Diversity has been the bedrock of Gurgaon’s economic success, and the incendiary atmosphere created by those who are trying to disrupt namaz will prove to be detrimental to its growth.
Originally carried by The Wire, please read here
While the newly-formed Sanyukt Hindu Sangharsh Samiti’s attempts to violently disrupt and diminish congregational Friday namaz in Gurgaon may be temporarily on hold for Ramzan, khaap and religious leaders across faiths from Gurgaon’s villages have sent out a clear message that they will resist those disrupting harmony in the city.
Through a press conference on May 15 in which they announced a multi-faith mahapanchayat on the 27th of the month, they made the pitch that religious divisions have no place in a modern city that attracts investors, entrepreneurs and workers from India and abroad, and where citizens have found ways to co-exist peacefully.
Certainly, Gurgaon’s ability to embrace a diverse range of residents plays a big part in making it an economic success and the global brand it is today. Gurgaon has grown exponentially since 2000. Its current estimated population of over 8.7 lakh (as per Census 2011) comprises local villagers, high-skilled migrants working in its globally competitive corporate sector and low-skilled rural migrants who work in the informal services sector, the latter severely undercounted in official estimates.
It bears repeating that Gurgaon’s development model was driven by land consolidation and development by private developers, with public infrastructure and planning playing catch-up. This has resulted in a highly-segregated city of elite gated communities built on erstwhile agricultural lands, while the village settlements have adapted and transformed to provide affordable housing, and space for low-end manufacturing and back-end service functions.
In this scenario, the villagers’ call for harmony and tolerance is significantly motivated by the interdependence between them, in their avatar as landlords, and the migrant renters. In the rapid transition of this landscape from rural to urban, villagers have played a key role, one that goes largely unacknowledged.
In the words of Mahinder Yadav, who I interviewed in Nathupur village adjacent to DLF Cybercity as part of my field research in 2013, “Pehle kheti thi, phir hamaari jameen biki aur ye tower ban gaye. Phir kirayedaar aaye. Ab inse hi hamaara gujara hai (First we were farmers, then we sold them and these buildings came up. Then the renters came. Now we make our living mainly from them).”
Clearly, the incendiary atmosphere created by those who are trying to disrupt namaz in the city is detrimental to the core business of rental housing and other services targeted towards migrants that economically sustains these village communities today. If the city’s communal climate were to chase migrants away, this would directly and significantly impact incomes of the village communities in Gurgaon.
Of course, landlord-tenant relations in villages are characterised by an unequal power dynamic. While migrant renters see the landlord (makaan maalik) as both exploitative and benevolent, enforcing restrictions while also offering certain forms of protection, the landlord sees the renter (kirayedaar) as good (read submissive), but in need of management and control. In this scenario of ‘care and control’, landlords have generally been tolerant of migrants’ religious and cultural practices. I have found Nepali Dussehras and Bihari Chhat poojas being celebrated in some villages and, in the same vein spaces for Jumma namaz have always been peacefully negotiated.
As needs grew, those seeking space for namaz – residents of the city as well as commuters from Delhi and beyond – have worked with local communities, private land and building owners and local police stations to find open grounds, parks, strips of pavement and green belts to pray each Friday. Every now and then, these places move to prevent traffic congestions or if the namaz clashes with another use. Considering that Muslims offering the Jumma namaz in the city’s open spaces has been a familiar sight for nearly a decade, it is perhaps worth questioning why, all of a sudden, they are ruffling feathers now.
Moreover, several commentators have already made the point about there being no opposition to the same spaces being used by other (non-Muslim) groups for congregational activities.
Much of the ire of the namaz disruptors seems to be directed against the Muslim migrants from West Bengal, with tropes like Bangladeshi and Rohingya being used to target them. This is doubly unfortunate because these people are generally documented migrants – it is near impossible to work in the city today without identity papers – at the lowest rung of the ladder, discriminated by language and concentrated in the most menial jobs: women in domestic help, and men in housekeeping, waste collection and cycle rickshaw driving.
In the affluent homes across Gurgaon where these Bengali women work, there is a stunned silence on the namaz issue as households struggle to reconcile the myriad bigoted anti-Muslim tropes – Bangladeshi, Rohingya, terrorists, perpetrators of ‘love jihad‘ – being bandied about with their dependence on this large pool of affordable labour for cleaning, cooking and childcare work.
Gurgaon’s attraction has been its miraculous construction as a mosaic of communities including migrants of many hues – language, religion, class, region and nationality – despite its spatial segregation. This precious diversity, created through negotiation and inter-dependence, is the bedrock of its economic success. The village leaders have instinctively recognised this and taken a stand against the disruptive forces that seek to communalise the city and squander away its key competitive advantage. Gurgaon’s affluent residents must join them.
Mukta Naik is Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. She works on issues related to migration, urbanisation and housing.
This morning I was roped in to speak about the impacts of demonetisation on migrant workers by Gurgaon ki Awaz, a community radio station in Gurgaon, where I live. I was speaking on a live show with the mandate to highlight systemic problems that might impact migrant workers in particular ways in this predicament, when cash is hard to access. To offer context to those outside India, currency notes of particular denominations (Rs 500 and 100) stopped being legal tender at midnight on 8th November 2016, in a bid to eradicate black money (that has evaded taxation). In a cash-driven economy like India, this had a severe immediate impact and though, the mid- and long-term impacts are yet to be seen, some sections of society have been particularly hit.
Many migrant workers, as I outlined in the show, lack ID documents and have therefore been unable to exchange their old notes for now. The unbanked are of course in deep trouble. Many migrants are daily wagers, contract labourers as well as informal sector workers whose incomes have been immediately impacted. Further, since these workers support their rural homes through remittances, the impact on rural consumption is also expected to be substantial in the coming months.
My interaction with the station was interspersed with comments from callers, and this was an exciting and eye-opening experience for me. For one, opinions came in from opposing ends of the spectrum. The majority of callers supported demonetisation whole-heartedly, not minding the sacrifices they are having to make. The vindication that people were feeling about the dishonest rich being punished has generated much optimism. For the callers, it seemed like this move was successfully breaking down a hegemonic system that had oppressed them and kept them poor while benefiting the dishonest rich. This ‘great equalizer’ perception was reinforced by another supporter who described his experience of standing in a queue at the bank. He pointed out that the rich guy who got off his car also stood in the same line and got the same amount of money as him. Triumphant, he said, “Ameer ko do hazaar rupaye ki kadar to pata chali!”. At least, the rich now understand the value of two thousand rupees (this was the limit imposed by the government on withdrawals from bank accounts).
However, there was also a caller who were upset that those who disagreed are not being given the space to express their dissent.He brought up the importance of a strong opposition for a democracy to function well. Who will represent the voices of the minority who disagree with such a move, he asked?
This is heartening. While people are busy outshouting each other on Twitter and Facebook, debate is not dead on the ground and people are not afraid to speak their mind. Keep in mind that the community radio speaks to low- and middle-income communities largely residing in urban villages, unauthorised colonies and old parts of Gurgaon. It is has no English language programming and does not cater to the educated elite in the city.
Second, people spoke of various coping mechanisms, how they borrowed from friends or helped out an older neighbor by depositing her cash, how barter worked in some instances and credit in another. These are fascinating and deserving of documentation, for they tell of the resilience of communities when unexpected things happen.
Third, I was pleasantly surprised at the sharpness with which my suggestions about constructive ways of offering criticism was picked up by community radio audiences. I was making a point about the need for supplementary measures to help out those genuinely distressed by demonetisation, like rural households dependent on remittances, access to food and healthcare, etc. Immediately after I said this, we got calls reporting community discussions that centered around offering the government suggestions of various kinds and there was a clear call for more consultation and interaction with State. The people want a listening government was the sense I got.
As a researcher, hearing voices from the ground is critical to inform my understanding of the impact of government policies. This is not the first time we have found that perceptions differ starkly across economic class. On radio as well, local land owners and migrant workers expressed divergent views even within the dominant narrative of support for demonetisation. This is also not the first time we have seen multiple narratives bundled within even a single respondent’s story. The reality is that truth is complex. It is multifaceted, often warped and twisted. It takes enormous patience to refrain from picking out the simplest bits and making them ready for consumption as I have also (probably erroneously) done in this post. It takes immense courage to recognize and accept complexity. But the truth is also that people do accept and live with complexity and contradiction in a very effortless manner. For me, even in this supposedly post-truth era, deconstructing this gnarled truth is still the only way forward.
We live in a deeply divided world. Significant shifts in global economics and geopolitics have meant that countries are desperate for economic growth and increasingly intolerant of any events that derail them from achieving their targets. In this milieu, migrants have been caught in the crossfire. No one seems to want them, but what’s more, the unwillingness to include migrants has severe repercussions on how nations are planning, managing and financing their cities.
What is inclusion? Attitudes towards internal migrants shift, very very gradually
At Prepcom3 in Surabaya, Indonesia in the last week of July, I was disappointed to see India join the European nations and the United States to object to the inclusion of the Right to the City framework in the New Urban Agenda, which will be further negotiated by United Nations member states in New York a few days from now. Allegedly (see Indian Express report), while Europe’s concerns stems from the migrant crisis and the US is loath to recognize immigrant rights, India is also worried about the repercussions of taking on the responsibility to provide social justice to all, extending the already thin benefits of State welfare and largess to those who might not be legally recognized citizens.
This is the heart of the problem. In a policy environment in which the word ‘inclusive’ is bandied about rather casually, the meaning of inclusion bears repeated and deep exploration. Gautam Bhan put a spotlight on this issue of citizenship recently with reference to the Delhi Jal Board’s historic decision to provide universal access to water.
Who does India consider illegal and what are the various kinds of non-citizenship that people experience has been a subject of much study. Internal migrants, despite a Constitutional right to mobility anywhere within India, have been described as ‘illegal’, ‘encroachers’ and ‘polluters’ in numerous policy documents and court judgements. Even where policy has recognized their economic contribution, migrants have been steadily excluded – or inadequately considered – from provision of basic services (like water, sanitation), housing (negligible supply of affordable housing, no focus on incremental housing), transportation services (low priority to affordable public transport including NMT), health, education, subsidized food (no access to PDS at destination) and even conditions for livelihood (harassment of street vendors, regulations that prevent home-based work).
The good news is that this seems to be changing. We can see now the very humble beginnings of a new mindset that sees migration less as an intrusion and more as an inevitable consequence of economic transition (and climate change). Parliamentarians have been debating migration in a more healthy manner and that has resulted in the creation of a Working Group on Migration particularly to assess linkages with housing, infrastructure and livelihood. I understand the debates within this group comprising several ministries and government department, academics and industry representatives have been encouraging.
Inclusive housing takes heartening steps forward
Besides changes like the Delhi government’s inclusive stand on water, there is much progress in the field of housing as well. At a consultation co-organized by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MoHUPA) along with Magic Bricks and GIZ this past week, I was pleasantly surprised to see not only more supply of lower income group (LIG) and economically weaker section (EWS) housing by state governments (representatives from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu spoke), but also much movement on progressive housing policy.
This morning’s interview of Mr Sriram Kalyanaraman, MD and CEO of National Housing Bank, who also spoke at the event, offers much hope. We see the confluence of the government’s flagship housing scheme Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY) and technology solutions (e-gov, m-gov, intergated MIS) that work to educate housing buyers and link them with accessible bank branches. The uptake of low ticket size home loans is especially encouraging. Kalyanaraman reports that home loans for under Rs 10 lakh comprised a whopping 30 percent of the total in FY 16! I have a personal sense of victory in this regard, having been involved with organizations like mHS City Lab that persevered long and hard with the government and finance sector to push changes that allowed banks to devise means to underwrite loans to informal sector workers. A huge change indeed that will have rippling effects going forward.
MoHUPA’s support of rental housing and attempts to bring in some policy reforms to encourage it are also heartening. Particularly brave are its efforts to understand the informal rental market, for any discussion that talks about the middle ground between the formal and informal pushes us towards a deeper understanding of how human beings survive, negotiate realities and experience the world; the exercise reveals the limits of defining people through their economic functions and shifts the focus on aspects of human dignity, safety and livability. Even more, it shows us that our understanding of their economic realities is also deeply flawed at present. These discussions are critical if we are to move towards long-term inclusive growth.
The contradictions must remain on the table, in plain view
And so, even as we celebrate the early wins, we need to highlight the contradictions in our approach. For example, those in the field know that any discussion on subsidized housing inevitably leads to the question of tenure and title. This consultation was no different. One cannot logically argue with the traditional defense of no-sale and no-lease clauses stipulated for a period of time (5, 10, even 15 years). This defense rests on the logic that people have no right to profit from something the government has subsidized entirely or partially. But if we happen to be in that moment when we are looking at market realities and the reality is that mobility of labour is a defining feature of India’s (rather painful) structural transformation, isn’t it a tad discriminating that we continue to devise schemes that tie the poor down to a specific location, disallowing them full tenure and denying them rights to sell or rent their properties? Is there no way around this? Could rent-to-own schemes be a solution so that the poor pay their way to ownership if they want to? Could private sector rentals that are currently in the informal domain be legitimized and even supported by mutually developing frameworks that ensure minimum quality standards and provide mechanisms to redress grievances?
Any number of questions come to mind, but if the government were to truly engage, solutions are also just as many. Beginnings have been made and now its a question of innovation, experimentation and perseverance.
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.
Our 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?
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.
The larger question: What are our strategies for survival as a society- vilification or empathy, us or ‘them’, paranoia or rationality?
I read this morning with mixed feelings about the arrest of an illiterate teenager from Bihar who is the co-accused in the latest shocking—no, deeply saddening—rape of a five year old in East Delhi’s Gandhinagar area. Of course I am happy that the perpetrators are being brought to book. But just for a moment and because I have been intensely interacting with migrant workers in low-income communities, I thought this through from Pradeep’s point of view.
Getting into the perp’s mind, for a moment
Illiterate, with no opportunities in his village, Pradeep moves from city to city finding work on construction sites. He lives away from the social fabric he has grown up in. He has to make new friends wherever he goes. Violence, as Nilanjana Roy’s editorial in The Hindu yesterday points out so well, is an inevitable and integral part of his life. Several times has he had to fight for survival against cheats, sexual predators, thieves, rivals at work. His self-esteem is often eroded and no normal family life exists to restore the balance. And then, of course, there is his daily search for livelihood. A daily struggle for basic needs- water, toilets, food. Shelter, a rented room shared with any others, is just a place to sleep, offering no solace. Entertainment is film music, songs from back home traded through memory cards and heard on the phone, B grade flicks watched on the phone. Images of sex flood his mind. He has little or no sexual opportunities. He has little or no economic opportunities, no real skills, no value, no real self-worth. Soon his family back home will find him a wife. More responsibility, still very little income. He has no future. He just has to get on with life. And yet, he aspires to live well. In his imagination, like the heroes of the movies he watches, he finds wealth, love, sex, power and popularity. In reality, he is less than a Nobody. Starved even of dreaming with a semblance of hope, in a moment of depravity, he finds the most vulnerable target and an act of thoughtless unpardonable violence follows.
The gravest crime
I am not advocating for Pradeep. I am only saying that the problem is of a magnitude so large that we are unable to comprehend it. We are breeding millions of Pradeep’s in our country and as a nation, our crime against them of offering them promises that we cannot deliver is the gravest one yet.
Let me explain. In an evangelist mode, we have enacted the Right to Education. Our public, private and non-profit institutions have drilled the importance of education into our citizens. Yet, we are unable to provide the education we advocate is necessary for every child. In my fieldwork among migrant families in Gurgaon, I repeatedly see parents save and scrounge to send their children to schools that often are not even registered institutions! Further, we are unable to provide meaningful and dignified employment opportunities for those who emerge from or fall out of this less-then-efficient education system.
Many young people are resorting to migration as a means of economic survival, and this has been well established by leading economists like Kundu. The inability of agriculture to support rural families, the lack of non-agricultural employment in villages and the lure of economic growth that is concentrated in urban centers all contribute to the massive internal migration India is experience.
Need to understand the migrant experience
A part of my mixed reaction to today’s news was that, until now, voices in the media were not vilifying the other, that favourite scapegoat, the migrant. Perhaps it is a small indication that the phenomenon of migration has become an accepted and inescapable reality. This is a migration necessary to sustain the economy, but it is also a migration that renders a large section of our population without rights and without identity. Migrants find little recognition in public policy except as the ‘other’.
The intense alienation and confusion that are characteristic of the migrant experience, especially among youth, is no small factor in understanding the crime statistics in our cities. The intangible is easy to ignore, but only in understanding these psychosocial phenomenon, in listening and analyzing the thousands of stories that migrants can tell, can we hope to ease their transition and lift them from the sheer hopelessness they feel and that triggers depraved and abnormal behavior in these young men (and women).
Taking a call: Barbarism vs humanity
What must be going through Pradeep’s mind as he awaits his transfer to Delhi and a confrontation with his partner-in-crime Manoj? Does he feel shame, revulsion, remorse? Does he see his entire life flash before his eyes? Does he imagine the grief of his mother? Does he understand how the nation is reacting to what he has done? Does he hear people baying for his blood?
I just finished reading another book of Alex Rutherford’s series on the Mughal emperors, who meted out the most barbaric punishments to traitors in order to deter any others who might contemplate treachery. Perhaps their times demanded such barbarism and violence. It pains me to hear those who denounce the Islamic invaders as barbaric and hold up the superiority of the Hindu civilization as examples of ‘Ram Rajya’ propose the exact same measures to punish rapists and sex offenders. Clearly, these leaders and organizations do not think we have evolved or need to evolve.
Many other ways to address the issue of punishment have been discussed infinitely in the press and blogosphere since December 2012 and there is sufficient evidence worldwide that disproves the theory that the death sentence, castration and other barbaric means to deal with convicts deter future offenders. However, just as there has been little finger pointing to the fact that the miscreants are migrants, there is also very insufficient debate on the preventive measures we need to take to prevent future crimes—how migrants are to be offered opportunities to assimilate with the society they choose to live in; how communities are to find mechanisms to educate their children about sexual predators and how they are to deal with those who exhibit predatory behavior, for instance. If we were to work to reduce the huge amounts of stress and insecurity in our society rather than do all we can to fuel these feelings, wouldn’t we all be better off?
The larger question: My survival or ours?
I saw my daughter Aadyaa off as she got on the school bus this morning. She is five. Innocent, with a huge zest for life and unlimited energy, she waved her goodbyes with a twinkle in her eyes. Inadvertently, I shuddered at the thought of something terrible happening to her that would destroy her innocence forever. Even something as small as a touch or glance could do that damage and that moment will come, sooner or later, I know. But let me not make it worse by feeding her with suspicion and paranoia. Let me believe that most people are good. I intend to take her and my son Udai on my interactions with migrants later this month, to see for themselves how other people live and work, deal with problems in their lives, how they are as normal as we are in what they wish for, in how they struggle to reconcile their dreams with their realities (except that the difference between the two is achievable for us and impossible for them). I hope that, as they grow, they will discover that there are beasts among us, aberrant personalities that have tipped over and fallen out of line. I hope they understand that they need our help and our empathy more than they need our hatred. How do they learn this even as they learn to protect themselves and fight for survival? That’s the larger question that we are dealing with, isn’t it?
Street vendors, or hawkers as we also call them, are such an integral part of our lives in Indian cities. I just finished reading a book by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, a delicious little novella named ‘Between Clay and Dust’. The story revolves around a pahalwan and a tawaif who share a beautiful platonic relationship that eventually surpasses all others in their lives, even blood ties. Set immediately post Partition, I found it fascinating that Gohar Jan’s source of news about the city was mostly through peddlars of wares and services like the bangle seller, the trinket lady, etc.
I remember the iconic Farooq Sheikh, Deepti Naval starrer ‘Chashme Baddoor’ from my childhood. Naval sold Chamko detergent powder door-to-door. I associated the film with a few visits to Delhi during my childhood when residential areas in South Delhi had a certain quiet buzz about them and vendors of many daily necessities, including fruits and vegetables, peddled their wares from door to door on a rudimentary wooden pushcart (redi). Coming from Mumbai, which had already become a big city where you went to the commodity and it rarely came to you, all this seemed fascinating.
From the two years I spent as an infant, I have very vague memories of the guys who walked through the streets with the bear (bhaloo) and the monkeys (madari with his bandars) to entertain us kids. We discussed this at lunch on Sunday and between mum, Rahul and me, we added more variety to that list- the knife sharpening guy, the utensil repairing guy, in an earlier time there were people who would come and coat brass vessels with aluminum so they could be used for cooking purposes.
It pains me to see this breed disappear. Not just because they imbued a certain flavor to our cities, but because it signals the arrival of a use-and-throw culture in which we have no place for repair re-use. I feel this is criminal. While the world is waking up to the benefits if re-use, we Indians who had a natural talent for this are giving away the advantage by blindly adopting a consumerist culture that exhibits no conscience at all. Also, the trend signifies our paranoia of letting unknown persons enter our homes. With gated living becoming popular, the breed will disappear entirely.
And yet, street vendors continue to thrive in certain situations because of their flexibility in adapting to demand and the meager resources they need. And nowhere is this more evident than in the omnipresence of street food! What would our public places be without the bhuttawala (guy selling corn cobs roasted right in front of you on hot coals), the chaat wala, the aloo bonda wala, the lassi stalls, the chana kulcha and chowmein stalls, the burger wala, the momo-guy (a relatively new addition)..the list is endless! Outside the posh Galleria market in Gurgaon, where the well heeled shop and splurge, the anda bread guy does brisk business. Outside Gurgaon’s call centers, the paratha stalls mint money and provide excellent service even in the middle of the night, with piping hot tea or cold drinks, whichever you prefer! Outside every glass and steel office building, there are clusters of food vendors, selling hot and freshly cooked meals. This is the real India, never mind the people inside the glass boxes pecking on their grilled sandwiches and pasta, or alternatively gingerly opening a home cooked tiffin while yearning for takeaway Chinese!
It alarms me that municipalities like Delhi and Mumbai have taken a hostile stance towards street vendors. There are plenty of ways they can ensure hygiene without taking these people off the streets. A couple of evocative articles by Prof. Sharit Bhowmik from Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, tell a compelling tale of the relationship hawkers have to the city’s economy and make a case for nurturing street vending and providing it a conducive ecosystem.
Evictions and cleansing the streets reek of narrow-mindedness, complete apathy for the urban poor who make a living out of as well as subsist on buying from street vendors as well as a lack of sense of place, to which street vendors contribute in an immeasurable but significant manner. To me, it is critical that professionals and citizens alike talk about the kind of urbanism we aspire to. Without this sort of debate, we will continue to lose our identity to idiotic regulations, till we are left with a bland existence and even the memories of a fuller, finer life are erased.
One in seven people in the world are migrants. Yet, the common view of migrants is negative. Governments perceive as migrants to be those who are at the bottom of the income pyramid, do not pay taxes because they work in the informal economy, cause crime, etc. This is not only true of the opinion governments in the US, UK and continental Europe have about immigrants from East Europe and the Middle East. It is equally true of what the Delhi government thinks of migrants from Bihar and UP, though not with as much clarity perhaps!
I did some of my masters level research work on immigration and have always been fascinated by the sociology of immigration. The entire process of families relocating, sometimes out of choice and many times under duress, to an alien land, assimilating new culture even as they struggle to retain vestiges of their identity is a complex process that tells quite a tale about human behavior. Doing the research as an Asian Indian in the United States back in 2000-2002 (at a time when the suspicion of brown-skinned South Asians and Arabs hit a new high thanks to 9/11), I was always partial to the migrant community.
I do not believe migrants are bad news. Instead, I wonder where societies hope to get cheap labor from if migrants were to stop coming into urban centers of relative prosperity. Moreover, the hatred of migrants reflects the kind of intolerance in society that I am beginning to abhor and that is putting inside me a terrible fear that grows everyday! Migrants bring diversity, so essential to sustaining cities.
My views were supported by a host of experts at a UN-HABITAT and UNESCO International Seminar on ‘How could we enhance inclusiveness for international migrants in our cities: Urban policies and creative practices?’ held in Mexico City in November 2010 and the group has continued its work since. Some of the views held by researchers are worth a look:
1- Migrants have a creative potential that cannot be utilized because of their poor status in the city
2- Cities are dynamic by definition; new residents change the urban landscape and therefore, in a sense, sustain the dynamism
3- Migration tests our democratic values; in accepting migration, we are forced to open our eyes to a variety in ethnicity, religion, spoken languages, cultural traits, customs, etc.
I am, therefore, interested in a new way of evaluating cities, by their openness. The OPENCities Monitor is a new city benchmark developed by BAK Basel Economics on behalf of the British Council. A unique collaboration and learning tool to measure city openness, it is defined as “the capacity of a city to attract international populations and to enable them to contribute to the future success of the city”. Strategies for management, inclusion and integration form the core of their work with cities across the world.
It would certainly be a great idea for some Indian cities to introspect along these lines. Alas, urban consciousness and identity in India is still low; add to that poor or indifferent governance and we still have a long way to go!