the separation. The impacts of extreme hatred and mass ethnic cleansing are often discussed in terms of death and annihilation. Sadly, in our world today, these words have become normalized. It would do us all well to remember that between living and dying are myriad states of pain and half-baked existence, the personal and social consequences of which are almost as unbearable.

The pall of the Holocaust hangs over Europe decades after. As the extreme conservatives rise over the continent and indeed the world, people worry and fret but alas, also forget. And evil has the chance to be banal again.


Women in India are having to fight for opportunity, dignity and life; and it’s heartbreaking…

No matter where I travel, my heart remains at home in India. Especially in these turbulent times when basic humanity is eclipsed and everything is a public spectacle, a jumble of accusations and vitriolic hatred. It seems to be that dignity and respect is the prerogative of a narrow sliver of India’s population right now- Hindu, male, upper caste. The rest of us do not matter. We are to give ourselves up in the service of the nation- get an education, get a job, toil away, embed ourselves in acceptable social structures and raise children who conform. If we do so, never complaining, we are good citizens. If we speak up, we face vilification and worse, abuse. And ever worse, violence, even death.

Far away from home, I watch the news emanating from BHU, a university campus that is located in the ancient and endearing city of Varanasi, the pulsating heart of Hinduism and the constituency of PM Modi. Here, a girl is assaulted on a dark street in the evening and deigns to complain. The poor response of the university provokes widespread protests, which are met with police force and brutality. The authorities claim the protests are politicized, the students claim their demands are simple- better lighting, more security, accountability and action against those who did not respond and a functional system to address harassment complaints in the future. Instead of asking why a prominent university has been found so lacking, the nation is busy victim blaming and cooking political plots. In the meanwhile, thousands of girls across the country  have lost the chance to study ahead and become independent as their parents stare at TV screens in fear!

For a nation that dreams of being a global power – delusional factions of it believe it already is – this is sheer idiocy! How in the world are we to progress if women, half the nation, is consigned to live in fear and subjugation. I do not have to reel out the stats here. Domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, marital rape, son preference leading to malnutrition and female infanticide, insufficient public toilets and school latrines, poor public transport, disproportionate familial responsibilities in a patriarchal society, dowry related torture and death, body shaming, trafficking – the list of what women in India face everyday is endless.

Even so, women aspire and dream. They top school leaving examinations. Their performances trump that of boys year after year. They enter college with big dreams, which for most of them are trampled by early marriages decided by their families. Some of them manage to work, but drop out when family responsibilities become too hard to bear. The majority endeavor to make the best of their lives, balancing a heavy load of social expectations. A thin sliver get the right opportunities, live lives somewhat equal to their male peers. An infinitesimally small number breach the glass ceiling. They are celebrated, even as the dreams of millions are crushed.

It is irrefutable logic that India’s dreams of economic success and global power will be more easily met if women are allowed the same opportunities as men, but I will not make a purely economic argument here. India’s female workforce participation is a dismal story, we all know that. Instead of inching up, it has fallen. Yet, women work harder than ever, doing non-remunerative work at home, in family enterprises, and in large number, on the fields. All those hardworking women are counted as out of the workforce, ironically, while those who are in it walk the tight rope every day, torn between home and work, chided for the choices they make and facing increased expectations all the time.

What is the point of it all, if basic dignity is not on offer and if, instead of rectifying the flaws in the system, women are blamed each time for asking for their due? I would think that we would all have given up. Instead, we fight, we scream, we bear the brunt of the lathi charge….because we know that thousands are cowering under the wrath of a husband or the father (or the mother-in law!), thousands still are completely confined and thousand others will not even be born. We know we are the lucky ones and so we fight. Hats off to the girls in BHU who won’t back down and shame on those who attack and vilify them; they must question their own humanity. Hats off to the crusaders who have fought in the courts and campaigned and worked in communities countrywide to help women access their rights, and shame on everyone who thinks this is not their problem; they need to open their eyes. Hats off to the men who have stood by women and seen their cause as human not female, and shame on those who continue to deride feminism and the demand for equality; they need to wake up and smell the coffee!!

#NotInMyName protests in India: A personal interpretation

If you are disturbed about the series of mob-driven lynchings occurring across India, you are not alone. Thousands of Indians were out on the street last evening in at least 12 Indian cities and a few international locations to express their dismay and protest. The tagline used #NotInMyName is telling. It disowns the type of Indian who would use violence to settle a debate or an argument. It rejects the form of Hinduism that bases itself on hatred and the ‘othering’ of minorities. With my largely liberal upbringing, one that included the usual ingredients of everyday Hinduism (ritualism, temple visits, certain food practices), I find it normal that people would be nauseated by the normalization of violence and the senseless killing we are seeing around us. I feel this too when women are raped, when soldiers are killed by terrorists, when old people are mistreated, when children are sexually violated by their family members and beaten inside classrooms by teachers who are meant to be their gurus and mentors…….

I do not think my views are ‘leftist’ because I feel this way. No, if anything, they are humanist regardless of the political hue you wish to read inside them. They stem from the belief that certain things are essential rights: the right to dignity and a peaceful existence, the right to a life mediated by the use of peaceful means of dispute resolution, the right to self-improvement and growth (and everything that comes with that including opportunities for education, skill attainment, decent work and quality of life). At a basic level, I would be surprised if most of us didn’t agree to these ideas. Would we not want this for ourselves, for our children? By that logic, if we believe that humans are born equal, we should want it for everyone else, and their children too. I know this is idealistic and I know that many people do not believe in fundamental equality. But that’s bigotry; whatever the form may take (race, religion, cultural values, ethnicity, language, complexion, caste, what-have-you) and I will take every opportunity to stand against bigotry, without any apologies whatsoever.

Yes, I know, things are not black and white. We seem determined to disagree about everything. We are debating on nomenclature (Is this lynching or something else?), we are pulling statistics to determine trends over time (Is this a new phenomenon at all?) and we are debating the political and religious hue of protests against it (Are these leftists? Are the protesting Hindus truly Hindu?). That is the nature of politics. Shivam Vij makes a point about the ineffectiveness of such protests as a political tool to oppose the right wing (read here) and he may be right. From what I can observe from far away, this is an expression of dismay and frustration reminiscent of the post-Nirbhaya protests. I would not consider it insignificant.

However, two features defined the post-Nirbhaya protests. One, they gave expression to a very personal sense of fear, one in which each family felt like they could be a victim of the type of violence Jyoti had faced. That is not yet palpable at this time, because Hindus believe themselves to be immune. This is a fallacy. No one is immune once the rule of law ceases to have respect. Two, a long standing gender movement existed in India and activists could leverage post-Nirbhaya public support to push forward an agenda that worked towards women’s safety. Of course it is debatable whether the outcomes have truly questioned patriarchal norms or merely resulted in increased restrictions on the movement of girls and women, but policy conversation around public safety in terms of security, transportation and infrastructure has certainly increased. The number of women reporting sexual crimes has also gone up. So there have been tangible benefits. With current protests, there appears to be no clear leadership that can help build the momentum, but it is possible that one could emerge. For me, these appear as opportunities for feminist and youth-centred political discourses, but we do not have something strong enough to resist appropriation by mainstream political movements yet.

Having said this, it will be tragic if these beginnings are not taken forward in some way. First, we need to oppose those trying hard to brush away these murmurs as insignificant by painting them in broad-brush strokes like anti-Modi, anti-elite (read here). I don’t think the protestors are such a united, clear set of people yet (and that might be a strength in disguise). We also need to focus on the disintegration of the rule of law, which threatens everyone and not just a certain minority or those with particular dietary preferences. I’m not sure this is a policing issue as one commentator suggests (read here); are we to be a society in which folks are civil only because they fear punitive action?

In the end, it is about agreeing to what exactly is the ‘social contract’ that we commonly understand and practice. What is that voluntary agreement among individuals by which organized society is brought into being and invested with the right to secure mutual protection and welfare or to regulate the relations among its members? I’ve been in Paris the past few weeks and have had many passionate discussions on these issues with folks here; given France’s history, these issues have been a matter of intense and prolonged public debate and there is a common understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. I am not sure if in India we have invested adequate time and energy discussing this at all. Yes, the Constitution has served as a template for us, but how many Indians really have had adequate exposure to this most wonderful document. If movements to protest against lawlessness are to gain traction, they need to appropriate that space in which these discussions can happen, without violence or judgement.


In India, the political is everywhere, the space for the neutral has shrunk

Everything is political in India right now. Simple pleasures are tinged with the political. Conversations, amplified and intermingled with digital social interactions, are no longer linear but imbued with multiple meanings. For instance, I befriend someone I nod at on my regular evening walks. I think this person is nice. We become Facebook friends. On FB, I find this personal has a radically opposing political stand than mine. Our evening conversations become strained. I am no longer able to separate the political from the personal. I’m suspicious about a (probably) innocent comment by the said friend about her house help’s ethnicity, for instance. I’m questioning her motivations even as I nod and listen to her. Mentally, I’m wondering if I should change my walking routine!

I’m sure this has happened to many of my friends in India. This inability to separate what used to be separate worlds for many of us middle class folks has brought an element of stress into everyday life.

This is to be expected. The spectacular rise of the BJP on the back of Modi’s popularity is rewriting the script for how we live our lives. The political thinking of our parents’ generation was dominated by post-Independence thinking and the enormous footprint of the Congress party (whether they were supporters or opposers). Young folks today are looking for change and novelty. They are accepting that the BJP is here to stay and falling in line with its new script.

For folks like me, in their 40s with a political sensibility that is part-old and part-recent, these are confusing times. Personally, I am well aware of the dangers of echo chambers. As a researcher, the easy trap of preaching to the converted is something we discuss all the time. I am used to analyzing my own speech, writing, behaviour and I put everything under the scanner.

Even so, I am deeply uncomfortable about this point we seem to have reached, when facts are junked almost entirely and we seem consumed by the political narrative. We forget that it is change driven by evidence that will eventually drive policy, innovation and investment, the factors we need to evolve, become economically stronger and deliver a better life for India’s people.

As Kaushik Basu points out in his recent piece Look at the facts of demonetisation, Modi’s ‘master stroke’ is a perfect example of a move that has been a total failure in its own stated objectives, but yet touted repeatedly as a success by a political establishment that seems to have simply erased the word failure from its vocabulary. I would be perfectly ok if they said something like: We tried our best. It did not work out as planned. I would be happy to admire the immense boldness of the move if the analysis of its outcomes were honest.

But the politics of today does not allow me to take a nuanced position. It does not allow me to be neutral if I am not also silent. For example, the critique of demonetisation offered by my colleagues and me (read our two opinion pieces here and here and listen to our podcast here), for instance, was read by several as anti-Modi anti-BJP rather than an honest analysis of what we observed in our research. Those who engaged with the content were rarely our critics, but there were many who judged us by the titles of what we wrote. There were those who refused to engage, insisting on slotting us into a particular narrow political spectrum.

Why is it that we have become so averse to complexity? Why does everything now have to be black or white, yes or no, aar ya paar? For a nation full of fence sitters, why is being politically non-aligned, or simply cautious, now a cardinal sin?


#Demonetisation as ritual sacrifice: In light of a recent trip to Inka territory

Anthropologist and friend Durba Chattaraj, in this insightful piece, compares the ‘inconvenience’ experienced by ordinary and honest people as a consequence of Modi’s bold demonetization announcement to the ritual sacrifice of innocents in ancient civilizations across the world. “In many cultures across the world,” she writes, “the logic of sacrifice to expiate collective sin demanded that the purest, rather than the most corrupt, be offered up to the gods.” She goes on to wonder whether this concept is still valid if the majority, and not the symbolic few, are on the sacrificial altar.

Durba’s analogy has appealed to me because I am fascinated by the emotional logic and perhaps habitual hopefulness with which the poor in this country have taken this enormously disruptive move in their stride. And because I had the fortune of spending some time amidst Inka ruins a few weeks ago, I’m equally fascinated by her bid to compare the mores of a territorial and if I may say so, fairly aggressive people to the supposedly civilized and democratic setup of modern India. So let me take the opportunity to recall that journey….

Our journey to Ingapirca, an Inka site in the Canar district of Ecuador in October this year took us through winding mountain roads and fertile terrain. Far less dramatic that Macchu Pichu, the ruins of Ingapirca hug the terrain close but the Temple of the Sun, probably built as an astronomical observatory stands out. These were a people obsessed and vastly knowledgeable about the movements of the sun, which they worshiped as the ultimate power not unlike contemporary and even older civilizations across the world. What makes Ingapirca different though, in a departure from the usual script of war and conquer, circumstances forced them to settle differences with the local Canari people and they ended up intermarrying with them and living peacefully. The Canaris worshipped the moon and the Ingapirca ruins clearly demonstrate that both lunar and solar worship became part of the unique Inka-Canari culture.

We were fortunate to be assigned a passionate guide, whose enthusiasm and knowledge enabled him to surpass his language difficulties. Whenever he was unsure, he didn’t hesitate to take help the lady in our group who spoke both Spanish and English reasonably well. Interacting with him not only revealed the deeper secrets of the site but also offered some insights into the ongoing attempts by Ecuador and other Andean nations to preserve the language and oral histories of the indigenous people; his own attempts to learn Kechwa, the indigenous tongue, made an interesting tale.

Getting back to the ruins themselves, and the starting point in my post today, we had an animated discussion in Ingapirca about the practice of ritual sacrifice. We stared down at the grave of the High Priestess, with whom over a dozen children had been buried alive  to tend to her in her journey after death. Children were considered the purest beings and hence ideal for sacrifice. They were fattened and treated well before the sacrifice and usually drugged to make it painless. In Ingapirca, archaeologists believe they were given a highly intoxicating drink made of coca leaves (we found the plant growing right there on the site!).


The Inka Temple of the Sun looms up in the background but in the foreground are Canari vessels for lunar rituals


Grain storage



Granaries, residences, and sacrificial spaces


The sacrifical stone, aligned with solar solstices


Nestles low amid the spectacular Andean mountains



The Temple of the Sun dominates the valley


The Temple of the Sun

Walking away from the Temple of the Sun

In present day India, the poor may well be the innocents who have made sacrifices post-demonetisation, losing work and wages for sure, and the state has indeed ordered rather than requested that they make it. While the Inka fattened the innocents for sacrifice, the poor have been promised redistribution or reward at a later date. The parallels make me want to question a bit our belief that choice, rationalism, debate and dialogue are hallmarks of the modern era we live in. In evolutionary terms, the span of time between the Inkas and us is only a blink and maybe as citizens we are still very much in that psychological space: content to not have a choice, accustomed to the powers taking our fate in their hands, always placing the survival of the clan above our own, happy for the rewards we might get but not necessarily assuming they will come….


The gnarled truth: Community voices on #Demonetisation

This morning I was roped in to speak about the impacts of demonetisation on migrant workers by Gurgaon ki Awaz, a community radio station in Gurgaon, where I live. I was speaking on a live show with the mandate to highlight systemic problems that might impact migrant workers in particular ways in this predicament, when cash is hard to access. To offer context to those outside India, currency notes of particular denominations (Rs 500 and 100) stopped being legal tender at midnight on 8th November 2016, in a bid to eradicate black money (that has evaded taxation). In a cash-driven economy like India, this had a severe immediate impact and though, the mid- and long-term impacts are yet to be seen, some sections of society have been particularly hit.

Many migrant workers, as I outlined in the show, lack ID documents and have therefore been unable to exchange their old notes for now. The unbanked are of course in deep trouble. Many migrants are daily wagers, contract labourers as well as informal sector workers whose incomes have been immediately impacted. Further, since these workers support their rural homes through remittances, the impact on rural consumption is also expected to be substantial in the coming months.

My interaction with the station was interspersed with comments from callers, and this was an exciting and eye-opening experience for me. For one, opinions came in from opposing ends of the spectrum. The majority of callers supported demonetisation whole-heartedly, not minding the sacrifices they are having to make. The vindication that people were feeling about the dishonest rich being punished has generated much optimism. For the callers, it seemed like this move was successfully breaking down a hegemonic system that had oppressed them and kept them poor while benefiting the dishonest rich. This ‘great equalizer’ perception was reinforced by another supporter who described his experience of standing in a queue at the bank. He pointed out that the rich guy who got off his car also stood in the same line and got the same amount of money as him. Triumphant, he said, “Ameer ko do hazaar rupaye ki kadar to pata chali!”. At least, the rich now understand the value of two thousand rupees (this was the limit imposed by the government on withdrawals from bank accounts).

However, there was also a caller who were upset that those who disagreed are not being given the space to express their dissent.He brought up the importance of a strong opposition for a democracy to function well. Who will represent the voices of the minority who disagree with such a move, he asked?

This is heartening. While people are busy outshouting each other on Twitter and Facebook, debate is not dead on the ground and people are not afraid to speak their mind. Keep in mind that the community radio speaks to low- and middle-income communities largely residing in urban villages, unauthorised colonies and old parts of Gurgaon. It is has no English language programming and does not cater to the educated elite in the city.

Second, people spoke of various coping mechanisms, how they borrowed from friends or helped out an older neighbor by depositing her cash, how barter worked in some instances and credit in another. These are fascinating and deserving of documentation, for they tell of the resilience of communities when unexpected things happen.

Third, I was pleasantly surprised at the sharpness with which my suggestions about constructive ways of offering criticism was picked up by community radio audiences. I was making a point about the need for supplementary measures to help out those genuinely distressed by demonetisation, like rural households dependent on remittances, access to food and healthcare, etc. Immediately after I said this, we got calls reporting community discussions that centered around offering the government suggestions of various kinds and there was a clear call for more consultation and interaction with State. The people want a listening government was the sense I got.

As a researcher, hearing voices from the ground is critical to inform my understanding of the impact of government policies. This is not the first time we have found that perceptions differ starkly across economic class. On radio as well, local land owners and migrant workers expressed divergent views even within the dominant narrative of support for demonetisation. This is also not the first time we have seen multiple narratives bundled within even a single respondent’s story. The reality is that truth is complex. It is multifaceted, often warped and twisted. It takes enormous patience to refrain from picking out the simplest bits and making them ready for consumption as I have also (probably erroneously) done in this post. It takes immense courage to recognize and accept complexity. But the truth is also that people do accept and live with complexity and contradiction in a very effortless manner. For me, even in this supposedly post-truth era, deconstructing this gnarled truth is still the only way forward.


No more self-censorship: Civil expression & debate are cornerstones of democracy

The high drama that has unfolded in India since PM Modi’s demonetisation announcement on 8th November has left with a nearly permanent headache. I worry about everything from how I’ll pay the milkman to how migrant labourers and informal sector workers are going to withstand the lack of cash. Most of all I worry about the extremely black and white perceptions around me. I’m scared that we are becoming a society where healthy debate is no longer possible, leaving the door open for increased compromises on the freedoms and rights our Constitution entitled us to have.

One of the saddest fall-outs of the past few years has been the sort of self-censorship that people like me have begun to practice and in this, I suspect I am not alone, but. For fear of the vicious trolls, many of whom are ordinary people and even ‘friends’ and because the shrill pitch of the non-debate is violent and counter-productive, further dividing opinion into two opposing camps rather than invigorating discussion as opinions are supposed to. No one likes getting outshouted and abused. And so we self-censor. We don’t speak out, we don’t write, we steer away from political discussions, we change the subject. We stop liking the posts we want to. We stop commenting on posts we disagree with, even if our closest friends have posted them. It is becoming hard to be friends with someone who has a different political leaning and this was not always so. We spoke about these fears in 2014 in the run up to India’s general elections and in the past two years, other transitions notwithstanding, the tone and tenor of public debate has deteriorated beyond measure and the politics of divisiveness and hatred has been normalized in a very sinister fashion.

The past two weeks have convinced me that self-censorship is a very bad idea. Today, on Constitution Day,  I vow to do the following:

  1. Educate myself: Move beyond my bubble and read/hear opinions beyond the ones I agree with. This takes more effort but I’ve been reading arguments on either side of the demonetization debate for the last few days.
  2. Ground-truth: I plan to go to the field to hear more about the coping mechanisms of people, especially those I consider vulnerable in an economic and social sense.
  3. Express myself: I’m going to resume writing my blog everyday. Not all my posts will be about politics or citizenship. In any case, I am not an expert and my blog functions as an urban diary rather than an opinion column. I want to write so that I process and release what I’m thinking into a public domain. It is as much  self-preservation strategy as a measure to show myself I’m not going to run scared anymore.

We shall see how this experiment fares, but at the very least I will not be a mute spectator anymore. And that might even make the headache fade for a few minutes everyday!


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!


Ms Gandhi, let’s bring in enabling policy to influence a change in gender roles

Even as Indian society remains gripped by patriarchal values and gender roles have barely changed in the Indian family, the sands are shifting slowly but surely among urban youth. I claim no statistical evidence and I’m well aware that this is just a very tiny group, but those of us who live in urban India just have to look around to see more fathers engage with tiny tots in your neighborhood park, more women taking on weekend hobbies and enjoy social engagements while their spouses take care of the home and hearth, more shared parenting overall. An opinion piece in Live Mint today refers to the growing number of men taking on or at least sharing cooking responsibilities as well. These new trends fly in the face of Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi’s ludicrous assumption that men will misuse paternity leave. Meant as a rejoinder to criticisms of the recent landmark law that mandates employers to give women six months paid maternity leave (and full marks to her for championing that cause), Gandhi’s response could have been far more nuanced.

I admit, the issue of paternity leave has been problematic across the developing world, influenced by ideas of what constitute good family life as well as economic development imperatives. The international experience shows that the Minister’s concerns over the uptake of paternity leave are legitimate. Brazil’s maternity leave program, already voluntary, was amended to extend paternity leave from five days to 20 this year, but is expected to have limited uptake. China has also extended the leave entitlement for fathers recently, with the hope it will encourage couples to have more children, but commentators are not hopeful it will have impact as most couples now prefer single children. Overall, fathers are not seen as equal partners in bringing up children, but the benefits of parents spending more time with young children (and the critical role models fathers can be) are more widely recognized. Intersected with better education among women, there is a need to revise the outlook on the role parental leave policy can play.

My submission is this: Instead of making policy that is merely reactive and a long time coming, why not think of policy changes that will reward those families that engage in more gender equal behaviour. It’s not just a question of gender equality either; bringing women into the workforce is a critical task for India’s economic performance, and preventing educated urban women from dropping out of it the low hanging fruit.

India doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel either. Many countries have experimented with parental leave. The much-lauded Swedish model offers a total of 16 months of parental leave, two of those to dads. Sweden is considering extending that to a third month. Germany’s experience is interesting too. In 2006, the maternity leave was amended to parental leave, allowing dads to have two months of the total parental leave time (like Sweden). A 2012 evaluation of the reform showed, however, that families of young children tended to take on traditional gender roles and critiqued the policy for disproportionately benefiting families that had single/one-and-a-half earners. In order to encourage a healthier work-life balance so both parents get to spend more time with young children, the parental leave policy was amended in 2014 to incentivize flexible work and also allowed parents to use the benefits in many different ways. Also motivated by the prospects of falling workforce numbers, Singapore has recently announced government subsidy for a second week of paid paternity leave.

India can also consider taking baby steps forward by opening discussions on providing a framework for:

(a) parental leave instead of only maternity leave

(b) how best to encourage employers to offer flexible work hours for mums and dads; and incentivize uptake of paternity leave; and on

(c) how parental leave laws can extend to benefit low-wage earners and those in the informal sector who are currently left out.

Through consultation and public debate on these issues, it might be possible to build a new consensus on how we could, as a society, offer more men and women opportunities to balance their careers and enjoy parenthood simultaneously.



The poignancy of an abandoned home: Voyeurism and research in Tangtou #ShenzhenDiaries

There are moments during fieldwork when you feel like a voyeur, part guilty and part fascinated by intimate details revealed before you. That’s how I felt in Tangtou, where we unexpectedly found an entire block of vacant homes that had been locked up in 2008 unlocked and available to us for exploration.

Built as resettlement housing for villagers displaced by a water reservoir project in the late ’50s and subsequently found to be unsafe in the ’90s, families were finally asked to vacate in 2008 (facts from Mary Ann’s post on Tangtou dated 23rd May 2016).

On the day that we visited, surveyors from the district administration were measuring the homes in preparation for redevelopment of the area. The homes stood open for us and I felt a bit like what an archaeologist might during an excavation. Time had stood still for these spaces that were once lived in and used. A beautifully painted facade. A child’s jacket, broken study table and English language alphabet chart. A kitchen slab where utensils had been left behind and a living room where posters were still on the wall and papers strewn across the floor. All these conjured up vivid images of how hurriedly families might have gathered their possessions when the eviction orders came in.


thumb__DSC0554_1024.jpgOur understanding of the redevelopment process in Shenzhen’s urban villages was to grow over the next few days, but that afternoon in Tangtou we began to grasp the rudiments. That residents were compensated basis the built-up space they had at the time of eviction. That these compensations could be several times the size of the originally occupied space and were usually hugely profitable for villagers but migrants, who lived as renters got nothing. In Tangtou that day though, where waste pickers sorted thermocol and plastic along its main spine even as we walked in and out of the homes, it was hard to visualize a swank apartment block going up where we stood.

It is hard not to make comparisons to slum redevelopment models in India, especially the SRA model and its various spin-offs, where the developer is permitted to use the redeveloped parcel of land to build for sale commercial apartments while taking the responsibility of rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers on site, in a prescribed ratio. The idea is to leverage the value of the land occupied by slums (illegally, as is often emphasized in government documentation while hardly ever bringing up the failure of the State to provide affordable housing ) to improve living conditions as well as create more housing stock.

Like in Shenzhen, cross-subsidy driven redevelopment schemes in India like the SRA impose eligibility criteria that leave out some residents, usually renters, though the proportion of the ineligible varies by location and may not be as high. Activists have often pointed out that these schemes sanitize the city, but accentuate inequalities by turning families onto the streets. As you can imagine, the cut-off date as well as the documentation that households have to produce for eligibility are hotly contested.

Second, while in-situ rehabilitation does not displace poor households, the replacement of low-rise housing with high-rise apartments has been traumatic for slum households in Indian cities, whose income sources are diverse, home-based occupations are common and for whom the street is the focal point for interaction. The scheme has provisions for community consultation, but the design of redevelopment housing has hardly taken community needs into account.

In Tangtou, the narrow and deep row houses had double height spaces that residents had configured the spaces creatively to meet their specific needs (apparently the width was counted by the number tiles in traditional homes, more the width the higher the family’s status, while depth remained standard). I wondered how residents would alter their lifestyle in their new standard issue apartments. Would they miss the flexibility their older homes offered them?

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Through the week in Shenzhen, we discussed redevelopment several times, and the concern over the issue of rights and citizenship was expressed in many forms, not only by activists and planners but even by village residents. In this short trip, we weren’t able to get a first had sense of how migrants felt about being sidelined, but one expert we spoke to pointed out that the self-perception of migrants as outsiders was perhaps the biggest barrier to  building a campaign for more inclusive redevelopment mechanisms. Another similarity with rapidly growing cities in India, where despite democracy and the Constitutional right to mobility, low-income rural migrants have little voice until they remain long enough in the city to become a vote bank, which is often a few decades.

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