Category Archives: Politics & Citizenship

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.

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!

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.

The joke is always on women, but why are we laughing?

Last week, I (among others) took offence to a recent outdoor hoarding. I was shocked by its casual sexism and peeved about the use of cheap publicity to get eyeballs. A half-baked apology only added insult to injury. But it is hard to hold on to outrage—especially when we all seem to be outrage-ing so much about so many things nowadays—and by Monday I was much calmer.

But I couldn’t get the episode out of my mind. I found myself wondering about the diversity of reactions to the ad itself, which used abbreviations for common Hindi abuses that depict incest. I also kept thinking about how some folks on social media who found the ad funny, not offensive—and I’ll be the first to say that they are entitled to their opinion—also expressed their distress about the rape of a 4-year old girl, which was reported in the media around the same time. It is hard for me to wrap my head around this dichotomy and yet, it aptly demonstrates the extent to which sexual violence against women has got normalised in our society. It takes the rape of a child to upset us, but mothers and sisters being raped is now par for the course!

I find it fascinating that, for the majority, there is no relevant link between sexist advertising (and jokes) and the dismal record of Indian cities on women’s safety. Recently released data from NCRB shows that reported rape cases increased by 12.4% between 2015 and 2016. While crime data on domestic violence, sexual assault, abduction and rape is collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), many others forms of violence that women experience on a daily basis remain poorly documented. We know from media reports as well as many micro studies these too are widespread and on the rise. The statistics on child abuse, unfortunately, are worse. Across the country young children, mostly girls, are being sexually assaulted, often times by teachers, family members, neighbours and caregivers, people whom they implicitly trust. The NCRB reports a dramatic 13.6% increase in crime against children over the last three years, with about 35% of the cases registered under POCSO, or the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012.

These numbers, shocking as they are, no longer make an impression on us because we seem to have accepted that this is how Indian society is. Our reactions to the news items about raped children comprise expressing anguish, tightening security around our families and securing good marriages for our daughters, thus passing on the responsibility of their safety to someone else. Or, for the elite, sending our children abroad.

Unlike in other issues like terrorism or national security, we find it hard to pin point the enemy in the case of gender-based violence and so we blame the ‘other’, usually folks from another class and/or religion. Helpless and frustrated, we take solace in our WhatsApp groups, our laughter clubs, our kitty circles, our YouTube stand-up comedies, our Friday beers and we enjoy a few ‘husband-wife’ or ‘blonde’ jokes. The next morning, we read about another rape story and hurriedly turn to the sports page, where BCCI slamming pollution-troubled Sri Lankan cricketers makes for an entertaining read.

Women in India are having to fight for opportunity, dignity and life; and it’s heartbreaking…

No matter where I travel, my heart remains at home in India. Especially in these turbulent times when basic humanity is eclipsed and everything is a public spectacle, a jumble of accusations and vitriolic hatred. It seems to be that dignity and respect is the prerogative of a narrow sliver of India’s population right now- Hindu, male, upper caste. The rest of us do not matter. We are to give ourselves up in the service of the nation- get an education, get a job, toil away, embed ourselves in acceptable social structures and raise children who conform. If we do so, never complaining, we are good citizens. If we speak up, we face vilification and worse, abuse. And ever worse, violence, even death.

Far away from home, I watch the news emanating from BHU, a university campus that is located in the ancient and endearing city of Varanasi, the pulsating heart of Hinduism and the constituency of PM Modi. Here, a girl is assaulted on a dark street in the evening and deigns to complain. The poor response of the university provokes widespread protests, which are met with police force and brutality. The authorities claim the protests are politicized, the students claim their demands are simple- better lighting, more security, accountability and action against those who did not respond and a functional system to address harassment complaints in the future. Instead of asking why a prominent university has been found so lacking, the nation is busy victim blaming and cooking political plots. In the meanwhile, thousands of girls across the country  have lost the chance to study ahead and become independent as their parents stare at TV screens in fear!

For a nation that dreams of being a global power – delusional factions of it believe it already is – this is sheer idiocy! How in the world are we to progress if women, half the nation, is consigned to live in fear and subjugation. I do not have to reel out the stats here. Domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, marital rape, son preference leading to malnutrition and female infanticide, insufficient public toilets and school latrines, poor public transport, disproportionate familial responsibilities in a patriarchal society, dowry related torture and death, body shaming, trafficking – the list of what women in India face everyday is endless.

Even so, women aspire and dream. They top school leaving examinations. Their performances trump that of boys year after year. They enter college with big dreams, which for most of them are trampled by early marriages decided by their families. Some of them manage to work, but drop out when family responsibilities become too hard to bear. The majority endeavor to make the best of their lives, balancing a heavy load of social expectations. A thin sliver get the right opportunities, live lives somewhat equal to their male peers. An infinitesimally small number breach the glass ceiling. They are celebrated, even as the dreams of millions are crushed.

It is irrefutable logic that India’s dreams of economic success and global power will be more easily met if women are allowed the same opportunities as men, but I will not make a purely economic argument here. India’s female workforce participation is a dismal story, we all know that. Instead of inching up, it has fallen. Yet, women work harder than ever, doing non-remunerative work at home, in family enterprises, and in large number, on the fields. All those hardworking women are counted as out of the workforce, ironically, while those who are in it walk the tight rope every day, torn between home and work, chided for the choices they make and facing increased expectations all the time.

What is the point of it all, if basic dignity is not on offer and if, instead of rectifying the flaws in the system, women are blamed each time for asking for their due? I would think that we would all have given up. Instead, we fight, we scream, we bear the brunt of the lathi charge….because we know that thousands are cowering under the wrath of a husband or the father (or the mother-in law!), thousands still are completely confined and thousand others will not even be born. We know we are the lucky ones and so we fight. Hats off to the girls in BHU who won’t back down and shame on those who attack and vilify them; they must question their own humanity. Hats off to the crusaders who have fought in the courts and campaigned and worked in communities countrywide to help women access their rights, and shame on everyone who thinks this is not their problem; they need to open their eyes. Hats off to the men who have stood by women and seen their cause as human not female, and shame on those who continue to deride feminism and the demand for equality; they need to wake up and smell the coffee!!

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.

In the face of disaster, active citizens are already filling the governance gap; let’s upscale this now!

Owing to an attempted shift to more academic writing and partly in reaction to the few friends who haven’t been too thrilled with my use of this platform to rant, my posts over the past year have been fewer and less about opinion and more about experience. However, what’s the use of nurturing a blog of your own if you cannot occasionally rant!

My peeve today is, unsurprisingly, the flooding many cities across the world are experiencing and the general unpreparedness we have seen in dealing with them. Experts have attributed the higher incidents of flooding to changing patterns of precipitation (in the form of storms, rain, typhoons, cyclones), both in terms of the amount and the timing. Whether or not we link this to climate change, to me, is a moot point right now as we stare at mass destruction and anguish in Houston, eastern India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mumbai.

Reports pour in from friends in Houston, those evacuated worry about their homes, while those who are hunkering down currently safe are concerned about rising waters, survival with limited supplies and to what extent they can help others in distress. While attacks mount on the administration for not heeding warning systems and anticipating the scale of disaster, the focus is on rescue and prevention of further damage, as it should be. In Mumbai too, friends host strangers who are stranded in the vicinity, others despair and curse, life comes to a standstill and the government is unable to answer questions about the absence of warnings and alerts. In both cases, local government did not admit guilt; Houston’s officials have defended their decision to not evacuate ahead of Huricane Harvey, while in Mumbai the government did too little too late. That both cities have had previous experiences with flooding makes this even more unpalatable.

Some of the bad press for Houston is also stemming from its infamous no zoning and limitless growth stance (see here and here), and therein lies an obvious comparison with cities in India where urban sprawl and massive unregulated growth are undeniable realities. In India, this was driven home to us post the December 2015 floods in Chennai (see urban expert KT Ravindran’s piece here); and now, the idea that these disasters are not just nature but considerably exacerbated by human folly has been firmly established. Even as India banks on its cities to become ‘engines of growth’ and economic powerhouses, this dream is seriously challenged by its inability to plan and manage urbanization even in an everyday sense, leave alone in the face of a disaster!

 

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Mumbai Floods 2006, Rakesh, under Creative Commons License

A discussion on how this might be fixed is a long one but I will leave that for another time. For now, I’d like to dwell on how it is not enough to blame the government and the system. We must go beyond this to ask pointed questions and hold them accountable in specific ways. For instance, by displaying maps of floodplains and flood levels juxtaposed with built form, we can demonstrate how the State has disregarded basic environmental logic in its plans. While doing fieldwork in Gurgaon’s urban villages recently, for instance, I recorded vivid accounts from locals about how natural drains and ponds (johads) were covered over by government officials in order to built community centres and roads! These oral histories combined with GIS mapping and government data obtained through RTIs can clearly demonstrate the flaws in planning. But if this evidence remains confined to academic journals and limited circles of activism, it cannot create the pressure needed to prevent more of the same from continuing to happen!

This means that we as citizens need to engage with issues related to development and the environment. We need to move towards active citizenship. I can think of many ways to include citizen oversight over processes of planning and development, but the dream of participatory governance can only come true if we engage pro-actively without first waiting for the government to set up the processes for that engagement. For starters, we can educate ourselves about governance processes in our cities, about issues we face and about the environmental status of our communities, we can organize training sessions to empower citizens to manage disaster relief operations, we can ensure our communities follow laws on waste segregation and disposal, accessibility and water harvesting…..the list of actions we can take is endless and many of us have made commendable beginnings already. Those beginnings need to coalesce into movements that force governments to act!

Beyond this, we need to turn our gaze inward to reflect on how we are part of the problem here. After all, we are the consumers that sprawling development projects and mega infrastructure projects are catering to! We have bought into that ideology (and the imagery) of unlimited growth and ‘world class’ development. Rarely did we think about the environmental consequences of our consumption, rarely did we support those who did voice these concerns. Today, when we shout ourselves hoarse about the failures, we too need to feel a sense of responsibility. The world over, the mantra of sustainable development has focused on the first principle of REDUCE. Of course, this is directly in conflict with capitalistic urges to consume more, but we do need to question where consumption is taking us. We need to ask: Can we become responsible consumers?

These are no longer mere ideological questions, but matters of utmost urgency for citizens living in an age of urbanization, rapid environmental deterioration and yes, climate change! It is no longer enough to encourage our kids to submit cute ‘Save our Planet’ posters to local art contests and consider our jobs done. In an age of paralyzed governance, the citizen must step in to fill the gaps.

#NotInMyName protests in India: A personal interpretation

If you are disturbed about the series of mob-driven lynchings occurring across India, you are not alone. Thousands of Indians were out on the street last evening in at least 12 Indian cities and a few international locations to express their dismay and protest. The tagline used #NotInMyName is telling. It disowns the type of Indian who would use violence to settle a debate or an argument. It rejects the form of Hinduism that bases itself on hatred and the ‘othering’ of minorities. With my largely liberal upbringing, one that included the usual ingredients of everyday Hinduism (ritualism, temple visits, certain food practices), I find it normal that people would be nauseated by the normalization of violence and the senseless killing we are seeing around us. I feel this too when women are raped, when soldiers are killed by terrorists, when old people are mistreated, when children are sexually violated by their family members and beaten inside classrooms by teachers who are meant to be their gurus and mentors…….

I do not think my views are ‘leftist’ because I feel this way. No, if anything, they are humanist regardless of the political hue you wish to read inside them. They stem from the belief that certain things are essential rights: the right to dignity and a peaceful existence, the right to a life mediated by the use of peaceful means of dispute resolution, the right to self-improvement and growth (and everything that comes with that including opportunities for education, skill attainment, decent work and quality of life). At a basic level, I would be surprised if most of us didn’t agree to these ideas. Would we not want this for ourselves, for our children? By that logic, if we believe that humans are born equal, we should want it for everyone else, and their children too. I know this is idealistic and I know that many people do not believe in fundamental equality. But that’s bigotry; whatever the form may take (race, religion, cultural values, ethnicity, language, complexion, caste, what-have-you) and I will take every opportunity to stand against bigotry, without any apologies whatsoever.

Yes, I know, things are not black and white. We seem determined to disagree about everything. We are debating on nomenclature (Is this lynching or something else?), we are pulling statistics to determine trends over time (Is this a new phenomenon at all?) and we are debating the political and religious hue of protests against it (Are these leftists? Are the protesting Hindus truly Hindu?). That is the nature of politics. Shivam Vij makes a point about the ineffectiveness of such protests as a political tool to oppose the right wing (read here) and he may be right. From what I can observe from far away, this is an expression of dismay and frustration reminiscent of the post-Nirbhaya protests. I would not consider it insignificant.

However, two features defined the post-Nirbhaya protests. One, they gave expression to a very personal sense of fear, one in which each family felt like they could be a victim of the type of violence Jyoti had faced. That is not yet palpable at this time, because Hindus believe themselves to be immune. This is a fallacy. No one is immune once the rule of law ceases to have respect. Two, a long standing gender movement existed in India and activists could leverage post-Nirbhaya public support to push forward an agenda that worked towards women’s safety. Of course it is debatable whether the outcomes have truly questioned patriarchal norms or merely resulted in increased restrictions on the movement of girls and women, but policy conversation around public safety in terms of security, transportation and infrastructure has certainly increased. The number of women reporting sexual crimes has also gone up. So there have been tangible benefits. With current protests, there appears to be no clear leadership that can help build the momentum, but it is possible that one could emerge. For me, these appear as opportunities for feminist and youth-centred political discourses, but we do not have something strong enough to resist appropriation by mainstream political movements yet.

Having said this, it will be tragic if these beginnings are not taken forward in some way. First, we need to oppose those trying hard to brush away these murmurs as insignificant by painting them in broad-brush strokes like anti-Modi, anti-elite (read here). I don’t think the protestors are such a united, clear set of people yet (and that might be a strength in disguise). We also need to focus on the disintegration of the rule of law, which threatens everyone and not just a certain minority or those with particular dietary preferences. I’m not sure this is a policing issue as one commentator suggests (read here); are we to be a society in which folks are civil only because they fear punitive action?

In the end, it is about agreeing to what exactly is the ‘social contract’ that we commonly understand and practice. What is that voluntary agreement among individuals by which organized society is brought into being and invested with the right to secure mutual protection and welfare or to regulate the relations among its members? I’ve been in Paris the past few weeks and have had many passionate discussions on these issues with folks here; given France’s history, these issues have been a matter of intense and prolonged public debate and there is a common understanding of what is acceptable and what is not. I am not sure if in India we have invested adequate time and energy discussing this at all. Yes, the Constitution has served as a template for us, but how many Indians really have had adequate exposure to this most wonderful document. If movements to protest against lawlessness are to gain traction, they need to appropriate that space in which these discussions can happen, without violence or judgement.

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