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The poignancy of an abandoned home: Voyeurism and research in Tangtou #ShenzhenDiaries

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.

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thumb__DSC0554_1024.jpgOur 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?

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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.

On washbasins and ageing… and then some!

I stood at the bathroom sink this morning, washing my face and brushing my teeth. I saw it with new eyes (I’ve been displaced from my bedroom and my usual home habitat for two weeks owing to a knee surgery, my room being on the upper level of my home).

I saw tiny cracks on the ceramic. Rivulets merging into rivers.

Wrinkles. Signs of age.

In a flash, I realised how distasteful the thought of decorating was to me today. In the process of recovering from surgery and inadvertently contemplate age and ageing, I found great comfort in those cracks I saw this morning. We’ve been living in this house for over 7 years now. We retrofitted the poorly designed interiors with love and care before we moved in, not focusing on the fancy but really prioritising comfort. And these objects that have lived with us, toilet fixtures and walls, built-in cupboards and floor boards, have served us well. Been not spectators, but participants, in our daily experiences. Gah! I’m being sentimental about bathroom fixtures now?

And the my mind rambled a bit more…..

Is the growing obsession with redecorating our homes, expecting them to be perfect all the time, a way of warding off the insecurity that comes with ageing? Especially for us, the middle age people, all scrunched between 30 and 50, seeking our identities still and staking a place for ourselves in the world, are we loathe to accept age in not just us, but in everything around us too?

I’m blogging this before I over-analyse because I think it’s an interesting train of thought! Of course, redecorating will wash over me one of these days and a giant gush of impulsive and glorious creativity will drown me. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the tiny cracks and the stained walls as the wonderful signs of a busy and ordinary home!

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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Connectivity is key and transit oriented development the future- July 11, 2022

Experts tell us that many of today’s urban problems are related to the lack of connections between people and their workplaces. That makes me wonder at the relationship between reactive planning and planning for the future. In India, cities are constantly playing catch up in terms of the planning process. This is so ingrained that even new urban centres make little effort to plan ahead, assuming that corrective action can always be taken.
It surprises me that employers make the choice to locate in areas that are inaccessible. By public transport at least. In Gurgaon, certainly, employers were lured by better quality and relatively affordable commercial office space, but I doubt they exerted adequate pressure on the developers and the government to deliver on access and public transport. The dependence on automobiles, largely personal cars, is unquestioned. Not much is being said about the loss of productivity as a result of ridiculously long and stressful commutes to work. Not to mention the cascading effect on the lives of employees in terms of less family and leisure time, etc. People end up feeling ‘disconnected’ in many ways, not just in terms of access between home and work.
Does this mean cities should not permit the development of office space except along planned transit routes? In today’s urban scenario in India, this is nearly impossible. Developers will respond to the growing demand for space and governments will play catch up for many more years. But it is possible perhaps for new urban extensions to plan transit for the next couple of decades so that future development configures itself around it. This is happening to an extent in the case of the Delhi Metro. Transit oriented development is a sane choice for future and Indian cities must introspect and make it happen. In the interests of sustainability, resource management and sanity!

Snapshots from visiting ‘affordable’ housing projects in Bangalore- May 31, 2012

Affordability is relative, for sure. But when those who profess to be socially inclined build ‘affordable’ projects that are clearly catering to techies and professionals, I wonder who they think they are fooling. It is far easier to accept and understand mistakes in judgement made by a social developer when you clearly see their affordable projects are designed for low-income people. Yes, it is a hard market, but no, playing with nomenclature isn’t really fair. Yet, they say all is fair in low, war and business. And when profits get hit, strategies are known to go haywire and even the vision statement changes.

We saw two projects in Bangalore. The first, by Janaagraha, is an impressive project. One that appeals and invites even as you approach it, one that has tried its best to play fair, but also one with many loose ends (no electricity supply, stilted parking that cannot be accessed really because of crazy slope designs). The quality of construction is commendable and families we interviewed were thrilled to live here.

The second, by VBHC, was swank, used an efficient aluminum formwork technology to achieve efficiency, speed and quality. Safety, excellent finishes and the planning of the site smacked of middle class customers and sure enough, the prices range between 7 and 20 lakhs, with few units at the lower end and many more at the higher end of the price spectrum. Young IT professionals seems to be the target customer here; no auto drivers or factory workers would live here I think.

It was very interesting to see both these projects. The baby steps to what is hopefully set to grow into a more robust, well developed market in the future, to which the ratings we are working on will contribute. Here are a few snapshots from the site visits. Keep in mind- What I click is what I feel, not what I want to show you, the reader!

The skeleton

Satisfied customer #1

Satisfied customer #2

Hard hats

Nipesh with his inimitable grin!

Barefaced lie- The smallest apartment cost 9.2L. Talk about hidden costs!

Coming to terms with my hypocrisy: Urban vs Suburban in India- May 23, 2012

I don’t like the concept of a gated community, yet I live in one. I believe traveling by public transport is the right thing to do as well as immensely enjoyable and cheaper, yet I admit I do drive to work at least half the time. My action towards conserving electricity is to set my air conditioner’s thermostat to 27 degrees C instead of the preset 24 degrees C.  I can no longer live comfortably without air conditioning.

Someone asked me today whether they should invest in a posh apartment somewhere in Noida that would be delivered four years later, or buy a flat in a not-so-upmarket but conveniently located South Delhi neighborhood. I began to tell them about lifestyle choices and how, once they are made, they trap you in their iron grip, dictating your daily choices thereafter!

We should know! We moved to Gurgaon as renters initially. We were about to have a baby a few months down the line and where we lived in South Delhi, we couldn’t envision being able to even take the baby for a walk in a pram! The secure, open, green spaces and childrens’ play areas in Gurgaon’s gated colonies made perfect sense at that time and continue to do so now. Neighboring families were kind of clones of ours- similar age group, life stage, backgrounds, lifestyles, even aspirations at times. And so we bought into this lifestyle. We did not, however, bargain for a car trip for daily shopping and a completely automobile dependent urban environment where crossing a road could lead to a mental breakdown!

Inside the above-mentioned not-so-upmarket South Delhi neighborhood, afternoons are drowsy and evenings lively. Neighbors fight over water supply and often have nothing in common, but it’s possible to get all your household supplies within walking distance. Ice cream can run out at ten in the night in the middle of a dinner party and it would just mean running round the corner to replenish your stock!

I’m comparing the above two scenarios because price-wise, a family would have to make this sort of choice. I made mine for specific reasons, but now I live a life at complete odds with my ideological stance. Is that hypocrisy? Yes, it is. Can I or would I change that? No easy answers to that!

Exhausting yet totally satisfying: A great party at home- March 30, 2012

At the absolute end of a marathon day of cleaning, organising and finally experiencing a birthday party for a four year old and a thirty six year old, I can safely say that I am wiser, richer (and not monetarily) and completely bushed!
There are many arguments for and against hosting a party at home. On the down side, it’s stressful, physically exhausting, chaotic, and you do get the impression that you haven’t spent enough time with your friends. And the cleaning up after a daunting task. The picture at the bottom shows you how much trash came out of a party for over 70 adults and 25 kids. And this is when only a part of the serving was done in disposables.
All this said, its simply not the same hosting a party in a commercial location. It’s not a personal space, you don’t get the same feel of closeness and camaraderie. Kids are a lot more comfy in a home than in a club or restaurant or banquet facility. On the commercial side, hosting a party at home is a lot cheaper (we calculated it would have cost us ten times outside). The garbage generated is probably one tenth of the wastage a caterer would incur, behind the scenes of course!
All in all, even though I am totally exhausted, I feel loved, happy and satisfied. Those who can come home, handle the chaos and the noise (and some garbage lying around); those who can be guests and also help out with the serving and washing dishes; those who do not stand on formality and accept us for who we are- those are the friends, the family who truly matter! Thanks all! And promise to post pics later!

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