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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.

 

Why are Indians not concerned about #inequality?

I came across this graphic today on twitter.

B0cuO8iCQAAiFm-.png_largePredictably for Indians, the top concern is religious and ethnic hatred and not inequality. While I understand that communalism, regionalism, casteism and all the other ‘isms’ are media favourites, political favourites and hot topics in drawing room discussions, I find it strange that ‘poorism’ is not of much concern to the Indian people. I’m not getting into the methodology that Pew might have used for this and whether their sample was sufficiently representative of the varying income levels in India, but what the survey is saying corroborates well with what I observe around me.

Those of us who research and practice in the area of poverty and human development are usually preaching to the choir when we express our concerns. Most Indians, sometimes including the poor, are not really concerned about the issue of income inequality in India. Is it that we have normalised inequality? Or is it that we believe in the passiveness of the Indian poor who will never rebel? Or do we really believe that India is decimating poverty rapidly enough for it to not be a concern?

I don’t have the answers, but I sure find it interesting. Also, perhaps if we focused more on bringing down inequality, the other ‘isms’ might matter less? What do you think?

Fabricating hope from ingredients like poor education & poor ideas

I see a child at the traffic light. He is about two years old, in tattered clothes and howling away. He looks like he has been abandoned, perhaps temporarily. What’s new about that, you might ask? It’s a regular sight in any Indian city. Life is harsh for many out there! *shrug*

One the same day, our Finance Minister was presenting the nation’s annual budget and there was much talk in the air about the revival of investment, the promise of growth and development, the changing fortunes of India.

I was having a hard time reconciling the two strains of thought. I gulped and what I had the taste of bile in my mouth.

Of all the dismal facts about India, it is the ones about children that are the hardest to come to terms with. The trafficking, the child labour, the sexual exploitation. Today’s Hindustan Times carries a full-page editorial about the number of children out of school in our part of the world and this is disturbing too.

Two aspects of the editorial struck me. First, that it wasn’t just poverty that keeps children out of school. India has unleashed a slew of legislation to reinforce primary education- the Right to Education (RTE) Act, the National Programme of Nutritional Support and others. Yet children stayed out of school. Experts attribute this to the poor quality of education that is unable to keep the kids interested. In my research with migrants in north India, I find access to private sector education for their children drives poor households away from villages to small towns, but they are hopelessly disappointed in the quality of these private schools, that offer English-medium all right (as compared to govt schools that teach in Hindi) but no knowledge whatsoever. Also, experts point to the availability of funds but the utter poverty of good ideas that means new investments in the sector are hardly ever realised, especially at the primary and lower secondary levels.

The other idea that struck me was the familiar argument that couches the entire issue of children’s education in the garb of productivity and loos of potential on a national level. To me, more tragic is the experience of the child herself, the family to which she belongs or worse to which she does not if she is an orphan or being trafficked.

We aren’t able to create enough jobs for the ones we do manage to educate, so perhaps instead of worrying about creating a higher volume of educated workforce, we should focus on improving the quality of the education and the experience that children have in school. And higher education? The majority of youth in rural and small town India do not actually attend college, but get their degrees through correspondence and part-time engagements or by simply appearing for exams without ever being taught.

I find it hard to be hopeful about a generation that is barely getting a real education. And yet when you speak to young people, it’s hard to feel so low. They are charged with energy and ambition and I can only hope that we can find a way to not let them down!

Slums have dwindled in India! Pondering on fresh NSSO data

The latest NSSO data (Surveys done between July and December 2012) shows that slums have actually reduced in Indian cities! Liable to be missed in all the hullabaloo of politics, this is a huge achievement for India. If it is true… For one, comparing the Census, which is an actual count of the people who live in the country, with sample survey data seems a bit strange. How do you explain these differences? Nine million households live in slums in 2012 as per the NSSO as compared to 14 million as identified by the Census 2011. The NSSO counts 13,761 slums while the Census found 37,000! I would take these numbers with many pinches of salt!

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The good points

Only 41% of the slums are notified by the local authorities. I am glad the data points this out. Not being recognized or notified often means the denial of services and living in perpetual fear of eviction, as is pointed out repeatedly by the work of several organizations across the country. Transparent Chennai in particular has been vocal about this point (Read their excellent editorial in The Hindu on the India’s invisible population). So while the media is seeing the drop in the number of slums as indicative of the political mainstreaming of India’s urban poor, much remains to be done for those who reside in slums and other unserviced areas in our cities.

It is also heartening to see the improvements in services. The report says that 93.5% of slums have power supply and 71% have access to drinking water. There has also been improvement in drainage, sewerage, garbage disposal, primary education and medical facilities ranges between 15% and 45% compared to the data from five years ago. This does indicate the de-linking of the service provisioning from legality and more integration of the slum into the urban fabric. And perhaps the ability of slum populations to access services outside the slum. We know that slum dwellers are not always poor, but sometime middle class people living in slums owing to negligible affordable housing stock in the formal sector.

One strange point

The majority of survey respondents (70.8%) cites better accommodation as the reason to move out from a slum. The initial analysis seems to point to the success of government schemes like JNNURM and RAY. However, the total number of homes added to the housing stock under these would probably not add up to 5 million, methinks though I have to check on this!

One question

Those of us who work in the sector will wonder about what specific improvements in the attitudes and policies of local and State governments towards existing slums could have brought about such a decrease in number. Evidence from the ground seems to show an ever increasing diversity in the types of squatter settlements and only marginal and isolated instances of positive governmental or collaborative interventions.

More analysis needed

Sure, these are off-the-cuff comments and someone (not me though) would need to analyze the results more thoroughly. It is encouraging to see more data being generated about urban informal habitats though. Slowly, it looks like many gaps in our understanding are getting filled. It is up to us, those who live and breathe this stuff, to overlay the data and the anecdotal evidence and come out with a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Not a mean task, but important and fun too!

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Shy

My camera is fast becoming my best friend as I explore the by-lanes of Gurgaon’s urban villages and unauthorized colonies interviewing migrant workers for my research. This child dived endearingly into his mum after staring at me unabashedly for 15 minutes, the minute I whipped out my camera..and then he re-emerged. And that’s when my shutter went ‘click’!

The other life, how little we know: A peek into the mind of the homeless laborer- Sep 15, 2012

I’m reading ‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi. It is a peek into the lives of homeless laborers living in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and follows closely the stories of a certain group. I know now why my mother left the book on my table a few days ago. She has read it before me and she must have known how greedily I would lap up its pages, seeing as I am soon to embark on primary research work in Gurgaon’s immigrant labor community, many of whom would have compulsions and circumstances much like the men in the book.

And yet, a homeless man is a very different sort of person. Much misunderstood, much maligned, not even considered inside the frame of reference of society as we understand it. ‘A Free Man’ hits you with the immense intelligence with which its protagonist Ashraf, a safediwala who has spent a couple decades living in Sadar Bazar’s Bara Tooti Chowk, views his life and situation. An intelligence that can make incredibly complex questions appear simple. Consider these-  Why does a many run away from home? Why do people disappear and never return? Why does the government run homeless shelters for three months a year? Where do they think those people will go the rest of the year? And then, why do they have a cell that randomly locks up homeless people considering them beggars? Who is a friend? If you have only two rupees to your name, what would you do with them- buy chai or pay for a shit?

In our work at mHS, we have tried to look at the problems of the homeless from a shelter perspective; but it is truly hard working around the government’s conflicting policies. However, the real problem with addressing homelessness is that in truth, we do really understand why someone would choose to be homeless and vulnerable (mHS is a part of a task force that is working to make homeless shelters an integral aspect of municipal infrastructure and specifically. We are working to develop a construction manual to aid local governments. Harsh Mander is spearheading this and his understanding of the homless is a lot better than anyone else’s).

In a vague sense, we all know that people leave their villages in search of employment and land up in a city. We assume most of them come for employment because their land can no longer support them. But many come for trivial reasons. Someone could have stolen a few rupees from their father and got slapped when he got found out. Another got drunk on local liquor and simple sat in a bus and found himself in a city. Yet another was insulted by his employer and did not work without honor. Yes, these are people who dream, who have a certain self respect, who hope and aspire. In that, they are much like us and we can understand that.

But because it is unimaginable for us that we could live without a roof above our heads and enough money to feed our needs, whatever they may be, we cannot understand many things. The book reveals that the homeless are also people with emotion, who react as much to heartbreak as to poverty. They value friendships and yet live lives so fragile that they dare not question when a friend disappears. They live in suspicion, yet trust everyone. They form bonds so close and yet they can walk away from everything. They drown their sorrows and the ache in their bodies in drink and smoke, but they cannot drown their sense of rootlessness, and the feeling that they have come far away from identity. They cling to classifications- bihari, rikshawala, charsi (substance abuser), gappi (teller of fantastic tales) and so on. They are laawaaris (belong nowhere), akelapan (loneliness) is their only true friend, they will always be ajnabis (strangers) to many and even to themselves and yet, in a sense, they are the only ones who taste true azadi (freedom) as they have no maalik (owner), no family, no one to answer to at all; these are the four overriding emotions around which ‘A Free Man’ tells the stories of the people we don’t really know.

In the sense of really feeling what these people are all about, this book has opened my eyes and my heart. I know it will become an important reference point for the research I am about to begin.

Delightful moment: Photo op with the Sohna Road squatter potters- Aug 6, 2012

There is a small community of potters on Sohna Road. We pass them nearly every day and I finf myself wondering about their life every now and then. They live in tent-like structures. Charpais (single beds made of bamboo and coir weaving) lie in front of these shelters. Their wares are displayed on the floor right there and their entire lives are led right in front of a million people who pass by in an assortment of vehicles that range from  jugaads (carts with a motor strapped onto it literally), tractors and bicycles to Audis, BMWs and Ferraris. No kidding! This row of squatter potters (I like the ring of that) is located strategically at an important junction. Policemen sit right there plaguing regular folks, buses stop there, people pedal their wares…it’s the regular desi mela. Through several rounds of digging to lay sewerage pipes and now the latest round to put the electric cables underground, this little row has somehow held onto their space.

Yesterday, as we drove by the nth time, I remembered Aadyaa had to take a small pot to school with her. Krishna is her absolute favorite person (that he doesn;t actually exist in flesh and blood completely eludes her; she has asked me many many times to take her to Dwarka to meet him and Balram and Yashoda maiyya!). There has been much activity at school building up to Krishna’s birthday (janmasthani) this Friday and decorating the pot of buttermilk is something she is looking forward to.

So there we were, choosing a matka (pot). The gypsy lady suggested a buy a slightly larger, better quality one and then I mentioned its for the kid to paint on in school. The lady’s face lit up. “Radha banogi kya?”, she asked Aadyaa. Will you be Radha, Krishna’s love? And Aadyaa nodded, smiling brightly. I loved the shared moment between these two. For that instant, the tremendous disparities between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, fortunate and unfortunate, secure and insecure, were eliminated as they shared a common joyful thought. I wondered at the spontaneity and simplicity that we see in children and in the poor, who despite all their troubles, have an attitude of forthrightness devoid of suspicion.

We were soon brought back to earth when an older lady sitting on the charpai interrupted with a request for Aadyaa’s old clothes for her granddaughter. The child’s mother is apparently in hospital with dengue fever, I was told in a by-the-way sort of tone, perhaps to put me in a sympathy mode. Still, I detected no whining in her tone, just a simple request made with a smiling face. I found myself saying I’d do my best and then, I called in the kids for a picture. Here they all are, smiling into the camera as if they had not a care in the world!

Check out the grins and the jewelry on the old lady!

And they all joined in!

 

Poverty and traditional living can teach us about sustainability, if we would pay attention- June 18, 2012

A friend passed on to me the phone number of someone who home delivers organic veggies in Gurgaon and I am trying to evaluate the benefits of ordering these at an increased cost. I do believe that going organic will benefit my family’s health, but how much can I protect my kids and the rest of us from exposure to all sorts of toxins in products like milk, fruits, even pulses, chicken, wheat and rice…stuff we consume all the time?

Reading about the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development organized by the UN, I cannot help wondering what a stupendous task it must be to convince people from across the globe to see the urgency of the issue. Modern lives have consumption and wastefulness at the core. To turn first principles around and conserve instead of consume is a very fundamental transformation that most people will find extremely difficult. Much easier to believe the worst will never happen and continue with business as usual! Many a time, I am gripped with fear about what sort of lives our children will lead in a future world where people will slay for water.

One of the essential themes of the the Rio+20 conference is the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the seven areas that need attention are: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness. There is a strong link between urbanization and sustainability. We do know that as man has rapidly urbanized, the pressures on the planet has magnified manifold and the objective of sustainability more threatened than ever.

The connection with poverty is more complex, in my view. I usually associate higher income with higher waste generation. However, I have noticed time and again that urban migrant populations at the bottom of the income pyramid lose their inherent tendency of conservation and judicious use of resources rapidly. Instead, littering and wastefulness are the first ‘urban’ traits they pick up. To me, this is strongly linked to the loss of identity that poor families must feel when they migrate into urban spaces. The lack of ownership of a home and its environs, the feeling of being transient inhabitants of a physical space, the nonchalance and thick-skinned abandon that is born out of being treated as society’s lowest rung all act together to breed a feeling of contempt for the urban environment.

Therefore, the biggest challenge of all for sustainable development is that of carving a space of dignity for the urban poor. One way is to create policy and mechanisms that ensures a basic decent standard of living for all- quality shelter and access to basic services like water, electricity and sanitation being essentials. Along with this, a code of urban conduct needs to propagated in which civic duties including aspects like cleanliness, safety and conservation are expected from individuals and households that inhabit urban spaces. Once again, community plays a critical role here. Inter-class suspicions and rivalries need to be left aside if we are to build a society that is safe for our present and in a fit condition to hand over to our children.

I suspect this is not an urban problem along though. On Sunday, I attended the book release of the 3rd Encyclopaedia of Social Work in India. The editor of the 5-volume series, Dr Surendra Singh is a family elder, an academician of repute and a man with acute sensibilities with regards to the social dimensions of developing India. He pointed out that despite over 60% of Indians still quoting agriculture as their primary occupation, only a single researcher had contributed an article on social work among the farming community. Just goes to show that we are ignoring social transitions that are happening at a massive scale across the nation. Consumed by the idea of urbanization, we are unable to see the inter-linkages across geographies, the proverbial big picture.

I’m the zillionth person to say this I’m sure, but a nation like India, which still has living traditional cultures within its folds, cultures that still practice age old traditions of sustainable living, has the unique opportunity to recognize these precious ideas and adapt them to modern life. In this, we need to hear the voices of the poor and give credence to their adaptability. We then need to help them retain the sustainable aspects of their lifestyle and adopt these across economic strata and geographies, not look down on them and force modern, usually unsustainable practices down their throat in the name of development. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the construction field, but that is a whole different subject to explore!

Background shouldn’t matter for the brave and talented: Mohan’s inspirational story- May 3, 2012

I have met a few young people who came from impoverished backgrounds who have given me immense hope. Mohan, who came from his village in Orissa and then worked in Delhi and Gurgaon as a domestic help for 6-7 years (4 of them in our house; Udai is still terribly attached to him and at times spends time in his shop as sales boy….), decided to become an entrepreneur in Gurgaon. Its been four years and his business has grown, stabilized and he is able to financially support his aging parents back home in Orissa. How has he been able to do it?

A basic education, no English, but oodles and oodles of self-confidence, a willingness to take risk, learn from mistakes and not lose heart. He asks questions without hesitation, consults us and others before making investments or taking significant business decisions. He is scrupulously honest with money, taking care to return loans on or before time and building credibility and trust with his patrons (like us) and his customers (which we also sometimes are). In the beginning, he felt obliged to us for helping him out and being his general de facto family so far from home, there was a certain deference and distance. Stuff like refusing to take money for things we bought created some awkward moments.

Today, he no longer shies from taking his payments, shares a cup of tea with us when he visits as an equal; its a remarkable change. He hasn’t needed any English to achieve it, but he has needed trusted English speaking people to step in for him now and then to buy a vehicle, do bank work, etc. I do see him struggle with doctors though, a bunch of educated professionals who specialize in fleecing the poor (harsh, but true!).

The point I am making is that people like Mohan should be encouraged, not tied down. If we can create systems where language and background are not huge barriers, this country has immense potential because entrepreneurship and innovations are built into our DNA!

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