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Be careful what you advertise #BJP #Haryana #Assemblypolls #land #realestate

Poll season is about the strangest of radio ads. While driving to work this morning, I was surprised to hear a BJP ad for the Haryana Assembly elections that directly addressed the issue of State-sponsored land grab by developers. In the ad, a Haryanvi farmer talks about how the government has used the ruse of wrongly declaring fertile lands to be infertile to hand land over to developers, thus disenfranchising farmers and leaving them out of the development process. Another ad in the same campaign talks about the challenges farmers face to access water for irrigation. Clearly, BJP is aggressively wooing the rural voter in Haryana. Which is all well and good.

800px-Green_farms_of_Jats_in_HaryanaWhat intrigues me is the implication that the BJP, if elected, will NOT develop agricultural land if it is fertile! Is that even possible for a State that seems to have put most of its eggs into the urbanization basket over the past few years? Leveraging its border with Delhi seems to be an important objective for the State from its recent planning documents.

Of course, Haryana has had a Congress government and these policies could, in theory, change if a new government were to come to power. But, as a colleague cynically quipped, if the BJP were to rule then the land taken from the farmer might go to a Reliance instead of DLF, with nothing really changing for the farmer!

We see a general disillusionment with agriculture across India and a decline of the farm sector, but in Haryana, farming is culturally ingrained. Land and farming are a very strong part of the identity of the Haryanvi people. I’m no expert, but perhaps the State has the opportunity to re-focus on the agri sector, for which it needs to think about compact, transit-oriented, well-planned cities instead of the sprawling, poorly conceived urban stretches we see when we drive around the State.

Experiencing small town India at Narendranagar, Tehri Garhwal #employment #migration #aspiration

Having tried my hand at being an entrepreneur, I’m always impressed by people who are brave enough to venture into new territory with ideas and initiatives. My friend Biplab is one such person. I’ve known him for a while, though not very well. And when my research work started focusing on what’s happening in small cities, I remembered his venture and drove over for a chat.

Biplab runs a BPO called EGramServe in Narendranagar (will refer to it as NN), a town of about 10,000 people a short drive uphill from Rishikesh. In starting this venture, he (like several others, of course) has created a window of opportunity for young people who otherwise have no choice but to migrate out to larger cities. The stories he told me, about his own entrepreneurial journey and the experiences of his employees, stuck in my head for days after our chat. And I decided to pay NN a visit. As I was leaving, my kids were curious to know if that’s Narendra Modi is from (no escaping NaMo)!

After an eventless and comfortable train journey (a frequent traveler on this sector, Biplab is an expert in wangling seats even when tickets are unconfirmed!), we got there early Monday morning and walked around town. As a planner, I was struck by the orderliness of the town. NN came into prominence in 1919 when King Narendra Shah of the erstwhile kingdom of Tehri Garhwal moved his capital here from Tehri. It’s orderly main street and relatively wide streets and uncluttered feel contrasts sharply with the messiness of other pahari towns, which are usually trading or market towns. The shops and residences along this main street, I learnt, are still owned by the municipal board and leased out to individuals.

Approaching Narendranagar

Approaching Narendranagar

EGramServe occupies the ground floor of the only hotel in town

EGramServe occupies the ground floor of the only hotel in town

The managerial staff at the BPO lives on the top floor of the same hotel. Was mighty amused at the interiors!

The managerial staff at the BPO lives on the top floor of the same hotel. Was mighty amused at the interiors!

Criss-cross wires and a typical hill town view, albeit much less crowded than any other I've been to!

Criss-cross wires and a typical hill town view, albeit much less crowded than any other I’ve been to!

Mainstreet, the legacy of a royal past

Mainstreet, the legacy of a royal past

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An early morning view, but it doesn't get too busy even at peak hours

An early morning view, but it doesn’t get too busy even at peak hours

More vestiges of a royal and institutional past

More vestiges of a royal and institutional past

IMG_6205The view from NN, which is also the closest town to the world famous Ananda spa resort, is beautiful. It is a remarkable thing that, so close to Rishikesh, this lovely hilly location that experiences excellent weather is so tranquil and languid, the pace of life barely impacted by the proximity of the fervent religious tourism of Rishikesh and Hardwar below or the seasonal tourism of the hill stations above.

The town looks onto lush forest areas and the lights of Jolly Grant airport and Rishikesh sparkle in the distance during the night

The town looks onto lush forest areas and the lights of Jolly Grant airport and Rishikesh sparkle in the distance during the night

IMG_6169Its tranquility is reflected in the conversations I have with its residents, some of who are from families who settled here during the time of Narendra Shah and consider themselves insiders and others whose families have migrated here from surrounding villages or from other parts of Tehri Garhwal in search of livelihood.

My two-day visit was a most interesting experience thanks to Biplab’s warm and sincere hospitality. He was kind enough to give up his accommodation so I could be comfortable and also enthusiastic enough to introduce me to people all over town. Over the next few weeks, I hope to unscramble some good information from the 20-odd interviews I managed to take. I hope to understand better the experiences and aspirations of the young people who work in EGramServe, their linkages with their family/community and what role cities like NN can play in keeping young people close to home.

I was driven back to Haridwar railway station by two enthusiastic members of Biplab’s team. The most marvelous drive through the lush greens of Rajaji National Park alongside the Ganga canalĀ  served to remind me of how precious the hills, the forests and the rivers are for our survival. In addition to providing opportunity, I remember thinking, encouraging sustainable development that involves communities that can no longer rely on agriculture for survival (low productivity, climate change) is critical. And here too, small cities like NN could be important in tying these rural communities together and linking them to regional economies.

The Ganga Canal, a critical irrigation waterway in the region

The Ganga Canal, a critical irrigation waterway in the region

The road we took through the Rajaji National Park is closed at dusk because of the frequent crossing of wild elephants. They've known to attack and crush cars in the past!

The road we took through the Rajaji National Park is closed at dusk because of the frequent crossing of wild elephants. They’ve known to attack and crush cars in the past!

A lesson in loss of identity, misuse of power and.. in peace

It is the Dalai Lama’s birthday today and he addresses the world, urging us towards inner peace and tranquility. A month and a half ago, we were in McLeod Ganj at his abode. The drives and views were glorious, the weather perfect, the food delectable, but what really put this place in perspective for me was the little museum inside the temple complex that told the story of Tibet.

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

The prayer wheels, everywhere...

The prayer wheels, everywhere…

Faith in motion

Faith in motion

The sanctum inside the temple

The sanctum inside the temple

We were stepping into the museum after seeing the temple, where we had been entranced by monks practicing their rituals and had soaked in the curiously informal yet deeply spiritual, traditional yet uniquely modern feel of the temple. Beautifully curated, the exhibits told the story of the expropriation of Tibet by China, a story of war and a searingly painful loss of religion, culture and identity. The countless lives lost, the homes abandoned, the livelihoods destroyed were one part of the picture, but what came through was the poignant and enduring sense of betrayal, loss, deep sadness.

Udai read every word on display, peered into every single photograph. Aadyaa too sensed our mood from the stillness in the air and asked to be informed. Panel by panel, we went through the story of Tibet’s transformation from an independent State with a very distinct blend of cultural and religious identities to its present amalgamation with China. New concepts like self-immolation caused my children to widen their eyes with wonder and curiosity.

Udai compared the Tibetan story to the hacking off of Hindu sculptures by Portuguese colonizers at Elephanta Caves outside Mumbai, where we had been, fortuitously, just a week ago. It’s the same thing, he said. Someone comes and does not respect what they see. They are stronger, so they destroy it, without thinking.

Not just respect, I gently added, but also inability to tolerate. And a need to destroy what exists to exhibit power, establish supremacy, quell rebellion.

Why, he asked? Why did the Portuguese want Elephanta, why do the Chinese want Tibet so much that they would do this?

Land, mineral wealth, natural resources like water, basically wealth. It is not just foreigners who do this to someone. In our own country, many tribal areas are being destroyed to mine minerals by our own countrymen, because we need those minerals to feed our factories, make machines and products that we now use. I saw a deep sadness in Udai’s eyes and I knew that, at some level despite the complexity, I had been able to get through to him.

I have been wanting to write about my feelings ever since we returned from Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. It cut me deep, the story of these self-respecting, proud, stoic people. Everywhere you walked, they sat selling goods that tourists would like- jewelry, curios, umbrellas, hats. As they sat, many of them continued to work with their hands, sewing and knitting and creating macrame wrist bands too. Some were happy to talk, albeit with a reserve and hint of suspicion; others refused to even get pictures taken, especially the old men. Monasteries and workshops, NGOs galore, all trying to rehabilitate a broken people. How resilient they are, I kept thinking. To lose everything and then pick up the pieces is a truly remarkable thing.

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

Making wrist bands, constantly working...

Making wrist bands, constantly working…

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed...he has an artist's eye, my little one!

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed…he has an artist’s eye, my little one!

We missed hearing the Dalai Lama speak, but the spirit of the Tibetan leader left its mark on me. Many years ago, when Rahul used to fly the Dalai Lama often, I had had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak at a private audience. I had little background then, of what had transpired in Tibet, but hearing the stories of his escape from Tibet had sent shivers down my spine. Now perhaps, I understand a bit more of this fascinating maze of events. I have no answers, no one does. Nor do I know enough to have convictions. I am hesitant to paint people, nations, ideologies in black and white.

But in everything around me now- in the lessons we derive from Uttarakhand’s tragic flash floods, in the debate around Maoist rebellion in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, in stories of college students not being allowed to practice street theatre at Connaught Place’s central lawns, I see a stark mismatch between what is real and what we want to believe. I see a desperate need to slow down, to truly evaluate before we take steps forward, to be inclusive in how we build our community, our city, our nation. Above all, I feel a need to be calm, patient, and ways to control anger and despair and turn these into positive forces. The way I interpret it, this is what the Dalai Lama teaches us. I hope more of us are willing to step off the speeding train hurtling towards we-don’t-know-where, and listen!

Conflicting realities in rural India & the need for inclusive development- Oct 25, 2012

Watching Chakravyuh just after we came back from the village makes me wonder about how much a person’s point of view informs their own reality, how much realities differ from person to person and how confusing it is to unravel these multiple perspectives in an attempt to see things for what they really are. But that’s the thing, reality is not absolute.

In Chakravyuh, Prakash Jha exposes us to the multiple realities of Naxalism. The State perceives them as terrorists, while they believe they fight for the rights of the tribals. In a situation where the very meaning of the development is conflicting- with tribals rejecting any form of development that devours land and resources and the State believing that industrialization is the only viable form development can take- this is a fight in which it’s hard to even take sides. And that is brought out well in the film.

Back in Jalwara, we got disturbing feedback on local politics and economics and much of it conflicted with our urban perceptions of rural issues. As landowners, our family is finding it tough to find adequate labor to work in the fields. Apparently, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or commonly known as NREGA incentivizes people to not work as they get paid a minimum number of hours whether or not they work. At crunch times, landowners have to request officials to delay NREGA payouts so that they get people to work the fields. Of course, the other point of view is that landowners can pay more than what the NREGA offers which is minimum wage and get around this. In fact, NREGA has been responsible for labor wages shooting up across the nation and in that sense, it has benefited the poor. Analysts have also proven that NREGA creating shortage of labor is simply a myth and that the rural poor would not logically opt to work for lesser wages paid weekly, fortnightly or even monthly by NREGA if better wages were paid daily by employers. I don’t understand the economics of this in detail, but this debate is another confirmation that we need better systems to manage, monitor and deliver subsidies so that people get paid for work they actually do. Plus, the gap between demand for labor and supply of workforce needs to be managed as well in some manner, though ideally the market should take care of this by itself.

Another disturbing piece of news was that the Naxals have tried to cross over from neighboring Madhya Pradesh into the Baran district in Rajasthan, hoping to recruit local tribals like the Sahariyas. Fortunately, these Sahariyas, as one landowner in Jalwara referred to caustically as the ‘tigers’ of Baran district, the hot shots, the guys who get all the resources. A recent editorial by Harsh Mander on this community highlights the fact that malnutrition and death by starvation continue to be a reality today, even though much less than before. Pretty much the only thing that keeps the Naxals out at this point is the special Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) that gives every Sahariya household 35 kgs of wheat a month and keeps them away from starvation. The same article reports, however, that these tribals gets only 10-25 days of work a year instead of the 200 days they are entitled to by the NREGA.

Coming back to Chakravyuh, effective governance in poverty struck areas of this country is critical. We don’t realize it, but as a nation we are very close to being in a situation of complete anarchy. Imagine a life when you will not be able to step out of your home without firearms, your children will lead a life of privilege and constant, unrelenting fear, fear of the poor who will strike back at every opportunity. The disparities are growing and we desperately need to innovate means to make development more inclusive. There is a big job out there. And unless we see inclusive growth as a real objective and not just a fancy word, we’re in trouble indeed!

 

Jaunt into the slums with two first timers-July 4, 2012

Going to the slums or an equivalent informal settlement is always a refreshing experience for me. Today, I had the delightful company of two undergraduates. Trap, a sociology major from Princeton and Isha, a history honours student from Chandigarh. We wove in and out of the narrow, winding streets where families sat and chatted, peeled vegetables and even napped, kids played and squabbled. One home had two bird cages with parrots in one and lovebirds in another, the indulgent resident looked lovingly at the birds and gave us a proud look when I patted the chirpers! We encountered many smiles and polite stares, no hostility. Isha wondered aloud about what we would do if such a visit got a hostile reaction. Frankly, it’s never happened to me!
On the outskirts of the slum, the young men hung out, jeering harmlessly, wondering about us and our intentions. Kids followed us. Isha had a conversation with one of them about school. He claimed he knew all his multiplication tables and then, cheekily, he wanted to know if she knew hers!
The amazing thing about informal settlements is their tremendous energy and the variety of activities. A walkabout can tell a lot about the income sources of the residents. We saw an all woman tiny workshop in which some sort of circuitry used in automobile horns was being assembled! The long line of hand pushcarts in the back lane told us many residents were vendors, most likely selling vegetables and fruits. Kabaadiwaalas were aplenty too and mountains of neatly segregated waste materials stood there awaiting transportation to different destinations where they would be recycled.
I was particularly enamoured by the charpais we saw- colourful and neatly woven, they told the story of a skill nearly lost but still valued here among the poor. Tonight, as cool monsoon winds blow outside and my terrace looks more inviting a place to rest than my still warm bedroom, I long to own one of those charming charpais.

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Informality integral to Delhi’s identity, nurture it! May 10, 2012

I was delighted to see this video from Philips Livable Cities Initiative profiling New Delhi. Indeed, I agree that one of Delhi’s biggest challenges is to refrain from copying what other cities have done without really thinking it through. Delhi has such a unique identity shaped by its complex and interesting past and added to everyday by the thousands who migrate in and out of this melting pot; indeed, it would be a great pity to dilute its unique character.

I loved the fact that the video highlights one of the aspects I love best about Delhi- its informality. In fact, the piece highlights what I have always believed, that its informal economy is the soul of this city. One has to only look around to see how innovative citizens are about how they earn their livelihood. I blogged about Sarojini Nagar market and Sikanderpur, an urban village as great examples of thriving markets. Messy kitschy is what Delhi loves, while more organized, formal retail often gets miserably low footfalls. Small businesses, street markets, street-side food and public spaces full of noise and life are desirable to Delhi-ites. Clearly, it is upto designers, planners and policy makers to intervene to public spaces conducive to nurture small businesses.

Like anywhere, it is vital for Delhi’s citizens to be proud of their city. They already are! Most recently, we have seen an enormous fillip in the city’s self-image after the success of the Delhi Metro (and Delhi Daredevils, I dare say!). It would certainly be a blessing if experts and government could join hands to, as the video suggests, preserve the city’s heritage and revive its waterways and green spaces to create a cleaner, more livable urban environment.

 

 

Strong women, meaningful work- How Padma Shri awardees Laila Tyabji and Geeta Dharmarajan inspire me- Jan 25, 2012

I scrolled down the list of Padma awardees and of course, there are several I know of and several others who don’t mean much to me. But two of them are people I happen to have met recently and been very impressed by. Laila Tyabji, founder Dastkar is easily one of the most graceful women I have met and Geeta Dharmarajan of Katha disarmed me by her complete humility. My interactions with both reiterated my belief in passion being the driving force for change!

I meet Lailaji in the context of the India Urban Conference that I had been involved with in the latter half of 2011. I was helping a friend put together the ‘City in Public Culture’ theme and we had involved Ms Tyabji to speak at a session focused on the link between arts & crafts and development. She presented her case entirely from the point of view of the artisan, outlining clearly the linkages between livelihood, poverty and dignity; elaborating their struggles in the context of rapid urbanization, industrialization and socio-economic changes that have both created a market for the crafts and devalued them at the same time. Positioning the arts & crafts in India as not a dying industry, but one that is resilient and adaptive, Lailaji rued that India’s development agenda gave more credence to growth in sheer numbers than to skills and long-term growth agendas. Her empathy with the communities she works with, her clarity in her understanding of the political agenda and her commitment to offering the craftspeople a platform comes from an inner conviction that arts & crafts are linked with identity and dignity, two themes that lie at the very core of our existence as a society and will determine the legacy India is giving the world.

Having recently interacted with a community of leather workers, embroiderers and jewelry makers and seen first-hand the tremendous importance their skills played in their local economy and social fabric and indeed their self-image (especially in the case of women), I was able to internalize and appreciate further the content of Lailaji’s discourse.

I met Geeta Dharmarajan in context of the same project, when the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation called a meeting of the state and city-level nodal officers for the Rajiv Awas Yojna (RAY) with a selection of community-based organizations at HUDCO a few months ago. The meeting was unique in having the objective of building a platform for government officials at state and municipal levels to understand issues from a community perspective, in the hope that innovative approaches would evolve to implement the slum-free agenda of RAY.

Geetaji made a strong case for the role youth can play in implementing development interventions in low-income communities. She shared many examples of how youth empowerment and training had provided communities with the agile, skilled workforce that assisted local businesses to become more efficient. She spoke about how young people with a sense of purpose were changing perceptions in their families and larger communities. Later, she attended a follow up meeting specific to Delhi where she further urged the Ministry to consider a project for mobilizing youth to conduct government surveys, thereby collecting richer, more valuable, community-centric information that could be used for effective redevelopment designs for slums. Her focus and belief in youth was impressive; so was her ability to speak up for her cause in a much larger context and force audiences to pay attention through her simplicity and conviction. Speaking to her later, I was extended a warm invitation to visit their field areas and experience their initiatives first hand.

We don’t need to quantify the good work Dastkar and Katha have done. What strikes me most is that these organization work with, not for the communities they engage with. Just feeling the force of the personalities of these two women, the tremendous involvement in their work and the sheer respect they command is sufficient to know that they, through their organizations, are making significant impacts on the section of society that most needs our innovation, empathy and passion, not mere charity!

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