Blog Archives

Missing the point! Delhi police ad to aid women’s safety

This ad is in the papers this morning and its good to see the police sending out a strong message about something that has really become a talking point in Delhi and where the police have taken a huge beating to their reputation.
In a presentation to the LG, DDA body UTTIPEC had suggested pro active campaigns that used images of men to reinforce that men need to take the initiative on an issue like violence against women as opposed to constantly showing a woman as a victim. Looks like the suggestion was well taken. I am a bit concerned about the copy here though. It suggests that men should take personal action (beat them?) against perpetrators of crimes against women. It’s only the small print that clarifies that the suggestion is for men to report other men who they observe committing such crimes!
While I think it’s a great idea to start a campaign that calls on citizens to partner with the police, I am not sure this sends out the right message! Comments anyone?


In defence of planning and other larger thoughts- Aug 24, 2012

It’s amusing and slightly frustrating to me that urban planners as a species are consigned to being perennially defensive about their profession. Architects are glamorous for some reason. They design stuff. Planners, to the lay person, appear to be limp and ineffective creatures, partially responsible for the urban chaos around us.
This morning I was at a meeting of parent volunteers in my children’s school. We were trying to contribute ideas and efforts to celebrate Shikshantar’s tenth birthday next month. Most parents were professionals from varied backgrounds. As we were leaving, a fellow parent asked me what I do. As I uttered the words ‘urban planner’, the familiar fuzzy look appeared. He asked me, perhaps mostly in jest, if that made me responsible for all the mess in our cities. Most people couch the question by asking how I would solve the problems, clean the mess. This guy said it bluntly. I cringed at first. My retort of the moment was to tell him that most city governments (municipalities) in India don’t even employ an urban planner, which is true. He was suitably shocked and I was suitably pacified by his mumbled “I didn’t know that actually”!
Which is why I have wanted to write a book demystifying planning as a practice, as an approach. Not in order to explain or justify what we planners do, but more to explore how participatory planning processes can evolve when citizens are more aware. And to show that planners can play a critical role on helping governments and people imagine their habitats and indeed, their future.

Hating the “other” is a false cocoon: Let’s fight intolerance- Aug 8, 2012

It’s driven me to despair, these killings in Wisconsin. Of course, the defenses kick in and the mind begins to write it off, but I despair. I despair at how intolerant we are becoming in a world that is increasingly diverse, multicultural, where social chaos is increasing at a rapid rate…And what do we do? We crawl right back into the false safety of the cocoons of our mind. We construct alternate realities where America is for whites, Assam is for the Bodos and Ranchi is for girls who, well, do not wear jeans!

It’s not just about identity. It’s about the false comfort of hating the “other” because we cannot understand the chaos. Amardeep Singh puts it beautifully in his piece for NY Times titled Being Sikh in America. “Would it be any less tragic if the victims in Wisconsin had been Muslims gathering for Friday prayers?,” he asks. He wonders about “how awfully precarious the American dream can be” in the context of thousands of immigrant families who settled in the US admiring of the equal opportunity and economic prospects.

It’s the same everywhere. The dream of prosperity and peace is becoming increasingly precarious and among the many factors sabotaging it, intolerance seems to be the hardest one to fight.

Amardeep claims that we are being naive to expect intolerance and hatred to be countered by education and awareness. That, for me, is truly heartbreaking. I, like many liberals and idealists, hold on tightly to the idea that meaningful debate, discussion, education and the rest of that wonderful stuff will change the world. That is my own false cocoon. I know that.

So where do we go from here? How do we change the game from fighting the “other” to fighting the hatred of the “other”? How do we offer non-violent solutions to frustrated people, which we all are in some measure? I have started by looking into myself and identifying what the “others” are for me and systematically trying to rationalize and hopefully reduce my own prejudices.

We need to address this, somehow. And urgently. For this I know. It’s hatred and intolerance and not climate change that will end the story of the human race!


The future’s in our hands: Informal referendums as means to channelize public opinion, influence governments- July 23, 2012

Saturday’s editorial in The Hindu by Prashant Bhushan and Atishi Marlena has been playing on my mind. It talks about how citizens in a democracy can participate in the nation’s decision making processes other than by voting once in five years! The authors describe established instruments like the Referendum (in which “citizens, by a direct vote, can decide whether a legislation passed by Parliament should be rejected”) and the Inititative (in which “citizens initiate a new legislation or constitutional amendment, by putting their own proposal on the political agenda that Parliament is ignoring”). The possibility of making ongoing changes is exciting and I can imagine feeling a lot more motivated as a citizen to be politically active if I knew the fruits of my efforts were not in the oh-so distant past!

Last year, we were in Barcelona in June. A referendum (informal and activist-led, not legal) had been recently held (April, 2011) to decide whether Catalonia would be a separate state from Spain. In the provincial capital Barcelona, one in five people voted for a separate state and there was tangible excitement about this. Rahul and me had inadvertently wandered into the heart of the campaign located in a city park late one night. Sloganeering, brainwashing and lively discussions, music and guitar strumming, pitched tents, quite a mela it was! There were barricades and some police presence yes, but it was all in good spirit.

Perhaps we should also hold informal referendums in cities (or in smaller units like wards) to push decisions on governance issues that affect our lives here and now. I can think of a zillion things right away. Making rainwater harvesting compulsory for all new constructions and offering hefty discounts on property tax if old constructions implemented it would be a good place to begin. Aamir Khan’s piece today in the HT talks about this forcefully (whoever did this one for him was good). If citizens are to be motivated to think about their own good instead of waiting for the government to come around to doing things that are so essential it’s scary, planning a series of referendums could be a good idea.

Of course, as Bhushan’s piece highlights, you need the technology to be in place. Social media cannot really be considered an inclusive medium for a referendum. We need to expand the reach to get a cross section of citizens involved. Second, are citizens in the position to take an informed decision? Who informs them? How do we ensure this information is unbiased? What sort of weight will informal referendums carry?

Lots of questions, fewer answers. But a glimmer of light, nevertheless!

Lines drawn in the building sector: Thoughts while speaking at a media briefing- June 28, 2012

Speaking to a group of journalists from across the country can be an interesting experience. For me, it was fun being on the other side. For all the years we ran our media services company (Nupur and me), we were the ones being educated and briefed. I was used to having my antennae out and asking questions that might sound daft to an expert panel. Today, as I fielded queries about the obvious and popular issues, I knew very well that there is a value in stating and restating well known facts, clarifying positions and so on in the interests of hopefully more informed and mature writing and more accurate dissemination of information about the building sector.
Every sector has its typical face offs and actors. In construction, builders crib about corruption, long and tedious approval processes and the like. They hardly ever profile positive initiatives on public platforms, which gies to show what their worth is (only a handful of developers can stand stall and talk about their work). Activists take up cudgels against the lack of ethics and malpractices of developers. Not for profits and professionals struggle with issues on and off the ground, but put up a more positive attitude. Everyone, media included, cribs about the government. So too at today’s event, which was a media briefing organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a lot was said around subjects like environmental clearances, green building design and planning, energy efficiency and sustainability; yet, the people in the room were divided about which sides of certain issues they stood on and united in their opinion of the inadequacy of government action. As a moderator put it, “We are experiencing a collapse of governance (politics is controlled by industrial lobbies)….and the media is often our first line of defence.” He cited examples of honest officials resorting to leaking controversial information to the media when they find evidence of an influential (and politically connected) industrialist being involved in something grossly illegal and know an official report will fall on deaf ears.
Another interesting theme in the context of energy and environment was the expressed need for urban Indians to reexamine our lifestyles. Yes we will consume more as we become prosperous, but unless we exert some control, we could be spinning into a disaster, a self created crisis of resource deficiency. I wonder what the mainstream media made of that thought. Interestingly, the Left aligned journos who kept asking for government subsidies for everything from housing to five star rated appliances had no comments to offer on equality of resource distribution!
That brings me to ratings. The BEE enforced appliance labelling has been one if the mode successful exercises in India of creating a system that incentivises consumers to use energy efficient products. The ratings were voluntary and in a few years of observation, it is clear that Indian consumers value them. The labelling is now mandatory for some appliances and more will join that list as the market acceptance grows. Kudos to all those in the field who have worked hard at making a success of this. These star ratings began at a time when the Indian market was considered terribly price sensitive. No one knew if anyone would value a more efficient product. Aggressive consumer education had its payoff.
To those of us in the affordable housing space, it is heartening to review the star rating experience. However, the challenges at our end are many, not the least educating informal sector consumers who are not well educated and spread across the country about the benefits of the ratings. We are heavily dependent on government incentives that might succeed in luring developers into the rating game for affordable housing.

Water sagas: Stories of community action and despair about our most precious resource- May 24, 2012

A few days after I read about CII’s initiative to initiate blue ratings in India, probably the first in the world to monitor industrial water usage in a holistic manner, an encouraging story about the revival of a river caught my eye.

Today’s The Hindu supplement carried a great story about the revival of the Hindan river that originates in Saharanpur and joins the Yamuna, crossing Ghaziabad and other parts of the NCR. The Jal Biradari is a community organization comprising environmental activists and citizens from all walks of life that has consistently campaigned to create awareness among villagers about issues like falling water tables, pollution and exploitation of water resources. They do this through padayatra, or simply by walking through villages and interacting with people.

In contrast, the blog outlines Mumbai’s struggle to put into action measures to clean and manage the Mithi river, a massive gutter that flows through Mumbai. Images of the July 2005 floods in Mumbai are still fresh in people’s minds. Public clamor for a clean up that could create much-needed green spaces for the city grows, but migrants keep pouring in and the poor who live alongside the sad trickle of water are increasingly threatened, by lack of action and potential action alike!

Rampant discharge of industrial effluent into rivers is the primary cause of the sad states of rivers like these across the nation. Coupled with increasing urbanization and the consequent pressure on land (often translated into greed for land), rivers are threatened; and so are we who depend on water for our existence. The ill effects of polluted rivers need no elaboration- among other things, toxic vegetable and fruits threaten to damage our future generations irreversibly!

Interestingly, one only needs to stop discharging the effluent for a river to do its own thing and clean itself up. More importantly, green areas that allow groundwater recharge are critical to our survival. Governments, while they blame private developers for the evil deeds and wish to regulate them, are known to be responsible for the ‘unkindest cut of all’. The proposal to develop the Mangar village area into an amusement park is one such hare brained scheme in the news recently.To amuse the people who won’t be around when the water taps run dry?


Urban planner who? We need initiatives to bridge the gap between citizens and urban professionals- May 22, 2012

I was FB chatting with a schoolfriend who I had completely lost touch with a few days ago. The guy is an office in the Armed Forces, presumably well educated and certainly well traveled, albeit within the fauji context. Our conversation veered to what I do at work and I told him I’m an urban planner consulting with a start-up that focuses on solutions for low-income housing. Silence. A few seconds later, he pinged to say he had no idea such a thing existed!

No, my friend isn’t low on IQ by a long shot. Most people on this planet (even the urban dwellers) have never been exposed to the idea that there are professionals out there who worry about how cities function, or don’t! It’s a bitter pill for the entire community of urban professionals, including architects, civil engineer, infrastructure specialists, urban planners, urban designers, transportation planners, environmental experts, energy experts and many more, to swallow. A large part of this lack of information is thanks to lackadaisical governance. Who wants to admit they have anything to do with a system that doesn’t really function?

If ever I open my mouth to discuss what I do at a social gathering, I get mobbed by questions about why urban systems are inefficient, why things don’t work, why citizens are treated like shit and basically, what the heck are you upto when its obvious there isn’t any urban planning happening in this country?

It’s frustrating. Because it’s true. There hasn’t been a culture of spatial planning in India. Most Indian cities do not even have an urban planner on its rolls! Of course, we need more urban planners out there, worrying, thinking, exerting pressure on governments to act. But we also need to pay attention to what is called pop-up urbanism, which includes a variety of spontaneous citizen responses/solutions to urban issues.

I have been seriously thinking along the lines of doing something that bridges this gap between citizens and urban professionals. I read yesterday about initiatives that believe teaching schoolchildren about urban design and architecture could teach “future generations about the different ways to live and build a community.” Could we do something like this in India, where awareness about urban issues is a burning need, where citizens can play a crucial role in change, whether it is through direct efforts like energy conservation or by a more indirect effect of influencing local governments and corporations to behave responsibly towards our built environment? Not just schoolkids, corporates, online groups and adult individuals can all be targets for consistent, insistent, and attractive communication (books, newsletters, events, online communication) to urge citizens to understand more about and be vocal about urban issues that impact their daily lives and certainly their future!

Swapping books and other fun stuff in the spirit of green! April 1, 2012

Today’s afternoon was well spent at Gurgaon’s Rajiv Gandhi Renewable Energy Park attending a unique event that called upon us to carry our old books there, swap them and participate in a range of workshops geared at promoting a more sustainable and enriched lifestyle.

For me, the event was a super success. I managed to give away 45 books of mine (and mum’s) that occupied space on the shelf (I chose ones I didn’t enjoy too much or the one-time read variety, but all in good condition). In return, I got to choose 11 other books I haven’t yet read!

I didn’t go in expecting much and was pleasantly surprised to see the event was well organized, using volunteers from the city (who all wore green!). Things were kept super simple. For example, swaps were done by giving contributors simple hand written chart paper coupons which they needed to hand over to the volunteer at the desk from where you picked up the books you wanted to take away (one coupon for each book you could get). Similarly we got a coupon for each workshop we had pre-registered for. My children both attended a story telling session. And Udai learnt to make a bird house at another workshop which he attended with his grandmother and another friend. Other workshops included drawing, art appreciation, theatre  and creating stuff from waste material. A lot of parents we already knew happened to be there and the children were happy, despite the heat, in the wide open spaces and greenery that the campus offers. Aadyaa ran around, tried all the swings and was her usual monkey self!

I was heartened to see that a lot of the books sent in as well as picked up were for children. The event swarmed with kids of all ages, especially many teenagers. A few kids managed to read the books they picked up during the event and reswap them before they left! In fact, the event was free of charge and a lot of stress free and clean fun for all age groups. A great way to subtly send across messages that remind us to respect nature, indulge our creative side, do our bit to conserve energy and simply be more responsible human beings. Events like this go a long way in building a community of interested citizens. Kudos to the organizers for the efforts and hope for many more….

Books waiting to be taken home...the system was simple. You sorted the books by genre into boxes at the counter you drop them at, then they appear at another table to be picked up!

Workshops were organized by experts- enjoyable and well attended

And the book is to consumed with immediate effect-Aadyaa with Nani!

And there was an entire park of swings and jungle gyms right there....

Dadi, Serena and Udai make a bird house


Does Oprah’s solution to poverty apply to the urban poor in India? Jan 23, 2012

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.

The cheerful youth we met in Sundernagari had no apparent aspirations, seemed strangely secure in their poverty. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

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….

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