Am super proud to be published (read my article here) in a magazine I have admired for the last couple of years. The Next City formerly focused on the US now carried in reportage from a number of cities across the world. A dedicated section called the Informal City Dialogues , supported by the Rockefeller Foundation specially focuses on urban issues in developing countries and holds a wealth of insights that I have often used in my work in low-income housing.
The editors at Next City worked off a piece I had originally written as a book chapter. The book idea was to develop caricature essays based on the various people I have interacted with during my fieldwork on rental housing in Gurgaon. The first one was about Billu, the landlord. Interviewing him was one of the most interesting experiences I have had. We had very different notion of body language and personal comfort zones, for instance. And yet, his passion for life and his work (he manages about 80 rental rooms for migrants) and his extremely practical approach to complex issues like identity, politics and change made me wonder about whether I am given to over-analyzing situations!
The Next City piece has been edited to give it adequate context. Would be curious to get your feedback. I still nurture the dream of writing that book, you see!
Who can put down a book that showcases a series of tear-jerking, heart-warming success stories? Not me! And in that sense, Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi are spot on with their book Poor Little Rich Slum on Dharavi in Mumbai.
However, as a writer and an urban planner, I viewed the book through my critical lens and I must confess I’m not too impressed.
Don’t get me wrong. I am completely in agreement with the idea that informal settlements like Dharavi are the energy centers of our cities. Certainly, the innovation and zesty approach to life’s seemingly insurmountable problems that we urban practitioners see among slum dwellers makes most of ashamed of the often-whiny note we strike in our relatively comfortable middle class lives.
As an attempt to place India’s slums in a positive frame of reference among middle class readers, this is a great book. And perhaps the starting point we need. It is no mean effort to say in simple words what many experienced and intelligent people fail to see. And every effort, small or big, is needed to turn conventional thinking about slums on its head!
What NGOs, social entrepreneurs and slum dwellers already know is what the world out there needs to recognize. Not because its general knowledge, but because when the educated middle class accepts and understands their interdependence on slums is when sufficient pressure will be built on the system to take a reality check. As long as we are willing to pay exorbitant sums to buy swanky apartments on land that is carved out of evicting poor slum dwellers, the battle is one lost before it even began. So speaks the socialist in me, at any rate!
Somewhere towards the very end, after many stories of success, the book makes its main point, according to me. That redevelopment the way governments (pressurized by developers) see it, is not a future that is fair to slum dwellers. Not only does it take away what is meaningful, replacing it with lip service in the name of housing and infrastructure; it also means taking away homes and livelihood from many renters who are part of the vital life force of slums. Somehow improvement in the modern world seems to be synonymous with leaching away character and homogenizing everything into cookie cuter homes and people with horribly predictable lives. Clearly that’s not the way life is and certainly not life in the slums, the vibrancy of which the book brings out admirably.
What don’t I like? The book reads very much like a self-improvement book. It has, hidden in it very subtly, but unmistakably, a preachy tone. The slightly philosophical twist at the end of each tale was a nice touch, but in many instances, the words didn’t quite fit. “That’s what humans beings must do, with the fabric of life” at the end of a case on someone who runs a ladies’ tailoring business is nothing short of cheesy.
Poor Little Rich Slum is an attempt to simplify an incredible complex issue and package it cleverly for readers who have no exposure to the subject. It is intended to be an inspirational book, but fails to give a well-rounded picture. Yes, we need to create awareness, but I don’t agree we should do this by oversimplifying the story, by only talking about the success stories while neglecting to carry even a single not-so-happy experience? As I read the book, with experience of working in other slum areas in other cities in India, I wonder about how Dharavi has come to be the Mother Slum. Glorified in its tattered robes, the ultimate symbol of messy urbanism, the pin-up hero for those of us who want to give the poor a space, a voice.
Despite my minor reservations, what the book is doing is making me want to visit Dharavi. Now! I grew up in Mumbai and have visited and even spent entire days in slums and chawls tagging along with Manda, who was my nanny. I called her Mavshi and we would go to meet many of her relatives who lived in chawls and slums and mill housing. It was fun. I felt completely at home. But Dharavi was not one of these. It has come home to me, through this book and from other people’s narrations that Dharavi is special. Having worked in slums in Delhi, methinks it would be interesting to experience the Mother Slum!
Beyond one-upmanship: Global rankings can offer insights for Indian cities to attract business- June 25, 2012
Yet another ranking, this time its an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) report supported by the Citigroup that ranks 120 cities worldwide for their “demonstrated ability to attract capital, business, talent and tourists,” says a First Post news article today.
Although in India, Delhi’s snub to Mumbai was the only bit that got the headlines, I chose to see the report in a slightly larger perspective. Unsurprisingly, cities in Europe and North Ameria fared really well in the rankings. The top 10 spots were taken by the usual suspects- New York, London, Singapore, Paris and Hong Kong (jointly fourth), Tokyo, Zurich, Washington, DC, Chicago and Boston.
However, Asian cities actually grabbed 15 out of 20 spots under the ‘economic strength’ category. Bangalore ranked 16 and Ahmedabad 19 in this category. On most other counts, however, Asian cities and certainly Indian cities performed abysmally. The categories were economic strength, financial maturity, institutional effectiveness, physical capital, human capital, environmental and natural hazards, social and cultural character and global appeal. Aspects like physical and human capital, financial maturity, global appeal and institutional effectiveness clearly need a whole lot of attention if Indian cities are to get on the global competitiveness bandwagon. On financial maturity for instance, Mumbai ranked 33, while Delhi and Bangalore ranked equivalent of 68; even India’s top cities were way down!
On some other categories, I wasn’t so sure what the ranking meant. For instance, that Ahmedabad would rank equivalent of 103 in social and cultural character really demand some thinking on what the parameters and objectives for evaluation are. Also, where are our cities, even those with some identity, slipping up?
Indian cities rank as below on the Hot Spots ranking:Delhi- 68, Mumbai-70, Bangalore- 79, Ahmedabad-92, Pune- 97, Hyderabad- 98, Chennai- 105, Kolkata- 106.For complete results, look here.
Its easy to turn a cynical eye at rankings, in a world where they seem to bring out one everyday. However, benchmarking methods like rankings hold up a mirror in front of economic regions (cities, regions, nations, whatever is the context) to make comparative analysis, identify weaknesses and target improvements in the future.
For instance, Delhi ranks 48 in global appeal as compared to Mumbai’s 67 and Bangalore’s 103. Now that is something to think about!