Change is a challenge, in every age
History is a magnanimous teacher. You can sit in your armchair and read about times gone by, people long dead and wonder how their lives were similar or different from ours. And it is fascinating that there is always a situation or a person you identify with.
I just finished reading ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. Set in the early 16th century, it tells the story of Thomas Cromwell, who traversed the unthinkable trajectory in a single lifetime starting as a blacksmith’s son and becoming Henry VIIIs closest aide. At a time when England challenged the ubiquitous power of the Catholic Church, Cromwell is a man of commerce, almost a disbeliever. A cynic and a liberal. A man who educates his daughters and involves them in his business, a man who is unafraid of negotiations, who makes discipline and duty his ultimate religion.
What fascinated me about the book was the conflict between belief and religion. King Henry challenged and sought to bring down the confluence of money and power that vested in the officials of the Church during his time, primarily because the Catholic Church did not readily give in to his idea of divorcing Katherine to marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell crafted around the king’s whim a web of laws and statutes that made him the head of the kingdom and the Church in England. And while he did this, powerful people warned of a downfall of morality, an end of truth, none of which happened because it was already an anarchic situation in what we know as Europe today- Turks attacking at one end, a dead Pope’s body being paraded around Rome and Munich being ruled by an autocratic tailor some among many crazy stories we know of now.
What is telling is how Cromwell manipulates the relationship between the citizen and the forces in power. On one side, he believes that citizens must have basic amenities and security of life, on the other he must work with the vagaries of the King’s mind. When push comes to shove, Cromwell sends his law all over the land and asks citizens to swear upon the Bible to accept their King as head of the Church, thus justifying all Henry’s actions. Cromwell knows what he does is wrong, asking innocents to swear upon an issue they barely understand, but he has no choice if he (and England) must survive!
These are the difficult compromises those in power and those close to them must make. Many of their decisions, when viewed in isolation, seem hard, unjustified and unethical. Yet, if we see the web of inter-related matters these men (and women, going by the formidable forces Katherine and Anne were!) must consider, one wonders how decisions get taken at all! In the end, strategic decisions are taken to keep the balance so that the machinery of State keeps running and the people, those poor citizens who know not what is at stake, can continue to lead their contented or wretched lives….
So what has changed, through history? At this point I look at the political situation in India, Egypt, Turkey…and many other places and I see that the citizen is still marginalized from the loci of power. I also see that citizens are given to rather myopic visions, overrun by their immediate concerns and that democratic gathering of opinion is not always possible because information, understanding as well as the well to be informed and understand is not equal among citizens. If we believe democracy to be the best solution for the modern State, we need to develop consensus building skills and powers of negotiation of a very refined and evolved nature. In parallel, citizens must have the means to be aware and involved in decisions that impact their lives. Most of all, we need systems that can wait till these processes of negotiation are complete and this is where I think democracy fails, repeatedly. As KC Sivaramakrishnan, eminent economist and Chairman of Delhi-based think tank said in the context of a recent workshop to support incrementally built neighborhoods in the informal parts of the city, “Every so often, there is an urge and impatience to do something world class and grand” that impinges on this patience. In an instant, we abandon the slower democratic processes to make sweeping changes without worrying about who they benefit. Later, when sense returns, it seems inappropriate to feel remorse, so we justify and we use sellotape to patch the fissures and so on, till things fall apart and a new age is ushered in…
Does Modi’s popularity mean giving free reign to communalists, misogynists? Shocking reports from a protestor at SRCC
There was much noise about Narendra Modi’s talk at SRCC yesterday. He spoke about development and used this powerful term to capture the imagination of students. Which is all very well.
However, there were protestors outside from what the media termed the “communist” section of DU. And they were treated shabbily, very very shabbily indeed. I may not have a huge case against Mr Modi per se, but if his leading this nation means we give free reign to all communal, misogynist elements in our society, we should all think really hard before we vote this man to power.
Here is an account from a girl who attended the protests, shared by a DU student and a friend of mine on her FB wall today. Prepare to be outraged, shocked, saddened….it’s not just the Kashmiri girl band Pragaash, it’s each one of us in danger!
“Ragini Jha (a student present at the protest): “On 6th of February, there was a large protest against the invitation of and talk by Narendra Modi by SRCC Students Union, organised by various students groups and individuals. The road in front of SRCC had 3 rows of barricades on each side, some of which were subsequently broken. The Delhi police was extremely vicious in their handling of the situation, and were both highly sexist and communal. They passed lewd comments about women standing near the barricade, made kissing gestures and noises, asked women to come closer and talk to them. They also very openly stared and laughed at women in a way that was clearly sexual. When a woman student demanded that women police officers be present at the barricade as well to confront women students, she was told ‘aap aurat kahaan se hain’. Women were also told repeatedly to give up as they’re too weak to break barricades. Some women were told that they should stop protesting or they would be meted the same treatment as women in Gujarat in 2002. At the police station, women students were groped and felt up by the police when they tried to enter.
In addition to this the police also detained 8 protestors. ABVP students were allowed on the other side of the barricade, one even climbed the water cannon, but none of them were detained. This was despite them threatening students, particularly women, by saying things like “jo gujrat ke aurton ka haal kiya wohi tera hoga”. The police, after lathi charging students, laughing and joking as they did so, went on to drag students and throw them in the middle of ABVP and RSS activists, where they were further beaten up.
They were attacked by both ABVP goons and the police, who were supporting each other. The police were particularly obnoxious, whistling and winking at the female students (who were also groped at the Thana) and beating them (and the boys) up sadistically with lathis in addition to water cannons. The ABVP threatened them with Gujarat-like consequences – “Jo Gujarat mein huya vaise tujh me ghusa doonga” while brandishing a stick and similar things. Meanwhile the police were watching and laughing at the girls and other protestors and saying things like “kar le jo karna hai, kya kar payegi” and openly supporting the ABVP students, who were even dancing on the water cannons as they aimed at the protestors. The worst is that they would pick up some of the protestors (including young women) and push them into a crowd of ABVP goons who would then beat them. Some protestors were picked up and taken to the police station, and beaten up on the way (including on the head and groin with lathis). NONE of this shocking stuff is coming out in any of the news reports.”
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.
Focus on affordable housing can transform cities
A politician and two architect-planners addressing urbanism and debating planning and vision. What could be more interesting than that? To me, as an architect and urban planner, this was a vital session here that opened people’s minds to a burning issue we rarely spend time on.
Amid talk of aesthetics, planning, politics and urban fabric, they keep coming back to the core problem if housing poor people. We need to stop pushing the poor out or keeping them in substandard living spaces. I Sn glad to hear KT speak up for the need to envision the poor as a part of urban economy. Find ways to help them afford their own homes. Design homes that suit them and not create homes that are unsuitable and impractical. I am happy to hear both KT Ravindran and David Gensler talk bout out high density low rise as a viable option.
The interesting aspect that is coming through is the idea that government needs to play a significant role in creating this affordable housing stock. Free or subsidised housing may still be the only option for some sections of the society.
CM Maharashtra Prithviraj Chauhan speaks eloquently about the bed for integrated townships away from existing cities. A new policy is on the anvil from him.
Our work in housing at the micro Home Solutions shows us that helping the poor directly can be very effective in combating some if these issues. But the larger vision still needs to be local, in context and solutions will differ slightly from city to city. Urgently, municipalities need sharper minds and more power to steer growth in unique directions!
Power in the hands of the poor: Why are we uncomfortable with that? Oct 17, 2012
A few days ago, I mentioned that I feel angry when someone calls me an idealist. It’s not the word, it’s the tone that implies that idealism is foolish that really gets to me.
I get called an idealist by fellow professionals essentially for being pro-poor. Architects and urban planners, being trained in the ‘technocrat’ mode, like to pose physical solutions to problems that ail our cities. Hence tools like zonal and master plans, design proposals and such like are seen as change drivers. However, because these and many other tools for change lie in the hands of bureaucrats, policy is used to steer and obfuscate what is actually happening on the ground.
Neither policy nor the tools for physical planning are completely rooted in the realities we exist in. The realities are political, social and economic. The realities are the stuff we want to shove under the carpet- class divides and political gain, vested interests and goon power, caste-based thinking and skewed gender equations. If I am an idealist for believing that we need to make a strong political, economic and social case for uplifting the poor, then I am proud to be one indeed!
At this stage in my research on migrant housing in Gurgaon, urban designers and planners I interact with are telling me that I cannot influence the sociology and politics of any place, so its best to focus on a physical solution. So propose some mixed use, opine on resource distribution, talk about land values, density, the magic word FAR, etc etc. On the other side are the activists and NGOs who work with the community. They advise that I look at the problem squarely in the eye and find out what stops governments from providing migrants housing and more importantly, what will convince them that this is unavoidable. So basically, they ask me to place the political and socio-economic considerations at the center of the problems.
These two aren’t essentially different opinions; they both intend to arrive at physical solutions perhaps, and yet they look at the issue in two very divergent ways. It appears to me, and my judgement is informed by various interactions in the sector, that mainstream professionals in fields like architecture and urban planning have begun to view themselves as service providers, and are disconnected from a sense of their role in society. They view the government as a significant client and the migrant worker as a beneficiary of a policy. Therefore, the proposals are not intended to empower the community, but to find a solution palatable to the government.
Activists and not-for-profits in this space, on the other hand, intend to give power directly into the hands of the poor, equipping them with information and arguments that will help them carve a space for themselves in urban India, where they compete for resources with the upper classes while at the same time being a huge part of the ecosystem.
Clearly, solutions that place decision making in the hands of the poor are clearly uncomfortable for decision makers. Perhaps we can blame it on the general need of both bureaucrats and technocrats to find the sort of solution where there is a measure of control and predictability. Solutions that involve incremental steps, are long-term in nature and do not come with guaranteed results are hard to buy into.
No one has a crystal ball that tells us the future, but it doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that the workable solutions will emerge out of a skilful, considered mix of both approaches. That it is necessary to consider the poor a vital part of India’s growth story, while at the same time being pragmatic in the means we employ to give them their rightful place in this unfolding saga of a rapidly urbanizing India. In the end, we must confront our discomfort with handing power (especially in aspects as vital as health, education, housing, basic services, etc) to the poor.
Disturbed by the lack of a tolerant, inclusive, plural vision for India- Oct 16, 2012
So what’s the logical option for left of Center, liberal people like me in the current political situation in India? It’s a thought that’s plagued my generation no end. I distinctly remember drawing room discussions about electoral politics when I was growing up and this is pretty much the question that plagued my parents and their friends as well. Often times, they ended up voting Congress because all other political positions were simply too extreme. Today, when the Congress appears to be crumbling under the weight of its own pretensions, pseudo socialism and dynastic obsession, even that isn’t an option any more. So what do we do, when we no abstaining from political participation is not an option either. When we know we have to keep our voice, but there is no voice out there that seems to represent us!
I can’t help feeling that we do need a new perspective and a new voice in today’s post-liberalization scenario where everything’s changing rapidly and the existing political establishments are simply too jaded and narrow in their focus to appeal to a new generation of voters. The demographics have changed. We are a super young nation now and young blood wants to see positive changes fast. Rapid urbanization and much exposure via all forms of media means people have too much information, too fast, information that is often half-baked, half-processed and can fan flames of discontent and anger. There is entirely too little reflection on many issues covered in the media and its easy to believe what you already want to believe.
But is that new voice Arvind Kejriwal? No. An emphatic no. Each time I cringe at his methods, I find myself questioning my own reactions. Why am I uncomfortable about the IAC’s way of doing things? Well, I find them too flashy, media hungry and exhibitionist. And I wonder if there is a real plan behind all this drama that is apparently for political gain. So what happens if the IAC does prove some of their allegations? Do they really have a plan for taking on a leadership role at the national level?
But my problem is that the IAC’s gimmicks and world view seems far from the liberal, secular, tolerant establishment I dream of. It thrives on hatred. I cannot believe that anything built on hatred can foster a society of tolerance and compassion, which is certainly what India must aspire for.
Am I too idealistic? Should we give up the dream of living in a society that is diverse yet tolerant, multicultural, plural and also respectful of other cultures? How do we resolve all the various conflicts around us- urban-rural, modern-traditional, religious majority vs minorities, if we don’t even have a vision for inclusion and tolerance?
Forgive me my rant people, but if anyone has any non-negative thoughts on this, please enlighten me….
Living through revolutionary times- Aug 28, 2012
Every generation must think it lives in revolutionary times. I certainly think I do. One indicator is the many subtle and not so subtle changes in the world map. When we were kids, the Cold War dominated the world’s consciousness. Very much in the shadow of the Western powers, India and the Indian media steadfastly followed the rivalry between the US and the USSR. While our political status was non aligned and Russian fairy tales entertained us no end (remember Baba Yaga and the numerous Ivan’s!), American culture showed us glimpses of a life full of the freedom to aspire.
The splitting of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall have been momentous changes indeed. But we have also parallely been witness to dramatically different political systems. Communism Russian style gave way to the Chinese model. In our childhood, we debated the benefits of Soviet style communism versus democracy, now we wonder what the Chinese are doing better than us. It is hard for us to reconcile China’s tremendously capitalistic behaviour with its state controlled model. Now China is looking to re-engineer society and reduce their income disparity in order to continue to grow as an economy. Another innovative experiment to watch out for in our lifetime.
Back home too, the flavour of democracy is changing subtly and continuously. In the midst of chaos is hope that citizen awareness will grow and pressurise the system to evolve towards transparency and efficiency. It is a dream indeed, but who knows… In this wonderful lifetime miracles might yet happen!
Can we evolve new tenets for our democracy? Musings on India’s bankruptcy of vision – Aug 17, 2012
The last issue of HT’s Brunch carried a one pager by Shashi Tharoor on the 40s as a decade for India. In this piece he outlines “democratic institution building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of non alignment” as the 4 pillars of the Nehruvian legacy, which was evolved equally by Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and Ambedkar, the four stalwarts that guided India through that tumultuous decade to a bright future in a world being torn apart by fascism and violence.
All four pillars stand contested today. Institutions are severely crippled by corruption, nepotism and a serious lack of vision and direction. Secularism is threatened not just by communalism (which was top of the mind for statesmen in the aftermath of the bloody Partition) but by racism, regionalism, casteism and the class wars. The incidents unfolding in Bangalore and Chennai, where hundreds of people from north eastern India are fleeing home in fear underlines that many Indians feel threatened in their own homeland, for absolutely no fault of theirs. It is a despicable situation and whoever is behind this is both racist and cowardly. I am upset that there were no strong steps taken by the city and state governments to counter this fear and the resulting exodus. That is another sign that even those in power inadvertently accept the unfolding disintegration of India. Scary!
The remaining two pillars. Socialist economics is something we are struggling with in the face of capitalistic forces, the need to be competitive in the global scenario. Our large population of poor people is a drag on our economy, no matter how much we try, we are unable to translate this into an opportunity. Mind you, there is real potential here and several social sector entrepreneurs have shown that innovations in technologies and trying new business models can harness the aspirations of the poor and fire the double bullet of giving them upward mobility while creating modestly profitable businesses. The problem is that even the government looks at the poor as objects of pity and not as customers for services or even as citizens with equal rights. That is the real failure, the failure of vision.
I won’t discuss non alignment. The world has changed much in the past six decades and I am no expert on foreign policy.
If all these four pillars are contested, it means we urgently need to re- envision the tenets of democracy for India today. That is what political manifestos are supposed to do, but instead they pay lip service to vision and announce populist measures. Why are we shying away from asking the vital questions? There are certain things every Indian wants- security, opportunities for growth, etc- but there are many issues on which consensus may not be possible. We need to build a climate of debate, an ability to hear the plural voices out there. Instead, we find it easier to watch and wait for the end, the revolution, the disintegration into chaos. I suppose it is time for me to read the latest works of both Chetan Bhagat and Tharoor to explore these thoughts further. Until then, I am attempting to place my agitation on hold and focus on making my weekend productive and enjoyable!
Is a new political entity an answer? Random conjectures on the future of Team Anna- Aug 2, 2012
Will Team Anna enter politics? Should they? Will such a move end our woes, provide a more rational, appealing option to voters, especially urban voters in India? It’s a question that has daunted me the past few days and something I wondered about even last year when Team Anna’s movement against corruption was its focal issue and at a high point.
Today, the team clearly announced that they would enter politics to provide a “political alternative” to the ‘corrupt’ political class”. They also said they would support candidates committed to “patriotism” and “country’s development”.
If I were to be outright cynical (and I confess I feel that way about a lot of things happening in the Indian political scene right now), I would say Kejriwal’s original plan has always been to start a political party. Even last year, his comments betrayed his leaning in this direction, but Anna himself maintained a neutral stand. The debate on extending this movement into a political one seems to be growing right now.
What does this development mean for us as citizens? For very long, our sense of disillusionment with politicians has been intense. Many urban, educated voters are really caught between a rock and a hard place while trying to take sides between the Congress-UPA bunch and the BJP-NDA lot on the other. Theoretically, a third front has always been an option. But putting together such an alternative is an enormous challenge.
It is one thing to call upon politicians to answer on charges of corruption and demand change as a citizen group. But will Kejriwal and his allies be capable of the political acumen required to play the power games? Will they remain clean when they are in the system? I don’t see in this team the kind of charismatic leadership you need to upset the power balance in a democracy as large as India. I’ve heard Kejriwal speak up close and while he has his facts pat, he came across as hot headed, even a bit rabid. His simplicity and uprightness is very appealing, but I wasn’t bowled over. Not by a long shot. Who else, with Anna clearly taking a non-political stand. (Of course, one could argue that the two main parties are just as bereft of capable leadership!) I’m also wondering if TA has a pan India base. I don’t know enough and would love to learn more. And importantly, an alternate political party needs to have a bigger vision for the nation. I don’t quite see that here, though it can evolve by logically extending the current principles of transparency, democratic process, etc.
Despite my doubts, I do admire the courage and conviction of the movement. I wish it had not waivered, but rather stuck to its original agenda of targeting graft. I also wish it had focused as much on efficiency of governance as on corruption; efficiency and optimization through technology and better processes would go a long way in solving most of the day-to-day problems citizens face, and control low-level corruption.
I also understand that it is logical to fight the system from inside if you cannot make a dent from the outside. If Team Anna can unveil a well-rounded and more palatable vision for India, then they might well get popular support. However, I suspect a lot of their appeal until now has been that they represented the common man and fought against the establishment. Now that they aspire to be the establishment, the expectations will change drastically. To keep their agenda afloat in this new milieu will be quite a challenge. Let’s wait and watch- the run up to 2014 is getting exciting!
Small steps, big changes: We need to harness the passion and talent of youth positively- July 30, 2012
Four days in Goa, with family, life centered around tradition, rituals, family bonding and the sheer experience of taking in Goa with its unique flavors, sights, sounds and feel. Coming back home is a brutal return to reality and the unpleasant aspects of life. I knew the power grid failure had happened (it was in the news), but I came back to actually meet people who have spent two days in the heat and darkness. I knew Team Anna was kicking some butt out there, but I’m reading the media coverage and wondering where all this bile and vitriol is taking us.
We sure are a bunch of disgruntled citizens and we need an outlet for our frustrations. Anna’s bunch are as good a cause to support as any! And hence the turnout at Jantar Mantar. Yet, when Kejriwal denounces the BJP and the Congress in equal (ahem ahem) measure, what does that mean politically? I am at a loss to understand where this is going? I wish I knew. Not that my opinion would matter, but I would sleep easier!
Personally, I feel corruption is one among several large issues that need to be addressed. Yet, it is an issue that really hurts us bad. I realized this when interacting with a group of final year architecture students last week. I am their advisor for a research project on the role of architects in serving low-income populations. I floated the topic with a set of ideas in mind, hoping to steer them towards finding innovative means of engagement between professionals and low-income families. As it often happens, they had processed the scenario in their own unique way. And they appeared most perplexed by the ugliness and inevitability of corruption. They felt that, whichever way they looked, it was corruption in the system of approvals, of urban planning and governance, that created imbalances in the supply of and access to housing. They wondered if this was ever going to improve and were rather disheartened about the topic of research. They said they felt like they were banging their heads against an unbreakable wall.
Of course, I encouraged them to express this, but also to set the subject of corruption aside and see how interventions could be effective within the bounds of the current ‘system’. However, their reactions gave me an interesting peak into the world of the youth. Young, educated Indians (especially those with a creative bent of mind) clearly, are not happy living with the system. They demand change, they are idealistic enough to believe change can happen, yet they are frustrated by the fact that no one (not even Team Anna) truly believes that change can happen or has a clear picture of what the change could look like. Worse, they are frustrated that the big picture remains fuzzy and uninspiring. They understand that small innovations appear to be the only way forward right now, but are unable to see how the small improvements will add up to make significant impact.
Is there some way we could harness this latent energy and frustration, this burning desire for change in a positive way? I do believe activism is a vital ingredient because ultimately political will is key, but there are other missing elements as well. I’m thinking it’s important to document and disseminate information on positive action across various fields, interventions that have changed people’s lives for the better, so that gifted and driven young people can be shown some hope and encouraged to pursue what they believe in and not waste their talents doing what anyone else can.