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To keep the momentum on #housing inclusion, we need mechanisms to ground-truth and innovate

We live in a deeply divided world. Significant shifts in global economics and geopolitics have meant that countries are desperate for economic growth and increasingly intolerant of any events that derail them from achieving their targets. In this milieu, migrants have been caught in the crossfire. No one seems to want them, but what’s more, the unwillingness to include migrants has severe repercussions on how nations are planning, managing and financing their cities.

What is inclusion? Attitudes towards internal migrants shift, very very gradually

At Prepcom3 in Surabaya, Indonesia in the last week of July, I was disappointed to see India join the European nations and the United States to object to the inclusion of the Right to the City framework in the New Urban Agenda, which will be further negotiated by United Nations member states in New York a few days from now. Allegedly (see Indian Express report), while Europe’s concerns stems from the migrant crisis and the US is loath to recognize immigrant rights, India is also worried about the repercussions of taking on the responsibility to provide social justice to all, extending the already thin benefits of State welfare and largess to those who might not be legally recognized citizens.

This is the heart of the problem. In a policy environment in which the word ‘inclusive’ is bandied about rather casually, the meaning of inclusion bears repeated and deep exploration. Gautam Bhan put a spotlight on this issue of citizenship recently with reference to the Delhi Jal Board’s historic decision to provide universal access to water.

Who does India consider illegal and what are the various kinds of non-citizenship that people experience has been a subject of much study. Internal migrants, despite a Constitutional right to mobility anywhere within India, have been described as ‘illegal’, ‘encroachers’ and ‘polluters’ in numerous policy documents and court judgements. Even where policy has recognized their economic contribution, migrants have been steadily excluded – or inadequately considered – from provision of basic services (like water, sanitation), housing (negligible supply of affordable housing, no focus on incremental housing), transportation services (low priority to  affordable public transport including NMT), health, education, subsidized food (no access to PDS at destination) and even conditions for livelihood (harassment of street vendors, regulations that prevent home-based work).

The good news is that this seems to be changing. We can see now the very humble beginnings of a new mindset that sees migration less as an intrusion and more as an inevitable consequence of economic transition (and climate change). Parliamentarians have been debating migration in a more healthy manner and that has resulted in the creation of a Working Group on Migration particularly to assess linkages with housing, infrastructure and livelihood. I understand the debates within this group comprising several ministries and government department, academics and industry representatives have been encouraging.

Inclusive housing takes heartening steps forward

Besides changes like the Delhi government’s inclusive stand on water, there is much progress in the field of housing as well. At a consultation co-organized by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA) along with Magic Bricks and GIZ this past week, I was pleasantly surprised to see not only more supply of lower income group (LIG) and economically weaker section (EWS) housing by state governments (representatives from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu spoke), but also much movement on progressive housing policy.

This morning’s interview of Mr Sriram Kalyanaraman, MD and CEO of National Housing Bank, who also spoke at the event, offers much hope. We see the confluence of the government’s flagship housing scheme Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY) and technology solutions (e-gov, m-gov, intergated MIS) that work to educate housing buyers and link them with accessible bank branches. The uptake of low ticket size home loans is especially encouraging. Kalyanaraman reports that home loans for under Rs 10 lakh comprised a whopping 30 percent of the total in FY 16! I have a personal sense of victory in this regard, having been involved with organizations like mHS City Lab that persevered long and hard with the government and finance sector to push changes that allowed banks to devise means to underwrite loans to informal sector workers. A huge change indeed that will have rippling effects going forward.

MoHUPA’s support of rental housing and attempts to bring in some policy reforms to encourage it are also heartening. Particularly brave are its efforts to understand the informal rental market, for any discussion that talks about the middle ground between the formal and informal pushes us towards a deeper understanding of how human beings survive, negotiate realities and experience the world; the exercise reveals the limits of defining people through their economic functions and shifts the focus on aspects of human dignity, safety and livability. Even more, it shows us that our understanding of their economic realities is also deeply flawed at present. These discussions are critical if we are to move towards long-term inclusive growth.

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Migrants regardless of income live in informal rental housing in spaces like urban villages

 

The contradictions must remain on the table, in plain view

And so, even as we celebrate the early wins, we need to highlight the contradictions in our approach. For example, those in the field know that any discussion on subsidized housing inevitably leads to the question of tenure and title. This consultation was no different. One cannot logically argue with the traditional defense of no-sale and no-lease clauses stipulated for a period of time (5, 10, even 15 years). This defense rests on the logic that people have no right to profit from something the government has subsidized entirely or partially. But if we happen to be in that moment when we are looking at market realities and the reality is that mobility of labour is a defining feature of India’s (rather painful) structural transformation, isn’t it a tad discriminating that we continue to devise schemes that tie the poor down to a specific location, disallowing them full tenure and denying them rights to sell or rent their properties? Is there no way around this? Could rent-to-own schemes be a solution so that the poor pay their way to ownership if they want to? Could private sector rentals that are currently in the informal domain be legitimized and even supported by mutually developing frameworks that ensure minimum quality standards and provide mechanisms to redress grievances?

Any number of questions come to mind, but if the government were to truly engage, solutions are also just as many. Beginnings have been made and now its  a question of innovation, experimentation and perseverance.

Devaansh Singh imagines the ideal future city #TheCityasMuse Special Mention

Devaansh Singh is 12 years old and lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. A 7th grader who loves reading, Devaansh is into robotics and enjoys playing chess. Last year, he participated in the national Future City Competition and is currently considering entering the NASA space colony competition as well.   

Comment: Devaansh’s entry was refreshing in the way it gave free reign to his imagination. In contrast to other entries that commented on existing cities or wove together real and imagined urban experiences, Devaansh describes an urban utopia of the future complete with planning, engineering and environmental details. An interesting read indeed and a commendable effort for someone so young.

Moana Kulana Kauhale, the ideal city

In the beginning of the year 2015, a technologically advanced future seemed on our doorstep, but fatal problems were everywhere and all of our efforts were to stop them in their tracks and our marvelous future was postponed. Well, that future is today, 100 years after this competition, and today we are introducing the most amazing city of the future, Moana Kulana Kauhale. Named by the creator Devaansh Singh, its name means Ocean City. It is located on a former Hawaiian Island and creates a future that resolves many of the problematic issues that have been plaguing our world for the past 100 years Plus, all of the solutions are both innovative and environmentally friendly making Moana Kulana Kauhale the ideal city to live in.

Before we start, here is a brief description of the residential, commercial, and industrial zones of the city. Moana Kulana Kauhale is like a doughnut, the hole is the industrial section, then around it is the commercial zone, and around that, the farthest away from the industrial zone,  is the residential zone. We do this because the industries can easily transport goods to the commercial zone, and  residents don’t have to go too far to go  shopping. The only disadvantage in this situation is the worker who has to go from the residential zone to the industrial zone , but that is taken care of by the speedy transportation, like the Vactrains, offered in this city. There is a specific train whose only purpose is to transport the workers to the factories and back. The industrial zone is built down, not up. Meaning entrances to the factories are situated above ground and the rest is all underground . The buildings that are above ground are the company’s headquarters which lies on top of the factory and the solar panels, wind turbines. PCUs are devices that power the city and the factories. PCUs are devices that catch pollution and convert it into energy. All the pollution made by the industrial zone is managed by the company and released into underground caverns. There, the PCUs are at every five feet and produce enough energy to power the factories and headquarters. The next zone is the commercial zone. It’s main power supply comes from the many clean power generators in the industrial zone and it receives shipments through the hyperloop train system which is underneath the ground. All the windows have solar panels installed in them and merchandise is made from clean energy produced in the industrial zone so we are independent The commercial zone is connected to the residential zone through multiple hyperloop tracks which are divided into centers, one per station. By center I mean shopping center, divided by type of store (i.e. clothing, groceries, etc.) and stations are where the train picks up and drops off its passengers. Now, that leaves the residential zone. The outside circle of the city is the residential zone. It has many neighborhoods and each neighborhood has a skyscraper to use as apartment buildings and offices for the neighborhood. To keep things fair and to have no homeless people, we have people who want a house to go to a government building. They tell them the house they want, the amount of people who are going to live in the house, and the buyer’s income. Then the government gives you a fair price. If you accept, then the government takes your money and gives half to the real estate agent managing the house and helping their clients. They keep the other half to use. The major source of energy for the residential area is clean, environmentally safe energy. All of the zones are as clean as possible and do their jobs well

The infrastructure of our city is truly remarkable. Our sewer system is one of the best. The waste goes into the various pipes that run way under the city. The waste all accumulates in a big cavern with a vat in it. Their, everything that isn’t sanitized is filtered into a big tank. It will fill up eventually and when that happens it will be sent to a plant so that it will be sanitize enough to be reused as toilet water or will be sent to a plant where we will burn it in a PCU area and collect energy from the heat using geothermal generators. Roads are only inside individual centers for people who don’t want to walk. the rest is managed by the citywide train stations. Each train’s tracks are connected to each station in individual tracks that run in a circle around  each zone If you want to travel to a different zone, then you just get off at one of the tran-zone stations that has a special set of tracks and trains just for shuttling people around the two zones.

Our city has one main transportation mode: Our trains. They transport our people anywhere they want in super high speeds. We have two main types of trains; the Vactrain and the Hyperloop. The Vactrain is like a normal super fast magnet train today, except it is in a vacuum tube. The vacuum tube sucks all the air out of a place so their is no resistance. This allows the train to go many times faster than a normal magnetic train and is great for long travels, but can be used transport people in short  distances. The Hyperloop works a similar way. the train is magnetic, shaped like a bullet, in a long tube which contains the tracks. Once the passengers board the train, everything closes off. Then a huge burst of air comes in and shoots the Hyperloop through the tube like a very big bullet. It is best used on straight tracks or in transporting goods. The system is fairly straightforward. There are tracks connecting to each other that is in a never ending square in each zone and a set of tracks in each station that connects to it’s counterpart in another zone, so everything is nice and connected. Another transportation perk is that these methods are all very eco friendly and do not harm the environment. These trains are also used for long distance travels with other cities and countries. Instead of an airport with airplanes, we just ship people and goods out with the trains.

One of our cities biggest strengths is its power generation. Our city is on a geothermal hotspot and so we have geothermal power generators in all the underground areas of our city. All of our pollution is redirected into PCU’S, or Pollution Capture Units These units capture pollution and convert it into electricity, so it is good for the environment and helps power our massive bustling metropolis. There are multiple solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal generators in the middle of the city and power is distributed through that. The coast has hydroelectric generators and every house has at least one solar window. All of these factors invariably make our city extremely self-sufficient.

The educational system of our city is quite comprehensive. Everyone is homeschooled and can go to a big virtual classroom software. One room in each house is completely dedicated to this for the children. Each child is sorted into a classroom where a teacher will help them if they need help on the work assigned to every child in the grade. The course is extremely vigorous and the students who can keep up with the program, that we call TOOLS, become extremely talented in their field of expertise. That is the average. The students who mess around on purpose and don’t care for their studies are expelled and are left to find a job among talented people. The students who really try hard but aren’t blessed with the brain to keep up are taken to a separate, slower paced course until caught up. That does not make them any worse than the others, it just means they needed help, and everyone needs help in their studies at one time or another.

And those are most of the facts about our amazing city, Moana Kulana Kauhale. It is extremely environmentally clean, it has marvelous transportation, and most importantly of all, we have an awesome educational system. With all these great minds being trained and going to the job everyday, our city evolves a bit every day. Soon, when Devaansh Singh sees his city again, he won’t recognize it because of how much it evolved, and it will make him happy, because his goal and mission would then be complete.

Bibliography

http://www.gizmag.com/terraspan-vacuum-tube-train-supersonic-ultra-fast/23267/

http://www.wired.com/2015/02/construction-hyperloop-track-starts/

http://hawaiiandictionary.hisurf.com/

http://idadesal.org/desalination-101/desalination-overview/

http://www.undeerc.org/Equipment/Combustion-Systems/Full-Suite-of-Air-Pollution-Control-Devices.aspx

Ashmi Ahuwalia’s city through the lens of nostalgia #TheCityasMuse Special Mention

Ashmi likes to think of herself as a  poet and enjoys indulging in the world of rhyme when not doing business development in her day job.  She has studied English Literature and  Media & Communications, and is passionate about her cocker spaniel, dessert, writing and soft rock. She is the editor of Writing Love (Rupa, 2010) a compilation of Indian-English love poetry.
Comment: Ashmi’s piece takes a nostalgic spin on the city, picking images and flavours, and blending emotions and observations as she narrates the “map of memories’ she carries in “the pocket of (her) heart”. The effortless flow of the piece was much appreciated and also the defined moments in time that she has managed to etch in, giving the reader some points of reference and an insight into her world.
Ashmi’s #TheCityasMuse entry

It’s amazing what a city can come to mean in nostalgia. Somewhere between a microscope and a dream, you really see it, the way you never had when you were there.

In my little studio flat at Putney, I remembered the chaat with the imli chutney. It had such a particular flavor only found in that one red-brick corner, behind the car park. The guardian of that corner was always in faded white, a chai in his hand. He was frying potatoes, feeding gol-gappas and chatting with his ardent line of customers all at the same time. He had a secret ingredient— and on a cold icy November evening—I tried recreating that delicious feeling in my kitchen. Time became that taste, and all I could think of. I made it with papdi I bought from Southall, and chutney I found in the local Indian shop. But my favourite city had patented that flurry of emotions, and nothing else was a patch.

Sometimes I was reminded of the midnight lane. And dancing to my heart’s delight on a small terrace with a man I was beginning to fall in love with. Everyone young in the city was thronging these little mazes of twilight, where love sometimes teased, sometimes lusted, sometimes fell into endless pits and sometimes ended. Between alcohol and the latest pop songs, hearts would beat faster; and young adults would slowly become adults. But we grew up more every weekend, learning the ways of the world. I like to think of it as the ambiguous tar passage that led to heaven, or hell. Or more appropriately, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s gray world, to ‘Hell-Heaven’.

Staring outside my window at the little boys playing ball often took me back to our Gandhi park—nondescript but warm with everything childhood. This place was memory-foamed; it was where the boundaries of friendship had moved from blurry to solid, like the chalk lines we drew out for Stapu every evening as kids. Our togetherness was that little eight-numbered, symmetrical game. Even today, going back quietly affirms that we have each other’s backs— the way we did in our chuppan-chuppai then, the way we do now.

And lately, what I miss the most is that newly constructed Superbahn in my city—where as a 25-year old having returned home from the holidays I would sort out my emotions. The quiet Expressway, quieter than the night where I drove like the wind and became self-aware—alone with my thoughts. Where I learnt what it means to fight my own battles in the marathon race of life, based mostly on gut and rarely on logic.

Wherever I am in the world, nothing compares of these spaces etched in my mind. These fragments are home; they are the narrow passages of space and time that have distilled quietly into my skin. I am a collage of these cityscapes, a map of memories I carry in the pocket of my heart, refusing to let go.

‘Karol Bagh’ by Vitasta Raina #TheCityasMuseRunners Up

Vitasta Raina is an architect and a writer. She has published a fictional novel, Writer’s Block, and a book of poems, Someday Dreams. She blogs at http://theurbanexploratory.blogspot.in/

Comment: Vitasta sent in 5 entries, all exhibiting her deep interest in the city as well as her talent with words. However, the judges were impressed by the particular emotional connect of this poem, which laments the decay of her family’s ancestral home. Along with her entry, she wrote a note that outlines the context: “My maternal grandparents migrated to Karol Bagh, New Delhi, in 1947 during the Partition of India. After my grandfather’s death, my uncle’s family moved out of the Kothi to a high-rise gated prison in Gurgaon. Upon my return to Delhi in 2013, I was miserable to see my childhood home abandoned, and the neglected squallor of our once lively mohalla. These poems are perhaps eulogies as I mourn.”

Karol Bagh

Beautiful decay, I could eat you,

split your pale brown gills,

on an autumn afternoon,

and consume your cultural layers.

You with salty crust of ageless expression,

you with the wood grains, patterns of the sea,

of micro-beads and snowflakes,

fractals of societies’ self-relieved agony,

inchoate clusters of myth-ridden mohallas,

fungal communes of local habits;

I could collect your inexistent senses,

and break down your unchanged names.

Beautiful decay, on pavements,

in small-worlds, in rotting walls of colonies

alive past their expiration date,

souvenirs of once-life, tombs for now-death.

 All Rights Reserved. ( C.). Vitasta Raina

The charming hustle bustle of Kanpur

Once an architect, always….

For the first time since I have been associated with the city, I had the chance to get out and roam the streets of Kanpur and I was charmed by it. Living in the heart of the city meant that in any direction I went, I saw glimpses of its history. Monuments of Islamic, colonial and industrial architecture are strewn across this area, lending it a unique character and the crowds add to its bustling yet relaxed feel. Most of these pictures are taken from cars and cycle rikshas as we were in transit running various errands as part of the wedding mood.

The highlight of the visit was the trip to the famous Shivala that I had heard of from various family members over the years but never actually experienced. The site of an ancient Shiv temple. the area is better known for being a paradise for buying items of shringaar like bangles, costume jewelry, bindis, make up, slippers and jootis, etc. I could think of many many friends and cousins who would have lost their mind shopping here!

The trip had piqued my interest in this less known and even less appreciated city, once the Manchester of North India and major industrial hub, where some of the most prosperous families in Uttar Pradesh still reside. How little we value this sort of heritage, I kept thinking through the trip and grand visions of adaptive re-use of some of these absolutely stunning pieces of architecture kept swimming through my head!

Jewels of colonial architecture dot Kanpur city

Jewels of colonial architecture dot Kanpur city

The sprawling compound of the lal imli textile mills, now defunct...

The sprawling compound of the Lal Imli textile mills, once a hub of industry, now defunct…

Getting close to Shivalay

Getting close to Shivalay

An old well and ruins in the middle of a crazy market

An old well and ruins in the middle of a crazy market

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Reading the morning papers as the customers begin to pour into the market

Reading the morning papers as the customers begin to pour into the market!

The pro bangle seller, a master of his craft! Only my lighter purse is testimony to his skill!

The pro bangle seller, a master of his craft! Only my lighter purse is testimony to his skill!

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Snapshots on the riksha ride back home...wonderful streets, still retain their old flavor

Snapshots on the riksha ride back home…wonderful streets, still retain their old flavor

A typical Kanpuria scene, haggling with the riskhawalla!

A typical Kanpuria scene, haggling with the riskhawalla!

Love the relaxed hustle bustle of small town India. Of course, that is a misnomer considering Kanpur has over 3 million people!

Love the relaxed hustle bustle of small town India. Of course, that is a misnomer considering Kanpur has over 3 million people!

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Old institutions, towering structures

And suddenly this...the contrasts are fascinating

And suddenly this…the contrasts are fascinating

And the crowds!

And the crowds!

Growing cities: Are there patterns at all?

It’s a question urbanists obsess about all the time. Is there a pattern in how cities grow? If we can find one, we would be in a much better position to plan, manage and grow our urban areas, we argue. But cities are shifty, complex creatures. My own take has always been that we can shape cities in small ways, but mostly our role as city planners, managers or designers is to manage change. I tend to be very skeptical of large, sweeping gestures and strongly feel that community-led neighbourhood level changes, incremental design is the right way to view cities.

This study by Prof Beveridge at Queens College, therefore, was very interesting to me. It compares three schools of urbanist theory in the US and finds that while the conventional patterns remained true in the first half of the 20th century and even up until the post-war era, recent decades see no real patterns coming forth. Cities are behaving in more complex, random ways.

A study of cities elsewhere, in India specifically, would be needed to understand the global significance of these findings, but to me it only confirms my belief that we urban practitioners need to drastically change the way we are looking at cities. What do you think?

In Mumbai, awed once again by this graceful city

To all the Dilliwalas and Gurgaonwalas who I fraternize with back home, who constantly whine about Mumbai’s crowds and noises and smells, let me tell you this. I love this city. I love its business, its craziness and above all, I love its middle class areas. This trip, I’ve been lucky to stay in Byculla, visit Sion and do my work stuff in Parel. All lovely, densely packed, buzzing and lively places. So much mixed use. Safe.

I love the heritage in this part of the city and I wish more could be done to ensure it doesn’t all come crashing down some day. Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth to out up the pictures I have taken. Those will follow, but I had to write in to say that there are some superb examples of how a city can sustain itself in this city. We should learn and we should be proud and we should keep these parts of the city alive. Not be gentrifying it, but the way it is now, for the people who work and live here, who have contributed to make Mumbai what it is.

 

An afternoon of art and nostalgia @ Mandi House, New Delhi

Stolen moments of pleasure are always special. But often times, when you suddenly find yourself at a loose end with time on your hands, when a meeting gets over too soon for example, it’s hard to figure out what to do. I rack my brains to think of all the stuff I always want to do but never seem to have time for, and nothing comes to mind.

The walk from SPA’s archi block to planning block never looked so good in our days….some things do change for the better!

Well, today the cylinders inside my brain fired up at the right time when I realized I was done early at college and my car wouldn’t pick me up for another hour at least. I walked briskly to the other side of the road and caught the first auto to Mandi House. This was a nostalgia trip for sure, for Mandi House was where we went whenever we had a free afternoon, back in the days when we studied architecture in SPA. A sort of culture hub, we were always sure to be able to see a few art exhibitions and would end up catching a play or music performance at one of the 5 or so auditoriums there.

This afternoon, I headed first for the Triveni Kala Sangam. This was always our favorite among the Mandi House venues because it is a Joseph Allen Stein building, beautiful, always serene and quiet. As usual, most galleries were open and walking through the art, both paintings and sculpture, was pleasurable indeed. ‘Polemics of a Soul Catcher’, an exhibition of very large paintings, oil on canvas, by Satish Sharma offered a commentary of the place of modern man, his moral dilemmas, his new increasingly urban environment..thought provoking. A group art show in the open air court offered a variety of techniques and themes and the sculpture court was also full of interesting works.

Triveni has been a magnet for art lovers for years. Now of course, many modern art galleries have opened up in South Delhi and suburban areas too, and the importance of Mandi House has diminished somewhat.

You can’t not be in love with Stein’s architecture

Lallan Singh’s work filled the sculpture garden at the Triveni Kala Sangam. This was one of those endearing spaces where we spent some afternoons sitting around and sketching the exhibited work.

I had but a short time left, but I still tried to dash across to the Lalit Kala Akademi building, where again I know there always is something worth looking at.This ws quite a job with all the construction happening in this area. Thankfully, there were marshalls who were actually stopping cars so pedestrians could cross! I don’t come here often, but since I was a pedestrian today I noticed just how much the vehicular traffic has increased by in Lutyen’s Delhi. It completely destroys the charm, the constant whirring of cars with impatient drivers who don’t really want to wait for the pedestrians to cross! And this is the only walkable part of the city!

This is what the lovely patch of green at the cnter of Mandi House circle looks like now! To think that we spent many hours of one memorable night sitting in that patch of green on our group date as fresh hostelers in 1994! Hope this gets fixed soon…

Rabindra Bhawan’s memorable arches

I had only about fifteen minutes at Lalit Kala Akademi. The building, Rabindra Bhawan, hosts important cultural institutions for literature, fine arts and performing arts and is an iconic building designed by Habib Rehman, one of many public buildings he designed in the ’50s and ’60s. The art gallery here has been renovated and I was entering the renovated space for the first time. Rather nice and uncluttered. The exhibition, and I cannot remember the name of the show or the artists, was an exploration of abstraction using new media. I quite liked some of the works, especially those depicting nature and human form.

An hour or so well spent, in my own company, soaking in art, the city and its spaces….

The lure of Vanar Vatika @ other narrations: Shikshantar 10th b’day @ J Block- Sep 29, 2012

Yesterday, our family spent a few hours of sheer innocence and happiness in J Block of Shikshantar. While the big school presented the 10th anniversary of the school to parents in an exhibition mode, the pre-primary block’s experience was more like a mela. Teeming with people, sounds, color, activity, smiles and conversation, an air of abandonment and unbridled joy.

Udai and Aadyaa bond over creating a story in Aadyaa’s classroom

Rahul, Udai and Aadyaa have a chat. Tree climbing and such like pleasures are very much a part of the culture of simple enjoyment that Shikshantar has strived to create…

The theme of stories was enjoyed and experienced to the hilt by little children, whose uninhibited imagination and simplicity endows them with the ability to engross themselves completely in the world of stories. They identify strongly with fictional characters and effortlessly merge reality and fiction, art and narrative, the world of depiction and that of performance.

In these kids, aged between 3 and 6, I saw a certain freshness, innocence and lack of pretension that revived my spirits. Since kids this young do not think too much about what others’ might think of them, the content of the stories was much more varied (than in older classes, where I think they chose themes that found approval with the school philosophy to some extent). Cars, parents, friends, spaces they experience, fears, dreams, nature, color, journeys, conversations, we saw all these elements in their little stories. One class had illustrated their little stories using tiny clay sculptures and it was a joy to see how well those little hands had created forms as complex as an octopus, a car, a snake, a house and many others.

We were drawn into their world this afternoon. In one classroom, we created stories out of rhythm emanating from different people playing a variety of instruments in spontaneous sync with each other. In other rooms, we drew, painted, cut and pasted to create our own imaginary worlds. We became little children again and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Udai participating in the musical stories

A young child exploring some of the instruments

Admiring the cute little paper swirls that twirled in the breeze

All of this was wonderful, but the most magical thing about the J Block in Shikshantar still remains the Vanar Vatika. I have watched Udai and his friends connect with it since he was in Raindrops (Playgroup) five years ago, and how much they continue to miss that space even now, when they are in Grade 3 and over eight years old! They recreated this space so well in the model they made for the birthday, the nostalgia was evident!

This is a play area full of little physical challenges. No super fancy swings here. We are talking stuff like a giant pipe under a mound of mud, you can climb over the mound or walk in and through the pipe! Or the concrete beams at varying heights and angles that you learn to balance on. The little brick wall with punctures in different shapes. And the bean pole that you shimmy down and eventually, perhaps, learn to shimmy up as well! The swing, the tyre swing, the guerilla obstacle course stuff…..Vanar Vatika is an unmissable call to become a child again. Aadyaa too, I can see, is in her element here. She complained bitterly on the days it rained heavily and Vanar Vatika was out of bounds for them.

Upside down is normal in Vanar Vatika

Cat crawling up the balancing beam

 

And shimmying down the pole…Papa goes next!

Inside the pipe

Udai and his friends from the big school soaking in the Vanar Vatika experience..sheer nostalgia

From a professional perspective, Vanar Vatika always makes me think about the intimate relationship we share with spaces we experience. Why some spaces click while others don’t has been studied extensively. Vanar Vatika clicks because it is designed as an intimate space, with a scale suitable for young children. Everything is simple, nothing overwhelming. No swanky, shiny stuff that says ‘touch me not’, no manicured flower beds. All softscape, no hard ground where kids might hurt themselves. Surrounded by green edges. Offering challenged simple and tougher, making it something they want to go back to every day.

As a planner, I wish our cities were filled with Vanar Vatikas. Such spaces should be public, accessible to all. In 2011, we visited Barcelona and visited many public parks with spaces like this for children. When children are happy, they draw in adults into a world of peace and enjoyment. In India, a nation with the youngest population in the world, we certainly must have more happy spaces for children. We must consider this an investment in our future.

Gathering in the front laws for song and food….

The other life, how little we know: A peek into the mind of the homeless laborer- Sep 15, 2012

I’m reading ‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi. It is a peek into the lives of homeless laborers living in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar and follows closely the stories of a certain group. I know now why my mother left the book on my table a few days ago. She has read it before me and she must have known how greedily I would lap up its pages, seeing as I am soon to embark on primary research work in Gurgaon’s immigrant labor community, many of whom would have compulsions and circumstances much like the men in the book.

And yet, a homeless man is a very different sort of person. Much misunderstood, much maligned, not even considered inside the frame of reference of society as we understand it. ‘A Free Man’ hits you with the immense intelligence with which its protagonist Ashraf, a safediwala who has spent a couple decades living in Sadar Bazar’s Bara Tooti Chowk, views his life and situation. An intelligence that can make incredibly complex questions appear simple. Consider these-  Why does a many run away from home? Why do people disappear and never return? Why does the government run homeless shelters for three months a year? Where do they think those people will go the rest of the year? And then, why do they have a cell that randomly locks up homeless people considering them beggars? Who is a friend? If you have only two rupees to your name, what would you do with them- buy chai or pay for a shit?

In our work at mHS, we have tried to look at the problems of the homeless from a shelter perspective; but it is truly hard working around the government’s conflicting policies. However, the real problem with addressing homelessness is that in truth, we do really understand why someone would choose to be homeless and vulnerable (mHS is a part of a task force that is working to make homeless shelters an integral aspect of municipal infrastructure and specifically. We are working to develop a construction manual to aid local governments. Harsh Mander is spearheading this and his understanding of the homless is a lot better than anyone else’s).

In a vague sense, we all know that people leave their villages in search of employment and land up in a city. We assume most of them come for employment because their land can no longer support them. But many come for trivial reasons. Someone could have stolen a few rupees from their father and got slapped when he got found out. Another got drunk on local liquor and simple sat in a bus and found himself in a city. Yet another was insulted by his employer and did not work without honor. Yes, these are people who dream, who have a certain self respect, who hope and aspire. In that, they are much like us and we can understand that.

But because it is unimaginable for us that we could live without a roof above our heads and enough money to feed our needs, whatever they may be, we cannot understand many things. The book reveals that the homeless are also people with emotion, who react as much to heartbreak as to poverty. They value friendships and yet live lives so fragile that they dare not question when a friend disappears. They live in suspicion, yet trust everyone. They form bonds so close and yet they can walk away from everything. They drown their sorrows and the ache in their bodies in drink and smoke, but they cannot drown their sense of rootlessness, and the feeling that they have come far away from identity. They cling to classifications- bihari, rikshawala, charsi (substance abuser), gappi (teller of fantastic tales) and so on. They are laawaaris (belong nowhere), akelapan (loneliness) is their only true friend, they will always be ajnabis (strangers) to many and even to themselves and yet, in a sense, they are the only ones who taste true azadi (freedom) as they have no maalik (owner), no family, no one to answer to at all; these are the four overriding emotions around which ‘A Free Man’ tells the stories of the people we don’t really know.

In the sense of really feeling what these people are all about, this book has opened my eyes and my heart. I know it will become an important reference point for the research I am about to begin.

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