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#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!).

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

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Grain storage

 

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Granaries, residences, and sacrificial spaces

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The sacrifical stone, aligned with solar solstices

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Nestles low amid the spectacular Andean mountains

 

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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….

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Does the government really understand? #Modi #oversimplify

I was taking an undergraduate class for architecture students this morning on housing and urban poverty in India. The discussion was long and winding. We spoke of how the informal city is created and how city managers are trying to resolve issues of varying magnitudes with scarce resources. I tried to bring in a bit of the realism and build on the interconnection of architecture with the social sciences in the classroom.

And then, one student raised her hand and asked me: “All this that you are telling us, does Mr Modi understand it? They way he says things, it’s like a magic wand needs to be waved and stuff will get done!”

Well, well, well! We’re all waiting and watching here….but a lot of us are beginning to worry about how much deep diving government departments are really doing into issues that matter when they are given 100-day diktats to conceptualise schemes to be unrolled in the near future and their prime motivation is to please the PM? Efficiency and speed are commendable, but I do hope it is not at the cost of quality and inclusiveness, especially of those still trapped in poverty.

 

From hopelessness to a sense of purpose: Musings on a sunny November day

Self-confidence and motivation levels have a lot to do with how I feel, on any given day. Small things can disturb my usual sense of buoyant well being. This morning, I woke up feeling I’m not doing enough with my life. It was a holiday for the kids and all the little creatures were out in the park, soaking in the sunshine and running around happily. Watching them, I felt strangely disconnected.

It was a return to a phase that I went through a while ago, when I constantly doubted myself and lived in a state of anxiety. I was transitioning from being an entrepreneur and a content writer to I didn’t quite know what. I did know that urbanism is something I wanted to work in and that I thought about urban issues all the time. But to get a foot into the field when I had been outside it for years was quite a challennge.

Today, I have already been working in the low income housing sector for a year and a half and am actively researching urban issues related to poverty and housing, plus teaching a few hours a week. And in general, I feel a huge sense of achievement about all of this.

However, I do sorely regret the absence from the sector and feel it acutely at certain moments. The grounding in research that my masters degree gave me has been blurred inside my head and I find myself groping to find the level of clarity I need in my work. And of course, I’ve missed developments in theory and practice that happened in the interim years between graduating and returning to the field.

Focus has always been a problem. I am given to see the inter-relatedness among things and to narrow my thinking down to a single hypothesis is daunting; worse, I don’t believe narrowed-down hypotheses reflect reality in most cases, but I also know this sort of narrowing needs to be done in the interests of arriving at conclusions!

I’ve spent the day, and indeed the week, worrying about my naivette in trying to find low-income housing solutions in a city like Gurgaon, where land prices are prohibitive, the development pattern driven by private developers and political will is seriously in doubt. This sort of work is bound to push me into a sense of hopelessness, helplessness; but I need to believe that this research will yield something of use. I need to constantly remind myself that it is through constant endeavor to challenge existing notions of practice that new solutions might emerge. And most all, I feel strongly that we need to listen to the people we wish to accommodate, help, include in the development process. I would be happy if my research would offer a clear picture of what migrants experience and aspire to with respect to housing when they come from rural (and often far flung) areas of the country to a confusing, alienating city like Gurgaon. The findings would help us think about how we could help them, as planners, as city administrators, as politicians, as citizens….I do, despite the chaos, believe there is a possibility to weave government, private sector and civil society together to create a more inclusive and sustainable model of growth.

The absolute importance of a toilet- Imagine living without one!

It is sort of amusing, but not entirely far fetched that Rahul’s birthday coincides with World Toilet Day. That’s because he is super tickled by toilet-centric jokes, something he shares with four and a half year old Aadyaa, who thinks the kid in her class who says ‘potty’ five times in a sentence is absolutely the coolest right now! I wonder why I never noticed the connection before, but now that I have, I see a zillion possibilities!

Some of the statistics that have led to the need for something as bizarre as a World Toilet Day are not amusing at all though. The World Toilet Day website informs me that a third of people in the world do not have access to a toilet. Also, that 1.1 billion people in the world practice open defecation, that toilet facilities can be the incentive to keep girls in school and that every dollar invested in sanitation yields a return of five dollars for the economy……chew on that!

I was made aware of the enormous significance of sanitation early in life because of my dad’s profession. He was a gastroenterologist and a person who saw the interconnectedness in everything. He believed strongly that many of the health problems we face are psychosomatic and emotional in nature. The inability to access a private, clean and secure space to relieve yourself poses many challenges and can traumatize people. He spoke of patients who had stomach conditions born out of such issues. As a young girl, he constantly taught me that the right to access a toilet was one of the most fundamental rights we need to fight for. He repeatedly told me that it is such a pity that in our culture girls are taught from a very young age to “hold” because there were such few places where they could relieve themselves in conditions of safety and cleanliness. As an onlooker at workshops that my parents held with village people taught me, at a very impressionable age, that rural women venture into the fields before dawn in groups to defecate and each morning they went in real fear of being assaulted and raped.

It is perhaps then no coincidence that I feel drawn to community work and especially that related to housing and living conditions of the urban poor, who I feel really have a raw deal. Wherever I have had the opportunity to talk to slum dwellers, their primary need has been toilets inside their homes. For various reasons, community toilets have not been a success in India. However, retrofitting homes to add a toilet, has been widely taken up but can only be successful if a decent sewage system is put in place in informal settlements.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been had I been born poor. Of all the indignities I would have suffered, I am absolutely certain that the inability to attend the call of nature would have been the ultimate indignity for me to suffer. I am pinning my hopes on the Total Sanitation Campaign. If this basic dignity can be achieved for poor people across the nation, they could seriously be hopeful about being able to better their lives in many significant ways.

Power in the hands of the poor: Why are we uncomfortable with that? Oct 17, 2012

A few days ago, I mentioned that I feel angry when someone calls me an idealist. It’s not the word, it’s the tone that implies that idealism is foolish that really gets to me.

I get called an idealist by fellow professionals essentially for being pro-poor. Architects and urban planners, being trained in the ‘technocrat’ mode, like to pose physical solutions to problems that ail our cities. Hence tools like zonal and master plans, design proposals and such like are seen as change drivers. However, because these and many other tools for change lie in the hands of bureaucrats, policy is used to steer and obfuscate what is actually happening on the ground.

Neither policy nor the tools for physical planning are completely rooted in the realities we exist in. The realities are political, social and economic. The realities are the stuff we want to shove under the carpet- class divides and political gain, vested interests and goon power, caste-based thinking and skewed gender equations. If I am an idealist for believing that we need to make a strong political, economic and social case for uplifting the poor, then I am proud to be one indeed!

At this stage in my research on migrant housing in Gurgaon, urban designers and planners I interact with are telling me that I cannot influence the sociology and politics of any place, so its best to focus on a physical solution. So propose some mixed use, opine on resource distribution, talk about land values, density, the magic word FAR, etc etc. On the other side are the activists and NGOs who work with the community. They advise that I look at the problem squarely in the eye and find out what stops governments from providing migrants housing and more importantly, what will convince them that this is unavoidable. So basically, they ask me to place the political and socio-economic considerations at the center of the problems.

These two aren’t essentially different opinions; they both intend to arrive at physical solutions perhaps, and yet they look at the issue in two very divergent ways. It appears to me, and my judgement is informed by various interactions in the sector, that mainstream professionals  in fields like architecture and urban planning have begun to view themselves as service providers, and are disconnected from a sense of their role in society. They view the government as a significant client and the migrant worker as a beneficiary of a policy. Therefore, the proposals are not intended to empower the community, but to find a solution palatable to the government.

Activists and not-for-profits in this space, on the other hand, intend to give power directly into the hands of the poor, equipping them with information and arguments that will help them carve a space for themselves in urban India, where they compete for resources with the upper classes while at the same time being a huge part of the ecosystem.

Clearly, solutions that place decision making in the hands of the poor are clearly uncomfortable for decision makers. Perhaps we can blame it on the general need of both bureaucrats and technocrats to find the sort of solution where there is a measure of control and predictability. Solutions that involve incremental steps, are long-term in nature and do not come with guaranteed results are hard to buy into.

No one has a crystal ball that tells us the future, but it doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that the workable solutions will emerge out of a skilful, considered mix of both approaches. That it is necessary to consider the poor a vital part of India’s growth story, while at the same time being pragmatic in the means we employ to give them their rightful place in this unfolding saga of a rapidly urbanizing India. In the end, we must confront our discomfort with handing power (especially in aspects as vital as health, education, housing, basic services, etc) to the poor.

 

Street vendors add to the landscape of urban memories, identity- July 16, 2012

Street vendors, or hawkers as we also call them, are such an integral part of our lives in Indian cities. I just finished reading a book by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, a delicious little novella named ‘Between Clay and Dust’. The story revolves around a pahalwan and a tawaif who share a beautiful platonic relationship that eventually surpasses all others in their lives, even blood ties. Set immediately post Partition, I found it fascinating that Gohar Jan’s source of news about the city was mostly through peddlars of wares and services like the bangle seller, the trinket lady, etc.

I remember the iconic Farooq Sheikh, Deepti Naval starrer ‘Chashme Baddoor’ from my childhood. Naval sold Chamko detergent powder door-to-door. I associated the film with a few visits to Delhi during my childhood when residential areas in South Delhi had a certain quiet buzz about them and vendors of many daily necessities, including fruits and vegetables, peddled their wares from door to door on a rudimentary wooden pushcart (redi). Coming from Mumbai, which had already become a big city where you went to the commodity and it rarely came to you, all this seemed fascinating.

From the two years I spent as an infant, I have very vague memories of the guys who walked through the streets with the bear (bhaloo) and the monkeys (madari with his bandars) to entertain us kids. We discussed this  at lunch on Sunday and between mum, Rahul and me, we added more variety to that list- the knife sharpening guy, the utensil repairing guy, in an earlier time there were people who would come and coat brass vessels with aluminum so they could be used for cooking purposes.

It pains me to see this breed disappear. Not just because they imbued a certain flavor to our cities, but because it signals the arrival of a use-and-throw culture in which we have no place for repair re-use. I feel this is criminal. While the world is waking up to the benefits if re-use, we Indians who had a natural talent for this are giving away the advantage by blindly adopting a consumerist culture that exhibits no conscience at all. Also, the trend signifies our paranoia of letting unknown persons enter our homes. With gated living becoming popular, the breed will disappear entirely.

And yet, street vendors continue to thrive in certain situations because of their flexibility in adapting to demand and the meager resources they need. And nowhere is this more evident than in the omnipresence of street food! What would our public places be without the bhuttawala (guy selling corn cobs roasted right in front of you on hot coals), the chaat wala, the aloo bonda wala, the lassi stalls, the chana kulcha and chowmein stalls, the burger wala, the momo-guy (a relatively new addition)..the list is endless! Outside the posh Galleria market in Gurgaon, where the well heeled shop and splurge, the anda bread guy does brisk business. Outside Gurgaon’s call centers, the paratha stalls mint money and provide excellent service even in the middle of the night, with piping hot tea or cold drinks, whichever you prefer! Outside every glass and steel office building, there are clusters of food vendors, selling hot and freshly cooked meals. This is the real India, never mind the people inside the glass boxes pecking on their grilled sandwiches and pasta, or alternatively gingerly opening a home cooked tiffin while yearning for takeaway Chinese!

It alarms me that municipalities like Delhi and Mumbai have taken a hostile stance towards street vendors. There are plenty of ways they can ensure hygiene without taking these people off the streets. A couple of evocative articles by Prof. Sharit Bhowmik from Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai,  tell a compelling tale of the relationship hawkers have to the city’s economy and make a case for nurturing street vending and providing it a conducive ecosystem.

Evictions and cleansing the streets reek of narrow-mindedness, complete apathy for the urban poor who make a living out of as well as subsist on buying from street vendors as well as a lack of sense of place, to which street vendors contribute in an immeasurable but significant manner. To me, it is critical that professionals and citizens alike talk about the kind of urbanism we aspire to. Without this sort of debate, we will continue to lose our identity to idiotic regulations, till we are left with a bland existence and even the memories of a fuller, finer life are erased.

 

 

Shooting in the dark: Affordable housing for Indian cities- May 28, 2012

I’m in Bangalore again, driving through the city to get from the airport to Electronic City, where we will spend two days brainstorming our preliminary research on setting up ratings for affordable housing. Always known for its simplicity and charm, Bangalore screams out its penchant for opulence today. Billboards advertise homes for Rs 5 crore and jewellery advertisements are numerous as well. Affordable housing is going to be difficult to talk about in this setting.
Why blame Bangalore though? Indian metros are seeing a distinct trend of imbalanced development. Two clear victims in this have been the poor and the environment. It is impossible for our cities to survive this way and we are at the brink of two types of disasters- social and environmental.
Gated communities are offering a refuge to the privileged and rearing a generation of people who will have words like equity, balance, multicultural and cohesion in their dictionaries without really grasping their meaning. Two worlds that do not understand each other are springing up before us. Intolerance is fuelling the flames and we are experiencing a severe social schism that urgently needs correction. How do we build trust and eradicate feelings of suspicion?
In this scenario, the concept of developers building homes for the poor strikes me as unsustainable. The gulf is wide. This will only be possible if the government steps in to make the investment profitable to developers. And if organisations and mechanisms can bridge the gap between developer and the low income customer. Institutionalising such a process seems an onerous task. Add to that the fact that access to finance is a key ingredient that also needs to be tackled in an institutional manner. Mammoth changes in policy and attitude are needed.
Working on this rating with Ashoka and other partnering organisations has been revealing. But I am unsure if I am any more optimistic than when we begun. At this point , I feel we are still shooting arrows into the dark and the answers lie right before our eyes, but we are unable to see them!

Water sagas: Stories of community action and despair about our most precious resource- May 24, 2012

A few days after I read about CII’s initiative to initiate blue ratings in India, probably the first in the world to monitor industrial water usage in a holistic manner, an encouraging story about the revival of a river caught my eye.

Today’s The Hindu supplement carried a great story about the revival of the Hindan river that originates in Saharanpur and joins the Yamuna, crossing Ghaziabad and other parts of the NCR. The Jal Biradari is a community organization comprising environmental activists and citizens from all walks of life that has consistently campaigned to create awareness among villagers about issues like falling water tables, pollution and exploitation of water resources. They do this through padayatra, or simply by walking through villages and interacting with people.

In contrast, the urb.im blog outlines Mumbai’s struggle to put into action measures to clean and manage the Mithi river, a massive gutter that flows through Mumbai. Images of the July 2005 floods in Mumbai are still fresh in people’s minds. Public clamor for a clean up that could create much-needed green spaces for the city grows, but migrants keep pouring in and the poor who live alongside the sad trickle of water are increasingly threatened, by lack of action and potential action alike!

Rampant discharge of industrial effluent into rivers is the primary cause of the sad states of rivers like these across the nation. Coupled with increasing urbanization and the consequent pressure on land (often translated into greed for land), rivers are threatened; and so are we who depend on water for our existence. The ill effects of polluted rivers need no elaboration- among other things, toxic vegetable and fruits threaten to damage our future generations irreversibly!

Interestingly, one only needs to stop discharging the effluent for a river to do its own thing and clean itself up. More importantly, green areas that allow groundwater recharge are critical to our survival. Governments, while they blame private developers for the evil deeds and wish to regulate them, are known to be responsible for the ‘unkindest cut of all’. The proposal to develop the Mangar village area into an amusement park is one such hare brained scheme in the news recently.To amuse the people who won’t be around when the water taps run dry?

 

Kahaani laaparwaahi ki: A delightful visual tryst with Kolkata and it’s filthy end! March 11, 2012

As I watched the superbly skilled Vidya Balan in ‘Kahaani’ tonight (film highly recommended), I could not stop admiring the way Sujoy Ghosh has romanced Kolkata in the film. Portrayed in a suitably old world tint, every frame captured the worst of Kolkata and converted it into an endearing visual. Poverty, entangled wires, hand riksha pullers, the jerky motion of the tram, the roadside tea stalls, the winding alleys, the decaying buildings, the traffic and ceaseless mass of humanity. Faces creased with worry, faces that smiled, faces that wore indescribably expressions. I wanted to go there immediately and lose myself in this great city, all by myself, with a sketchpad and camera. Kolkata has been hitting me for the past few months through books, articles and visits by friends and family; it’s beckoning for sure!

Mind still filled with images of lovely Kolkata, what a shock it was for us to step out of the exit into a stairwell that had a ceiling not even 6 feet high! As we walked down the exit stairs, we were met with the most extraordinary amount of filth and litter. One landing had rotting vegetables, presumably supplies that the banquet hall on that floor hadn’t consumed for the wedding dinner they were hosting. Another landing had piles of rubbish. Another had spit stains, yet another had used, discarded plates with wasted food spilling out, another had mattresses piled in it! The stairway was barely lit (anyone could have slipped and fallen), the exits back into the mall were locked, so no one could leave the smelly stairwell even if they wanted to.

Nearing the end of this horrendous journey, I started to take pictures; believe me, these tell only a small bit of the tale (i was unable to go against the flow of traffic to capture the real gems!). Perhaps the romantic street scenes of Kolkata, when met in the flesh, may not seem so beautiful, I realized, as I filled with rage at the irresponsibility of SRS Cinema and Omaxe (this was in the Omaxe Celebration Mall on Sohna Road, Gurgaon). How could they let an entire movie hall full of audiences, who paid hard earned money for tickets to be subjected to such a humiliating experience. The least I could do was document this and here are the pictures to tell the story.

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The Delhi Metro reinforces my faith in public transport and humanity- Feb 01, 2012

As I made my way back home at peak office hours in the crowded Delhi Metro the other day, packed like a sardine among other women sardines (yes, I was in the women’s compartment where being a sardine is less smelly and far more acceptable), I was struck for the thousandth time by how much life had changed in the city since the Metro arrived.

Just for the record, the Delhi Metro had a ridership of 459.5 million passenger rides per year in 2010-2011 as per Wikipedia, and is 24th most ridden mass rapid transit system in the world!

To me, like it must have for many others, the Delhi Metro’s extension to Gurgaon gave back to me the pleasure of using public transport. I no longer feel constantly guilty about adding hogging road space or about spending the equivalent of a poor family’s weekly expenses on a single day’s fuel! Even more valuable is the sense of freedom and a sense of better connection with the urban environment I live in.

I agree, the Delhi Metro is unaffordable to the poorest sections of society, but is still quite diverse in the type of people it ferries around. On the yellow line that I take, I see many college kids, pre-occupied with texting on their mobile phones and yapping nineteen to the dozen! I see office goers galore, looking purposeful, reading, listening to music and snoozing if they are lucky enough to have a seat. I see workmen carrying tools around, runner boys checking their watches every few moments and sometimes lying to their bosses about where they’ve reached (oh, the joys of mobile telephony!); the elderly returning from a visit to a long-lost friend and kitty party returnees looking pleased as punch! Children, wide-eyed and bouncing on mothers’ laps, thoroughly enjoy the Metro too.

The Metro ride helps me retain a sense of normalcy. I feel like I’m like everyone else. In a strange sense, there is also a sense of camaraderie in riding the Metro together. Exchanged glances, smiles and even an occasional conversation with a stranger can reinforce a general faith in humanity that we seem to be losing as our lives get busier, more technology-driven, more protected. The Metro is my ticket to reality and on most days it gives me no cause to complain at all! The autos when I get off at Gurgaon’s HUDA City center…now they are a whole new story 🙂

 

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