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!
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.
No more self-censorship: Civil expression & debate are cornerstones of democracy
The high drama that has unfolded in India since PM Modi’s demonetisation announcement on 8th November has left with a nearly permanent headache. I worry about everything from how I’ll pay the milkman to how migrant labourers and informal sector workers are going to withstand the lack of cash. Most of all I worry about the extremely black and white perceptions around me. I’m scared that we are becoming a society where healthy debate is no longer possible, leaving the door open for increased compromises on the freedoms and rights our Constitution entitled us to have.
One of the saddest fall-outs of the past few years has been the sort of self-censorship that people like me have begun to practice and in this, I suspect I am not alone, but. For fear of the vicious trolls, many of whom are ordinary people and even ‘friends’ and because the shrill pitch of the non-debate is violent and counter-productive, further dividing opinion into two opposing camps rather than invigorating discussion as opinions are supposed to. No one likes getting outshouted and abused. And so we self-censor. We don’t speak out, we don’t write, we steer away from political discussions, we change the subject. We stop liking the posts we want to. We stop commenting on posts we disagree with, even if our closest friends have posted them. It is becoming hard to be friends with someone who has a different political leaning and this was not always so. We spoke about these fears in 2014 in the run up to India’s general elections and in the past two years, other transitions notwithstanding, the tone and tenor of public debate has deteriorated beyond measure and the politics of divisiveness and hatred has been normalized in a very sinister fashion.
The past two weeks have convinced me that self-censorship is a very bad idea. Today, on Constitution Day, I vow to do the following:
- Educate myself: Move beyond my bubble and read/hear opinions beyond the ones I agree with. This takes more effort but I’ve been reading arguments on either side of the demonetization debate for the last few days.
- Ground-truth: I plan to go to the field to hear more about the coping mechanisms of people, especially those I consider vulnerable in an economic and social sense.
- Express myself: I’m going to resume writing my blog everyday. Not all my posts will be about politics or citizenship. In any case, I am not an expert and my blog functions as an urban diary rather than an opinion column. I want to write so that I process and release what I’m thinking into a public domain. It is as much self-preservation strategy as a measure to show myself I’m not going to run scared anymore.
We shall see how this experiment fares, but at the very least I will not be a mute spectator anymore. And that might even make the headache fade for a few minutes everyday!
What next, after the #DelhiSmog?
This past weekend, I returned after a three week long international trip to the worst smog Delhi has faced in 17 years. Yes, it was bad. My nostrils felt the stench immediately and my eyes watered. My daughter wore a mask to go out and play. Non-stop media reports and social media feeds placed immense pressure on the government to act, forcing stop gap measures like shutting down schools, construction sites and power plants.
Three days later, the winds are blowing and the air is already clearing up. Believe it or not, the smog is beginning to fade from Delhi’s memory. New, more exciting stories will be out. This will soon be old news. Till the next time!
Mismatched! Short-term memory and long-term solutions
My friend Amit aptly calls the interest in smog “seasonal” in his succinct piece today. He also focuses on the need to address the problems of air pollution with long-term measures. This is the dominant line of thinking in the community of urban professionals I interact with. It is not with glee, but with extreme sadness that we want to wag the finger and say “I told you,so!” to Delhi’s residents and policymakers. Because public imagination is, for the moment, captured by the problem of pollution, we see the opportunity to hammer home the harsh reality. And also offer, once again, the solutions that we have been talking about for years.
The truth is that there are no magic bullets. Combating pollution and ensuring air quality needs a multi-pronged and long-term approach. Because the source of pollution are so many, including automobile emissions, waste burning, construction dust, industry and cooking (see this excellent piece by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda for a deeper understanding), several strategies need to be deployed at the same time. Because cities are ever-expanding creatures in these times, the magnitude of these problems will also keep growing, so solutions will have to be planned for the present and in anticipation of the future. Most of the solutions likely to yield results involve difficult decisions on the part of the government, but also substantial changes in behaviour on part of citizens. This change can be triggered by alarm, nurtured by a sustained awareness campaign and sustained by incentives. For example, investments in public transport and good pavements need to be accompanied by measures to discourage private car usage, like higher parking charges or congestion pricing (Another piece by Dr. Sarath lists a set of solutions in this vein).
Professionals have been talking about these measures for years, but only sustained pressure from citizen groups can result in these kind of changes. To do so, we will have to transform our short-term memory to a real awareness of the problems at hand.
A matter of survival: Reducing consumption, community action, sustained pressure are small steps towards long-term change
This is hard to do, primarily because of the extremely confused (and shrill) discourse we have had around this issue. We’ve quibbled and played blame games about who caused the problem and we’ve pointed fingers at who should be accountable for it. In all of that, we have forgotten that year-round pollution levels in Delhi are high; so anything seasonal like fire crackers and stubble burning tips the balance and the situation spirals out of control.
Like many commentators have already pointed out, high levels of pollution should be a cause of long-term concern. The harsh impact of air pollution on human health, including premature births and deaths, is being recognized widely and especially in Africa and Asia, where the majority of urban growth is taking place (see recent report on African situation). It is not about apportioning blame, but about understanding the seriousness of the problem and finding solutions.
There is a lot we can do at an individual level. We can consume less so that we waste less and dispose waste in a responsible way; we can walk, cycle, car pool or use public transport wherever possible; we can prevent the burning of dry waste in our neighbourhood; we can bring down dust by planting more trees and bushes, using permeable surfaces for parking and driveways, and storing construction material properly. At a community level, we can do all of this and more! Garbage segregation and composting is an obvious example. So is discouraging of car use to walk to bus stops and local shops by creating walking infrastructure & community help groups to help children and elders cross roads etc. Efforts at a larger scale are also a great idea. Some of my friends have been running Facebook groups on air quality where information on problems and solutions are shared. All of these measures not only help us but also make it possible to influence the direction of government policy and public investment.
This is not a problem that is going away, folks! And it is not someone else’s problem either! It must mean something that the words ‘disaster’ and ‘resilience’ featured in nearly all of the conversations I had at the United Nations Habitat III conference I attended a few weeks ago. There is a tangible sense now that the significant economic benefits of urbanisation are coming to us at a terrible price and that humans are responsible for much of the damage. Reversing the course of climate change and protecting ourselves from disaster (including episodes like the Delhi Smog) is possible only if we all take responsibility. And make governments heed our concerns! It is a matter of survival.
It would be remiss of me to not thank my friends and family for fueling my thoughts and pointing me to several credible sources while writing this piece. Thank you, you know who you are!
Saving the Aravallis: A new imagination for the ecologically smart city
Activism is not a choice, but a means of survival. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rewards of embracing activism, mentioning our family’s weekend participation in a protest to protect the Aravallis around Gurgaon and Haryana. That urban expansion has become a threat to nature is something that has bothered me for a while, but I also believe there must be ways to co-exist and imagine a new kind of city, where the richness of nature and the density of humans can co-exist and even benefit from each other. Or at least the latter from the former!
I’ve tried to articulate this vision in an article for The Alternative published recently. I welcome your comments and views on this piece: Death on Arravali: Stopping the squeeze on India’s oldest range between Gurgaon and Faridabad
Moreover, I would urge you to read and sign our petition to the Chief Minister of Haryana that urges the State to protect these forests and work towards making Gurgaon and Faridabad ecologically smart cities.
Inclusion, Contestation and Identity in Indian Cities: An event report on recent talks
A week of exciting talks at CPR!
By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR
With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.
Inclusion in public sector housing
On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of…
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Random musings on #politics #youth and #citizenship
I haven’t opined on Indian politics for a while. To tell you the truth, I’ve been ruminating, taking it all in. And here are some randomly picked thoughts from the thousands that buzz around my head.
#1 Let’s stop comparing AAP’s Delhi election win with the 2014 general elections!
I’m really tired of the over-analysis, the conspiracy theories and the general building up of expectations. The truth is that any new government will take time to settle and move forward. And really, can we compare Delhi’s politics with India’s? My quick thoughts: The AAP win is a good jolt for the BJP and hopefully has sent them scrambling to their desks to actually bring out the many policies that are “being worked on” at this time. For AAP, my big question is: Is there a method to Kejriwal’s politics or is it a case of learning to swim so you don’t drown! I’m hopeful, but given his huge mandate, I’m afraid citizens will have to play the triple role of whistleblower, class monitor and audience-giving-polite-applause! Not something we’re used to doing really!
#2 Young people’s politics is confusing and their apathy disappointing
I’m constantly apalled at the strong streak of conservatism among the young today. On Valentine’s Day, I met a young neighbour and asked after her V-Day plans. She didn’t have any. And what’s more, she told me her parents were devastated and upset about her being single and not so ready to mingle! Survey after survey of youth in India have pointed towards a tendency to support the status quo. The Yuva Nagarik Meter survey brought out in Jan 2015 showed these disturbing trends among Indian youth, trends that are consistent with other surveys in recent years:
- Youth are ignorant about basic civic issues like democracy, rule of law and human rights
- They are dimly aware of citizenship: “Only 35 percent of high school students consider themselves citizens of India. Nearly three fourth do not know that the legislature is responsible for enacting laws,” as per a Huffington post report
- They have internalised stereotypes on gender and social justice- 50% are intolerant of migrant workers from other states, many believe that “household help do not have the right to demand minimum wages”
#3 Youth apathy combined with high expectations impacts poll results
I’m not surprised therefore, that we are seeing more absolute mandates than before when elections happen. I think young people are impatient for change but might not really want a radical rethink of positions. Also, they (and it’s not just the young) are given to pass quick judgements and move on if their expectations are not met.
#4 How much does your politics alter your perceptions?
I’m not a BJP supporter and certainly not overawed by the PM’s rangeela personality and flavourful brand of politics. I have a number of friends who are in the opposite camp as well. Many of these left-leaning friends of mine have been upset about something. They claim that previously ‘moderate’ friends who voted for Modi on the plank of development must speak out against the BJP’s divisive politics. There’s a fair amount of hurt going around and the PM’s very recent press statements on religious freedom will, I suspect, add flame to the fire rather than settle things down.
I’ve been arguing with the moderates and leftists among my friends, who tend to shout down anything Modi says or does, on the need to give a fair hearing to the positions brought forth by the current government. Critique them by all means (if possible, constructively), but being obstinately obstructive might not really help! And I’ve been trying hard to follow my own instincts, that tell me that an unconsidered extremist position is a bad one, whether your politics is conservative or liberal is besides the point.
A sliver of hope and learning from children on Xmas
“I lost my name nine and a half years ago, when I started this school,” he told me. I was struck by the humility of this soft spoken, dignified gentleman who, along with others, had transformed the lives of hundreds of children in Gurgaon. Children of migrants, who live in shacks but dream of a future of opportunity and brightness. Bright children. Talented children. Children who just want to go to school like everyone else.
This is an amazing school in many ways and I’ll tell you why I say this, in a minute. Run under the aegis of the Guru Nanak Sewa Sansthan, this tiny school in Gurgaon brings quality English education to the lives of underprivileged children through a small team of dedicated teachers and volunteers. The gentleman I spoke with mentioned that the school is ‘unrecognised’ and works with the aim of mainstreaming the children by helping them get admitted to regular schools under the Right to Education provision that mandates private schools take in children from the economically weaker section of society.
It was our privilege to celebrate Christmas Day here. We came to savour the spirit of gifting, but we walked away with much much more. Conversations with the kids told us much beyond these pictures show how wonderful they felt about getting gifts. What’s more, they got to choose what they wanted from a bazaar-like display that volunteers had set up and this pleasure of choosing went far beyond the materiality of the gift itself.
The children were bright and enthusiastic. Some sang well, others were academically gifted. Still others could paint well, dance well, and so on and so forth. However, it was their confidence, sense of empathy for each other and their teamwork that really impressed me.
A speech-impaired child stood in front of the crowd and sang. A teenage girl belted out a rendition of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ as we watched on incredulously! Senior school children helped serve meals (yes, they get a hot meal here everyday), collect plates, serve food. Incredibly, the school has no building. Children and teachers set up the school every morning, spreading rugs out on a concrete floor and tying tarpaulin to bamboo poles that stand there permanently. Each afternoon, once school is over, they take all of this off, and fold the tarp and rugs neatly for storage. We saw them do this yesterday.
We have much to be thankful for. Yesterday taught me that there is also much to be hopeful for. Both children were with me yesterday. They even joined a group of singers during the celebration. We didn’t talk about the experience, and I deliberately refrained from bringing it up. Aadyaa had asked me if she could give away her toys and clothes herself and our visit was in response to that demand. I have a feeling something of the experience will stick with them. Like it has for me. A little sliver of hope for the millions of migrant children across India denied education by the formal system, but eager enough to take whatever they get to the next level.
Many thanks to my friend Bhavna and the many enterprising families who initiated the ‘I Love to Share’ event at Ardee City, Gurgaon