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No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation

Three people I know and who do not know each other told me last week that they are thinking of leaving India and making a life abroad. They were all deeply disturbed by the Dadri lynching incident and the growing climate of intolerance and violence around us. They all expressed concerns about bringing up their children in a nation where hatred is normal, even a virtue. I feel their pain. I have also not stopped worrying about the future for weeks, though I’m not contemplating leaving the country. Not yet.

Many others I have spoken to in my circle of acquaintances (and let me clarify here that I’m referring mostly to educated, urban Indians in well-paid jobs) dismissed these incidents as collateral damage in electoral politics. Historians like DN Jha (link) and Aparna Vaidik (link) have shown that this is nothing new; cow protection has been an important aspect of pastoral lives but beef eating and cow slaughter have long been sensitive issues, used cleverly by politicians and monarchs to appease certain communities and demonize others. The people who were doing the shrugging seemed to regard themselves as distanced from these ground level politics, while those who felt disturbed imagined that this particular brand of politics, previously at a distance, was now poised to invade their relatively peaceful and protected lives.

Dealing with a climate of fear

Whatever situation you find yourself in, there is a palpable sense of fear that is forcing many of us to take sides. The climate of fear is urging many educated Hindus who have previously regarded their religion as a matter of private belief, separate from their public lives, to acknowledge that their sense of security stems from their ‘Hinduness’. Aware that their actions and words are being judged for how Hindu they are, this is a group that is now deliberate in what they say or do. They are sandwiched between what they are and what they want to project of themselves. They are struggling with the morality they practice and the moral code that is slowly being imposed on us.

Educated non-Hindus too, make a choice. The blending of many religions into the broader umbrella of Hindutva is an obvious strategy of the right wing forces and I truly wonder how cognizant practitioners of these faiths are of this inexorable sucking in of non-controversial faiths into the big umbrella of Hindu belief. For educated Muslims, keeping fear at bay must be a very very deliberate and difficult process. Those who are promoting this atmosphere of hatred must also take responsibility for the growing radicalization of educated Muslim youth in India, and the increased threat of terrorism that our country faces as a result.

The educated Indian is an unfair target

Then there are the die-hard liberals (and I refuse to stigmatize that word), who genuinely believe in the diversity and pluralism of India, who support the idea of choice and who are suspicious of a majoritarian view. I would call them idealists. These are the people for whom hope is an important word at this time. For they seem to be the true targets of this new brand of aggressive Hinduism we see around us. Devdutt Patnaik acknowledges this when he calls the discourse around beef-eating a “symbolic attack on the ‘educated Indian’ who did not stand up for Hinduism in the international arena” (link).

To me, this is a baffling situation. How does PM Modi expect industrialization (Make in India), technological growth (Digital India) or urban investments (Smart Cities Mission) that will catalyze India’s economic growth to happen without the contribution of the educated Indian? Is he supporting the atmosphere of fear expecting that educated Indians have no choice but to accept the hegemony of a dominant Hinduism and carry on with the productive lives they lead? Does he not realize that an atmosphere of fear, violence and suspicion works counter to one of productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship?

No place for fear and parochialism in India’s transformation

For in becoming educated and urban (by default it would seem), it is true that we (and I speak collectively here, as a nation and a community) move a teeny weeny bit out of the stronghold of family, religion, clan and caste. In becoming educated and living in a place of multiple and varied influences (ergo, the city), we do begin to acknowledge and even appreciate the tastes, the expressions of those unlike us. We develop some tolerance, we learn to prioritize actions that take us forward over those and re-negotiate the older codes of religion, caste or clan so they can serve us better. It is in this process of self-discovery and prioritization, in the journey between what we were and what we want to be, that we take risks and contribute the most to the world around us.

At this time, India’s economic objectives seem to be hinged around the expectation the above journey will be one of hope and success. The atmosphere of fear I wrote about above, is a bid to re-focus the core of our identities away from our education and expanding minds inward to a place of fear, bigotry and parochialism. The atmosphere of fear is putting in jeopardy everything that our nation has worked very hard for, including the eradication of poverty and child malnutrition and the provision of decent living standards for all Indians. As Kalpana Sharma points out (link), it’s not just religious minorities but women too, who are becoming targets of a deeply vicious misogynistic moral code. Do we want our young people to become the skilled workforce (ref: Skill India Initiative) that will help India leverage its demographic dividend, or would we rather they lynch a beef eater or strip a woman who dared defy convention? What kind of economic growth will a nation of fighting, insular people achieve?

This is an appeal to all educated Indians. Let us not be silent and accept the blame for something we are not ashamed of. Why should we be ashamed of focusing our energies on studying, learning skills and deploying them for the betterment of ourselves and our country? Certainly not! We need to recognize the terrible impacts this atmosphere of fear and hatred will have on ourselves, our children and our nation. We need to petition the government to contain this. If we do not speak out and take action, we will have no choice but to toe the line, or leave the country.

Mr Modi, the critics are the ones you should be talking to

It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China’s senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”

This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?

Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.

Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.

For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.

An ode to idealism in the context of the AAP drama

Typical of my generation, I live a dangerous paradox everyday. I’m wary of idealism and yet, I’m deeply idealistic. I refused to wear the famed ‘Anna topi’ and participate in what I considered empty gestures. I was faintly disgusted by the candle light marches in my housing complex held in the name of the fight against corruption with young children shouting stuff they didn’t understand. I did not make fun of them, though. I wondered about my position and my reluctance to embrace what seemed like a wave of idealism and change at the time. That was my wariness of idealism asserting itself.

More recently, even though I do not vote in Delhi, I was delighted to see the AAP come to power in such a conclusive manner. That was my idealism kicking in. I wish the government success in meeting the impossible (and in most part laudable) objectives they have set themselves. I hope to to play my own very little role in it too, to whatever extent possible.

However, the charges of “high command culture” leveled against CM Arvind Kejriwal disturb me immensely. Prashant Bhushan’s advice to the CM to read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ indicates in no mean terms the extreme dangers of a lack of consultation. Neither can I reconcile myself to the idea of condoning a little bit of evil for the greater common good, which is also what the CM is accused of resorting to in order to push through what he wants.

What is true and what is not, I cannot say. But the events as they are playing out strike deep and sharp nails into the coffin that idealism has climbed into and is lying, preparing to die a painful death. We may end up with a better Delhi but not, it seems, with better politicians.

Last Saturday, I watched middle school students at Pathways World School, Aravalli put together excerpts from three Shakespearean plays. They explored the idea of unbridled ambition with Macbeth and the idea of friendship with Merchant of Venice; and both of these apply to the AAP drama unfolding before us. But their perception of Julius Caesar is really applicable to the situation. Are the detractors (Cassius=Prashant Bhushan, etc) merely jealous of Caesar’s (Kejriwal’s) success? Or are they truly concerned with the values of democracy and equality? Does Rome (Delhi, India) really need a leader of Caesar’s (Kejriwal’s) appeal to stitch it together even if it means absolute power, the crowning of a King, the breaking of a tradition of democracy and replacing it with an authoritarian system? How justified are friends and supporters like Brutus (Yogendra Yadav?) in taking a stand against Caesar despite their deep sense of loyalty and friendship?

There are no clear answers, but we must think about what sort of future we envision. What have been the expectations of those who idealised/admired/supported the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement and later its conversion into AAP? Did they buy into it because they wanted better governance or because they wanted clean politics? I’d put my money on the latter, but unfortunately that doesn’t look like it is going to happen.

I’m left with many disturbing questions. I cannot answer them for you, but I must try to do so for myself. Politics is a game of compromises, but which of these is acceptable and where does it cross the line? Is one kind of dirtiness is politics better than another kind? Is the end more important than the means? How does my idealist self work with and contribute to systems that are dubious and dishonest? How does my non-idealist self stay motivated to contribute if the hope of better politics lies abandoned?

Even as I mull such questions, life goes on. I eat, sleep, play, laugh. Or crib, bitch, slander and cry. And every now and then, I wonder at my place in the scheme of things.

Dum Laga ke Haisha: Caricatures of life in small town India

The streets of Haridwar and Rishikesh, though a tad cleaner than they are in reality, came alive in Dum Laga ke Haisha, a recently released Hindi film I watched a couple of nights ago. I’d heard good things, but it was better than I expected.


In a nutshell, it is a love story in which the man (Ayushmann Khurana ) slowly falls in love with his overweight wife (Bhumi Pednekar), who he was initially repulsed by. But what brought the film alive was the pulsating reality of small town life. The frustration of ill-educated misdirected young men who are consigned to a life of boredom working in petty family businesses. Of girls, who despite being educated and self-confident, are expected to fit the stereotype of the well brought up, docile girl in order to work the marriage market. Of lower middle class families, struggling to eke out an existence, steeped deep into identities of class and caste that shape their lives and interactions. Of young people in conservative small town India, whose perform their little dramas of life in front of the extended parivaar (family), gali (street) and mohalla (neighbourhood). Others have written about its unique treatment of the theme of sexual love.

Shy Prem, bold Sandhya! Shedding stereotypes

Shy Prem, bold Sandhya! Shedding stereotypes

Watching porn, with family consent? Quite a hilarious situation!

Watching porn, with family consent? Quite a hilarious situation!

The film brought forth two very direct messages. One, respect is an essential starting point in a relationship, even if love is a tough ultimate target. Two, breaking the rules is important; you get things only if you ask for them.

While Prem, the male protagonist, is a pathetic character, full of complexes and self-loathing, Sandhya, the newly married overweight and B.Ed pass bride is a fascinating character. She is shown as willing to mold herself to her new family but unwilling to suffer consistent blows to her pride. She stands up to her husband’s aunt and walks out of her marital home when her husband ill-mouths her. Further, she refuses to let her parents walk all over her, bringing in legal help and starting divorce proceedings immediately. Sandhya is not the caricature of the modern over-aggressive educated women. Instead, she is a woman who is unwilling to allow what she perceives as a mismatched marriage to continue to harm herself (as well as Prem). Of course, her deeply ingrained insecurities about her weight and her belief that once divorced, she would live the life of a spinster while Prem would find a second (beautiful) bride drove in the message the film intended to convey. That it is inner beauty we should be seeking, within ourselves and in others around; baaki sab maya hai (the rest is an illusion)!

What’s the role for buy-to-let home buyers in India’s urban #housing markets? #rentals

Several questions on housing have been plaguing me. And because my current work engages with housing only tangentially, I find myself background thinking a lot of issues related to housing security, real estate markets and the nature of home ownership. The role of rentals in the housing market is something I’m rather excited about. So today’s question draws from the debate on in the UK about the growing role of buy-to-let home buyers. What’s the scenario in India?

We do know that speculative property purchases are on the rise in India. Notwithstanding the current slowdown, the post-liberalisation era has meant that favorable home loans terms and rising incomes have combined to put real estate into that sweet spot; real estate purchases have become a normal component in the portfolio of salaried urban Indians. Most of these investments are in second (or third) homes. Yet, there is the rise in the rental housing supply is not proportionate and we do know that a large number of houses in cities are lying locked up (ref: 2012 MoHUPA report on housing, which recommended push for rental housing).

Is there a larger role for buy-to-let home buyers in the Indian context?

Unlike the UK, Indians cannot avail of a buy-to-let mortgage, which are suited specifically for properties where rental incomes are more than the monthly installments. However, Indians do take out regular home loans to buy properties specifically for rental purposes. Though archaic rental laws are usually blamed for the slowness of rental markets, it is also true that speculative buying largely includes suburban properties that yield lower rents. The thrust of speculative housing investments has been the lure of higher returns through sale, not through rentals, which are relatively weak. Further, property management for rentals is not yet a well developed aspect of the real estate services industry and the responsibilities of being absentee landlords are daunting indeed.

Megacity Narratives


The role of public transport in integrating labor markets, discussed in the South Asian context

Originally posted on TheSouthAsianIdea Weblog:

By Anjum Altaf

The discussion of megacities has drifted into a combination of oh-my-god and pie-in-the-sky narratives displacing potentially sensible and useful analyses.

As an example of the first, consider how often one hears that Karachi had a population of 11 million in 1998 and is twice that now – as if that was enough to clinch the argument that we have a mega-problem on our hands.

My response is: So what? I am not particularly bothered if the population rises to 30 million. What matters, and this is the real question we should be asking, is whether Karachi is well managed and whether its management is improving or deteriorating over time.

Suppose the answer is that Karachi is not well managed. If so, does that have anything to do with its size? As a test, I would ask the proponents of the size-is-the-problem argument to go live in Mirpur…

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Inclusion, Contestation and Identity in Indian Cities: An event report on recent talks


A week of exciting talks at CPR!

Originally posted on CPR Urban blog:

By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR

With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.

Inclusion in public sector housing

On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of…

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Random musings on #politics #youth and #citizenship

I haven’t opined on Indian politics for a while. To tell you the truth, I’ve been ruminating, taking it all in. And here are some randomly picked thoughts from the thousands that buzz around my head.

#1 Let’s stop comparing AAP’s Delhi election win with the 2014 general elections!

I’m really tired of the over-analysis, the conspiracy theories and the general building up of expectations. The truth is that any new government will take time to settle and move forward. And really, can we compare Delhi’s politics with India’s? My quick thoughts: The AAP win is a good jolt for the BJP and hopefully has sent them scrambling to their desks to actually bring out the many policies that are “being worked on” at this time. For AAP, my big question is: Is there a method to Kejriwal’s politics or is it a case of learning to swim so you don’t drown! I’m hopeful, but given his huge mandate, I’m afraid citizens will have to play the triple role of whistleblower, class monitor and audience-giving-polite-applause! Not something we’re used to doing really!

#2 Young people’s politics is confusing and their apathy disappointing

I’m constantly apalled at the strong streak of conservatism among the young today. On Valentine’s Day, I met a young neighbour and asked after her V-Day plans. She didn’t have any. And what’s more, she told me her parents were devastated and upset about her being single and not so ready to mingle! Survey after survey of youth in India have pointed towards a tendency to support the status quo. The Yuva Nagarik Meter survey brought out in Jan 2015 showed these disturbing trends among Indian youth, trends that are consistent with other surveys in recent years:

  • Youth are ignorant about basic civic issues like democracy, rule of law and human rights
  • They are dimly aware of citizenship: “Only 35 percent of high school students consider themselves citizens of India. Nearly three fourth do not know that the legislature is responsible for enacting laws,” as per a Huffington post report
  • They have internalised stereotypes on gender and social justice- 50% are intolerant of migrant workers from other states, many believe that “household help do not have the right to demand minimum wages”

#3 Youth apathy combined with high expectations impacts poll results

I’m not surprised therefore, that we are seeing more absolute mandates than before when elections happen. I think young people are impatient for change but might not really want a radical rethink of positions. Also, they (and it’s not just the young) are given to pass quick judgements and move on if their expectations are not met.

#4 How much does your politics alter your perceptions?

I’m not a BJP supporter and certainly not overawed by the PM’s rangeela personality and flavourful brand of politics. I have a number of friends who are in the opposite camp as well. Many of these left-leaning friends of mine have been upset about something. They claim that previously ‘moderate’ friends who voted for Modi on the plank of development must speak out against the BJP’s divisive politics. There’s a fair amount of hurt going around and the PM’s very recent press statements on religious freedom will, I suspect, add flame to the fire rather than settle things down.

I’ve been arguing with the moderates and leftists among my friends, who tend to shout down anything Modi says or does, on the need to give a fair hearing to the positions brought forth by the current government. Critique them by all means (if possible, constructively), but being obstinately obstructive might not really help! And I’ve been trying hard to follow my own instincts, that tell me that an unconsidered extremist position is a bad one, whether your politics is conservative or liberal is besides the point.

Bliss is rafting down the Jia Bhoroli on a sunny afternoon

It caught my fancy. Jia Bhoroli, what a lovely name for this lively river that we had the wonderful opportunity to enjoy that last week of 2014 on our visit to Assam. Known as the Kameng in the Indo-Tibetan glacial regions and flowing through Arunachal Pradesh, the river gets this typically musical Assamese name as soon as it enters this state.

We rafted down a picturesque stretch alongside the Nameri Tiger Reserve, with the Himalayas behind us, navigating one gentle rapid after another, enjoying a delightful picnic on the raft. Three rafts, five families, many excited and boisterous children. It was a blissful picnic ending in a meal at the Eco Camp, which sports tent accommodation and local produce & handicrafts.

I must ask my Assamese friends what Jia Bhoroli means. If I can take a guess, I would say I agree…something about these waters, their lyrical rhythm, their sweet taste, their meandering gait filled my heart with satisfaction. A unique pleasure that only being with nature can give.


Rafts being set up for us…


The ugly side effects of irresponsible tourism. The State should fine the operator, methinks!


Excitement as we watch the chips and cold drinks being loaded and take in the fresh, clean air!


We begin to see the first of many winged friends….most of them visitors for the season, some native to Nameri…


We flow with the currents, gentle at this time of the year, and watch the mountains recede further and further



Dramatic pieces of driftwood, trees long dead, emerge every now and then, giving a desert-like quality to one of the lushest landscapes in India!


Over the rapid, the currents would seize us and whirl us around for a bit. The kids would shriek in joy and it would be over far too soon…

More winged friends, taking in the lovely warm sun

More winged friends, taking in the lovely warm sun

Or in flight with a hawk eye on the water, waiting to dive for the fish...

Or in flight with a hawk eye on the water, waiting to dive for the fish…

Or just enjoying the joy of flight...

Or just enjoying the joy of flight…

Looking back again, not really wanting this journey to end...willing the mind's eye to capture what it was seeing for posterity

Looking back again, not really wanting this journey to end…willing the mind’s eye to capture what it was seeing for posterity

Rights, capacity and control: Debating issues around the ability and willingness of cities to extend social services

This post was first published on the SHRAM blog. SHRAMIC (Strength and Harmonize Research and Action on Migration) seeks to bring together academia and NGOs to develop a richer understanding of migration in South Asia. 

The economic benefits of migration to the city is often offset by expenditure towards schooling, healthcare, food, sanitation and other services that the State is meant to provide.

Rights vs capacity: Are cities able to service the needs of the needy (migrants included?)

One dimension of this issue is the mechanisms of accessing social services. The question of portability of rights has been debated time and again and there is no real solution in sight. However, attempts are constantly being made to push this rights-based agenda that help let migrants into the social security net. For example, the National Health Policy 2015, the draft version of which was made public on 31st December 2014 talks the language of universal health coverage and portability of the Right to Health, which it advocates as a fundamental right.

The other dimension, and an important one, is that of the capacity of cities to provide these services. Large metropolitan centres like Mumbai and Delhi are unable to service residents, regardless of whether they came in yesterday or have lived there for generations. Small cities are stretched for finances and have barely any capacities to service residents.

Don’t let them in: The idea of entry barriers

In this context, I find the idea of allowing cities to define limits to their growth fascinating. Historically, land use planning has been a popular instrument to contain growth. By specifying densities, types of land use and building controls, it was possible for cities to imagine what kind of people would live there, what they would do and how communities would function and interact. In theory, at least. Urban growth boundaries, for instance, were used widely in the US through the ’80s and ’90s to limit growth and contain urban sprawl, with mixed success.

Closer to home, China is in the process of reforming its hukou system, which is a legal system of house registration that has historically acted as a formidable tool in controlling rural to urban migration. The reforms, which were announced in mid 2014, boldly delink hukou and entitlement to welfare, allowing city governments to decide on the level of social service provisioning that is possible. The larger intent of the policy seems to be to redistribute populations, urging rural migrants to move to small and mid-sized cities.

Professor Bingqin Li, who teaches at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, recently wrote a piece on the hukou reforms on the website of the East Asia Forum. Her article illustrates some of the ways in which different cities have reacted to the reforms,

“Cities that are either unwilling or unable to invest more in social services can use the flexible settlement criteria to set up alternative barriers for entry to replace the older hukou barrier. The largest cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, have made it even more difficult for migrants to settle down permanently than before. A number of medium-sized cities have also introduced policies to favour highly-skilled migrants at the expense of low-skilled ones.” 

In India, the question of entry barriers is not on the table, but somewhere under it! Prof. Amitabh Kundu and others have commented that Indian cities (esp large ones) have become “less welcome to migrants” (Kundu and Kundu 2011) by using processes of formalisation and sanitisation that discourages the inflow of the rural poor.

A case for strengthening capacity

In her article, Bingqin Li subtly points out that the apparent merit in permitting autonomy of decision at city level masks the fact that cities are not equal in being able to provide services; and that inequalities would likely result in higher entry barriers for migrants coming in from rural China. A strengthening of the social services system is her ask.

In India too, rights-based approaches like that of the new health policy are critiqued for the same reason; inequalities across States in being able to provide the coverage and quality of primary health services threaten to render the most progressive of legislation ineffective when it comes to the ground. The same goes for education as is seen from the recent results of the Aser Survey, which pronounce dismal education outcomes, more in some States than others.

Better delivery of services for the urban poor is clearly an issue that merits both introspection and investment, regardless of whether the urban poor are migrants; however the removal of barriers for migrants to access government-subsidised social services can go a long way in helping migrant families truly reap the economic benefits of migration.


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