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Not a nuisance but an opportunity to include: Why you need to rethink your opinions on the kaawad yatra

For the last many years, I’ve been fascinated with the annual kaawad yatra, which takes place during the saawan month of the Hindu calendar and involves the transport of holy waters from the Ganga in Hardwar back home by pilgrims usually on foot (more here). Its a tough pilgrimage. Watching the yatris rest at the end of a long day of walking at the makeshift camps that local communities erect along the entire route, I’ve often admired their resilience and also the growing number of women yatris. I’ve observed them bandage each others tired, swollen and cracked feet. I’ve seen communities volunteering to cook, clean and heal yatris. I’ve even smiled at their obvious enjoyment of the music blaring out of speakers, as I’ve watched them dance and sing in camaraderie and joy closer to the completion of the arduous journey. To me, the kaawad yatra has always been a demonstration of India’s multiple faith-linked traditions that have the power to bring people together in a continuance of age old traditions.

For the educated classes behind the wheels of their motor vehicles, though, the kaawads are another word for traffic hold ups, mayhem and chaos that compounds the water logging caused by incessant rain and poor drainage each year. It’s an inconvenience, an injunction into the (imagined) smooth functioning of their lives. Its a faith system they don’t understand, even though many among them are deeply religious.

This divide and the vitriol towards the kaawadiyas was brought home to me last evening. I was driving  and a friend’s daughter, all of eight-years old, pointed out to a truck full of kaawadiyas and declared, with much feeling that she hates them! Hate? I was taken aback and I asked her why, were they not entitled to celebrate the completion of their yatra? And her response was something entirely unexpected: “They don’t wear clothes!,” the little girl told me. “See, that man is only wearing those short orange shorts!”

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A different kind of yatra: The influence of money and power

The transformation of the kaawad yatra itself, in the past few years, from a low key humble affair to a loud, rambunctious public party is partly responsible for the perceptions that this young girl and a large section of elite urban society. Clearly there is more money in the yatra business now, perhaps in reflection of a more affluent rural and small town middle class. The camps have grown larger, the music louder, the trucks of enthusiastic and often rowdy yatris and supporters are ubiquitous. In the past, State-sponsored protections like traffic cordons to create safe passage were a response to the unfortunate deaths of kaawadiyas in motor accidents. Today, youth in motor cycles and trucks break traffic rules with impunity in the name of religion. The little girl’s comment on how the yatris are dressed is also telling. A display of hyper masculine behavior is not only hurtful to urbane sensibilities but frankly threatening as well!

The farcical liberalism of the urban elite

On the other hand, the educated elite does not usually bother to learn more about the yatra itself. I know from my interactions with villagers in and around Gurgaon, that the yatra is deeply symbolic to these communities. It is taken with a sense of duty; it is also a means for young people to take a small holiday and earn brownie points in the process. There is also some bit of harmless competition among groups in the village on who gets back the holy waters first.

Plug the gap or prepare to be drowned

It is this big gap between the two Indias that is immensely disturbing to me. The divide of the rural and urban, the chasm between the educated well-heeled and well-traveled elite and the homegrown upwardly mobile middle classes, the totally different perceptions of the pretend liberals and the deep-rooted faith systems of the more rooted-to-the-land populations. All this is exacerbated by urban planning that puts the elite into ‘safe’ gated communities and ‘others’ those who tilled the very lands on which these gated complexes are built!

We need a new movement here to bridge this gaping chasm that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our society. We talk about tolerance in our cozy drawing rooms, but we do not even understand the meaning of the world when we say hateful things that our children reproduce without understanding what they are saying. We need to start with understanding the traditions of our land and respecting them for what they are, even as we call out those who break the law and those who protect these detractors. We need to broaden our definition of community to include people from different classes. What stops the kaawad yatra organizing committees from reaching out to RWAs to contribute and collaborate in offering shelter to the yatris, as a gesture of humanity? Maybe this will lead to better ideas on how to resolve traffic snarls and conflicts of interest? What stops the police and local governments from running awareness campaigns that create empathy towards the yatris and use this enhance sense of pride to request them to remain within the law?

Of course, my comments could well be dismissed as naive. Many will say that I am deliberately leaving out the realities that confront us: the rise of the right wing that grants additional immunity to Hindu religious groups at this time, the alignment of local law enforcers with local communities that permits them to look the other way like we saw during Haryana’s infamous Jat quota agitation, the politicization of religion as seen in the capital that is now blatantly on display during the yatra. I admit there might be truth in all of this, but we must also admit that the insensitivity exists on both sides. If we do not bring empathy into the mix at this point, these conflicts will only get worse. We owe it to our children to speak a different language: one that opens the doors instead of slamming them shut; one that seeks to learn more before pronouncing opinions; one that celebrates diversity and shuns the idea of homogeneity that dangerously pervades our social lives; one that, in the true tradition of this land, refrains from violence seeks to include and find solutions through consensus.

Diversity, dissent and consensus building- Taking forward ratings for affordable housing- Aug 25, 2012

No matter how complex something is, it is always a satisfying experience when a diverse set of people succeed in bringing their dissent, doubts, agreements and opinions on the table in a friendly and civil manner. I was happy today to be part of a consultation process where honesty and bluntness was received in good taste and criticism truly appreciated. We were at a peaceful quiet location, at a campus called Visthar, in a village somewhere near Bangalore airport. The workshop was about getting feedback from experts on a rating for affordable housing. I have mentioned this before on my blog, this rating that is being developed under the aegis of the Ashoka Housing for All Initiative and bring partnered by Tuv Rheinland, a large certification body.
Affordable housing is a complex subject, rife with conflicting opinions and plenty of skepticism. In fact, the most positive aspect of being part of this rating process is the hope and positivity in the group. Today’s experts had among them people who had made affordable projects happen as well as those who had contributed to various pieces like standards development, design innovation, community mobilising, etc. The positivity is a marked change from previous meetings in which the subtext was always a disbelief that affordable housing could really be catalysed via a rating. I guess the buy in comes in slowly. I don’t know how and when these ratings will be finalised and implemented, but the roadmap looks clearer and quite doable. When people at opposite ends of the spectrum agree to disagree rather than lock heads indefinitely, darkness turns to hope and the impossible begins to look possible!

Building citizen consensus, influencing decisions is a must-do if we want livable cities: Who will rise to the occasion? June 2, 2012

I really like the model that the Philips Center for Health and Well Being has developed to measure the success of cities from the perspective of livability. They use three spheres-Authenticity, Inclusion and Resilience- each of which include socio-economic, technological and environmental aspects, among others.

I like this construct because it addresses the ingredients I believe most valuable in a city.

Authenticity pertains to identity, history, nature and natural heritage, architectural heritage, connections between people and between the citizens and the city, sense of place, etc. In short its about a city’s character and how it navigates change as time progresses.

Inclusion is about equal opportunities, equal access to amenities and resources, justice, freedom, participation, quality of public spaces, etc- about creating a city for everyone.

Resilience is about adapting innovations, diversity, attitude, accepting and adapting to changes in environment, economics and cultural manifestation, about tradition and modernity and the conflicts.

They call it the AIR model and I think it is an interesting way to look at things, considering the enormous challenges and opportunities cities offer in today’s context. I do wonder how many of these aspects can be measured though. For the past two weeks, I have struggled with finding ways to quantify things like community interaction and inclusion for the ratings for affordable housing that we are working on at mHS, along with Ashoka housing for All.

It worries me that while many cities worldwide have recognized the benefits of good stuff like walkability and inclusive planning, Indian cities continue to be designed for cars and the common man is still excluded from decision making. Therefore, even if we do find ways to measure these soft aspects of a city, it is more critical to find means to share viewpoints across a wide cross-section of citizens, reach a consensus and get a buy-in, influence policy using the power of community buy-in…..all monumental tasks. Who has the energy and commitment for all of this in a situation where we have to fight the system for something as simple as a plan approval or to get the road before our house repaired? It looks bleak, but somehow somewhere someone will have to find the strength to do this!

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