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.
Gurgaon, the city that has been my home for over 15 years, is infamous for the stark contrast between its gleaming office buildings and crumbling infrastructure. It is a city that exploded its seams in a little more than a decade (coinciding with the time I have lived here) through the land accumulation and development by private sector real estate companies working in close cahoots with politicians to ensure conducive regulation and laissez-faire governance. A city that attracted well-educated globe trotters and young BPO workers from mid-town India, but also poorly educated rural migrants from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal to work informal sector jobs in manufacturing, construction, transport, security and domestic work. While the city’s ‘planned’ development trajectory has sprouted numerous gated communities that house the former, the latter occupy the crevices of the city as renters in urban villages and unauthorised colonies. With State assembly elections looming ahead, some of us are asking uncomfortable questions, aiming to provoke thought about the real problems Gurgaon’s residents face. And by doing so, articulating a Citizen’s Charter of demands for candidates for the MLA seats from Gurgaon and Badshahpur.
Today’s blog post draws on conversations at a joint meeting of two collectives representing street vendors and e-rickshaw operators in Gurgaon, held on 29th September; it asks: What are the daily struggles and aspirations of Gurgaon’s urban poor? How can a Citizen Charter best articulate these?
Now, street vendors and e-riksha drivers are not natural collaborators; in fact, they are engaged in an everyday tussle over space in the city, as they jostle for spots at the edges of roads. A lack of space to earn their livelihoods is the key issue they brought forward. Not just space, they talked about a lack of services that are vital for them, like clearance of waste bins and dhalaos and the availability of drinking water and public toilets at their places of work. Far from a litany of complaints, these men and women proposed solutions: the creation of e-riksha stands, the implementation of the Street Vendors Act, and road designs with lanes for high speed and low speed vehicles, for cyclists, pedestrians, e-rikshas and for vendors too! In another conversation, e-riksha drivers proposed a redesign of the public transport system by enhancing and recognizing their role in providing sustainable and affordable last mile connectivity for buses and the Metro. Not educated? Many of their suggestions sounded more intelligent than the expert opinions we hear in conferences and seminars!
Everyday experiences of violence and harassment were common to both groups, as well as the experience of systemic corruption in which the agents of local politicians, police personnel and the local government bureaucracy constantly demanded bribes from them in return for temporary reprieves from harassment. The harassment was not only for ‘illegal’ activity or illegal occupation of space however; many vendors complained that they were being accused of dirtying the streets when in fact the municipal workers and contractors deliberately did not clear refuse from their vending areas.
Fiery youth leaders, men and women, spoke at the meet about the need to organize and resist this constant oppression but giving up a day’s work to protest was also clearly a struggle for many. I was struck by the broader narrative of business being very slow. Some in the group were, till recently, factory workers and supervisors and had recently been laid off! It was apparent to me that the numbers of those in the informal sector was rising everyday, but there were no plans to accommodate their livelihoods or create new opportunities for the poor, many of whom were migrants who had been in Gurgaon for varying lengths of time. Even as minor wins were reported from protests within the city, there were volunteers being lined up for a larger agitation at Delhi the next morning!
The meeting helped us add specific demands about the needs of informal sector workers in Gurgaon. We demand spaces for them to pursue their livelihood, and an enabling ecosystem that, instead of oppressing them, integrates them into supply chains for goods and services. However, the detailed stories about corruption drive home to me a key point: Gurgaon’s economy is in trouble, and rent seeking is the one sure means to earn money. The city, like others across the country, is a stage on which a macabre and elaborate dance is being staged; a dance in which those with relative power relentlessly prey on the powerless to capture rents, not just at the cost of lower incomes but also of the health and well being of residents. Rupturing this cycle should be the citizen’s overarching and clear demand!