After two days of meetings that started post breakfast and went on all day, we felt we deserved some beer and decent music last night. And so we headed to the Camden Bar next door. Great vibe, cold beer, lovely music and lots of energy but the food was nothing to write home about.
On the short walk back to the hotel, I see what looks like a street party. Music from a mobile karaoke vendor was the start attraction from me but also the wonderful idea of claiming a bit of public space to talk, eat, laugh, click pics and even sleep! I was so excited but Greg pointed out it’s not unusual in Indonesia cities at all. Me likes! Me likes a lot….
There are moments during fieldwork when you feel like a voyeur, part guilty and part fascinated by intimate details revealed before you. That’s how I felt in Tangtou, where we unexpectedly found an entire block of vacant homes that had been locked up in 2008 unlocked and available to us for exploration.
Built as resettlement housing for villagers displaced by a water reservoir project in the late ’50s and subsequently found to be unsafe in the ’90s, families were finally asked to vacate in 2008 (facts from Mary Ann’s post on Tangtou dated 23rd May 2016).
On the day that we visited, surveyors from the district administration were measuring the homes in preparation for redevelopment of the area. The homes stood open for us and I felt a bit like what an archaeologist might during an excavation. Time had stood still for these spaces that were once lived in and used. A beautifully painted facade. A child’s jacket, broken study table and English language alphabet chart. A kitchen slab where utensils had been left behind and a living room where posters were still on the wall and papers strewn across the floor. All these conjured up vivid images of how hurriedly families might have gathered their possessions when the eviction orders came in.
Our understanding of the redevelopment process in Shenzhen’s urban villages was to grow over the next few days, but that afternoon in Tangtou we began to grasp the rudiments. That residents were compensated basis the built-up space they had at the time of eviction. That these compensations could be several times the size of the originally occupied space and were usually hugely profitable for villagers but migrants, who lived as renters got nothing. In Tangtou that day though, where waste pickers sorted thermocol and plastic along its main spine even as we walked in and out of the homes, it was hard to visualize a swank apartment block going up where we stood.
It is hard not to make comparisons to slum redevelopment models in India, especially the SRA model and its various spin-offs, where the developer is permitted to use the redeveloped parcel of land to build for sale commercial apartments while taking the responsibility of rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers on site, in a prescribed ratio. The idea is to leverage the value of the land occupied by slums (illegally, as is often emphasized in government documentation while hardly ever bringing up the failure of the State to provide affordable housing ) to improve living conditions as well as create more housing stock.
Like in Shenzhen, cross-subsidy driven redevelopment schemes in India like the SRA impose eligibility criteria that leave out some residents, usually renters, though the proportion of the ineligible varies by location and may not be as high. Activists have often pointed out that these schemes sanitize the city, but accentuate inequalities by turning families onto the streets. As you can imagine, the cut-off date as well as the documentation that households have to produce for eligibility are hotly contested.
Second, while in-situ rehabilitation does not displace poor households, the replacement of low-rise housing with high-rise apartments has been traumatic for slum households in Indian cities, whose income sources are diverse, home-based occupations are common and for whom the street is the focal point for interaction. The scheme has provisions for community consultation, but the design of redevelopment housing has hardly taken community needs into account.
In Tangtou, the narrow and deep row houses had double height spaces that residents had configured the spaces creatively to meet their specific needs (apparently the width was counted by the number tiles in traditional homes, more the width the higher the family’s status, while depth remained standard). I wondered how residents would alter their lifestyle in their new standard issue apartments. Would they miss the flexibility their older homes offered them?
Through the week in Shenzhen, we discussed redevelopment several times, and the concern over the issue of rights and citizenship was expressed in many forms, not only by activists and planners but even by village residents. In this short trip, we weren’t able to get a first had sense of how migrants felt about being sidelined, but one expert we spoke to pointed out that the self-perception of migrants as outsiders was perhaps the biggest barrier to building a campaign for more inclusive redevelopment mechanisms. Another similarity with rapidly growing cities in India, where despite democracy and the Constitutional right to mobility, low-income rural migrants have little voice until they remain long enough in the city to become a vote bank, which is often a few decades.
If you were to force me to pick the best from the myriad experiences Shenzhen offered, I would choose the morning we met the ‘Happy People’ of Shiuwei (term coined by Partha that morning, using it with due credit). When Mary Ann told us we were going to meet women of the community, I expected an informal conversation. Instead, we walked into a hotbed of community activity in which village women had congregated to cook together in preparation of the Dragon Boat Festival.
The sights and sounds of the semi-open enclosure located within the compound of the village office reminded me strongly of childhood visits to my native village in Goa. There was a certain aura of ritual and a sense of comfort in the practiced way these women were working together, very similar to culinary preparations during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at our ancestral home (read about chavath elsewhere on my blog). The dishes themselves, called zongzi and made of rice with multiple fillings that are carefully wrapped into palm leaves and then boiled in water, reminded me more of Kerala’s culinary repertoire. Besides the plain sticky rice, we observed fillings of cane sugar and peanut as well as duck eggs, pork and beans.
As the women worked, they chatted and laughed incessantly. I drew up a plastic stool next to one group and let myself be hypnotized by their rhythmic actions. They weren’t shy, sometimes making eye contact and smiling, but largely they seemed too engrossed to be distracted by my staring and filming (watch video below).
Unlike the group cooking sessions within extended families or religious groups in India at occasions like weddings and festivals (increasingly being replaced by catered food or contracts to professional cooks, sadly), I was surprised to find out that cooking together is not traditional in this part of China. Instead, a few women in Shiuwei village with the patronage of Shuiwei Holdings Ltd, the village corporation or ‘company’, have taken on the responsibility of bringing women together thrice a year for ten-day periods to cook traditional food items together as an expression of community solidarity and feeling.
Behind the scenes, company employees and retired husbands of some of these women sat around smoking and chatting. They also cooked meals for the group making zongzi. In contrast to the cooking ladies, the men were a curious lot, asking about us and why we were here. On hearing I was from India, one of the men got very animated. “Indian women are always wearing clothes from which their fat tummies can be seen,” he exclaimed, “but you are not dressed like that!” In between feeling shocked at his lack of tact and laughing at the way he said it, I was tempted to show him the pictures from my #100sareepact page!
For me, meeting the Happy People was a great entry point into thinking through the social issues around transforming urban villages in Shenzhen. Located in Futian, Shenzhen’s commercial and administrative epicenter, Shiuwei is among a clutch of urban villages that had the business savvy to redevelop land in a profitable manner. Rural land in China is collectively owned and by setting up shareholding corporations with village families as shareholders, villages have been able to partner with construction companies to build modern apartment buildings, factories and commercial blocks. In Shiuwei, a well-connected, educated and business-minded CEO (who also incidentally has a fascinating collection of stones housed on the ground floor of the well-landscaped corporation office that also houses recreation spaces for the elderly) appears to have played a crucial role.
Walking around Shiuwei, we saw ‘handshake’ housing blocks located on family plots similar to the ones in Baishizhou, though general standards of infrastructure were much better. We also saw the towering higher-end ‘commercial’ apartment blocks. A set of twin blocks, one carrying the village logo and the other the signage of the construction company, we learned, is a tell-tale sign of village-led redevelopment. On ground, shops specialized in fashion, massages and spa treatments, targeting tourists and rich Hong Kong merchants. The enormous amount of fresh housing stock created is let out to migrants (some of them second wives for the aforementioned rich Hong Kong merchants!).
It stands to reason that cooking together assumes enormous meaning for a community of village folk that is so vastly outnumbered by migrants from other parts of China. Savvy business strategy and increasing wealth cannot a community replace, that’s the takeaway here. Even as the exclusion of migrants from redevelopments processes in urban villages in Shenzhen is an area of significant concern, Shiuwei is a reminder of how transitions are not easy for native groups either.
Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!
Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.
The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.
What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).
Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.
A couple of weeks ago, I was attending the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society in London. It was a huge conference, with several parallel sessions and I could obviously attend only one at a time. Even so, I was exposed to multiple facets of geography and it was particularly interesting to see various research methods being used in the world of social science.
The use of visual methods for research is a particularly exciting field now and I noticed it was a recurrent theme in several sessions. Film and photography in particular are gaining ground as legitimate means to document how humans experience spaces and situations. Combined with interviews, focus groups and more traditional methods of qualitative research, they promise to take research a step ahead certainly.
I’d like to show you a glimpse of a piece of research presented by independent researcher Silvia Sitton, who is based in Modena, Italy. She set out to study the way Italians in London lived. Without visiting London herself, she did this through a system of self-reporting by participants using photographs of their home, living space and neighbourhood. Silvia supplemented the visual documentation with skype interviews to create profiles of Italian people in London city and understand their experiences. To me, as a researcher interested in migration and housing, her work appealed instantly. She had been able to capture how they felt about their adopted city, how they used space, their daily routines, their challenges and high points as well.
The website she built to house this information (screenshots below; to visit the site, click here here) is in Italian, but its stunningly simple and Silvia told me she would love to replicate this sort of research in other geographical contexts. The value of gathering data without the bias of the researcher is immense here, isn’t it?
Having tried my hand at being an entrepreneur, I’m always impressed by people who are brave enough to venture into new territory with ideas and initiatives. My friend Biplab is one such person. I’ve known him for a while, though not very well. And when my research work started focusing on what’s happening in small cities, I remembered his venture and drove over for a chat.
Biplab runs a BPO called EGramServe in Narendranagar (will refer to it as NN), a town of about 10,000 people a short drive uphill from Rishikesh. In starting this venture, he (like several others, of course) has created a window of opportunity for young people who otherwise have no choice but to migrate out to larger cities. The stories he told me, about his own entrepreneurial journey and the experiences of his employees, stuck in my head for days after our chat. And I decided to pay NN a visit. As I was leaving, my kids were curious to know if that’s Narendra Modi is from (no escaping NaMo)!
After an eventless and comfortable train journey (a frequent traveler on this sector, Biplab is an expert in wangling seats even when tickets are unconfirmed!), we got there early Monday morning and walked around town. As a planner, I was struck by the orderliness of the town. NN came into prominence in 1919 when King Narendra Shah of the erstwhile kingdom of Tehri Garhwal moved his capital here from Tehri. It’s orderly main street and relatively wide streets and uncluttered feel contrasts sharply with the messiness of other pahari towns, which are usually trading or market towns. The shops and residences along this main street, I learnt, are still owned by the municipal board and leased out to individuals.
The view from NN, which is also the closest town to the world famous Ananda spa resort, is beautiful. It is a remarkable thing that, so close to Rishikesh, this lovely hilly location that experiences excellent weather is so tranquil and languid, the pace of life barely impacted by the proximity of the fervent religious tourism of Rishikesh and Hardwar below or the seasonal tourism of the hill stations above.
Its tranquility is reflected in the conversations I have with its residents, some of who are from families who settled here during the time of Narendra Shah and consider themselves insiders and others whose families have migrated here from surrounding villages or from other parts of Tehri Garhwal in search of livelihood.
My two-day visit was a most interesting experience thanks to Biplab’s warm and sincere hospitality. He was kind enough to give up his accommodation so I could be comfortable and also enthusiastic enough to introduce me to people all over town. Over the next few weeks, I hope to unscramble some good information from the 20-odd interviews I managed to take. I hope to understand better the experiences and aspirations of the young people who work in EGramServe, their linkages with their family/community and what role cities like NN can play in keeping young people close to home.
I was driven back to Haridwar railway station by two enthusiastic members of Biplab’s team. The most marvelous drive through the lush greens of Rajaji National Park alongside the Ganga canal served to remind me of how precious the hills, the forests and the rivers are for our survival. In addition to providing opportunity, I remember thinking, encouraging sustainable development that involves communities that can no longer rely on agriculture for survival (low productivity, climate change) is critical. And here too, small cities like NN could be important in tying these rural communities together and linking them to regional economies.
I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!
Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.
It’s World Toilet Day again. My twitter timeline is abuzz today with statistics, video links, article links, all painting a scary picture of how many people in the world live in conditions of poor sanitation, how much this costs us in economic terms, health terms, etc. (other hilarious tweets about people being conceived in and born in toilets, locked inside them, etc are also doing the rounds as is expected in the jamboree called twitter!)
I’ve seen plenty of toilets up close, recently in my fieldwork among migrant workers in Gurgaon’s urban villages and unauthorized colonies as well as over the last few years of working with micro Home Solutions in low-income areas across Delhi. Adequacy as well as maintenance of toilets is a huge issue in slums and other informal areas . Various experiences have shown that shared toilets are very hard to maintain (see post on the pathetic state of toilets in a Delhi slum); yet, it can be nearly impossible to retrofit communities to provide toilets for every household. One thing is clear though. Household toilets are the Number 1 aspiration for low-income families across India, whether urban or rural. Deeply connected with dignity and security, especially for women, and also now implying status, households seek to install toilets as soon as they have sewage connections and funding in place.
But what about those without any secure tenure? Renters, for instance. In Gurgaon, I find migrant workers living in semi-permanent shacks or relatively permanent tenements sharing a toilet between 10 or even upto 20 households! Toilets with broken doors, inadequate water supply and barely any maintenance are common in these jhuggis and tenements. However, contrary to the perception that it is single male migrants that live here and accord low priority to sanitation, I found at least half of these homes occupied by families, with women and children suffering acutely because of the poor sanitation facilities. Unfortunately, a relationship of deference and almost fear with the landlord coupled with the peculiar migrant mindset of transition combine to make demanding better toilets a difficult proposition.
Migrant workers who live in more upgraded rooms that offer more privacy share their amenities among 8-10 families and are better able to negotiate better maintained toilets and baths with their landlords. Often, improved sanitation combined with a perception of improved security (very linked, those two) become the reason for families to opt for moving to a better rental accommodation.
However, as a researcher, what strikes me most is that, despite the whining about sanitation, renters consider poor amenities as part of the deal. They live in the hope that improved income and better circumstances will given them more negotiating power to change these aspects of their lives. But for the present, many women told me that they are fine with the sharing of toilets with strangers, with the waiting for their turn as per their time of work, even with the poor maintenance! They said that conditions in their village were often worse; others said they lived in better conditions back ‘home’ but understood that poor sanitation was the price to pay for the opportunity to live and work in the city.
Access to sanitation, and its strong relationship with dignity and safety, is an important lens through which to understand the integration of the urban poor in our cities. In the context of internal migration, the denial of the basic aspects of citizenship to migrants creates a psyche of helplessness and illicits that shrug, that sense of resignation that I find so frustrating. Because the government buckets private informal rental housing as illegal and no standards and bye-laws are implemented in this context, it is easy for landlords to turn a blind eye to this issue. A dialogue that involves civil society (representing migrants), private landlords as well as government is important to arrive at ways and means by which an increased awareness of the importance of sanitation is created, where the migrant is given a human dimension as opposed to a sub-human one (yes, this is often the case!), big infrastructure to make improvements possible are put in place and new efficient means for operations and maintenance (best practices) are shared and implemented.