Public conversations teach us a lot, but can they push us out of gridlocks to act towards co-imagined futures? Musings post an RWA consultation #BoloGurgaon
“..if we still have the luxury of acting as if the system is legitimate, the system will hoist us with our own petard of legitimacy. This is not a counsel of despair, only an analytic judgement, that the crisis will have to be projected as deep, systemic and wide-ranging, before resistance finds a focal point.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s closing paragraph in his column this morning found resonance with my musings earlier today as I read and shared widely this hard hitting piece by Hussein Indorewala on the real estate-ification of our cities. Hussein’s piece lays bare the processes and outcomes of a development paradigm premised on unlocking land value for the benefit of a privileged few as opposed to an understanding of land as a collective good. Even as I read, I wondered how an intelligent reader could reconcile the criticism being leveled at the state, at private interests and at the ‘system’ itself with his own personal aspirations and choices, for a better and more stable life, with its trappings of acquiring homes, occupying improved offices and accessing modern amenities and services. What terms of reference does a mall goer, a corporate executive, a home owner have to interpret Hussein’s writing?
Other disparate events in my life, chiefly my engagement with the #BoloGurgaon campaign, have also been urging me to think deeper about why those of us who do engage with the key debates of our times, feel utterly paralysed by the world around us? Why do we accept the status quo? And why, even when we do act in one area, we are unable to resolve the conflict that arises with our being complicit in acts of exploitation when we assume other identities.
One obvious example is the allegations against elites who campaign for ‘green’ causes: How can elites who are already at the forefront of consuming products like real estate, automobiles, clothes, travel and exotic food that are the worst culprits in carbon emissions, also be leading the Fridays for Future protests and come out in numbers to save forests? How genuine is the solidarity being built between adivasi forest dwellers in Mumbai and elite campaigners for saving the Aarey forest? In an age of anti-elite politics, these campaigners appear as duplicitous to many, even though individuals them have indeed taken enormous strides forward in not only checking their own personal consumption but in exhibiting leadership in sustainable practices in organizations and communities they work and live in. We have seen similar debates in Gurgaon too with the Save Aravalli campaign, which has been enormously successfully in keeping conservation alive as a kay public issue in the city.
Another example could be the struggle to accord dignified working terms to working class individuals we know – domestic help, driver, construction worker – while urging our colleagues and children to negotiate for better wages and working conditions, even as we broadly recognize and stand for the values of freedom, dignity and equality.
To put it bluntly, how do we change the system when we are inside of it, and especially when we are beneficiaries of it? Dr Mehta is hopeful when he dreams of a moment when we will accept that the crisis is “deep, systemic and wide-ranging”. I have less hope. Because these are words we are already using to justify our own positions, to offer excuses to ourselves.
In a recently held meeting with Resident Welfare Association representatives as part of the #BoloGurgaon campaign, this conflict was clear as day. Like in the meeting with street vendors and e-riksha operators, there were rallying calls for unity and consolidation, in order for RWAs to amplify their political voice; a voice they would use to demand services that they should be entitled to as tax paying citizens of Gurgaon city. Equally apparent was their frustration and lack of faith in the ‘system’. The lack of accountability of bureaucrats and the self-interest of politicians were brought up repeatedly as the reasons why the system is dysfunctional. There was little faith in representative democracy and local governments but they hoped that amplifying their voice as a community would elicit response from a system that they admitted was better off centralized (less doors to knock, if door knocking is what one needed to do!). The paradox in this was also not lost on anyone in the room!
What does “deep, systemic and wide-ranging crisis” mean to those who see the system from particular vantage points? To me, the articulation of despondency we heard from RWAs, in which amplified noise was their most coherent strategy for change, is already a recognition of such a crisis. However, there is no imagination yet of how a changed order might look. What will replace the ‘system’? Will that also not be a system of some kind, with its power centres and prescribed channels of access? Who will guarantee that this new creature will be kinder and more efficient that the beast we encounter today?
The vehement response against our proposals on strengthening local government in the Citizen’s Charter tells us that people are not yet ready to back a new system, even when it is designed to put more power into their hands. One part of this resistance is likely coming from the unacknowledged ways in which centralized power provides access to the elite. Another strain of this is the abhorrence that the elite feel for dealing with the everyday rot in municipal systems, rot that the poor face in visceral ways everyday but we as wealthier citizens have been able to shield ourselves from in some measure. To me, conversations might be more useful if we aim to forge unlikely partnerships, is RWA reps would listen to street vendors and vice versa. If we truly acknowledge that crisis is here, we would be moving out of our comfort zones and talking, walking, raising our voices together. That is the future I would imagine, not a solution, but a new terms of engagement at the very least.
In the face of disaster, active citizens are already filling the governance gap; let’s upscale this now!
Owing to an attempted shift to more academic writing and partly in reaction to the few friends who haven’t been too thrilled with my use of this platform to rant, my posts over the past year have been fewer and less about opinion and more about experience. However, what’s the use of nurturing a blog of your own if you cannot occasionally rant!
My peeve today is, unsurprisingly, the flooding many cities across the world are experiencing and the general unpreparedness we have seen in dealing with them. Experts have attributed the higher incidents of flooding to changing patterns of precipitation (in the form of storms, rain, typhoons, cyclones), both in terms of the amount and the timing. Whether or not we link this to climate change, to me, is a moot point right now as we stare at mass destruction and anguish in Houston, eastern India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mumbai.
Reports pour in from friends in Houston, those evacuated worry about their homes, while those who are hunkering down currently safe are concerned about rising waters, survival with limited supplies and to what extent they can help others in distress. While attacks mount on the administration for not heeding warning systems and anticipating the scale of disaster, the focus is on rescue and prevention of further damage, as it should be. In Mumbai too, friends host strangers who are stranded in the vicinity, others despair and curse, life comes to a standstill and the government is unable to answer questions about the absence of warnings and alerts. In both cases, local government did not admit guilt; Houston’s officials have defended their decision to not evacuate ahead of Huricane Harvey, while in Mumbai the government did too little too late. That both cities have had previous experiences with flooding makes this even more unpalatable.
Some of the bad press for Houston is also stemming from its infamous no zoning and limitless growth stance (see here and here), and therein lies an obvious comparison with cities in India where urban sprawl and massive unregulated growth are undeniable realities. In India, this was driven home to us post the December 2015 floods in Chennai (see urban expert KT Ravindran’s piece here); and now, the idea that these disasters are not just nature but considerably exacerbated by human folly has been firmly established. Even as India banks on its cities to become ‘engines of growth’ and economic powerhouses, this dream is seriously challenged by its inability to plan and manage urbanization even in an everyday sense, leave alone in the face of a disaster!
A discussion on how this might be fixed is a long one but I will leave that for another time. For now, I’d like to dwell on how it is not enough to blame the government and the system. We must go beyond this to ask pointed questions and hold them accountable in specific ways. For instance, by displaying maps of floodplains and flood levels juxtaposed with built form, we can demonstrate how the State has disregarded basic environmental logic in its plans. While doing fieldwork in Gurgaon’s urban villages recently, for instance, I recorded vivid accounts from locals about how natural drains and ponds (johads) were covered over by government officials in order to built community centres and roads! These oral histories combined with GIS mapping and government data obtained through RTIs can clearly demonstrate the flaws in planning. But if this evidence remains confined to academic journals and limited circles of activism, it cannot create the pressure needed to prevent more of the same from continuing to happen!
This means that we as citizens need to engage with issues related to development and the environment. We need to move towards active citizenship. I can think of many ways to include citizen oversight over processes of planning and development, but the dream of participatory governance can only come true if we engage pro-actively without first waiting for the government to set up the processes for that engagement. For starters, we can educate ourselves about governance processes in our cities, about issues we face and about the environmental status of our communities, we can organize training sessions to empower citizens to manage disaster relief operations, we can ensure our communities follow laws on waste segregation and disposal, accessibility and water harvesting…..the list of actions we can take is endless and many of us have made commendable beginnings already. Those beginnings need to coalesce into movements that force governments to act!
Beyond this, we need to turn our gaze inward to reflect on how we are part of the problem here. After all, we are the consumers that sprawling development projects and mega infrastructure projects are catering to! We have bought into that ideology (and the imagery) of unlimited growth and ‘world class’ development. Rarely did we think about the environmental consequences of our consumption, rarely did we support those who did voice these concerns. Today, when we shout ourselves hoarse about the failures, we too need to feel a sense of responsibility. The world over, the mantra of sustainable development has focused on the first principle of REDUCE. Of course, this is directly in conflict with capitalistic urges to consume more, but we do need to question where consumption is taking us. We need to ask: Can we become responsible consumers?
These are no longer mere ideological questions, but matters of utmost urgency for citizens living in an age of urbanization, rapid environmental deterioration and yes, climate change! It is no longer enough to encourage our kids to submit cute ‘Save our Planet’ posters to local art contests and consider our jobs done. In an age of paralyzed governance, the citizen must step in to fill the gaps.
A week of exciting talks at CPR!
By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR
With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.
Inclusion in public sector housing
On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of…
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I was taking an undergraduate class for architecture students this morning on housing and urban poverty in India. The discussion was long and winding. We spoke of how the informal city is created and how city managers are trying to resolve issues of varying magnitudes with scarce resources. I tried to bring in a bit of the realism and build on the interconnection of architecture with the social sciences in the classroom.
And then, one student raised her hand and asked me: “All this that you are telling us, does Mr Modi understand it? They way he says things, it’s like a magic wand needs to be waved and stuff will get done!”
Well, well, well! We’re all waiting and watching here….but a lot of us are beginning to worry about how much deep diving government departments are really doing into issues that matter when they are given 100-day diktats to conceptualise schemes to be unrolled in the near future and their prime motivation is to please the PM? Efficiency and speed are commendable, but I do hope it is not at the cost of quality and inclusiveness, especially of those still trapped in poverty.
I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!
I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.
What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.
This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.
The big questions we constantly ask are:
- Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
- If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?
Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.
Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.
Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.
Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.
In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.
We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.
Paul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.
We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.
Hearing from practitioners, government officials, researchers and funders on their experiences in engaging with informality in cities has been quite invigorating. We have spent the last couple of months gearing up for this workshop at micro Home Solutions, mostly focusing on getting on board the right partners and then figuring out logistics. I must say it has been a most satisfying experience to see it come together well.
Informality was a contested term at the day’s first session where URBZ took the lead. Rahul and Matias took exception to the connotation that everything in the informal realm is sans form,the objected to the dichotomies of formal-informal, urban-rural that we cling to and called for a more nuanced understanding if the terms used. The stance generated a lot of debate and their presentation of their Homegrown Cities project fascinated me, in which the strategy is to support local contractors and crowdfund to support cost of expertise, and thus construct houses in informal areas, ultimately to form a cooperative of homegrown homes and a neighbourhood that sustains itself through self-organisation. Quite an undertaking! Be sure to visit their Facebook page and website to know more and contribute!
Nithya and Vinaya from Transparent Chennai had put together a short exercise for all of us. The task of filling out a form to apply for a water and sewage connection scheme by the Chennai water utility as though we were one of three persons they had profiled! Threw up many points. Complexity of paperwork, hidden costs to avail the scheme, eligibility issues, a huge push towards rent seeking behaviour because of the complexities and loopholes. Ineffective for the common man and certainly excludes slum dwellers who really need these services badly! Complimenting this exercise were comments from Patrick Heller on his research on citizenship with regards to accessing basic services. Julia King’s walk through of providing community based sanitation in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony outside Delhi opened the doors for participation by DUSIB (Delhi Shelter improvement Board), which was a great value add and gave the chance for us to ask difficult questions from government officers face to face. I must say all the exchanges were surprisingly respectful and honest.
The concluding session for the day on access to finance saw a micro finance player and National Housing Bank present diametrically opposite approaches to lending for the poor. Lalit Kumar from NHB did a great job of fielding questions from the audience on why schemes like the credit guarantee fund or refinancing for construction of affordable housing are unsuitable for the incremental situation. The takeaway from this was that precious little can be done with formal finance unless govt moves to grant legal titles to slum dwellers. The question of why it is such a no-no to experiment with higher risk when MFIs have has such good experiences with repayment was well taken. Sandeep Farias from Elevar Equity who was moderating the session along with CPR‘s Partha Mukhopadhyay, suggested an ‘incremental’ build up towards finance schemes that incorporate more risk. Quite appropriate, given the day’s discussions
Looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on building safety and disaster preparedness in incremental communities and a closing panel that discusses ways forward for policy.
So much fun to have my nearly nine-year old write on my blog! Udai (and his parents) had quite an experience trying to get him a new passport at the Passport Seva Kendra in Gurgaon. You could say we spent some quality time together. I would say it is a waste of time when things could be much simpler and faster! Here is his very to the point description…
A day at the passport office
I was thinking ‘how much time it would take to make the passport?’ when we reached. When the form checking person checked our form he sent us to the A.P.O [a scary dragon lady]. She checked our form too. She said an affidavit was missing. Then we made the affidavit. We got sent to the A.P.O again. This time there was a problem with an ID. Then papa went to print it in a better way. We got our brown file at last [that got us a token number].
After some time we went to counter A [where the TCS staff verified and scanned documents]. We had it done quickly. We waited to go to B counter and we made a joke- the “bees are not buzzing”! This was because the counters closed for lunch for one hour and we had to wait. Then we cleared the B counter [where the Passport officials verified the documents as well, asking strange questions and with stern expressions on their faces]. Then we did the C counter quickly [a final check and cancellation of the old passport if new one is granted] and it was finished. The whole thing took us from 10:45 in the morning till 4 in the evening.
I must tell you though, that it has been a week today and the passport shows no signs of arriving. The status still shows it is under process even though I have a ‘granted’ receipt in my possession! I suppose I have to wait till the police bother to verify. Sigh!
So it’s official. No less than 59% of us Indians are dissatisfied with the state of India and most of us blame the government for the sorry state of affairs. I agree, it’s frustrating. When we read the news, watch TV, talk with friends about politics, caste wars, molested women, apathetic cops, poverty, torture, espionage, violence, potholes, road rage, it is natural to feel helpless. We think of ourselves as victims, powerless figures that cannot make a difference. I feel that way too. But I know that is the root of the problem, this viewing of problems as residing on someone elses plate.
Each one of us are contributing to the state of affairs and we need to look into ourselves first. Little things matter, and not just in the sense of little drops constituting an ocean. Rather, they matter because if you get the attitude right for little things, there is a chance you will have a more balanced perspective for the larger picture as well.
For instance, I can visualize many homes that tut-tut at the Guwahati molestation incident, but do not raise their sons to respect women. Many middle class parents talk about gender equality, but refuse to send their daughters to study away from home because she is a ‘girl’, even at the cost of her missing an excellent opportunity. And so and so forth, issues related to safety and dignity for women seem particularly hard to crack. We’ve been a chauvinistic society for centuries, but this degeneration into completely obstinate and meaningless gender disparity is scary on many levels. We live with so much fear that its impossible to view the problem in an objective manner. We’ve got so used to this discourse, that the anger that seethes over every time something horrific happens simply vanishes in a while, leading us back to our state of complacence.
So what can we do? For starters, let’s reinforce the positivity in our life. Let’s renounce the philosophy of fear and protectiveness. Let’s make small efforts to be nice to people around us, the people we meet in the lift, on the streets, on the way to work, the office boy, the maid, the person next to you in the Metro. It’s made a huge difference to my personal attitude since I decided to smile at everyone that catches my eye on my way to work. Perhaps some people think I’m batty, but at least I give them entertainment!
As I read endless tweets denouncing the Guwahati molestation and the crazy Panchayat decision from Bhagpat, UP that trates women like cattle, I made a decision. On the days I find negative information washing away my enthusiasm for life, I shall look for the positives and blog about them. Enough in enough! I do not believe this life isn’t worth living any more, nor am I prepared to give up on the future. Against reason, I seek the positives…take special note, my friend who wants me to change my blog name to grumblinginthecity! 🙂