Savouring Dubai, the land of opportunity and refuge
Dubai has been on the cards for a while now. The last and only time I visited was in early 2010 for a conference. I vaguely remember doing a brief spin of a city deep in the doldrums of economic depression, staring at half-built buildings and getting the sense that I was experiencing a ‘freeze frame’. That first impression and the idea that I am motivated by (hi-fi?) stuff like art, culture and history and not so taken in by glitzy glass-clad skyscrapers (sarcasm, confusion, loads of self-judgement in those words!) ensured that Dubai wasn’t really on my radar for some time. But then, Rahul started to come here every year for his annual training refresher and Dubai was back on my list!
This time round though, the city feels very different. Alive and buzzing with the energy of the Dubai Shopping Festival and a renewed construction boom kicked off in part by the fact that the World Expo 2020 is being hosted here. I promised myself to reserve the judgement before I came and have been happy tramping about the city by myself (while Rahul is working), exploring the Metro and meeting friends and shopping! Despite myself and because of the way this city is, it is impossible not to appreciate the sense of organization, the aesthetic of opulence, the ease of getting around, the effortless intermingling of cultures very different.
In conversations with those who live here, friends as well as strangers I met on the Metro, I can see how it is easy to get used to the conveniences of Dubai, especially in the face of the employment opportunities and improved pay packages it provides as compared to ‘back home’. Dubai has attracted people from a plethora of nationalities- Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Yemenis, Syrians, Egyptians and many more- for whom it represents a better life. Yes, by corollary it also means that life ‘back home’ wasn’t that great for many of those who have come here. By all accounts, most of these immigrants will never ever go back, or even want to go back. Despite the big brother watching, despite the controlled media and the heightened awareness of the need to mind your own business if you want to survive, Dubai is a good experience, a place that treats you well.
Both strangers and friends confided to me that a sense of personal safety, the lawfulness and speedy execution of justice were what made them most comfortable here in Dubai, as compared to India. I wasn’t too surprised by this admission, even though I had to curb my urge to fiercely defend my country. You have to read papers here to see that nearly all news out of India is negative! In contrast, the media reports about the UAE are a mix of heady, positive, self-congratulatory stories interspersed with rather watered-down criticism. My analysis: You cannot compare apples and oranges, you gotta see things in perspective. By this I mean that living in a democracy and an autocracy are very different, but I can also see that this difference may matter little for citizens who are happy to have their daily needs well met. Walking among the glitzy edifices and seeing families out carefree and happy in the middle of the night, it’s hard to push this point without sounding defensive!
And so, I let it go and shop some more. I click pictures of dancing fountains and ornate ceilings. I enjoy the pleasure of the us-time Rahul and me are getting as we choose from a fantastic selection of restaurants, eat, talk, laugh… I savour Dubai, I refrain from judging, I miss home.
Violence is an easy answer when real issues go unaddressed: Cases of South Africa & India- Oct 9, 2012
J M Coetze’s Booker winning book ‘Disgrace’ is deeply disturbing. It tells the story of the cultural backlash against whites in South Africa. The story caused me to have violent and dark nightmares because of the matter of fact reactions of the “victims” of violence, in this case a middle aged man and his young daughter. I finished the book last evening in a grim mood, wondering how it would be to live in a society where being safe was apparently not even a right any more.
Today, on cue as it has happened often enough lately, The Hindu carries an editorial by Anita Lakshmni Powell titled ‘Bring my my machine gun’ about the violence in South Africa. Shocking stats: One of 4 men in a nation of 50 million admitted to committing rape, half of them say they’ve done it more than once. Murder is commonplace; the police system reports one million unsolved murders a year!
A report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation report, released in 2010 claims that violence is cheap, easy and the thing that works, the only answer where there are none. The report draws strong correlations with the disbalance is South African society (SA is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.7 in 2008; the top 10% of the population accounted for 58% of South Africa’s income, the bottom 10% accounted for 0.5% and the bottom 50% less than 8%, as per a recently released World Bank report). A quarter of South Africans are unemployed and traditional routes to prosperity, like education, simply aren’t working well enough.
To me, all of this sounds scarily familiar. Unemployment, growing disparities, rampant violence, rape as a means of expressing frustration, hatred, rage…..we see this all around us. And a weak policing system, a judiciary that simply cannot cope, political apathy.Is this where pockets of our country are going as well (13 rapes in Haryana within a month!)? Is India destined to be a violent nation? Will we also be no longer able to step out of our homes without fear? Will our children live a gated, over-protected life and never experience freedom, for fear of reprisal from their youthful counterparts who happened to be born on the other side of the social divide?
The real bad news in South Africa, the editorial claims, is that violence is a language that was endorsed as the rightful means for recourse even during the anti-apartheid movement. The establishment turns a blind eye to violence and politicians glorify violence in their campaigns. Violence is culturally acceptable.
Fortunately for us, we did not win our freedom through violent means, but the aftermath of Independence saw a nation steeped in blood and gore. Our system still frowns on violence and there is no social endorsement yet for it. In SA, a gang rape of a mentally deficient girl was distributed brazenly as a video on mobile phone; here rapists still try and run away from the law. But that’s neither here nor there. Increasingly, we are become inured to violence and perpetrators are becoming bolder. Increasingly, we want to believe that the bad things happen to someone else and live in fear of becoming victims. The larger issues are taking way too long to be addressed and in the meantime, paranoia is taking hold of our society.
The South African experience should be a wake up call for us. Inclusiveness is not a warm and fuzzy type of concept that idealists (like me, I have been told recently and yes, I am a bit angry about that) promote. Inclusiveness is a necessity, so that we do not become an inhuman, abnormal, highly stressed and unworkable society. Equal opportunity, as much as possible at least, regardless of religion (ref: Sachar Committee report), caste, ethnicity, gender, income level, is the goal we must adopt, as a nation. Otherwise, we are doomed indeed. I shudder, I hope. I fervently hope for change.
Gurgaon’s jhuggis: Do the poor deserve a life of constant insecurity? Sep 28, 2012
Everything about Gurgaon is unique. It is a city that thrives on being different and often that difference is about a lack of empathy. There is this brazen, wannabe streak here that is disturbing. So many of us live here and continue to not see its underbelly.
Why this sudden negativity? Well, I just spent the evening driving around town touring it’s shanty settlements. Jhuggis that existed a few months ago we found barely a trace of. This was the jhuggi we had helped rehabilitate after a fire burnt it down. Turns out the owners, two brothers, quarrelled and the jhuggi was asked to be pulled down. Another site where a large jhuggi settlement had been disbanded in 2010 before the Commonwealth Games was now the scene of much excavating and concrete pouring. Makes one wonder about how the lives of the poor migrants in this city are putty in the hands of politicians, land owners and builders, a lot of the times working hand in glove with each other. And certainly all on the same side.
How do these people deal with these tremendous uncertainties? Especially those migrants that work as domestic help and I have encountered many families in which the wife swabs and sweeps in homes while the man washes cars or sweeps roads.
The construction labor seem to live in contractor-built shanties. These are dismantled once the building is complete and the workers move to a new site. Even so, there are many amenities they simply go without and they continue to dream a future of prosperity for their children in situations when they cannot even send them to school! Yet, they smile and welcome us into their jhuggis. They apologise for not having chairs, they talk to us with a sense of dignity. These are people poor in resources but scarcely poor in culture or etiquette. They do not deserve to live like this.
How much we take for granted something as basic as shelter. It’s because we have a relatively permanent address and quality housing that we remain largely healthy, our belongings remain safe, our kids go to reputed schools and are able to study well and sleep in peace. Even with our nation firmly rooted onto a path of capitalistic growth, I do believe there are some basic needs the state and society must strive to provide, in whatever way. So the poor have opportunity to exit the trap of poverty and despair.
As the research for my fellowship commences, I find myself part excited and part scared by the many truths I will discover, the many voices I will hear. I hope to, and this is a tall order, find some reasonable ways to deal with migrant housing for a city like Gurgaon. I hope to build a case for inclusiveness.
Can women have it all? Who can? Aug 19, 2012
“Can a woman have it all?”
It is a statement that infuriates me no end. Can anyone have it all? No, right? So it’s a stupid question. Yet, the perception is that love, riches, power and fame, in no particular order, constitutes ‘all’. That love can be substituted by sex and happiness, whatever that elusive thing is, plays no part in this construction further muddies the myth of ‘having it all’ for me.
It upsets me that the rhetoric around compromise is assumed to apply more for women than men. Is not life a negotiation of compromises and priorities for each one of us? Is it not about recognising opportunities and choosing which ones to take and which to let go?
At certain points in their lives, men and women feel their disappointments bitterly. At others, they feel let down, either by themselves or by others. In this, perhaps men are wont to take responsibility more often for their losses, while women might tend to blame it on others. That goes with the territory of patriarchy that we accept around us, especially when we question if women can have it all!
I wouldn’t want it all. I couldn’t handle it, I’m sure!
Indian cities need to deeply study concentrated poverty and find solutions: Urban transformation is the only way forward! April 12, 2012
It’s a changed world from the one we grew up in, for sure. When I was a kid, anything that came from or had origins in the United States of America was regarded with utter fascination in India. The US and Europe, the first world, were regarded as havens of prosperity and wealth, largely because we believed these were nations that were able to give even ordinary citizens a basic minimum standard of living, amenities and equal opportunity.
How wrong this notion was, especially for the United States, we have seen in the aftermath of the worldwide economic recession we have experienced since 2008. A report released a few days before by the Citizen’s Committee for Children reveals that were are 1.6 million people living below the federal poverty line in New York in 2010, up by 120,000 since 2008 (US Census data). One in three of the city’s children live in poverty. In fact, they live in “neighborhoods of concentrated poverty” where residents face obstacles like lack of employment, high crime rates, few educational opportunities and poor housing quality.
Concentrated poverty (also called neighborhood poverty) is a well-defined term in US policy and scholarship. Federal poverty lines too are defined clearly and are comparative to the overall income levels of Americans, which means the poverty line rises and falls proportional to the income levels of higher income groups.
In India, the situation is very different. The poverty line an absolute concept, some say this is so because the nation would be able to show very little progress on poverty alleviation if it were to be relative considering the type of skewed and dramatic economic development we are seeing in this country.
The study of poverty in India, from what I have seen, is on a pan-India scale and discusses the relative concentrations of poverty in certain states and regions in the country. Unlike the US, where concentrated poverty is studied within cities by census tract, Indian cities are not identifying and focusing interventions on pockets where there is a higher density of people living in socio-economic deprivation. Despite available technology (something as simple as google maps and community surveys in conjunction with each other, as well as poverty data from the census), there is inadequate understanding on concentrated poverty and the factors that lead to the perpetuation of such a phenomenon.
In the US, racial and ethnic segregation is often a factor. In India, we might find caste, class and the prevalence of illegal, informal settlements like slums to be reasons for concentrated poverty. We do need to recognize these areas in a city because people, especially children, get trapped in a spiral of poverty that they will probably not emerge out of for generations into the future. We need to collect sufficient data and understanding of such areas to be able to look for innovative solutions for education, employment, career counseling, housing improvement, basic services, health, water quality and many other areas where small improvements can make big impacts.
Who will do this? I doubt the government will take initiative unless we force their hand. We meaning professionals, NGOs and civil society working together to transform our cities. Without urban transformation, all the glitz and glamor of rising GDP is nought!
Encounters with street children in Gurgaon- Mar 5, 2012
So this is how the conversation went between this little street girl outside a Gurgaon market and me.
Child: Didi, paise de do, pen khareed lo [Sister, give me money, buy these pens]
Me: Pen to bacche ye acchhe nahi hote, par batao paise ka kya karogi? [Child, these pens are useless; tell me what you will do with the money?]
Child, instantly: Pichkari loongi! [I will buy a water pistol]
Me, having just done the rounds in the market: Pichkari to bahut paise ki aati hai. Wo to jut nahi paaenge. Kahin aur kharch ho jaayenge, hai na? [The water pistol would be too expensive. You will have to save money for it and that will get spent elsewhere, no?]
Child: To phir kuchh khila do! [Then give me something to eat!]
Eventually, Rahul walked across to the little streetside shop and bought her and her tinier companion bread and double egg omelettes. We were struck by their spontaneity, honesty and complete lack of self-consciousness. They knew the best chance they had was to ask for what they really wanted and hope we were in a benevolent mood! We were rewarded with lovely smiles at the end of this, but I cannot stop thinking about what their lives must be like. I have seen this same girl child the past few years, from when she was rather little to now, when she is much more grown up and very confident. Denied of any form of security, with no access to education or opportunity, these kids stare into a future that is bleak. Yet, because they are kids, they can smile, be witty and spontaneous; you may argue that these are only survival skills, but I find it hard to believe all of it is put on.
The recently releases ‘The state of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ brought out by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund underlines the need to pay attention to children amongst the urban poor. What future are we talking about for our nation and our people if we let our children go hungry, get raped, remain illiterate and ensure their innocent smiling faces turn into those lined with bitterness, misery and hatred? I think this everyday and I wonder what more I can do to change things around me.