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A lesson in loss of identity, misuse of power and.. in peace

It is the Dalai Lama’s birthday today and he addresses the world, urging us towards inner peace and tranquility. A month and a half ago, we were in McLeod Ganj at his abode. The drives and views were glorious, the weather perfect, the food delectable, but what really put this place in perspective for me was the little museum inside the temple complex that told the story of Tibet.

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

The prayer wheels, everywhere...

The prayer wheels, everywhere…

Faith in motion

Faith in motion

The sanctum inside the temple

The sanctum inside the temple

We were stepping into the museum after seeing the temple, where we had been entranced by monks practicing their rituals and had soaked in the curiously informal yet deeply spiritual, traditional yet uniquely modern feel of the temple. Beautifully curated, the exhibits told the story of the expropriation of Tibet by China, a story of war and a searingly painful loss of religion, culture and identity. The countless lives lost, the homes abandoned, the livelihoods destroyed were one part of the picture, but what came through was the poignant and enduring sense of betrayal, loss, deep sadness.

Udai read every word on display, peered into every single photograph. Aadyaa too sensed our mood from the stillness in the air and asked to be informed. Panel by panel, we went through the story of Tibet’s transformation from an independent State with a very distinct blend of cultural and religious identities to its present amalgamation with China. New concepts like self-immolation caused my children to widen their eyes with wonder and curiosity.

Udai compared the Tibetan story to the hacking off of Hindu sculptures by Portuguese colonizers at Elephanta Caves outside Mumbai, where we had been, fortuitously, just a week ago. It’s the same thing, he said. Someone comes and does not respect what they see. They are stronger, so they destroy it, without thinking.

Not just respect, I gently added, but also inability to tolerate. And a need to destroy what exists to exhibit power, establish supremacy, quell rebellion.

Why, he asked? Why did the Portuguese want Elephanta, why do the Chinese want Tibet so much that they would do this?

Land, mineral wealth, natural resources like water, basically wealth. It is not just foreigners who do this to someone. In our own country, many tribal areas are being destroyed to mine minerals by our own countrymen, because we need those minerals to feed our factories, make machines and products that we now use. I saw a deep sadness in Udai’s eyes and I knew that, at some level despite the complexity, I had been able to get through to him.

I have been wanting to write about my feelings ever since we returned from Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. It cut me deep, the story of these self-respecting, proud, stoic people. Everywhere you walked, they sat selling goods that tourists would like- jewelry, curios, umbrellas, hats. As they sat, many of them continued to work with their hands, sewing and knitting and creating macrame wrist bands too. Some were happy to talk, albeit with a reserve and hint of suspicion; others refused to even get pictures taken, especially the old men. Monasteries and workshops, NGOs galore, all trying to rehabilitate a broken people. How resilient they are, I kept thinking. To lose everything and then pick up the pieces is a truly remarkable thing.

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

Making wrist bands, constantly working...

Making wrist bands, constantly working…

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed...he has an artist's eye, my little one!

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed…he has an artist’s eye, my little one!

We missed hearing the Dalai Lama speak, but the spirit of the Tibetan leader left its mark on me. Many years ago, when Rahul used to fly the Dalai Lama often, I had had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak at a private audience. I had little background then, of what had transpired in Tibet, but hearing the stories of his escape from Tibet had sent shivers down my spine. Now perhaps, I understand a bit more of this fascinating maze of events. I have no answers, no one does. Nor do I know enough to have convictions. I am hesitant to paint people, nations, ideologies in black and white.

But in everything around me now- in the lessons we derive from Uttarakhand’s tragic flash floods, in the debate around Maoist rebellion in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, in stories of college students not being allowed to practice street theatre at Connaught Place’s central lawns, I see a stark mismatch between what is real and what we want to believe. I see a desperate need to slow down, to truly evaluate before we take steps forward, to be inclusive in how we build our community, our city, our nation. Above all, I feel a need to be calm, patient, and ways to control anger and despair and turn these into positive forces. The way I interpret it, this is what the Dalai Lama teaches us. I hope more of us are willing to step off the speeding train hurtling towards we-don’t-know-where, and listen!

We have to listen! Solutions most often come from the community

There are many interesting ways to work with communities. A wide variety of social researchers across the world are learning that there is tremendous knowledge vested within communities and the outside-in, often high-handed, approach used by academicians and policy makers alike can be disastrous, not only because analysis and solutions may be far removed from reality and therefore unsuccessful when applied, but also and more importantly because this sort of approach loses out on the rich understanding that communities have of their environment, the networks that exist among them, their strenghts and weaknesses. Critical knowledge that can make or break their future and that, in turn, can teach those of us from the ‘outside’ that work with them, so much!

Today’s The Hindu carries a piece by Janaki Lenin about Erika Cuellar, a Bolivian biologist who empowered tribals to use their inherent knowledge in mainstream research and be recognized and compensated for it. This is a critical change and an evolving approach in research.

In my experiences with slum communities, I have often had the opportunity of learning from community members. Often, not the leaders, but ordinary members of the community can make astute observations that put us on a path to better design and more appropriate solutions. In the Sundernagari slum redevelopment project that mHS did in association with Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), the frequent mention of community life as enacted in the streets outside their homes led us to a pathbreaking design that focused on the street (at two levels, on the ground and two floors above the ground) as a space for interaction, work and play, a tool for safety and social cohesion and much more.

In our workshop at the Bhumiheen Camp in Govindpuri earlier this month, I got the chance to see another type of knowledge at work. The issue that stood out in all our conversations here was the low sanitation conditions in the slum. Most homes had no toilets and the community toilets are filthy and poorly maintained; many of the 35 toilets on the male side and the female side were not even functional. I had to see them to corroborate that absolute horror stories we heard. Not a pretty sight!

After the complaining had been done, I engaged the community members in a discussion in an attempt to find the reasons behind the problem and seek possible solutions. Apparently, the toilets used to be maintained by a private operator (charge Rs 1 per use) and were relatively clean, until the current Councillor (a good person, independent candidate, did other really good things for the area) declared them to be free. The maintenance became non-existent; women especially are in a bad shape, complaining of stomach aches and infections, a really pathetic situation. The Councillor is depending on the MLA for funds to remedy the situation, but the MLA is disinterested because he knows he won’t be re-elected when the elections come around. The community, which has represented numerous times on this matter, is caught in the crossfire and they are currently disheartened by the status quo.

I probed into the issue of self-regulation and the awareness of improved sanitation habits, like cleaning up after each use, etc. One gentleman happened to make the remark that ‘renters’ are the ones who leave the toilets dirty, which of course sent me into a whole tirade on how personal hygiene is not related to economic wealth, caste, status or tenure! I was so upset and insisted on knowing why the community isn’t organizing itself to address this issue if it is indeed such a huge issue! I should have expected the reply.

I was told that anyone who takes the lead runs a huge risk of being the object of ridicule and contempt if they fail, and subsequently they also lose whatever social equity they currently have, an important aspect of slum life and one that is traded for money, debt, favors and the like…. and the toilets are an issue that even the local politician has failed to crack! And then, the solution came too. If an NGO or any external organization were to take the lead and outline a strategy, the community members we spoke to felt confident that people would support them wholeheartedly, work for the cause, do whatever it takes to get this done. They desperately need a facilitator, that’s what they were telling me.

And their observation ties up with experiences of development practitioners in a myriad circumstances.They know the solution, they are simply not equipped to take the lead in roping the right people. They have little confidence in their own knowledge or bargaining power, and have been disheartened by recent and persistent failure in negotiation for their needs. Of course, it seems like they just passed the ball into my court and won a battle of words and it’s easy to walk away in scorn, wondering why “these people don’t want to help themselves”! The thought did cross my mind, but I hung my head in shame immediately. Of course they wanted to help themselves. After all, it is they and not me who have to use those filthy toilets every day.

If you have the stomach for it, take a look….

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Our voices and efforts can make a difference: Let’s keep fighting! #Delhirapecase

There has been much banter on social networks, much outrage and genuine frustration, a lot of noise, a multitude of voices reacting to the Delhi gang rape. The incident is being seen as shameful, rightfully so; Dilliwalas are feeling ashamed and angry at having to feel so, people from other identities who reside in Dilli have felt a tad better shrugging and being patronizing about being from elsewhere. And so it goes on.

For many of us, the real point of frustration is that this incident will go off the radar and be relegated to the back of people’s minds. Yes, it will happen. Society and human memory are known to be fickle. However, there is a point to making a hue and cry about things. There is a point to signing petitions and participating in protest marches. For all of us who sit in the comfort of our homes, clicking ‘likes’ on FB and feeling frustrated that our genuine outrage will amount to naught, we should not feel so terrible.

First of all, speaking out and putting yourself out of your comfort zone to think about issues that are not immediately impacting you, but could, is a first step to engagement with social issues. In a new way, this sort of engagement spawns new tools for democracies to function. Strong voices emerge that pressurize authorities to take action. Whatever may be our opinion about the actions taken in the short term, the hue and cry has jolted the government into releasing some rules that could be the beginning of a system of checks and balances. Much more needs to be done and civil society is taking up these aspects vehemently. For instance, today’s reports suggest that schools should verify the drivers and staff for buses and otherwise and report and irregularities to the owners/contractors or police. In my children’s school, we recently had an incidence of drunken driving and made the same suggestion to the school. Clearly, preventive measures and checks to identify repeat offenders and remove malfunctioning individuals from positions of responsibility are one way ahead.

On a larger scale, pressure from civil society can lead to convictions and impact judges to change verdicts to harsher ones. The Jessica Lall case, for instance, set a precedent for influential offenders to be brought to book. In law, as I understand it, precedence is an important aspect. So if someone is given a harsher sentence for a rape for this case, it will pave the way for harsher sentences to be given in the future for similar cases. The point I am making is that every little step goes a long way. We need to believe in the power of our efforts, however small, to create change. We need to protect ourselves from cynical dismissal, we need to not give up the fight. Most vitally, while we continue with efforts that address symptomatic problems, we need to broaden our efforts to impact the root causes, which might appear complex but could generate better results over time. Hence, education and awareness, changes in the law and policy, stronger processes are all essential aspects that we can also contribute to. And should, even after this incident has been buried in public memory, to create better cities for us to live in.

The brutal reality of Shanghai the film: Disturbing and thought provoking- June 20, 2012

For those who think films are about out and out entertainment, Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai was no joyride. The film hits you with its reality and thoroughly subtle characters. No gimmicks here.
It was one line delivered by the poor innocent tempo driver who got caught in the political mess and was ruthlessly used to murder the unwanted activist, that got my attention. He said “Jeena haraam ho Gaya hai par marne se bhi to dar lagta hai”. Telling the political side of India’s journey of ruthless real estate development, Shanghai highlights the ultimate tragedy of democratic development. Millions in our nation feel this way about their lives, as they continue to see the fruits of development being reaped by a few while their lands are snatched, livelihoods lost, rights taken away and self esteem eroded till they are forced to lead an existence without meaning, devoid of self respect and filled with a constant, irrational fear.
Last year’s backlash against corruption led by Team Anna showed us that this frustration is very real for the middle classes as well. Neither the poor, whose existence is severely compromised in these sort of ruthless power games, nor the middle classes, have any recourse and feel sandwiched between corrupt politicians and bureaucrats on one side and on the other, the daily struggle of their lives. We all live from day to day, hoping against hope that transformation will come. Some of us join hands with the system, others convince themselves to take an apolitical, neutral stand but when we reel under the impacts of poor governance and sheer callousness from those in power, it’s hard to not be angry. The anger simmers and we watch helplessly as our society disintegrates; rising crime and self-centredness become expressions of this frustration we all feel.
The film captures all this beautifully. It helps you see the story behind the headlines, the news of RTI activists killed and collectors mown into. It makes me deeply sad. This beautiful rich land of ours literally being raped in the name of development. As a planner I know there are better ways to do this. That inclusive and sustainable development is possible. But for that, the government and all those in power including developers will have to blunt the razor of greed and sit across the negotiating table with the community to find win win solutions for everyone. Utopian? Perhaps, but let us at least try!

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