Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

The poor bore the costs of achieving demonetisation’s purported objectives: Was it worth it?

It has been a war of words since the release of the Reserve Bank of India’s annual report 2017-18, which stated that 99.3% of the demonetised currency was returned. While critics of the government’s note ban move have felt vindicated, the Finance Minister has defended demonetisation by claiming that it has fulfilled its ‘larger objective’ of making India a tax compliant society. It is worth remembering that the government’s narrative around the objectives of demonetisation has been changing over time. It started with the Prime Minister’s dramatic note ban announcement on 8th November 2018, which was widely termed as a ‘surgical strike’ on black money. Then it changed to a narrative of cashlessness and digitalisation and finally, the current justification of tax compliance.

At each step, there has been an emphasis on morality, and the message sent out by the government and amplified by the press and social media has been clear: those who comply are ‘good citizens’ and others are enemies of India. Given the credibility and popularity that PM Modi enjoyed in 2016 – and given that he was the face of demonetisation – this kind of messaging created real pressures on people to comply with the government’s efforts.

For a large number of poor households in India, however, compliance came at high costs. It wasn’t just the snaking lines to deposit cash at the bank, or the ruptures in cash-dependent supply chains that took away jobs and made food prices soar. For a population that earned barely enough to subsist, digitalisation and tax compliance were objectives that had little resonance with their daily lives. The tax base in India is very small, and income inequality is a glaring reality. Data from the India Human Development Survey II (2011-12) shows us that 90.4% Indian households earn less than Rs 250,000 per year, which means that individuals in these households earn too little to be liable to pay income tax. The situation is only slightly better in cities, with 73.8% households in metro cities and 84.2% in non-metro cities remaining out of the tax ambit because they earn too little (the five years between this survey and demonetisation is unlikely to have much altered this situation). This essentially means that the poor – most of them marginal farmers, agricultural labour and non-farm casual workers – who do not pay taxes anyway, took the hardest hit post-demonetisation in order to facilitate increased direct tax collection to the tune of 18% in FY 17-18. There is no argument about the benefits of increased tax collection, but does the end always justify the means?

Many have wondered why so much suffering did not provoke backlash against the government. One answer lies in the government’s strategic use of nationalistic narratives in which the role of the good citizen is constantly invoked. In our fieldwork in urban neighbourhoods across Delhi NCR, we observe that people recalibrated their responses to fit in with the idea of the good citizen. For example, in the immediate aftermath of demonetisation, the poor saw themselves as hardworking, ordinary citizens who suffered due to the corruption of other, richer people. At the same time, a petty landlord in an urban village in East Delhi told us he was ambivalent about collecting rent by cheque instead of cash and wondered if the government was going to come after people like him even as he defiantly told us he filed his tax returns annually. The moral narrative also created fissures within communities, encouraging those with a foothold in the formal economy to pass judgement on poorer households who were unable to cope without cash. As late as June 2017, we met a Dalit tailor in Gurgaon who invoked demonetisation to explain why he had paid money he could ill afford to a tout in order to get a PAN card made and file taxes.

Fig 1: An overwhelming proportion of households in India, rural and urban, earn too little to pay income tax (Source: IHDS II (2011-12); Graph credit: Shamindra Nath Roy)

Fig 2: Primary bread earners in these poor households are mostly farmers and farm-based labour, non-farm casual workers and entrepreneurs in the unorganised sector. These occupations were the most impacted by the cash shortage post demonetisation. (Source: IHDS II (2011-12); Graph credit: Shamindra Nath Roy)

These are but glimpses of the kind of disruptions that demonetisation caused, adding fuel to fires that had already been set by rising inequality and the inability of the Indian democratic project to fulfil the dreams of a growing number of semi-educated but aspirational young people. Instead of arguing about the success or failure of demonetisation, it might be a good time to put our ears to the ground and re-examine the experience of poverty in India. We must take heed and try to understand the ways in which the poor seek to be included in the larger public discourse, often to their own detriment, and the ways in which they continue to remain voiceless and often vilified.

The original piece was published on the website of the Centre for Policy Research:

What’s going on with the kaawadiyas? Some insights from conversations with Haryanvi young men

I know of a young man, about 18, who lives in a village near Sohna in Haryana. This bright young man, Ahir (Yadav) by caste, studied reasonably well until high school and then inexplicably dropped out. He began demanding money from his parents, flitting in and out of employment and every now and then turning hostile, even inflicting violence on his own family members. Last weekend, he turned up at home after many days of living away with relatives, and made demands for money to join his friends for the kaawad yatra (a pilgrimage to bring the waters of the Ganges river from Haridwar back home, held in the holy month of Saawan during the rainy season). The demand was in essence a tantrum. All his friends were going and he wanted to go too. The family, who had no extra money to finance the travel and the paraphernalia that goes with being a yatri (they get new clothes and gifts when they return etc), refused flatly. The young man sulked a bit, then left home again.

I read this anecdote in several different ways, and I will try in this post to offer some insights from my interactions I have had with young Haryanvi (usually Yadav) men over the last few years. My attempt is to nuance the conversation around the kaawad yatra, which is being perceived by one side as a right to religious practice deserving of state protection, and as a form of hooliganism and toxic masculinity by the other. Like many other things, in reality it is a cocktail mix of social, economic and religious realities and perception, spiced by the politics of communalism and hatred.

My protagonist’s story is one of growing up and coming of age in an environment of (what he likely perceives as) multiple deprivations: the disadvantages of poor quality schooling and the lack of skills that would land him urban jobs, the lack of quality employment in or near his village, the absence of cash that would buy him good clothes and a smart phone and therefore some respectability and popularity, the expectation of his family that he brings in a steady income and ultimately, their refusal to indulge him when he demands money for a leisure activity.

The yatra as permissible leisure……

Many young men I have spoken to in Gurgaon district have told me that they see the kaawad yatra as a form of leisure. The garb of religion helps them justify to their families not just the expenses, but also the possible loss of income by their absence from work. They articulate the yatra by using words and phrases like azadi (freedom), gaanv aur parivar ka garv (pride for the village and family) yaaron doston ke saath masti (fun with friends). Of course, they also articulate the religious significance of the yatra, but in terms of what it brings to the family in terms of status in the community. “Pitaji khush ho jaayenge, bhai ko bola tha jaane ko par wo nahi jaa paaya to mein jaaonga (My father will be happy. He had asked my brother to go, but he could not, so I am going)”, narrated the young man who delivers pooja flowers in our building block.

….against the backdrop of the controlling, patriarchal household

Most of these young men I spoke to have very little autonomy. They are expected to contribute labour and income to the household kitty, while remaining subservient to fathers and uncles who have a tight fist on money and resources. This is true even of those who are married, and early marriage is common. Additionally, they are caught amidst conflicts between their wives and mothers, and the battle between individual desire and household diktat is never-ending. Agricultural activity and land holdings have dwindled significantly and with it, the logic of land inheritance that upheld the deep patriarchy in this region, should perhaps be called into question. Yet, ironically, patriarchal rules tighten their noose not just around women, as expressed in several misogynist practices (like female infanticide, male child preference, dowry, restrictions on dressing and mobility, etc) but also on young men, who are expected to exhibit masculine behaviour while being totally controlled by older male members. Only those who excel academically and break through into private sector formal sector employment and others who get into government jobs make it out of this predicament, somewhat.

The yatra as higher purpose…

These are deeply religious people and religion shapes the celebration of festivals; rituals around birth, death and marriage; fasting on certain days especially by women, all of course marked by patriarchal logic and rules. Increasingly, they are also involved in ‘social’ activities in the name of religion and the protection of family honour, especially the honour of women. So they would be vigilant about inter-caste and inter-religious liaisons in the community. Not surprisingly, cow protection, previously a passive principle of life in the Yadav belt, is now more like a crusade, especially in the Mewat belt where accusations of cow-smuggling have been routinely leveled against Muslims as a way to stir Hindu, and specifically Yadav, passions.

I read the kaawad yatra as part of this crusade-like social practice, serving a purpose higher than the religious one. The possibility of organized funding fueling the scaling up of kawad activities is very real. The people I spoke to told me about money collection drives in their village communities and large contributions by “bade aadmi” (powerful individuals). They spoke about the yatra like one would talk about a sports contest between village teams, and evoked the pride of the community. They took Hindu pride very much for granted, as something obvious; they made no reference to any form of ‘other’.

….and who will deny them that?

The outrage being expressed by urban folks raises questions of law and order. Why are kaawad yatris getting state protection even when they break the law? Who is responsible when they create public nuisance and who will compensate for destruction of public property?

But it is clear enough that in today’s times, law and order are subservient to majoritarian interests. The state and its law enforcement agencies are far more afraid of a public riot that will break out if a kaawadiya gets hurt; in comparison, the predicament of a non- yatri is not a real problem, for that is hardly likely to bring people to the streets.

Being angry about public nuisance is entirely justifiable, but the solutions are not going to come easy. Be prepared in the coming times for many more such tableau. See them for what they are: loud, unapologetic claims to public space and attention by an under-employed, under-appreciated and infantilized youth that are being fed toxic doses of religion and masculinity.

A family trek in Ladakh: 4 days of wilderness, solitude and bonding

“Out of your comfort zone”

These were the words that stood out for me when Rikzin briefed us an evening before our trek. We were to walk about 45 kms over 4 days, cross a pass at 15000 ft (4570m) above mean sea level climbing up from 11,800 ft (3200m) and we were to descend all of those 3,500 ft in a single day! But none of these numbers featured in that briefing we got on. We were, instead, taken through the mechanics, the process. What we would carry into our bag packs: water, packed lunch, sun screen, cap, etc and sandals for river crossings. What the campsite would be like: tents, sleeping bags, kitchen amenities, how we would shit… The only numbers we got, and we held on to these closely, was how many hours we would walk: 3-4 hours on day 1, 5-6 hours on days 2 and 3, and maybe 7+ hours on day 4 on the descent. We listened in rapt attention, especially the kids (aged 14, 14, 11, and 10). I remember thinking this was going to be a challenge. I remember feeling a flutter of excitement in my belly! In all of my 42 years on this planet, I had never gone camping and slept in a tent before and I felt every bit as excited as I had been on my first airplane ride or my first roller coaster experience!

What followed simply blew my mind. This had been the most physically arduous and mentally challenging experience of my life. And yet, at the end of each day, I felt a sense of calm as if I was destined to achieve. No matter how much I struggled while walking, I had not an iota of self doubt left at the end of each day’s journey. I discovered that the mountains and the unique sense of solitude and peace that nature offers, is empowering and transformative in a way that modern ‘world travel’, with its kaleidoscope of sensory experiences, cannot be.

Day 1: Stepping over stones, learning to breathe

We drove to Stok village in two slightly beat-up Maruti Suzuki Omnis. Right off the bat, the kids decided to be their own gang, riding in one car while the adults were assigned to the other. At the starting point of our trek, the sight of the 20-odd mountain horses being loaded with stuff, was a bit of a shock. I hadn’t realized what a massive logistical exercise it is, taking a group of city folks into the mountains! The sun beat down quite harshly on us that day and we sat around a joked, waiting for permits to be issued and the loading to finish. Suhani and Aadyaa, our youngest duo, put up an impromptu performance of a rap number they had been composing the past couple of days while we drove all the way to Pangong Tso Lake and back. Srijaa and Udai, the older kids, obliged and we have a few funky posed pre-trek shots from these moments.

We had a late start, mostly because our travel companions showed up late at the starting point, and it was very hot as we walked up along the Stok river past village homes and quaint home stays. The older kids set a robust pace, while we took our own time, enjoying the gradual fading away of human habitat and taking in the spectacular beauty before us. The walk involved stepping over large stones alongside gurgling water and though the climb was gentle, it was taxing on the ankles and knees. My pace dropped as we walked and the younger kids went ahead of us, accompanied by Govindji who was the man in charge on this trek. After two hours of walking, I started to struggle in earnest and it took effort to keep the breath steady and handle the harsh sun and dehydration. Yet, almost before we knew it, we hit the campsite at Changma and saw that much of it was already set up! The children had already reached and were busy with popcorn. Soon they were at the river, splashing about in the water and playing with Wilde, the dog from Stok village who had accompanied us all the way here. We also walked over and introduced ourselves to other campers nearby and befriended Adrian, a South African teacher who was traveling with schoolchildren from Jakarta. A long discussion on trekking in the Himalayas and the experience of working with local communities ensued. In a separate chat, Govindji lamented the lack of government infrastructure for trekkers.

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Ladakh’s green valleys strike a sharp contrast in its brown landscape and we enjoyed the experience of walking out of one into the brown-ness beyond

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The flora alongside the river and the path that cut through the topsy turvy stones

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Heading into the gorge

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One step before the other!

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Doggedness is all you need here…and when you are literally being encouraged by a dog friend, it’s a new kind of fun!

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Pen and ink sketch of the campsite.Wherever I could, I doodled and sketched, and maintained a diary through the trek. Those entries have helped me immensely in reconstructing the trek for this post.

 

The campsites were made as comfortable as possible by the organizing team at Ladakh Sarai. The first to be set up were kitchen and dining tents, then two toilet tents that essentially offered some privacy and the option of a metal seat over a hole in the ground! A special mention for the excellent quality of food and the thoughtful preparations made by Chef Norbu, whose talent at cooking with minimal resources was surpassed only by his dazzling smile and affection.

After a good meal (mutton, dal, rice, vegetables, and an exotic chocolate-based dessert! wow!) and some time spent by the bonfire, we prepared for the night and zipped ourselves into the tents. The kids decided to sleep in one tent and seemed quite comfortable and cozy inside but for me, the first night was an adventure that involved grappling with a sleeping bag, fighting off claustrophobia and the fear of having to go out into the cold and pee!

Day 2: Walking over ice, gaining confidence

Even so, the next morning dawned bright and fresh, but not super early. We got ready quickly, breakfasted and packed to leave. The children were sent out onto the trail 30 minutes before us. Govindji had briefed them well and all four of them were to walk in line with the older ones forming the edges and the younger ones in the centre. He took them to where the trail began and sent them off and that enduring image of them setting out on their own, excited and confident an thick-as-thieves, is imprinted in my mind as one of the best memories of the trip.

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Govindji got back and packed us off too, then moved on to the arduous job of winding up the camp and sending the horses onto the next campsite. The four of us- Rahul, Rishi, Shubha and me- walked to the trailhead and stood there gaping at the sheer climb ahead of us. Believe me, it was a path fit for mountain goats, but we braved that first climb by channeling all our learning from Day 1, pacing ourselves out much better, breathing evenly and most importantly, by discarding the idea of failure. After going over the first pass, we rejoined the path alongside the Stok river and from then on the climb was more steady, more scenic. We found ourselves in a narrow gorge, the jagged form of the mountain seemed to towers over us and almost close in on us, framing a patch of bright blue sky.

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Small victories, great joys!

After maybe 90 minutes of walking, we spotted the children ahead, bright colourful dots arranged in a neat row at the edge of a sheet of glacial ice! The ice beckoned us and though the kids were gone by the time we got there, our energies were revived by the excitement of walking over ice. Shortly afterward, we reached a river crossing and found the kids waiting for us there, eating their packed lunch. From this point, those intending to scale Stok Kangri took one path towards base camp, while we took another path that climbed higher and higher on the edge of a mountain that overlooked the frozen parts of the river, many hundred feet below.

This bit of the trek was difficult too, demanding a sure footing and strong sense of balance. At one point, we were climbing up on all fours. Once again, the children did remarkably well and I was definitely the straggler. But by this time, I didn’t care. I was starting to get the hang of this.

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We reached an extremely windy campsite. Everything was threatening to fly away and the team was struggling to set it up. Our kids had been smart and ensconced themselves inside the cozy and warm kitchen tent, where they helped out by peeling onion and garlic and cutting vegetables in industrial quantities. Learning from Day 1, we all ate the delectable pulao that cook rustled and then hung around the dining tent and wherever else we could find respite from the winds. The kids huddled inside their tent from where sounds of talking, giggling and eventually singing emerged!

[The children’s] chirpy voices, sometimes in conversation and other times in song, served as a fitful background score for a brief rest. Rahul napped while I read some, but the tent was too warm and eventually we have found refuge in the dining tent, sheltered from the howling wind which is literally sweeping our things away!

Diary entry, 16 June, 2018

The afternoon was considerably brightened by the surprise arrival of Rikzin, who had caught up with us and would be with us for the remaining part of the trek. The other bright spot was the baby marmot that emerged from his subterranean home from time to time to peer at us in frank curiosity. Out there on the hillside opposite us, the camp staff helped me train my binoculars on a marmot pair cavorting around and sunning themselves.

By sunset, the exhaustion of the day and the substantially higher altitude had begun to take a toll. The cure for crankiness, headaches and general despondency was apparently hot and peppery garlic soup, which Govindji gently urged the children to drink. Dinner was early and delicious, this time with chicken, dal and vegetables followed by a friend banana and cream dessert!

We had walked a lot more, gained considerable in elevation and I had not rested in the afternoon; so the night was spent negotiating a slightly better relationship with my sleeping bag and sleeping a little bit better. And also losing the fear of visiting the toilet in pitch darkness!

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The starkness of this campsite was beautiful, but also harsh

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Kitchen elves!

Day 3: Scaling Matho-La, accepting solitude

We woke up to a teen birthday (Srijaa’s) and the day started with wishes and hugs, and bonhomie over tea and breakfast! Aadyaa decided to walk with us instead of going ahead with the children. She had been a bit more affected by the altitude and the cold. Rikzin set the older kids off on a brisk pace and we went back along the partially frozen river. This was a day of spectacular views, mostly uncaptured on camera because of the arduousness of the climb. As we pushed toward the Matho La Pass, oxygen levels dropped and it became harder to walk.

It was a morning in which I found myself retreating into myself. The solitary and silent walk set off a train of introspection that had me thinking deeply about my goals in life, and the meaning and impact of ambition on myself and my loved ones. I found that while Rahul and my dearest friends were in plain sight, some ahead and some behind me, what really mattered was my own dogged determination to plant one foot before the other. I also felt a lot of my anxiety about my PhD leaving me. Working full time and pursuing a PhD program has meant that I am constantly worrying about not doing enough, being distracted and falling behind. But out there on the stark mountainside, I realized the only thing that mattered was to keep moving ahead. I felt light in mind, even as my trudge became slower and heavier, my breathing more laboured.

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Colours and texture that are imprinted in my soul

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An unending shifting landscape of texture and form

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Getting closer!

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Undeterred

Reaching Matho La pass was not just an endorsement of our endurance. We were treated with an enchanting view of the snow peaked mountains on the horizon and between us and that range of peaks lay a green valley dotted with flowers and all manner of plants, with the grazing dzo scattered here and there! The entire group was enchanted and relaxed. We sat in clusters snacking and chatting. We laughed and hugged. We clicked pictures and we strolled and ambled till we reached our campsite, the prettiest one yet.

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thumb_IMG_8576_1024thumb_IMG_8574_1024thumb_IMG_8573_1024In the camp, a leisurely afternoon was spent ambling by the river (and some us actually managed to dip in those icy waters), reading, playing cards and story cubes (a story building game) and working on puzzles. The camp took time to set up as the horses reached late, offering us an opportunity to enjoy the grassy glade we found ourselves in, the prettiest campsite of all!

Rahul and me waited it out sitting on a rock and watching, as the crew set ip camp. Particularly interesting was the mind who minded the horses.. His rugged and wind-worn features and his slight build seemed typical of most ‘horse men’ we encountered in Ladakh. He whistled and hummed as he wound up the saddled and other paraphernalia, occasionally changing tone to call out the horses who were grazing nearby. There were certain sounds to send them away and calls to calm them down, and maybe others that we could not understand.

Diary entry, 17th June

The highlight of the evening was the feast to celebrate Srijaa’s birthday. Norbu’s phenomenal talent was unveiled to us as he awed us with a carrot cake with chocolate topping, mutton momos, pizzas with a do-your-own-topping option, noodles and chilli paneer, all on a regular LPG gas stove! How we ate that night! And how we appreciated the heat from the bonfire, made of dzo dung, before we settled into our tents for the coldest night of all.

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Sleeping at 14000 ft (4270m) was an interesting experience and I dealt with my tent issues by simply spending an hour in the middle of the night reading on my Kindle while Rahul snored, instead of pestering him about my sleeplessness and discomfort as I had done the last two nights!

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Day 4: Enjoying the bounties of nature, testing my endurance

We walked over 18km on this last day of the trek. My shoes came apart and I did about a third of that in sandals, which meant hurting ankles and extreme exhaustion. We woke up to snow flurries at 14000 ft and came down to the sweltering sun of the valley. We crossed the river a dozen times, and our water bottle (its name was Vinod, yes we named our water bottles!) tried very hard to sacrifice itself to the river but we were adamant on saving it.

We experienced the largest diversity of flora in our time in Ladakh on this last day, the widest array of landscapes too. One time, we walked on a sliver of the mountain, with a steep fall away on either side. The feeling was spectacular but we worried intensely about our vertiginous companion, and spent some tense moments which fortunately ended in a short burst of relieved tears.

We saw pashmina sheep stuffed into a pen high on the mountains and met shepherds who were carrying back firewood supplies on donkey backs. Another time, we met nomads walking from Leh to Zanskar with enough words of Hindi and English on them to have a conversation!

Overall the descent was easier on our lungs but harder on knees and ankles, but we felt like we had to take in the sights and enjoy each part of the journey. Both Udai and Aadyaa walked with us and I remember the day as a kaleidoscope of images, conversations. The last several kilometres when extreme fatigue had set in, I was amazed at watching Aadyaa. All of ten, she walked alone, choreographing a dance number in her head, oblivious of her rhythmic gait, arm movements and expressions!

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Countless river crossings

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Udai contemplates the flowing water

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A moment of repose

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Traveling long distances for basic supplies is only one part of the hard life that Ladakhis lead

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A classic Ladakhi scene

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The river bed and the sky

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Yes the JCB is in Ladakh too, here its helping lay a water pipeline to Matho village

As the monastery of Thiksey came into view in the distance, signalling the end of the 4-day trek, I found myself wishing intensely that this would never end, even as my feet screamed at me to stop immediately. At Matho village where we ended the trek, I felt happy and numb at the same time and all I could think of was a hot shower and a bed!

Back at the hotel, reunited with the others in the group, we conceded that the real stars of the trip had been the following: 1- The kids, who didn’t whine even once and banded together through thick and thin; 2- Govindji, whose advice and gentle persuasion tided us over many rough patches; and 3- Norbu, without whom we would not have had the kind of wholesome and soul satisfying nourishment we had through these four awesome days. Finally, a word on Rikzin’s enthusiasm, thoroughness and sheer passion for Ladakh and its outdoor treasures. To him goes the credit for preparing the kids (and us) mentally, putting the ambitious trek together and making sure the city slickers made it through just fine!

Solace and solitude in Stockholm

It is a strange feeling indeed when you spend the morning reading Murakami, alone in a hotel room in a country far far away. Fortunately for me, the sun was shining bright, revealing Stockholm’s warmer tone and texture. I tried to picture the same scenes in the steely barely-there Nordic winter light. And I knew what I was seeing wasn’t quite right, but guesswork about something I have yet to experience. A die-hard optimist and travel lover, I imbued a romanticism to that wintry scene that locals may find naive, going by the enthusiasm with which folks claimed gardens and public spaces across the city, soaking in the sun in a state of trance!

I have hardly ever felt the kind of loneliness the narrator talks of in Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. When I have, it has sent me into a deep, dark place. I am always surrounded by people and with many I interact with I form real, and at times deep, connections. When I travel, I carry some people with me, inside. My family and select friends, I imagine sometimes, ‘see’ the world through me. In my head, I speak to them. So-and-so would have loved this, someone else would have found this funny, the kids would have never left this place, etc etc. Yet, I revel in being alone. I feel free to not have to make adjustments for anyone else, to be able to take off on a whim, or to simply not leave the hotel room to write! I see things differently when I travel alone, I think, I heal and rest. I re-calibrate. And when I return home, I hope, I connect even deeper.

Last Saturday, walking around Stockholm rejuvenated me after a long flight. I didn’t need food, or rest. The textures, the light and shadow, the colours and the architecture was fuel enough. I wandered aimlessly with camera in hand. I didn’t know where I was going and I found myself walking past the St Jacob’s Kyrka, the Royal Gardens, cross the water past the Palace. I walked until I ended up in Riddarholmen, a small island that houses a medieval church and many beautiful palaces from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A veritable feast of architectural styles- Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque with hints of Baroque. The altitude here allows for many vistas that look onto the water, offering spectacular view of Stockholm. I sat for a while next to an old lady on a bench. She wrote in her diary and I stared out onto the water, shared moments without exchanging a glance or acknowledging of each other, but yet a hint of awareness of sharing the space with another.

Eventually I was sucked into the ‘tourist trap’ (I am borrowing a friend’s phrase here) of Gamla Stan. The crowds struck and the usual paraphernalia of inner city tourism in Europe: endless souvenir shops, quaint ‘historic’ eateries with international brands sneaked in to make folks comfy (go figure!), boutiques and art galleries and cafes spilling into the streets in an unabashed celebration of summer’s unique consumerism. Amidst the hyperactivity, I found solace in beautiful doors, unexpected silences in side streets and ‘secret’ courtyards.

 

 

Oped: Gurgaon Must Resist the Communal Narrative for the Sake of Its Economy

Diversity has been the bedrock of Gurgaon’s economic success, and the incendiary atmosphere created by those who are trying to disrupt namaz will prove to be detrimental to its growth.

Originally carried by The Wire, please read here

While the newly-formed Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti’s attempts to violently disrupt and diminish congregational Friday namaz in Gurgaon may be temporarily on hold for Ramzan, khaap and religious leaders across faiths from Gurgaon’s villages have sent out a clear message that they will resist those disrupting harmony in the city.

Through a press conference on May 15 in which they announced a multi-faith mahapanchayat on the 27th of the month, they made the pitch that religious divisions have no place in a modern city that attracts investors, entrepreneurs and workers from India and abroad, and where citizens have found ways to co-exist peacefully.

Certainly, Gurgaon’s ability to embrace a diverse range of residents plays a big part in making it an economic success and the global brand it is today. Gurgaon has grown exponentially since 2000. Its current estimated population of over 8.7 lakh (as per Census 2011) comprises local villagers, high-skilled migrants working in its globally competitive corporate sector and low-skilled rural migrants who work in the informal services sector, the latter severely undercounted in official estimates.

It bears repeating that Gurgaon’s development model was driven by land consolidation and development by private developers, with public infrastructure and planning playing catch-up. This has resulted in a highly-segregated city of elite gated communities built on erstwhile agricultural lands, while the village settlements have adapted and transformed to provide affordable housing, and space for low-end manufacturing and back-end service functions.

In this scenario, the villagers’ call for harmony and tolerance is significantly motivated by the interdependence between them, in their avatar as landlords, and the migrant renters. In the rapid transition of this landscape from rural to urban, villagers have played a key role, one that goes largely unacknowledged.

In the words of Mahinder Yadav, who I interviewed in Nathupur village adjacent to DLF Cybercity as part of my field research in 2013, “Pehle kheti thi, phir hamaari jameen biki aur ye tower ban gaye. Phir kirayedaar aaye. Ab inse hi hamaara gujara hai (First we were farmers, then we sold them and these buildings came up. Then the renters came. Now we make our living mainly from them).”

Clearly, the incendiary atmosphere created by those who are trying to disrupt namaz in the city is detrimental to the core business of rental housing and other services targeted towards migrants that economically sustains these village communities today. If the city’s communal climate were to chase migrants away, this would directly and significantly impact incomes of the village communities in Gurgaon.

Of course, landlord-tenant relations in villages are characterised by an unequal power dynamic. While migrant renters see the landlord (makaan maalik) as both exploitative and benevolent, enforcing restrictions while also offering certain forms of protection, the landlord sees the renter (kirayedaar) as good (read submissive), but in need of management and control. In this scenario of ‘care and control’, landlords have generally been tolerant of migrants’ religious and cultural practices. I have found Nepali Dussehras and Bihari Chhat poojas being celebrated in some villages and, in the same vein spaces for Jumma namaz have always been peacefully negotiated.

As needs grew, those seeking space for namaz – residents of the city as well as commuters from Delhi and beyond – have worked with local communities, private land and building owners and local police stations to find open grounds, parks, strips of pavement and green belts to pray each Friday. Every now and then, these places move to prevent traffic congestions or if the namaz clashes with another use. Considering that Muslims offering the Jumma namaz in the city’s open spaces has been a familiar sight for nearly a decade, it is perhaps worth questioning why, all of a sudden, they are ruffling feathers now.

Moreover, several commentators have already made the point about there being no opposition to the same spaces being used by other (non-Muslim) groups for congregational activities.

Much of the ire of the namaz disruptors seems to be directed against the Muslim migrants from West Bengal, with tropes like Bangladeshi and Rohingya being used to target them. This is doubly unfortunate because these people are generally documented migrants – it is near impossible to work in the city today without identity papers – at the lowest rung of the ladder, discriminated by language and concentrated in the most menial jobs: women in domestic help, and men in housekeeping, waste collection and cycle rickshaw driving.

In the affluent homes across Gurgaon where these Bengali women work, there is a stunned silence on the namaz issue as households struggle to reconcile the myriad bigoted anti-Muslim tropes – Bangladeshi, Rohingya, terrorists, perpetrators of ‘love jihad– being bandied about with their dependence on this large pool of affordable labour for cleaning, cooking and childcare work.

Gurgaon’s attraction has been its miraculous construction as a mosaic of communities including migrants of many hues – language, religion, class, region and nationality – despite its spatial segregation. This precious diversity, created through negotiation and inter-dependence, is the bedrock of its economic success. The village leaders have instinctively recognised this and taken a stand against the disruptive forces that seek to communalise the city and squander away its key competitive advantage. Gurgaon’s affluent residents must join them.

Mukta Naik is Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. She works on issues related to migration, urbanisation and housing.

How many ways are there to hate women in India? Of Incel, rape culture and a point of no return

Incel. I hadn’t heard the word before it began doing the rounds of the media in context of the van that ran amok in Toronto killing 10 and injuring 13 people, many women. There is a real possibility that the women who died did not just happen to be there. This could be a misogynistic act by someone who identified with Incels- Involuntary Celibates, by someone who hated women as a result of facing sexual rejection from them. This horrifies me! Just how many types of misogyny are women at the receiving end of?

We have plenty of the Incel-types in India too. Women are commonly victims of acid attacks, gang rapes, molestation and even murder because they rejected a man who was pursuing her. Many times there might have been no promises made at all, but rather the man is provoked by feelings of jealousy, possessiveness and inadequacy that may or may not have anything to do with the words or actions of the women who are objects of their desire-turned-ire.

And then there is the misogyny that comes with feeling threatened, or the fear of being threatened in the future. I call this the fear of equality. Those thousands of misogynistic jokes floating around the Internet that characterize women as nags, freeloaders, killjoys and even plain stupid (yes, you should not be forwarding those) are just a way to reassure men of their superior place in society. When men who claim to stand for gender parity share these jokes, I ask if they could find ways to end situations that generate these stereotypes. Would they simply let their wives/girlfriends/sister/daughter work or study out of town, let her have normal relationships with other men, let her go out with her friends without judgement. This is usually met with cynicism, silence or worse, total hatred and counter-aggression. Ironically the safety argument is regularly deployed to keep women boxed in. Dress codes for girls not boys, restrictive hostel timings, victim shaming, all of this has to do with the core insecurity that men have about women becoming their equals. Well, here’s news for you, we already are and if you let us partner with you, we could together make this world a much better place!

We must remind ourselves, though that while the increasing assertion of women sharpens this form of misogyny, such attitudes towards women are deeply embedded in patriarchal societies like ours, which see women as vaginas and wombs whose primary purpose is to bear and raise children. Therefore women are not seen as natural participants in the public sphere, as working professionals, as politicians and activists; only care-giving roles outside of the home (teacher, doctor, anganwadi worker) are easily accepted. This form of misogyny exerts itself through the control of women’s bodies: where they go, what they do, who do they interact with. Male control of movement and reproductive functions are paramount. Hence, the lost honor of rape victims is usually the focus of discussion, deterring reporting even by parents and kin, rather than the need to counsel and support her to lead a normal life in the future. Neither are men committing sexual crimes counseled to rethink deeply misogynistic notions as well as the embedded ideas of masculinity that lead to normalization of misogynistic behaviour.

The third kind of misogyny is simply heartbreaking. This is not a misogyny of neglect and disregard stemming from a conviction that women simply don’t matter. Rising female foeticides and male preference, especially in places with rising prosperity testify to this, leading to the theses of the ‘missing’ or ‘unwanted’ girl children. In the now infamous Kathua rape case, an 8-yr old girl was used as pawn in a rivalry between communities, because as a girl she was considered unimportant, dispensable.

What strikes fear into my heart is this. Back in the pre-Internet era, we could conveniently segregate people into opposing categories, like traditional vs modern, ignorant vs informed, uneducated vs educated; but now, the Internet is an indiscriminate medium to spread ideas. Like Incel in North America, misogyny in India is also spreading online and we seem powerless to stop it. Online rape threats and abusive language against female online profiles are the order of the day. My petition against online sexual abuse has over 14,000 signatures, with many sharing their personal stories of abuse, shame, anger, fear and helplessness.

I used to imagine these men, and some women too, lead some sort of schizophrenic lives. That many of them have seemingly normal relationships and then transform into Hyde-like vile virtual creatures. But the Toronto story reminded me that I might be wrong. Many folks do not lead what we consider ‘normal’ lives. Millions of men across India are experiencing sexual frustration, incompatibility in their relationships, family conflict. Many are possibly members of social groupings that celebrate aggressive misogynistic masculinity. Many see misogyny enacted daily and as Madhumita Pandey’s study of convicted rapists shows, may have no idea of the wrong attached to their actions. Add to that alcoholism and substance abuse, mental illness……and the simple fact that everyone is talking and no one is listening anymore!!

So where do we begin to change this narrative? Now that our immediate outrage in India has been quelled  by an ill-advised ordinance to send rapists of minors to death row, we must talk about more long-term solutions. There is no getting around it. We need to start these difficult conversations in our homes, schools, offices. We need to stand up against misogyny, online and in person, and practice the equality we seek. Recently, I visited an exhibition in my children’s’ school where a group of 11-yr olds enacted a startlingly mature skit on gender equality. The tiny details in the skit – the husband reading the newspaper while the wife sat next to him waiting her turn, the girl child sweeping the floor before she and her brother slept every night – touched me. The message they left with us was powerful. Girls are making choices and achieving success despite facing several odds. What if those odds are removed? What an amazing world ours would be!

Diversity in Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’: Observations about a place of affordability & entrepreneurship

The PhD “flex” room in the Institute of Housing Studies, Erasmus University in Rotterdam is as good a place as any to reflect on the Xiaobei, or Little Africa, a settlement in Guangzhou we visited last month. Why? Because many of the students at IHS, in the Masters and PhD programs, are from African countries and the question of China in Africa is foremost on their minds. While here, I heard Rachel Keeton, PhD candidate at TU Delft, speak about her research on the planning of New Towns in Africa. In her narrative, the Chinese footprint on the creation of new urban spaces in Africa is formidable. Next to me, a PhD colleague worries about the influence of China on the planning and governance of transit systems in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa.

In Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD), we saw the other side. African entrepreneurs have been coming to China for decades, trading, running small businesses, moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and China in what Gordon Mathews and his co-authors have called “low-end globalization” in their book The World in Guangzhou. The epicentre of their activities is the PRD, which has been a trading hotspot for thousands of years and has arguably the most open outlook in all of China. The Dengfeng/Xiaobei locality in Guangzhou, I had heard from colleagues and friends, was the place to experience this phenomenon and so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring its alleys and streets.

The African presence in the neighbourhood is unmistakable with traders from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola living here. Yet we noticed that many of the shops on the mainstreet were owned and operated by those with Chinese ethnicity. A number of the shops at the edge of settlement were selling readymade garments and cheap electronics, perhaps the sort of counterfeit or low-cost items that the Africans have been known to trade in. However, as we ventured further inside, the majority of the stores seemed to cater to the daily needs of this bustling neighborhood. We saw grocery stores, outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables, chemist shops, restaurants and food outlets, hair dressers, and tailoring shops. The area had an international feel to it. I could see Turkish bakeries, French baguettes and Asian spices in grocery stores, and African and Indian clothes in the garment stores. The large number of food outlets with halal signs and Arabic signage indicated a sizeable Islamic population and indeed, Dengfeng is just as Middle Eastern today as it is African, with residents from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Iran. In fact, we learned that many Chinese Muslim families also chose to live here.

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Among the Africans, we could see many single men and some couples, even a few families with young children. I understand that most of the Africans come on short-term visas and do not stay for very long; yet there are many instances of African and Chinese inter-marriages. I’m not certain about the citizenship of those Africans who marry Chinese women and seek to integrate, but the struggle of Chinese society to accept children of mixed parentage, particularly African-Chinese kids in Guangzhou, has been a subject of some discussion in the media. Overstaying visas used to be rather common, but I believe a crackdown since 2012 has scared away the more transient traders and those who remain definitely face discrimination.

Overall, the African presence was not as dominant as I had expected.  Rather, we found a thriving multi-ethnic entrepreneurial space with plenty of affordable rental housing. In fact, the Chinese researcher who guided us through pointed out two buildings where he had rented before, as a student. To me, the visit raised questions about the particular characteristics of places that permit, indeed invite, diversity. Places that are “arrival cities“, as Saunders puts it in his eponymous book, for immigrants from across and within national boundaries. What are the processes, ranging from the use of social networks to the negotiation of rent agreements, that make these places what they are? As article after article, including this one, offer visually and anecdotally rich material as evidence that diversity is indeed something to celebrate and praise, I suspect more detailed investigations of the processes that create diversity might offer a more balanced and perhaps less flattering perspective.

References:

  1. https://africansinchina.net/: Robert Castillo’s blog has a veritable treasure of facts and observations about the community. He is a lecturer at the Hong Kong University’s African Studies Programme
  2. http://permanentwalkabout.com/blog/2016/7/5/little-xiaobei-chinas-africa-town
  3. https://qz.com/1081203/china-in-africa-guangzhou-is-a-global-city-for-african-entrepreneurs/
  4. https://www.thenational.ae/world/asia/young-arabs-get-down-to-business-in-china-1.404155

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hi-tech Dutch ID cards helped Nazis identify, exterminate Jews: What does that teach us about the ethics of technology & the choices we are making today?

I can, in part, blame my fascination for The Holocaust on reading too much of Leon Uris in my teen years. This fascination intensified on the trip to Berlin in 2014 and continues to be a theme of my explorations in Europe since. So this past weekend, on a loose limb on a Saturday morning, I decided to explore the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam.  The motivation was a listing for an exhibition titled Identity Cards and Forgeries: Jacob Lentz and Alice Cohn on the IAmsterdam page. On a recent trip to China, a PhD researcher had presented at a workshop we co-organized her preliminary research on documents and identity that mentioned the use of ID card forgeries to help migrants access services. That discussion played in my head, as much as the recent heated debate in India on privacy and misuse of information collected under the UIDAI project, popularly called the Aadhaar, which the Indian government is aggressively developing in the form of a universal identification system for the country. The Supreme Court of India is currently in the midst of hearing petitions that contend that the Aadhaar identification programme violates an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. A curious me arrived at the National Holocaust Museum and the exhibition did not disappoint!

Set in an oppositional format, the left half of the exhibition space showcased the work of Jacob Lentz who, as the head of the Dutch National Inspectorate of Population Registers, had been at the forefront of designing a highly secure and for the time hi-tech system of ID cards from 1936 onward. While Lentz and some of his colleagues seemed to have designed the system expecting every Dutch citizen carry an ID card, interestingly in March 1940, the Dutch government decided not to implement this system. Their reason? That it was contrary to Dutch tradition.

But of course the highly sophisticated, and virtually non-forgeable, ID card system was ready for the Nazi occupiers to use when the Netherlands fell to German forces post the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940. The ID card system was brutally used by the Nazis to identify Jews (with a large J on the card itself), in order to initially curtail their civic rights and eventually deport them to concentration camps where they were largely exterminated in gas chambers. Lentz, as one of many bureaucrats who inadvertently aided the Nazi  genocide, is cited as an example of Hannah Arendt’s famous Banality of Evil hypothesis, which  highlights the absolute ordinariness of the human beings who perpetrate acts of evil merely by being complicit. Read in another way, one may say that the compliance of ordinary people under conditions of terror are sufficient to aid evil. Something we in India could keep in mind if we were ever to be on the scene of a horrendous rape, lynching or honour killing, all of which are alas becoming all too common!! I won’t go into the larger implications of the ‘banality of evil’ in the Indian context as manifested by, for example, widespread self-censorship in public life and social media in the face of a vindictive regime served by an army of online trolls. I have written on those issues before.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

~Edmund Burke

On the opposite side of the exhibit, was displayed the work of Alice Cohn, a German-Jewish graphic artist and member of the Dutch resistance who obsessively and often successfully forged these ID cards to help innocents escape. The work of the Resistance is marked by the very opposite of what I have discussed above, the involvement of ordinary people, often from the non-persecuted majority, in a commendable demonstration of altruism usually at considerable risk to themselves (on that note, check out this fantastic NatGeo piece on the psychology of altruism). Those stories reinforce our faith in humankind and at the end of the exhibition, I was left with a positive feeling despite the overwhelmingly “heavy” sense one has in a building that is dedicated to the memory of those persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust.

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Exhibition space

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The ID cards for Jews, marked with the prominent J

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Alice Cohn

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Some of Alice Cohn’s graphics work

Alice Cohn’s story has a specific resonance with the history of the building that houses the Museum. One of her bravest acts was the use of a forged identity for herself to be able to walk into a creche, located next door to the Museum, and rescue the child of a Jewish couple who were her friends. The creche is where the children were kept before deportation, while the parents were crowded into the Hollandse Schouwberg, a theatre building on the other side of the street. The story is that Director of the non-Jewish School that was run in the Museum building, and the woman who ran the creche collaborated to smuggle out over 600 Jewish children to safety, out of the clutches of the Nazis and into foster homes where they grew up safe and sound. I held on to these stories of altruism even as I wept at the small but evocative collection of material artefacts from families who died in the Holocaust.

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Where the Amsterdam Jews were held before deportation

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A bit further down the road, the Portuguese Synagogue. The Jewish population in Amsterdam immigrated from Spain and Portugal (the Shephardic Jews.) during the Reformation.

The Dutch Jews were concentrated in Amsterdam, and so this community was hit hardest by the Holocaust.  About 107,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the concentration camps, some 5,200 survived while the Dutch Underground was successful in hiding 25-30,000 Jews and hence saving their lives. Among them were these 600-odd children who were aided by the school. Franz, the volunteer who narrated us the story, told us that though a few of the parents of these children did return from the concentration camps, they were “neither right in the body, nor in the head” and the reunions were almost as difficult as the separation. The impacts of extreme hatred and mass ethnic cleansing are often discussed in terms of death and annihilation. Sadly, in our world today, these words have become normalized. It would do us all well to remember that between living and dying are myriad states of pain and half-baked existence, the personal and social consequences of which are almost as unbearable.

The pall of the Holocaust hangs over Europe decades after. As the extreme conservatives rise over the continent and indeed the world, people worry and fret but alas, also forget. And evil has the chance to be banal again.

My comfort food – filter coffee

A lovely account of my mum’s relationship with coffee. What a powerful thing memory and nostalgia is…. and yes, dawara tumbler sounds lovely 🙂

sitanaiksblog

Everyone has a ‘comfort food’, an item of food that one associates with childhood, home, mother…….and for me for ever so long it used to be ‘curd rice’! How I grew out of that is another story, but for these last many years my ‘comfort food’ has been a drink, the filter coffee. Children were not allowed to drink coffee, but amongst my earliest memories is one of my grandfather, sneaking me a sip from his ‘tumbler’! Of course, no chinaware entered our Brahmin house then. It was a time,  long before plastic had entered our lives in any manner or form.

Coffee was a ritual and was  made only in the morning and at tiffin time, which was the late afternoon. The first thing that was done in the morning was to light the wood fire and put water to boil. My mother would have already had her bath…

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Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen

We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration.  After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.

This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.

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The impressive gate and ancestor hall in Nantou remains unchanged. The white blank wall with the UABB signage on it hides a politically contentious painting that caused a furor during the event’s opening. The controversy led to the review and censoring of many artworks, raising queries about the UABB as a space for dialogue, creativity and expression.

Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.

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Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.

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What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.

On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!

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