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‘Fix the pavements, lights, roads…Just fix my city!’: Notes on #public #safety

Special movements to 'Reclaim the Streets' are telling us that we need more accessible and vibrant public spaces! Shot at Raahgiri, Gurgaon on 8 March 2014. My daughter joins a Zumba lesson with many other kids from diverse backgrounds

Special movements to ‘Reclaim the Streets’ are telling us that we need more accessible and vibrant public spaces! Shot at Raahgiri, Gurgaon on 8 March 2014. My daughter joins a Zumba lesson with many other kids from diverse backgrounds

Women’s safety has become a rallying cry in Delhi and its environs, where I live. Arguably, it’s become a talking point across India and in many parts of the world. Arvind Kejriwal’s election promise of 100% CCTV coverage reflects the widespread phenomena of the elite fencing themselves into gated havens, imagining they are keeping the unwanted at bay. Extend that thought and you have private cars ferrying kids to school when they should have taken the bus and girls being asked to restrict their choice of college because commuting is unsafe. Clearly, safety and the perception of safety is driving how people live and work, how productive they are and how they interact socially.

Well-designed quality infrastructure is non-negotiable

A large number of studies have shown us that it is quality infrastructure that will provide the base for making spaces safe and livable. A recent study that asked the question “What is the latest time in the day that you feel safe returning home alone?” in rural and urban spaces across India found that amenities and infrastructure had the largest impact on perceptions of safety.

It doesn’t matter whether it is urban or rural, basic infrastructure, including lighting, sanitation, electricity, streets, drainage and efficient public transport, is non-negotiable. More than any other interventions, including quick-fix technology, well-designed hard infrastructure for public use will empower everyone (not just women) and, over time, change attitudes too.

Technology is redundant if physical infrastructure is simply not there

The soft infrastructure that integrates tech can be a great complement, but fails when infrastructure is missing or badly designed. I’ll give you two examples.

#1 School bus alert systems

I get a set of SMSs everyday before the school bus arrives to pick and drop my kids. One of these gives me a time for arrival of the bus. The estimate is made by a computer based on an algorithm that factors in the route map, expected traffic at time of travel, etc. But the large number of uncertainties introduced by water logging, poor quality roads, mismanaged traffic etc mean that the estimated time is almost certainly off. Every afternoon, someone waits anxiously for a bus that announces it will arrive at 4:00PM when it actually shows up 8, 10, even 15 minutes later! A clear case of redundant technology.

#2 Women’s helplines

Asha, who worked as a nursing assistant for my grandmother a few weeks ago, pooh-poohs my suggestion for using the police helpline to report harassment, which she says she faces several times a day on her two-hour, 21-km long commute to work and back everyday. I would say she would not have hesitated to to dial the helpline if her daily commute was largely hassle-free, but as of now she has internalized the violence she faces and the technology appears redundant to her.

Let’s focus on the right things: Fix the pavements, lights, roads…just fix my city!

Personally, I don’t want the protection of my brothers and male friends when I get home late from work or a dinner appointment (As we know from the Nirbhaya case, this is no protection anyway). I want a lit pavement to walk on and the assurance of a late night bus service instead!

I don’t want a CCTV camera on every street corner of my city. Instead, I want clean, lit, accessible public spaces where families, young girls and boys, the elderly, basically everyone can access, frequent and make safe by their participation. The central park in Connaught Place (Delhi’s central business district) shuts down at sunset, while student theater groups who try to practice there have been asked to leave because they are a threat to security!

I don’t want a helpline that is flooded with requests and unable to help anyone. Instead, I want a safe city where the police can concentrate on those who really need their help because the majority of us are able to get on with our lives empowered by decent public amenities and infrastructure!

Using the ‘Right to the City’ approach to include migrants and other “others”

I was reminded today by various organizations on twitter that it is International Migrants Day. Migrant, a term that has fascinated me for a long time. What is it that makes someone uproot his or her life and go to a new place, start from scratch, face all sorts of hurdles including social rejection and cultural deprivation, to eventually carve out a new life in this adopted place? On the face of it, migration sounds rather unpleasant and yet, it has been a recurrent phenomenon for centuries!

Migration may be forced (slavery, bonded labor, displacement due to war, infrastructure projects, etc) or voluntary (usually to avail of a real or perceived opportunity), but the status of the ‘migrant’ is fraught with difficulty. In India, economic growth and a changing economic structure along with urbanization has meant an increase in rural to urban as well as urban to urban migration across the country. There are several aspects of migration that are fascinating and need to be studied to develop a contemporary understanding of how our urban centers (these ‘engines of economic growth’, yea!) function and grow. However, citizens and governments usually perceive migrants (esp low-income migrants that belong to the informal economy) as unnecessary and unwanted, people who are competing for meager resources, and would like to wish them away regardless of their dependence on migrant labor for a large proportion of informal and often difficult (read undignified) jobs in the city.

For my research on housing for migrants in Gurgaon therefore, I have been trying to put together a rights-based case for why the city needs to accept the migrant situation and address it squarely, with a focus on housing and employment. I was struggling with something that appeared obvious. I was heartened therefore to hear today from some of the contributors to the newly released book titled ‘Urban Policies and the Right to the City in India: Rights, Responsibilities and Citizenship‘, brought out by UNESCO and CSH and edited by Marie-Helene Zerah, Veronique Dupont, Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal. The book draws on Lefebvre’s ‘Right to the City’ approach, which the UN hopes to leverage to urge governments to adopt a more inclusive approach to city planning and governance.

At the workshop I attended today at the Centre for Policy Research, Ram B Bhagat, author of the chapter on ‘Migrants’ (Denied) Right to the City made a hard hitting point. He pointed out that policy makers in India refuse to acknowledge or address the issue of migrants squarely. There is no policy that accepts migrants and attempts to give them the basic rights they are denied by virtue of having no identity or documents in their adopted place of residence. He spoke about representation by civil society before the 12th Five Year Plan requesting the inclusion of migrants’ rights and the subsequent exclusion of any such provision in the Plan.

In the chapter, he clearly outlines the contradiction between an Indian citizen’s Constitutional Right to relocate to any other place within the country and the refusal of local governments to grant a migrant a form of identity via which he/she can avail of the basic services and amenities required to live a life of dignity. The paper identifies several exclusionary practices and advocates for the use of a Right to the City approach to include the voice of the migrant in the policy discourse. At the very core, Bhagat argues for the recognition of migration as an “integral part of development” and the placement of migration at the core of city planning and development. I couldn’t agree more and I’m happy to find validation for my thoughts and the assumptions on which I am carrying forward my research work.

On a larger scale, such a Right to the City approach that accommodates multiple viewpoints and consultations and redefined citizenship, imbuing it with a participatory framework is the way ahead for many of the situations that disturb us today. I am reminded of this as I observe the rabid hatred and suggested use of violent and retaliatory actions to “teach a lesson” to the rapists in yesterdays heinous incident on the Delhi bus. While the rapists deserve to be punished swiftly and severely, I question the construct that we have, positioning the rapist as the convenient “other” in general discourse even as we know that may incidents of rape in the city are perpetrated by men known to the victim (though not in this case)! The “other” is omnipresent in all our critiques of the failures of our cities- slum dwellers, beggars, municipal workers (or shirkers), apathetic policemen, the ‘system’, the rich, the poor, the flashy bourgeois, they all threaten us while we remain helplessly virtuous. It is a ridiculous situation, for surely we are the “other” for someone else!

To build an inclusive city, we would need to begin with inclusive mindsets that promote dialogue, debate, awareness and provide space and opportunity for free speech and expression. Even as we speak about the need for safety and improved security, better law enforcement, etc….. we all know that moving towards a society of intense and perpetual surveillance is not a viable proposition. Though theoretical, the Right to the City is a good starting point for the State (especially local government) to build a relationship with citizens and radically change the way cities are governed. Idealistically, I believe that there is a collective action that can be taken to address many of the issues that we urgently need to resolve.

THiNK2012 and how it opened my mind- Nov 6, 2012

It’s been hard to explain to friends and relations in Goa (and elsewhere) what exactly the Thinkfest is all about and why I would come all the way to sit for three days through this conference that is not directly related to my work! See, that’s the thing. It’s hard to say what is and what isn’t related to my work. In a sense, everything is inter-related and that is exactly why, at the Thinkfest, you can strike up conversations with people from very different backgrounds and make sense of those! Everyone here is in a mode of looking at the world as a continuum, as a complex arrangement of connected ideas and cultures, as a world in which any two people can find something in common with each other.

Today, after the deluge of lectures and panel discussions that have flooded my mind with information, ideas and controversial conversations has sunk in, I really wonder what is it that I am going back with. Here’s an attempt to synthesize some of the takeaways, for me.

The silos in our heads: They need to be broken every now and then, but they exist for a reason. I find that no matter how broad minded I may be or how radical the thoughts I am exposed to, I continue to look at everything through the social and political lens that is fitted inside my head. That lens was forming when I was a child and was fairly hardened even in my early twenties. It’s darned hard to change it now. For instance, my parents were rather staunch Congress supporters and we have always had a slightly off the centre thinking in our family. Today, I am being forced to deconstruct this in my head. The left off centre is promoting reforms that traditionally seem extremely right, the right is opposing the idea of free markets. In India, being neutral about religion actually just puts you out of the framework, everything is so linked to the religious divides. And to add to matters, living on one side of the class divide and empathizing with the other really leave you nowhere. Yes, that’s me. The one who feels like I belong nowhere and yet want a say, albeit a tiny one, in deciding the future for my country. And so, being in a silo can give you the sort of leverage that no man’s land never will!

The heart and the head: Many talks at Think2012 moved the audience to tears. The adivasi girl Kamla Kaka spoke about police atrocities from a very personal perspective. The police fired at a village meeting that was being held to plan a harvest festival because they misunderstood it as a meeting of Naxals. That wasn’t all. She told us how they treated them, did not return dead bodies for an entire day, threatened them, came back and then killed another man, did not let a women go back to her newborn baby while she was returning from the fields, threatened rape and assault on the women….we had tears rolling down all of us, men included, industrialists and bureaucrats included, but what can we do, how do you make sense of a State that has different rules for difference classes of citizens? Then when I see Baba Ramdev say on TV that the Congress is bought over by big industrialists, I am forced to wonder….

Yes, we do use our head to make sense of things, but our hearts must drive our judgement as well. When tears stream down, you must recognize that injustice has been done. Then make sense of the different voices in the fray.

Indian morality: Think2012 consciously tried to break the mold of middle class Indian morality that is rather on the prudish side. Erica Jong said fuck a million times during her interview, and that somehow diminished the value of what she said for many among the audience. Of course, she says this for effect, but where she comes from and with the life she has led. But somehow, it was ok when Sir Bob Geldof, legendary rockstar and philanthropist, did the same. To be fair, he said fuck only half a million times, but even so, I see a really chauvinistic pattern here.

Sex in itself did not offend the rather elite crowd at Think2012, but a feminist talking about sex did! Being immoral and feminist and female, that was too much for the guys to take. The women mostly loved Erica AND Bob!

I have a lot more to share and everyone will have to bear with my post-THiNK rants for some more days.

While we judge foreigners writing on India harshly, Indians writing on India can be hypocritical as well! Apr 23, 2012

Patrick French, author of ‘India: A portrait’ wrote an enlightening piece in this Sunday’s Hindustan Times. He wonders why the Indian establishment of writers and critics is so touchy about foreigners writing or expressing themselves about India, when the same bunch are happy to be feted and accepted in the international media?

To me, the touchiness that Indians exhibit has always struck me as a peculiar trait. We simply have no sense of humor, especially when the joke is on us. That is true of Indians as individuals as much as it is true of us as a society, as a nation. So it isn’t surprising that we are sensitive about what people of foreign origin write/think/say about us, while we feel at liberty to create and believe in stereotypes (and make fun of these!) about the rest of the world.

However, the piece really got me thinking about Indian writings about India. There is this particular type of writing that is about India, but very obviously caters to a foreign audience. The type that picks on the quirks and then explains them in a terribly simplistic fashion. And the type that caricatures a very specific situation, but makes it sound like a norm. The type that paints India in a deliberately negative or ridiculously positive light for dramatic effect alone. I am all for artistic license and freedom of expression, but when you read stuff that is being written with the obvious thought of packaging it for those who do not know India first hand, exploiting the fact that India is a hot flavor in the international market and there is tremendous curiosity for things Indian, it gets a bit much! For those of us who live here and can see through the gimmicks in these books, they can be a humiliating experience.

And where is the category of Indian writers who live here, but write in the global context? Because India sells easy, do we writers in India not bother to step outside the context we are familiar with and create characters and narratives set in other geographical and cultural contexts? Are we then scared of the criticism, the quality of our research? Are we defensive as well?

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