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For the socially inclined, satisfaction and challenges go hand in hand- May 30, 2012

I had the interesting experience today of traveling two hours in a car with people I had met at a workshop, who I did not know too well. Since we were all more or less strangers, only the two of us being from the same organisation, someone came up with the idea of each one sharing their life story with the others.
It was fascinating to learn what factors motivate people, what inspires them and how sensibilities are shaped. We were all here to work on a ratings project for affordable housing. Four out of the five of us were intelligent professionals who had experience in many areas, but had recognised in ourselves a clear social leaning. And yet we had arrived there via different paths.
I do not really remember when I recognised in myself a bent towards social causes. Perhaps the first seeds were sown by my parents. As doctors, they had a tremendous drive to benefit the common man and work for the larger good. I remember snatches of conversations that my dad had when we lived in Mumbai in the early and mid 80s. Friends used to try hard to convince him to make more money by entering private practice, but he never wavered. I grew up living on campuses of government hospitals across India. Service to people and service to my country were values I imbibed by my parents’ example.
It was perhaps no accident that I drifted into a profession like urban planning. Once in this field though, the challenge of working with the government in any form and the damage to the urban sector created by a host of poorly visioned schemes and policies are enough to make me feel terribly pessimistic at times. Professionals and organisations in this space are desperately trying to evolve mechanisms to create workable win-win partnerships that can impact the quality of our cities. Community engagement is key here, but we currently do not know how to efficiently tap the community as a resource. In social housing, we struggle with how to adapt best practices to diverse situations and how to scale up solutions to benefit larger numbers and offer economies of scale to attract private enterprise into the sector. More questions than answers, but at least lots of people are asking lots of questions!

Cities & identity: How Gurgaon shaped mine! March 16, 2012

We often read about cities having an identity. Sadly, our city of Gurgaon has a bit of a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality. While those far from it perceive it as the Millenium City of skyscrapers and dapper architecture, those who live in it cannot look past its potholes, messy traffic, soul-less-ness and, increasingly, its brash criminality and lack of safety for anyone, not just women.

Gurgaon, a city caught between the Middle Ages and the 22nd century....

In a recent tweetchat hosted by thisbigcity, an award winning sustainable cities blog that covers innovations in urban design, architecture, culture, technology, transport and the bicycle, identity was discussed in some detail by experts the world over. Interestingly (and scarily in the context of Gurgaon), the lead question was about how your city has shaped your identity. Anyone Gurgaon resident wanting to take a potshot at answering this is welcome to comment on this post and it promises to be an interesting compilation!

But really, how would I answer that? I can articulate clearly how other cities I have lived in have shaped my identity. Chandigarh, I barely remember, but Mumbai and Lucknow play a significant role in my life, a role I have described before. And my years of studying architecture and working in Delhi have certainly made me more independent, more aggressive in getting heard, less trusting perhaps but also helped me seek pleasure from the complexity of the urban environment I live in. Culture and heritage, learned from Lucknow, were able to bloom as aspects of my personality in Delhi.

In Gurgaon, I learnt to recognize limits and also learn to enjoy them. A clearly stratified city—this side of the highway and that, signifying old Gurgaon-ites and the new immigrants—Gurgaon taught me to seek refuge in my identity as an educated, upper middle-class mother of young children. It taught me to see a city for the basic amenities it can offer rather than to expect excitement from it. It taught me to value the sanctum of my secure condominium and try to not think of what that says about the safety of the city in general; to enjoy the company of others ‘like’ me (read educated, middle class, similar background) rather than look for diversity. Gurgaon taught me that driving for miles to buy basic supplies is ok, that its normal for every home to have two cars, that suburban life is the inevitable future, that living on power back-up was not something I should feel guilty about……I could go on, but you get the drift!

After eight years here, there are days I see nothing wrong with my life. But today, when I examine the issue, I am horrified to realize this is not what I am and certainly not what I want to be. And if I am disgusted by what I am turning into, what am I doing to my children? Will they imbibe the aggressive barrenness, insensitivity and apathy that define this city, or is there a hope that positive changes will happen? I am hopeful, because everyday I meet people who want to see the change; increasingly, I am meeting people who want to ‘be’ the change, and even some who ‘are’ the change. Am curious to see all these change makers and initiatives come together somehow, to make an impact on our city, and inevitably on us, offering us a brighter, richer, more diverse, inclusive, empathetic, energized and safe future.


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