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Art empowers: How kids from Kanhai urban village tell the story of Gurgaon

I knew something very special was brewing when my friend Swati called me to tell me about the kind of work kids from Kanhai gaon (village) were doing as part of the art project she was mentoring in Gurgaon. She sounded excited about both the process and the outcome. That I had interacted with Shikha from NGO Udaan-ek meetha sapna before through another dear friend Sarika further connected me to the project. And I waited in great anticipation of the final result of what had been titled the Growing Gurgaon Community Art Festival.

What I saw displayed in the public space at Good Earth City Centre in Gurgaon blew my mind. I saw 12 very confident young adults, who not only had original ideas but had put in a lot of research and contemplation into their paintings and installations. Their projects commented on class structures in the rapidly growing city and articulated the acute environmental crisis that residents (humans and non-human) find themselves in. The projects highlighted the flawed model of urban development that Gurgaon is an example of, a model that does not include original residents, that is insensitive to the environmental conditions and that does not anticipate growth well. With the innocence of childhood and the power of art, they were saying important things that the city needs to hear. Read more on what the individual projects are on this media article as well as see more pics on the process and outputs on Udaan’s website and FB page.

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Kids imagine their dream home!

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The artist has made a model of her neighbourhood depicting the condition of water supply. It shows a clear class distinction, with poorer areas getting few hours of water. Second, she superimposes her village pond (that was filled by the govt to create urban infrastructure some years ago) as a way to highlight how the city has swallowed its natural water bodies and now complains of inadequate water

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The star attraction- the cow filled with plastic milk bags. The artist spent time at a gaushala to understand how the process works, had followed a cow around to observe its routine. The irony of the milk-giving cow fated to die because it eats plastic milk packets is too clear to miss here!

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Beautiful collages showing the artists themselves

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The hexagonal box depicted the past (fields), the moment of change (the farmer selling his land) and the future (skyscrapers) interspersed with mirrors. A wonderful commentary on how urbanisation changes places, leaving us with memories and spaces residents cannot often relate to.

As an urban planner and urban researcher, I saw particular value in this endeavor and wish we had many more of its kind. Below are some thoughts I had while seeing the exhibits:

1- We adults need to be told the truth and the clear vision that children have does that very well. As a corollary, we need to listen more to kids and instruct them less.

2- Children perceive the world around them in particular ways. Their observations offer clues to how we should plan and design cities and public spaces. The lack of play spaces was a prominent thought that told us clearly about how urbanisation has impacted children. That public space is shrinking and becoming less accessible must concern us all. Interestingly, the exhibition of the artworks held inside Kanhai village drew hundreds of visitors and intense participation. In Good Earth, an elite space, people were less forthcoming and crowds sparse.

3- The particular background of these children, mostly underprivileged children from governments schools and residents of Kanhai urban village, offered specific insights that are not available to the well-heeled residents of the city. The empathy exhibited by the child artists was rare. In one installation, the artists spent time with the night security guard to tell his story. Their idea was triggered when they saw the guard being yelled at. They wondered why the guard does not get respect instead for helping keep us safe. Their project also highlighted the difficult lives migrants in the city lead, often working two jobs to support their families. This empathy touched a raw nerve in me. I often worry the elite, protected upbringing I am giving my children is causing them more harm than good. I am not sure they will have the depth of observation, empathy and freedom to investigate that I found in the artists. Food for thought!

I was also invited to speak at the festival. I decided to speak about urban villages and the transitions these spaces experiences as this has been a subject close to my heart for years, with much of my research time dedicated to documenting these transitions in Gurgaon.

I’m summarising the main points below, for those who don’t speak Hindi.

Gurgaon has grown rapidly. Urban villages are those spaces that have contributed their agricultural land to accommodate the city but where the spaces where people lived have been left alone. These spaces, and the people in them, have faced several transformations as Gurgaon grew. I describe transformations in governance structures, from rural to urban. I talk about the methods of providing services and in the attitude of the government towards these space, using examples from Shenzhen, China on service provision and redevelopment. Third, I highlight social transformations. I describe the post-agricultural livelihoods adopted by village residents, foremost among them rental housing, which brought in a new type of resident, the low-skilled migrant. Lastly, I highlight that urban villages are filling the gaps that planned development has left, by providing affordable housing, services and even space for small-scale manufacturing. My closing point is that we need to think about the different kind of people that inhabit our city because we essentially face similar issues. Unless we come together to find community-based solutions and hold the government and ourselves accountable, things will not change. We need more spaces like this festival to be able to document what we remember of the past as well as imagine a shared future through collaborative process.

I am imagining a much larger community project that communicated citizen’s needs and imaginations at a much larger scale. I imagine the urban village as the sootradhaar (the story teller or rather the story weaver), one who is wise and old and yet, new and changing constantly. What these children have done through the Growing Gurgaon project – kudos to Udaan and mentors Swati and Friederike – encourages me to dream bigger, to shatter the false cocoons we live in and take charge of our environment as opposed to being silent, complaining and passive recipients of what can only be termed as poor governance and poor citizenship.

If you want to help raise funds for Udaan- ek meetha Sapna, you can participate in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon under their banner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vibrant Baishizhou: An urban village endangered #ShenzhenDiaries

All the while Mary Ann and Fu Na were with us in Delhi, we talked about urban villages. The discussions often left me confused and I had realized that we weren’t talking about quite the same animal. Our walk through Baishizhou, the first urban village we saw in Shenzhen, was all about finding the similar and understanding the different.

We take a narrow road into Baishizhou, walking alongside tall iron fencing that contain the various gated housing condominiums of OCT, privately built and owned, expensive, home to the better off, orderly, landscaped and pretty. At a cluster of shops at the village entrance, we find the little mobile phone with the resourceful entrepreneur who can fiddle around with sim cards and Indian mobile phones and get us connected, something the uniformed salesperson in the branded telecom store hadn’t been able to do. The cheerful shopkeeper’s daughter entertains us as he works. The lady next door selling buns cannot mask her curiosity. A number of village folk sit around, play mahjong, gossip. I feel at home, the hustle bustle is comforting.

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Inside Baishizhou, the shop-lined narrow streets are thronging with hundreds of children who are spilling out of the school gate ahead. The blue and checked uniforms appear to move with a sense of purpose towards whatever is scheduled next for them. We get some stares and shy smiles, hear a lot of chatter.  Conversation moves from child sex ratio to schooling practices and parental ambition. The busy streets, all manner of shops including the barber shops with the characteristic twirling striped cylinders, an excess of signages, walls pasted with advertisements for rental space and narrow, cluttered side alleys and narrow market lanes  are strongly reminiscent of similar bustling informal settlements in Delhi. We see the ubiquitous 25-liter water here in Baishizhou, the same as Mary Ann and Fu Na saw in Chakkarpur village, Gurgaon. Cables run along external walls and across the street. It’s a familiar kind of chaos.

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As we get accustomed to the eye level and crane our necks upwards though, we begin to  see how an urban village in Shenzhen is different from what we’re used to back home. The famous ‘handshake’ buildings are much taller here, 7-10 floors high as compared to the 3-4 floors in Delhi. They have tiled facades. Whoever built them had certainly used a plumb line!

Like in Delhi, villagers had redeveloped their plots to build high-rise apartments that they rented out to migrants. From the height and quality of the buildings, however, it seemed that they had access to more capital and better construction expertise. Once, we came across a single family home, a couple floors high and with space for a front yard and this offered us a glimpse of what Baishizhou might have been a few decades ago.

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At the edge of the village, we stare at a row of factory buildings slated for demolition. This is the first bit of Baishizhou to go in an inevitable cycle of demolition and redevelopment that has been ongoing in Shenzhen. Many more conversations about the inequitable impacts of redevelopment in Shenzhen are to follow, through which the relevance of the Baishizhou we see was brought home to us. The famous ‘chai’, the Chinese symbol for destruction, is stenciled across the structures, stark and grim.

As the shadows lengthen and we head back to the hotel, we watch an endless stream of people walking back to Baishizhou at the end of what would most likely have been a long working day. The prospect of hanging around till the streets became a frenzied den of leisure activity, largely focused around food (apparently people from Guangzhou atake care of their taste buds!) is welcome, but we haven’t had much sleep and rest is on our minds. And so we walk away.

Luckily for us, we do get a chance to revisit Baishizhou by night, the last evening before we head back to India. And though we miss the crowds, we do get a different sense of this village that probably never really sleeps.

 

My piece in support of informal landlordism @ Next City #rentalhousing #informalcity

Am super proud to be published (read my article here) in a magazine I have admired for the last couple of years. The Next City formerly focused on the US now carried in reportage from a number of cities across the world. A dedicated section called the Informal City Dialogues , supported by the Rockefeller Foundation specially focuses on urban issues in developing countries and holds a wealth of insights that I have often used in my work in low-income housing.

The editors at Next City worked off a piece I had originally written as a book chapter. The book idea was to develop caricature essays based on the various people I have interacted with during my fieldwork on rental housing in Gurgaon. The first one was about Billu, the landlord. Interviewing him was one of the most interesting experiences I have had. We had very different notion of body language and personal comfort zones, for instance. And yet, his passion for life and his work (he manages about 80 rental rooms for migrants) and his extremely practical approach to complex issues like identity, politics and change made me wonder about whether I am given to over-analyzing situations!

The Next City piece has been edited to give it adequate context. Would be curious to get your feedback. I still nurture the dream of writing that book, you see!

Animals in Nathupur village- Adorable & funny!

The focus of my fieldwork in Nathupur village is people, their stories, their experiences, their lives, their aspirations and disappointments and their physical conditions of living. It’s a fascinating checkerboard of ever-expanding scope, facets within facets and many hidden nuances I sense I need to dig into to really understand the churnings of life as a migrant and life as a landlord, those being the two overarching actors I intend to study.

Relatively simple and equally interesting, however, are the non-human inhabitants of the village. Ubiquitous, animals stare at you, lie in your way and follow you around. Villagers love them and domesticate them, ignore them and co-exist with them. I find it really amusing and here are a few clicks to share the hilarity of these creatures with you!

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One little monkey….sitting on a wall…

The whole picture!

The whole picture!

Bhaainns! They are everywhere, placidly chewing away...

Bhaainns! They are everywhere, placidly chewing away…

Or sleeping...

Or lazing away….

And of course, the stray dogs...

And of course, the stray dogs…

Ghodas too...a few homes have well groomed horses...

Ghodas too…a few homes have well groomed horses…

And gadhas....the man on the donkey thought I was crazy, taking a picture of him and his beast of burden

And gadhas….the man on the donkey thought I was crazy, taking a picture of him and his beast of burden

This one takes the cake! Chooze! These little chicks were being kept by a migrant family in a bucket in their one-room tenement. During the day, they took them up on the roof and left them in the chicken coop for a while...

This one takes the cake! Chooze! These little chicks were being kept by a migrant family in a bucket in their one-room tenement. During the day, they took them up on the roof and left them in the chicken coop for a while…

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