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Conflicting realities in rural India & the need for inclusive development- Oct 25, 2012

Watching Chakravyuh just after we came back from the village makes me wonder about how much a person’s point of view informs their own reality, how much realities differ from person to person and how confusing it is to unravel these multiple perspectives in an attempt to see things for what they really are. But that’s the thing, reality is not absolute.

In Chakravyuh, Prakash Jha exposes us to the multiple realities of Naxalism. The State perceives them as terrorists, while they believe they fight for the rights of the tribals. In a situation where the very meaning of the development is conflicting- with tribals rejecting any form of development that devours land and resources and the State believing that industrialization is the only viable form development can take- this is a fight in which it’s hard to even take sides. And that is brought out well in the film.

Back in Jalwara, we got disturbing feedback on local politics and economics and much of it conflicted with our urban perceptions of rural issues. As landowners, our family is finding it tough to find adequate labor to work in the fields. Apparently, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or commonly known as NREGA incentivizes people to not work as they get paid a minimum number of hours whether or not they work. At crunch times, landowners have to request officials to delay NREGA payouts so that they get people to work the fields. Of course, the other point of view is that landowners can pay more than what the NREGA offers which is minimum wage and get around this. In fact, NREGA has been responsible for labor wages shooting up across the nation and in that sense, it has benefited the poor. Analysts have also proven that NREGA creating shortage of labor is simply a myth and that the rural poor would not logically opt to work for lesser wages paid weekly, fortnightly or even monthly by NREGA if better wages were paid daily by employers. I don’t understand the economics of this in detail, but this debate is another confirmation that we need better systems to manage, monitor and deliver subsidies so that people get paid for work they actually do. Plus, the gap between demand for labor and supply of workforce needs to be managed as well in some manner, though ideally the market should take care of this by itself.

Another disturbing piece of news was that the Naxals have tried to cross over from neighboring Madhya Pradesh into the Baran district in Rajasthan, hoping to recruit local tribals like the Sahariyas. Fortunately, these Sahariyas, as one landowner in Jalwara referred to caustically as the ‘tigers’ of Baran district, the hot shots, the guys who get all the resources. A recent editorial by Harsh Mander on this community highlights the fact that malnutrition and death by starvation continue to be a reality today, even though much less than before. Pretty much the only thing that keeps the Naxals out at this point is the special Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) that gives every Sahariya household 35 kgs of wheat a month and keeps them away from starvation. The same article reports, however, that these tribals gets only 10-25 days of work a year instead of the 200 days they are entitled to by the NREGA.

Coming back to Chakravyuh, effective governance in poverty struck areas of this country is critical. We don’t realize it, but as a nation we are very close to being in a situation of complete anarchy. Imagine a life when you will not be able to step out of your home without firearms, your children will lead a life of privilege and constant, unrelenting fear, fear of the poor who will strike back at every opportunity. The disparities are growing and we desperately need to innovate means to make development more inclusive. There is a big job out there. And unless we see inclusive growth as a real objective and not just a fancy word, we’re in trouble indeed!

 

An open ended education environment: Positive examples and the need to experiment- Sep 21, 2012

As if on cue, following yesterday’s post about the need to give students a more challenging and enriched learning environment, mHS had a visit from an enthusiastic young man called Brian today representing the University of Minnesota’s ACARA program. From what I understood, the program asks undergraduate and graduate students to prepare a business plan for an identified need in the development sector. The University partners with academic institutions in India and students work in mixed groups of Indian and American students. The business plans are then presented to a jury and a couple of winners selected, which then get helped in terms of mentoring, investor contacts or simply funding for feasibility studies, depending on the group’s intent.

Previously, the program specified a particular area of work, but in its new avatar, students are being put through a three week immersion exercise and will then decide on their own what sort of needs they want to address through their solutions. This change was made because they found previous graduates of the program have veered off their conventional career paths to opt for more socially aware jobs. Some have gone on to set up new organizations working in the development sector in different parts of the world.

Clearly, someone thinks allowing students to decide basis their interests and motivation brings out the best in them. And doing their best in turn inspires confidence, which is certainly the key to creating positive, motivated and solution-oriented professionals.

The change the program has undergone exemplifies the new thinking in education. A move from top-down to bottom-up, as those familiar with development-speak would see it! And that’s primarily what I wanted to highlight through today’s post. That even as we theorize about the changes we want to see, those are happening already, in India and elsewhere. Hope is alive as long as we continue to experiment.

 

 

Dumbed down education, dumb professionals, a numb future? Sep 20, 2012

The world has changed immensely since we went through the motions of being ‘educated’. not just in terms of technology and the amount of information available, but in the perspective of educationists now viewing the student as an active participant, one influential in the process of education rather than as a mere recipient of knowledge.

Today’s youth, in my perception with the interactions that I have had through teaching in an architecture college (SPA) and through interactions with schoolchildren at various stages, are fitted with bright and super-agile minds. However, there is a wide variety in background which impacts their ability to perform in an academic environment.

One one hand,  many students may come to the education system with handicaps. In architecture college, for instance, kids from rural or peri-urban backgrounds often have a hard time understanding references to lifestyles and expectations that teachers assume are obvious and simple to comprehend. Language of instruction is another common challenge for non-English speakers.

On the other hand, most kids love rising to a challenge and lose motivation when the system does not challenge them. So you have a split situation, in which some students are struggling to come to a reasonable level, while many others are barely making an effort, complacent that the minimum effort will be enough! The only way the conventional education system has to tackle this is to dumb stuff down. Keep expectations at an average, make things simple and obvious, make process overarchingly important so as to almost relegate content to the backburner.

I do see the benefits of giving kids a free hand though. Almost every one of my friends who has taught design studio has expressed that their students were motivated when they were allowed to be innovative and could take some decisions about their work for themselves. Even so-called average students produced exciting results when they were pressurized, encouraged and cajoled to better themselves. The trick appears in offering a framework for problem solving and allowing the solutions to evolve rather than a top-down approach of asking kids to pick from a menu of pre-made existing solutions.

For the field of architecture and urban design, this ability to weave in elements of research, design, planning and policy into a cohesive and workable solution is critical. By continuing to dumb down architectural education, we run the risk of creating yet another generation of incapable professionals who will end up becoming slaves of unworkable bureaucratic visions or worse, of the rampant profiteering schemes of vested interests. If we aren’t investing in the professionals of the future by offering them an academic environment fraught with challenges, where risk is possible and even welcome, we should numb ourselves and be prepared for the possibile demise of the increasingly urban economy that India is becoming.

Goa: A green like no other- July 27, 2012

The familiar drive from Dabolim Airport to Caranzalem. By now, even Udai knows the shortcuts and landmarks. Every single time I stare enthralled by the beauty unfolding with each turn. Monsoon is a particularly good time to come to Goa. The beaches are not on priority, but the verdant rich green seeps through me; a healing green, a soothing green, a green that spells prosperity, hope and life. I love it! I miss it, this particular green of the Konkan coastal belt. The sheer variety of hues, with the fresh green of standing paddy fields and the darker hue of the coconut palms highlighted by the greys of the overcast skies.
Of course, my associations are strongly influenced by the warmth and love of family, the feeling of coming home. I am happy each time to see the marshy backwaters. And fervently hope they remain. That the fate of this blessed land might (is, cynically speaking) be in the hands of the greedy is a heartbreaking thought. I wish it were possible to hold up Goa as a model of sustainable development. Utopian thought perhaps, but certainly one fit for the future.
Some captures from the drive home. Enjoy the green!

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Trampling cultures, identities in the quest for ‘development’: Can we find a middle ground? #Posco #tribals #India- June 22, 2012

Read late into the night, after a while. ‘Two pronouns and a verb’ by Kiran Khalap. A story about three friends, destiny, relationships, strength, and searching for who you really are. The language is beautiful, even though the story is simple enough. The characters come alive. But this post is not about the book.

It’s about one aspect of the book that is haunting me. Dhruv, one of the three protagonists, makes working with the Madia Gond tribals of Maharashtra his life’s work. The mission of his Madia Rights Centre, set up with the objective of “returning to the madias, the original inhabitants of the land, their constitutional rights”. After many decades of documentation and struggle, Dhruv and his friends succeed in convicting the three contractors who were the mafia behind the rampant destruction of these teak forests.

This morning, as I read Freny Manecksha’s heart rending editorial in The Hindu about the plight of the villages resisting the Posco plant in Odisha, I found myself in tears. I just had this sense that, in reality, there is no one or very very few who understand the story from the tribal perspective and there is probably no possibility of a happy ending for the tribals. Everyone-the state, the industry and even the Naxalites- exploit them. These people who are one with nature, who weep for the river running dry, who hide within the folds of their unique culture many precious secrets about life-saving plants, who truly believe in equality between men and women and who value the life of each child….. And here we are, the so-called developed or developing world, hypocrites, opportunists, drunken with greed and fear for our survival (survival of the world we call it, as if we are the world!)…here we are, telling the sons and daughters of nature what is right, what is good for them, what they ought to do, how they ought to live….it’s rather lopsided, that logic if you ask me.

And yet, like everything else, we must find the middle ground. Between the need to fuel our reckless consumption and the need to protect their isolation. Between certain disaster and the end of life as we know it. Between bleakness and hope.

A vibrant construction industry based on shoddy treatment of laborers? Shame! 1 May, 2012

At work, I’m part of a team working to set up a system for certifying affordable housing projects. The initiative is that of the Ashoka Innovators for the Public and we at mHS are working on the aspects of the rating system that would impact the low-income community.

Anyway, during our discussions, we often come to the point where we wonder if the rating should consider whether the contractor uses ethical and legal practices for treatment and payment meted out to labor working on the project. If they use child labor, for instance, or use sub-standard shelter to house their labor, they should drop lower in the ratings, we think.

Today, on the occasion of Labor Day, The Hindu carried an excellent editorial written by Moushumi Basu on the subject. She spells out clearly the Acts contractors and construction companies violate when they pay lower wages, do not build decent shelter, do not ensure safe conditions for work, etc. Moreover, developers and construction companies who have ridden the wave of India’s GDP growth (and continue to do so despite slower growth) have no business to do this at the cost of the labor that works for them. It is a sad tale of mistreatment of those who have no voice. Besides the legality, where’s the humanity here? Would it really hurt to pass on a tiny bit of your profits towards improving the lives of those that made your projects possible, often risking their lives, migrating far from their homes?

So in our ratings projects, we’re really wondering….how do we factor in the humanity/ethics (or lack of these) of developers into ratings for affordable housing, where profit margins are lower than regular projects, when they fail to factor in regular projects where profit margins are decent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bangalore musings: Hope in the face of rampant development March 12, 2012

Bangalore. I associate the name with long walks with my grandfather in Koramangala back in the days when only a few plots there were developed, visits to the kids library at the Century club, ice cream, time in the pool, fresh tomato juice, videos on rent and my grand mums (amamma’s) fabius cooking. And endless hours spent exploring their house and garden, attempts at making a Kolam before the tulsi plant that no one laughed at, and getting a new toothbrush at every visit. A green city, a quiet city that attracted retirees, whose grand kids (like me) visited in summer.
As I drive out from Bangalore’s swank new airport towards town, I see a city growing with a vengeance. New roads, many more roads and flyovers in the making, countless hoardings advertising high end real estate projects, concrete batching plants, shacks selling building material. Coming from Gurgaon, I recognise the signs of boomtown.
But I worry. About sustaining the sprawl. About the loss of quality of life. About strangling the older spirit of the city in the glitter of new development. Garden City, this used to be. Today it’s not trees but people and cars we are accommodating. I mourn and yet I hope. Against hope.

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Goa for Goans: My state needs governance, development and a new vision, NOT exploitation! March 06, 2012

A lot of newsprint has been dedicated to Goa in Delhi’s newspapers thanks to the elections. At least a lot more than nothing, which is usually the case! This morning, a heartfelt editorial by Sharon Fernandes in the Hindustan Times outlined the urgent need for a holistic vision for Goa’s development. Hurt by the stereotype of Goans as beer loving party animals, she argues rightly that Goa’s citizens have the same needs as others–jobs, better infrastructure especially in the face of growing real estate development and tourism, planned development, quality of life. I agree with her view; it is a pity that Goa is so totally focused on tourism. While tourism creates jobs, there is little to challenge the many intelligent and highly qualified citizens in the state. Many Goans leave the state with a heavy heart because they have no opportunities in Goa.

As if to confirm Sharon’s views, as BJP’s win in Goa hit news channels, a friend put up a status message on Facebook saying “Damn.. Its a Sad day for Goa..
If BJP wins Goa then its No Sex, No Drugs, No Alcohol please, We’re BJP.. :p
we shud rename Go-A as Go-away..”

As a proud Goan, I was loath to take that in good humor. A beautiful state that retains its simplicity and lure even in the face of blatant exploitation by its own politicians and irresponsible tourism deserves good governance. If the people (81% of Goans exercised their franchise this time) vote for BJP, it is because they believe the party will give them a better deal, a better life and not just milk the state without giving anything back to it’s people. Of course, what really happens remains to be seen.

Beyond good governance, Goa needs new ideas, a new vision and a passion to transform it into a sustainable paradise, not one with an expiry date! For instance, why can’t Goa become a hub for high-tech, R&D and other knowledge industries that utilizes (and attracts) highly qualified people, and causes relatively less pollution, and occupies relatively less space than conventional industry? Why can’t it be a hub for higher education, maybe even online education or remote medicine, or any other use that does not encourage in-migration in volume and increases the GDP of the state. In turn, sustainable tourism and eco-cities must be the norm in a state as small and manageable as Goa. It can set an example for the world. It is the one of the only places I know of that is so culturally diverse yet community-centric, close-knitted yet open-minded and welcoming, warm yet proud. Goa deserves better, Goans deserve better. And I sure do hope the new government can do justice to the aspirations of the Goan people!

Excited about elections: Anecdotes from middle class voters across India- Feb 29, 2012

Election fever is all around. And this time round, I’m seeing the voters I know getting excited about things, for the first time in my living memory. I’m talking middle class, salaried people, not known for their love of the poll booth and most of who are happy to indulge in armchair discussions without any real political affiliations.

Perhaps we should thank Anna and his team for this gift to the nation- some sort of awakening of the middle class voter towards his responsibilities as opposed to his usual emphasis on rights (voter turnout has been increasing steadily for local and assembly elections throughout India and many voters claim to vote for development and not traditional reasons like caste). Or perhaps its my eyes that have opened, late in life.

A few weeks ago, at a wedding in Lucknow, much of the discussion among the local guests was about the impending voting in the city, which was to be the following Sunday. Rahul Gandhi’s every gesture was analyzed and Akhilesh Yadav seemed to have impressed quite  a few with moves that reminded old timers of the Mulayam of their youth! Strangely, it was unclear what the election issues were from these conversations, the focus was entirely on the personalities!

Last night, a chat conversation with my cousin Pooja who lives in Goa spoke of the absolute excitement about the elections in our constituency of St Cruz, a bit outside Panjim. The villagers are being wooed by promises of better infrastructure and connectivity and of course, the possibility of real estate development is a huge lure for politicians in wards surrounding Goa’s large cities, where several residential projects are mushrooming in a rather haphazard manner.

An infamously corrupt and flamboyant local politician Babush Monsterrat from nearby Talegaon, she told me, was contesting from St Cruz this time round. Of course, his wife was contesting from their home seat, which got us into a discussion about women often being dummy candidates.

Last week, I was having dinner with friends, one of whom is from Pune. The recently concluded elections for the 152 seats of the Pune Municipal Corporations, this friend informed me, resulted in 51% of the seats occupied by women  corporators, who number 78 as opposed to 74 men. This means that beyond the reserved seats, several women have won general seats as well. The number of woman applicants this year was 1,260 as against 2,080 men. The NCP and Congress gave tickets to 76 women, out of which 24 NCP and 14 Congress woman leaders secured a place in the House. Again, many of these could be dummy candidates put up by male politicians (husbands, fathers) who are seeing a decline in their political fortunes, or have criminal charges against them, or are embroiled in some controversy. Even so, locals feel there are many noteworthy, serious women politicians in power, which is a heartening thought.

It is unclear what these changes mean for our cities and citizens. Unfortunately, better voter turnout in a democracy does not result in better politicians, better governance or better accountability. More needs to be done to make politicians accountable to the people, and a lot needs to be done to mobilize communities to debate issues, list priorities and place adequate pressure on governments and bureaucracies to perform; but getting the middle class slightly more excited about elections is a good start, don’t you think?

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