I was researching an article about the governance of privately built cities recently and one of the experts I spoke to commented on the obsession of the Indian State with being answerable to the urban middle class, to the exclusion of other categories of citizens like the rural folk, the urban poor etc who have traditionally been the ‘vote bank’ in India. After Ayona seeded that thought in my head, I began to notice that it was indeed being pointed out by several journalists and experts in mainstream media. For instance, this piece talks about Modi’s obsession with the urban. It’s not just Modi, our nation is seeing a disturbing shift in which the youth aspire to everything that is urban. Symbolism is important and cars, mobile phones, branded clothes and a ‘liberal’ lifestyle have become outward signs of a change in outlook (not mindsets though, as we are reminded time and again!).
Sanjoy Narayan’s editorial in Hindustan Times this weekend describes how painfully aware young people are of the stark inequalities. I imagined, as I read, this sea of young people gravitating towards a lifestyle they couldn’t sustain, leaving behind a familiar life that they look down on.
At the India Art Fair, a panel of photographs from the South Indian countryside of homes that mimic urban architecture paints a clear picture of how the city is a major part of the dreams of people across the country.
As an architect and urbanist, I clearly see how people with “one foot in the city and one foot in the village” (am borrowing these words from Rahul Srivastava of URBZ), carry back home the symbols of their city life, recreating in villages and small towns across the country the palatial urban-style homes of their dreams that the city doesn’t give them space for! Often times, no one lives in these countryside palaces!
Mohan, a passionate and inspiring young man I know quite well, built such a home back in Odisha while he made money running a grocery store in Gurgaon. His aging parents lived in this large home by themselves for many years. Mohan’s frustration with the anomaly of the situation has been growing for a year or so and he recently made the brave decision of moving back to start a business in a small town near his home. I sincerely wish him well. His brothers refuse to move away and they are absolutely certain Mohan will fail and the relatively big bucks in the big city will bring him right back (his tail between his legs!).
Everyone, politicians and bureaucrats as well as educated people regardless of caste and class, have fallen for the urban dream hook, line and sinker. The few who, like Mohan, dare to dream different are laughed at. We’ve bought our own bullshit, literally. We believe that an industrialized future is the way forward. We prefer not to think about how the food will get to our table, where wild animals will live, where we will go when we want to escape the city, where our water tables will get recharged….. it’s too painful to think about, we hope that there are rules to sort that stuff out!
The truth is that most of us are entitled to live in our own imagined worlds or urban prosperity. It alarms me, however, when politicians do the same. That those in power and those in line for power propagate this imbalanced situation as a dream we must dream, it’s worrying indeed! Cashing in on the urban aspirations of rural folk, politicians are shamelessly painting a false picture. They are showing us dreams that will never be fulfilled and that will push us further into environmental disaster, food insecurity and sharpened inequalities.
Sobering thought, if you needed another one- To be able to vote in people who see the whole picture at some point in the future, we would need to see the whole picture for ourselves.
Dubai has been on the cards for a while now. The last and only time I visited was in early 2010 for a conference. I vaguely remember doing a brief spin of a city deep in the doldrums of economic depression, staring at half-built buildings and getting the sense that I was experiencing a ‘freeze frame’. That first impression and the idea that I am motivated by (hi-fi?) stuff like art, culture and history and not so taken in by glitzy glass-clad skyscrapers (sarcasm, confusion, loads of self-judgement in those words!) ensured that Dubai wasn’t really on my radar for some time. But then, Rahul started to come here every year for his annual training refresher and Dubai was back on my list!
This time round though, the city feels very different. Alive and buzzing with the energy of the Dubai Shopping Festival and a renewed construction boom kicked off in part by the fact that the World Expo 2020 is being hosted here. I promised myself to reserve the judgement before I came and have been happy tramping about the city by myself (while Rahul is working), exploring the Metro and meeting friends and shopping! Despite myself and because of the way this city is, it is impossible not to appreciate the sense of organization, the aesthetic of opulence, the ease of getting around, the effortless intermingling of cultures very different.
In conversations with those who live here, friends as well as strangers I met on the Metro, I can see how it is easy to get used to the conveniences of Dubai, especially in the face of the employment opportunities and improved pay packages it provides as compared to ‘back home’. Dubai has attracted people from a plethora of nationalities- Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Yemenis, Syrians, Egyptians and many more- for whom it represents a better life. Yes, by corollary it also means that life ‘back home’ wasn’t that great for many of those who have come here. By all accounts, most of these immigrants will never ever go back, or even want to go back. Despite the big brother watching, despite the controlled media and the heightened awareness of the need to mind your own business if you want to survive, Dubai is a good experience, a place that treats you well.
Both strangers and friends confided to me that a sense of personal safety, the lawfulness and speedy execution of justice were what made them most comfortable here in Dubai, as compared to India. I wasn’t too surprised by this admission, even though I had to curb my urge to fiercely defend my country. You have to read papers here to see that nearly all news out of India is negative! In contrast, the media reports about the UAE are a mix of heady, positive, self-congratulatory stories interspersed with rather watered-down criticism. My analysis: You cannot compare apples and oranges, you gotta see things in perspective. By this I mean that living in a democracy and an autocracy are very different, but I can also see that this difference may matter little for citizens who are happy to have their daily needs well met. Walking among the glitzy edifices and seeing families out carefree and happy in the middle of the night, it’s hard to push this point without sounding defensive!
And so, I let it go and shop some more. I click pictures of dancing fountains and ornate ceilings. I enjoy the pleasure of the us-time Rahul and me are getting as we choose from a fantastic selection of restaurants, eat, talk, laugh… I savour Dubai, I refrain from judging, I miss home.
What I learnt from conversations with the youth in urban slums: They crave opportunity and deserve support- April 9, 2012
A few of us friends met up for lunch yesterday. Randomly, someone observed that one can experience kindness from the most obscure sources, describing an incident when an auto driver was sympathetic and understanding, willing to forego his payment when she misplaced her wallet (he needed to wait a while and eventually got paid). Another friend remarked that kindness and understanding often came most spontaneously from those who themselves have so little to lose.
In my work with slum dwellers in the past year or so, I have often noticed the warmth with which we (who go in to research and sometimes help them) are treated, despite the fact that it is hard for them to trust people who come with promises to help, having experienced disappointments before. I am specially touched by my interactions with children and young people. These kids are usually bright, cheerful and enthusiastic, despite the harsh conditions of their life. In the urban slums I am referring to (specifically in Sundernagari in East Delhi and in the slums in Gurgaon), food may not be available to kids in plenty, but they show no signs of serious malnutrition.
Education is another story, however. In the slums of Delhi, kids do attend government school, but the quality of education is nothing to write home about and young people feel complexed and frustrated as they reach their teens, many dropping out in secondary school to seek domestic work and other forms of informal employment. In Gurgaon, slum children do not go to school at all and they sort of resent the fact that their parents make no effort at all!
When asked why they drop out, slum kids express a lack of confidence in being able to find employment. They are convinced that they will find it difficult to succeed in a world that gives opportunity only to those who speak English. It always seems strange they think like this, because I can think of a zillion types of jobs that require intelligence and hard work, not super fabulous communication skills and certainly not in English! I wonder if this is a BPO/KPO driven hype where poor urban youth sees thousands working in such set ups and see that as the modern form of white-collared mass employment? But seriously, it is a challenge for these young people to reconcile their very basic levels of education with available opportunities; and then put these in context of their aspirations, which in a world influenced by media and mobile technology, have changed considerably as well! In this scenario, I was pleased to read some NGOs making an effort to help slum youth find jobs. A lot more such initiatives would be needed, with counseling efforts to help these young people fit into modern working environments, develop a basic understanding of work ethics, rights and responsibilities, avenues for growth, etc.
Jalti Jhopdi update: Some done, more to do; but the poor need to take initiative for self-improvement too!
Yesterday evening was when our efforts to help the residents of the burnt down slum (Jalti Jhopdi project) culminated into the physical distribution of material. Each kit we gave consisted of a bedsheet, a medicinal mosquito net and a utensils kit that included everything a family would need to cook a basic meal and eat it. One matka per house were distributed later in the night.
With the help of Riyaz from the local masjid, we were able to organize the residents well. They formed a line and came one by one to receive the things, each carrying a card the masjid had distributed with details of the family and a list of what they had already got before.
When you go in to do charity, you may hold off from expecting gratitude, but you do not anticipate criticism. It was disturbing for us when the very first recipient in line wanted to exchange her sheet because she didn’t like it! It brought us to reality a bit and we carried on. The real test, however (and a lot of fun) was the distribution of slippers to the kids. Getting a hundred kids into single file height-wise line was the most challenging thing I had attempted to do in a long, long time! Much squealing and squabbling later, we succeeded in giving away chappals in multiple sizes to all the kids in the jhuggi.
After we pulled it off, we saw some of the older kids coming back saying they hadn’t got a pair. Sure enough, the mother was wearing new slippers and had sent the kid asking for another one!
Don’t get me wrong; these are simple people. But somehow their circumstances train them to be greedy. We were clear that the kids would be bought chappals because we knew most of the adults were out working when the fire happened. Presumably, they were wearing chappals. These are all domestic workers; we asked them to request their employers to give them an extra pair of chappals.
The psychology that if you get anything free, you ask for more is ingrained into the poor because they are desperately poor and because they perceive themselves as temporary migrants at the bottom of society’s long heirarchy of socio-economic status. They acknowledge their kids should go to school, but do not send them to the free school the mosque runs down the road! They say only individual toilets will work because there is so much infighting, no one would maintain them! They say they are here only temporaily, so why invest (even just their time) in improving their homes. Offers to provide insulation material that they can install themselves were met with lukewarm response.
It is impossible to help communities that refuse to put in some effort to get organized. It is a huge challenge to help people who do not seem to have a desire to really improve their condition. Is it possible, however, that these people genuinely have no hope for better lives? That they are as impoverished in imagination and aspiration as they are in their economical condition? And that is the real Catch-22 situation- Is it ethical for us to invest efforts into building hopes if we do not have a sustained program to help them truly integrate into a society that is happy to have migrants at the fringes?
I do not have ready answers, but I hesitate to promise what I cannot deliver. Clearly, offering some opportunity for education to children at these temporary shanties is the single-most impactful contribution we can make. Followed by shelter, health, hygiene and political empowerment. If we are able to find 5 motivated jhuggi dwellers who can dream of a better future, something might be possible!
I kept hearing about Barkha Dutt’s interview with Oprah all day. I just got around to seeing a part of it myself. Her’s is a hugely inspirational story, rags to riches, from a nobody to one of the most influential people in the world, etc etc.
Coming from poverty herself, Oprah pointed out today that very few people who live in poverty (that is without money, running water, 24X7 electricity, etc) know that they are poor, till they are in a position to compare their lives with that of someone else.
I had the opportunity to do some community consultation work in the slums Sundernagari in East Delhi a few months ago and I tried to review Oprah’s statement in the light of my experiences. We (as in mHS) had been engaged to involve the community in the process of developing an in-situ redevelopment scheme in which their families would be allocated housing units in the same location where their slum stands today.
We worked in two slum blocks, one predominantly a community of scheduled caste shoe makers and other a majority-Muslim community engaged in buffalo-rearing, embroidery and metal work. Both communities are extremely poor. Our survey shows about 31% of the households in the first community and 32% in the second have a household income of less than Rs 5000 per month (with an average household size of about 5). The highest reported family income in both blocks was about Rs 15,000 a month!
Of course the people we worked with in Sundernagari are acutely aware of their poverty. Its hard for them not be, not to compare themselves with the more fortunate while living in Delhi surrounded by middle income neighborhoods. Many women from these slums work as domestic help in the middle income colony nearby, entering every day more fortunate homes and observing closely a life of relatively much much more. I find it hard to believe that Oprah’s statement can be true of any community of the urban poor anywhere, in fact.
While aware of their poverty, I do not think these slum dwellers live life in a depressed or dejected fashion. They simply live, focusing on finding jobs (mostly in the form of informal labor, skilled or semi-skilled) and spending their money wisely so as to feed their families and educate their children. Their grievances are not with living in a slum, in poverty. They simply ask for basic services and security for their children, no more and no less.
Which brings me to Oprah’s other point about poverty. She sees education as the only way out of poverty, something that opens the door of opportunity. While interacting with young people in the slums, I was struck by their cheerfulness and complete lack of ambition. These were people who attended or had attended school, but did not believe that education would give them the opportunity to progress and find their way out of the poverty they were born into. So they simply lived in a status quo fashion, doing whatever work they could find, if they could find it (sadly, many young people didn’t appear to take on the trades of their parents, finding show making or buffalo rearing to be derogatory work).
Instead of offering them opportunity, the government has made these poor households dependent on subsidies and pro-poor programs. They now believe there is a certain power in their poverty. They believe the government will never throw them off their land and that they will be able to endlessly leverage their poverty to eek out survival for themselves and their future generations.
Of course, many we spoke to did dream of a better life, did see through the falseness of the security these programs offer; but in the collective mentality that is at work here, few offer a dissenting opinion. And life goes on….