Blog Archives

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 urb.im 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!

Data famine! How do Indian cities compare, compete and drive growth? May 9, 2012

The plethora of rankings for cities done in the UK, US and Europe is astonishing! I read this post recently that highlights how confusing these multiple ranking are for citizens and government alike. The author urges Mayors to find their own, more meaningful ways to measure how successful their cities are in comparison with competitors. In India, we don’t even have one! (Read this for a peep into global city comparisons)

A couple of years ago, I was part of a team that brought out a City Competitiveness Report for Indian cities. We ranked some 40 odd Indian cities and analyzed them for competitiveness using using the Porter’s Diamond as developed in Harvard by Michael Porter. The study used only hard government data collated from various sarkari organizations. We needed to collect this data for hundreds of indicators, which was a flabbergasting and frustrating exercise. I remember the despairing hours our research assistants spent…and very time we had to face the ultimate truth- that in many instances, the data did not exist!

This sad lack of data does not allow any decent rankings to be made for Indian cities. There is better data available for districts and for States, since these have been strongly¬† functional administrative units for decades. But cities have no defined form yet in the Indian data jungle, it seems! Nor do most Indian cities have distinct identities, visions for their own future…a far cry from the West, where each city screams out its identity, brands itself, advertises its attractions, competes for business.

Why do we need rankings? Well, to create a climate of competition that will, hopefully, drive cities to evolve more distinct identities than simply follow the latest trend (IT parks, for example, were set up indiscriminately all over the country when the IT boom happened). Rankings create media hype, they influence investors to look at cities more closely for what they are best suited for, they influence citizens and more importantly, they influence job-seekers and corporations to choose specific cities that rank high in terms of quality of life (which includes factors like educational opportunities, environmental quality, safety, cost of living and many others).

To create a meaningful ranking for Indian cities, however, would mean to first create authentic data. That would mean to develop a clear understanding of city boundaries and jurisdictions, set up institutions to collate data, analyze it and share it. Sounds like a dream for a country whose municipalities have empty coffers, are unable to meet the current demands for infrastructure and services even as they desperately need to plan for additional capital expenditure to service their growing population!

Catch-22? Oh yes? Urbanization is sending this nation into a tizzy! To contribute to national growth, cities need to compete. To do so well, they need to compare themselves. To compare, they need data. Back to square one! Why would defunct city governments spend resources on collecting data?

Obliquely, the JNNURM tried to address this by linking funding to reforms that also required accounting reforms, reporting, etc. But that’s an area where the mission has all but failed. Where do we go from here?

 

Disturbed by the political paralysis at the Center- May 8, 2012

The political deadlock we are seeing at the Center in India is really disturbing. When we do shavasana in yoga class, our teacher tells us to focus on each body part and let it go, imagining that it is no longer now part of the body, is detached, dysfunctional. That’s how the current political madness plays out in my mind. As if, one by one, critical functions are being rendered defunct and India will eventually reach a state of suspended animation!

Sounds like nonsense, perhaps, but it’s really scary! I agree that the Congress government has botched up on serious issues. But its still got two more years in power. So unless the Opposition really thinks it has a good chance at toppling the government and having early elections, I don’t see the point in obstructing anything and everything the ruling party is trying to do, obstructing Parliamentary proceedings, obstructing the business of policy making, the business of governing a country as large and chaotic as India, where children die in thousands and Maoists abduct ajd kill policemen!

I guess I don’t see the point because I am politically dumb, but really, as a citizen, I see each day go by as a wasted opportunity to make positive changes. When the top politicians in the nation engage in meaningless scuffles, citizens like me wonder what the future is going to be like!

The world is seeing massive economic shifts; the rules are being redefined and the growing economies (like ours) need to deliver. Or we can craft our own set of rules on how we would want to grow in order to secure a better future for our citizens and contribute positively to the global economy.

In the end, the targets for India are crystal clear. Address poverty, health, education and governance. Create a climate of opportunity, encourage entrepreneurship, attract investment towards sustainable industries that can nurture communities, not destroy them. Those would be highest on my list.

There as so many petitions I am asked to sign-Save the Girl Child, Speak Against Child Sexual Abuse, Stop Illegal Mining, Stop Ragging…..and so on. Can we put up a petition for Parliamentarians to make the Parliament function? Incidentally, that’s their job. Who gives them a right to waste public money fighting amongst themselves. Debate, by all means, but also take some decisions! The future of the nation, the future of you and me depends on it.

Gurgaon rape: To bring change, we need sustained effort beyond immediate anger and protests- March 14, 2012

I try and not rant against the system on this blog, but when you read about rape everyday and then it happens in your backyard, it’s just too much provocation! I took a taxi back from the airport close to midnight yesterday and I was glad for the paternal polite sardarji who was my cabbie, while still wondering about whether appearances can be deceptive. I am not a paranoid person, but when brutal incidents happen everyday, it twists your mind, doesn’t it?

And then, to top it all, the police response is to stop women from working in pubs after eight in the evening. Sure, they caught some of the rapists, but I’m not willing to forgive an attitude that resorts to curtailing the freedom of citizens rather than taking measures to increase the safety of our city.

My first reaction, of course, is how easy it is for society (the authorities are reflecting a larger social attitude) to ask women to behave ‘within limits’. Just like recent incidents in which airline staff asked people with disabilities to deplane, the attitude reeks of a mindset in which women are considered weak, disadvantaged and mostly a problem.

Why can’t we do something to promote (among men and potential rapists and everyone) understanding and tolerance, perhaps by creating common platforms to bring people from diverse backgrounds together? Culture and sports, community building activities like planting trees, cleanliness drives…I don’t know. There must be something we can do to stop the ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking. Urban vs rural, rich vs poor, modern vs traditional, boys vs girls……as a society, we seem to be losing our balance and lashing out against something. And I am, perhaps naively, convinced that rape, brawls and bad driving are symptoms of a problem, while also being problems in themselves and therefore we need to take a larger view and address the issue at many levels.

Of course, there is a disregard for the law and authority, which needs to be addressed by harsher punishments and better policing. But I cannot believe a rapist thinks he is right or isn’t shit scared when the police actually catch him. Then what makes him do it? What makes him not stop? Its insensitivity, the prioritization of his pleasure over anything else, the importance of ‘I’ and our own and the absence of an inclusive sense of community. If I were to actually know a girl who worked in a bar and see her as a normal person trying to earn a living, would I be less likely to rape her? (For that matter, I don’t happen to know a rapist, so its hard to profile one!)

I don’t know how to think all this through. But I do know that citizens have a right to expect governments to act. The action, however, must be long-term and two-pronged and a diverse range of citizen groups must be involved. Protests should convert to some sort of sustained communication, building of trust and spreading the message that crime against anyone is a crime against yourself, your community, your family, your women……..yourself…..

Less roads, more pavements make sustainable, workable cities- March 7, 2012

I am not a transportation planner or an out-and-out socialist, but I do understand that it is totally unfair to have auto-centric cities when the majority of citizens use public transport. It enrages me to see this happen in Indian cities, where authorities pander to the middle classes and the rich, spending massive amounts on road widening and freeway building at the cost of shrinking and disappearing pavements. Then politicians go with a begging bowl back to the common man, who takes the bus and walks and cycles, to ask for votes when election time comes round!

Governments are supposed to work for the LARGER good and take decisions for the long-term benefit of the city. Indian cities have no real sense of community and there seems to be a complete disconnect between what passes for community and the guys who decide what’s good for the city.

I came across an interesting blog that described the community-centric development of Oviedo in Spain.The city has worked with ‘equality for pedestrians’ as an objective and actually reduced the width of roads and widened pavements in the last few years. At traffic lights, the yellow light shows a pedestrian crossing, to warn motorcar drivers that they need to watch out for people still crossing the road before they press on the accelerator! Small interventions can go a long way in improving safety and quality of life!

Another really cute initiative is the biker bus that makes the journey to school a safe, fun and eco-friendly experience for Dutch kids. See the happy contraption here!

There has been a movement to remove urban freeways in the United States and other nations. Freeways, built for faster movement of cars, have sliced through communities, displacing people and destroying entire neighborhoods for decades. Some cities have chosen to close their freeways down to create walkable spaces and seen economic revitalization as a benefit. Manhattan’s West Side Highway, that collapsed in 1973, was never replaced because citizens opposed plans for a new, bigger freeway. Instead, citizens got a waterfront park and bicycle paths they value much more. No one missed the freeway; traffic actually reduced. In Seoul, South Korea, the city’s only freeway was covered up and converted into a park. Bus ways were created instead!

In India, we continue to build freeways, widen roads, swallow pavements, charge ridiculously low parking fees even in prime market areas, continue to neglect public transport- we do this at the cost of our cities and our lives! But when ‘community’ means only Facebook pages and no grassroots connect, when no one asks the ordinary man what he needs and when politicians continue to be fascinated by solutions the West has already discarded, something is super wrong! Worse, the man riding the bicycle is sent the message that he must aspire for a scooter, then a car, rather than any attempt to encourage his already eco-friendly mode of transport.

We need to make changes to our lives. We need to convert automobile trips to ones made on public transport, at an individual level. We need to demand better public transportation from our governments. We need to carpool more. We can do so much; yet we sit by and believe our small changes won’t matter, so we can continue to not try. We vote for change but we have no means to ensure our demands are met. We are a democracy without teeth not because politicians are bad (yes, they are, but that is another story), but because we have not woken up!

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