I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!
Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.
From a politics of exclusion to a society of inclusion and diversity: Can we move in the right direction?
It is hard to miss the irony in calling Bal Thackeray as nationalist and paying him last respects with “full state honors” considering his politics was divisive, which is what attacking immigrants from within India as outsiders certainly is. Many on twitter and even Markandey Katju have elucidated the essential conflict between Thackeray’s propagation of the idea of ‘bhoomiputra’ or sone of the soil, and what the Indian state is founded on- a belief that everyone born in India, anywhere, is a citizen in equal right. We Indian do not know it, but we are incredibly lucky to live in a nation where moving from one city to another, from State to another, is rather easy. In fact, mobility has increased considerably over the decades alongside rapid urbanization in India. In India’s cities, most social interactions begin with an elucidation of how diverse, multilingual, multicultural we are as individuals. Our exposure to cultures within the nation that are other than the one we are born into endows upon us a certain sheen of understanding and sophistication that most of us wear with pride. Our diversity enriches us, helps us bridge gaps and find common ground, even bailing us out in adverse circumstances at work and otherwise. Or at least, that has been my experience.
Migration has been a favorite subject of study for me, for the longest time. In my view, societies within a geographical frame of reference can be categorized as those who are against immigrants and those who welcome them. Of course, the response varies from immigrants from different social classes, economic classes, caste, religion, etc. But essentially, immigrants are resented because they are perceived to impinge on resources that are scarce. And residents feel they have a higher claim on these resources (jobs, water, land, infrastructure, etc) than those coming in from the outside. Yet, migrants come in to fill specific needs that the city/region is unable to meet with the existing resources. Unless there is opportunity, migrants would not come in. Governments and private investment create an economic climate that attracts migrants; and measures to keep migrants out through artificial means (not allowing land/residency rights like in China, quotas for jobs) are simply illogical in a nation like India where the Constitution confers equal rights on all citizens irrespective of state of origin.
We are therefore obliged to develop an inclusive approach to people from diverse backgrounds. A rational approach to the conservation, allocation and management of resources is a better way to deal with the issues that are arising than using violence to exclude some and favor others.
Of course, the matter of identity is one that is emotionally charged. To manage the sense of identity in a globalizing world where mobility and migration are only going to increase, is a serious challenge. This, more than others, is an intensely political issue and political parties worldwide have always been quick to step into this space and play with people’s minds and hearts. It is very easy to succumb to the psyche of fear and believe that our best way forward is to protect ourselves and ‘our own’, while pushing ‘others’ away. However, our lives are too intertwined to be able to define who is who- who is ‘apna’ and who is ‘paraiah’. Those definitions change with age, exposure, circumstance, sometimes even from day to day.
Of late, I have been gripped by the fear that India is imploding, that we are disintegrating into a chaotic state where we will no longer be able to make sense of our world. That we are moving into a psyche of fear and paranoia, a state of mind to which communalism, regionalism, casteism and any kind of similar ‘ism’ appears like a safe refuge from the ‘other’.
I want to desperately fight for the last breaths of fresh, rational, liberal air. I want to believe that the democratic tools that we are lucky to be entitled to can give us a way out of the chaos. I want to know if India’s liberal voices can become more politically engaged and move beyond intellectual debate, which is very important indeed. But we do need to do more. We need to make the tone of discussion and engagement calmer, move away from the shrill shrieking finger-pointing circus that politics and media have become and address real issues, make sense of the chaos for ourselves and motivate people around to do so as well. That is the only way forward that makes sense to me at this point.