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.
So, after a rap on its knuckles, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon sets out to survey the slums in the city. The Union ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA) had pulled up the MCG and asked them to find out why there is a high percentage (28%) of uncavassed households in the 2011 socio-economic and caste census. Uncanvassed households means the surveyor found nobody present/door closed or the respondent refused to answer. Certainly, this is strange and will need to be resolved if this data is to be used for any sort of policy making or planning purposes.
But that’s not the only strange thing I found in the data, which is available for download on the MCG website. Employment data was really skewed as well. For the three wards I read in detail, an overwhelming number of people were reported to have ‘other’ or ‘income from any other source’. The form was detailed and had codes for all sorts of informal work including home-based work, and codes for specific occupations like cleaner, gardener, transportation employee, shop helpers and waiters, dhobi/chaukidar, skilled workers like electricians, mechanics, assembly line workers, repair people etc. Strangely it did not consider that the recipients would work in IT or pharma or BPO or any of the sectors that Gurgaon is known for; there were no codes set out for those employed in white collar jobs! No wonder the surveyors were forced to list many residents as ‘other’!And the ‘other’ comprised of anyone from an urban village resident who has turned petty real estate broker to the Country Head of a Fortune 500 company!
What is the point then of collecting this sort of data if the survey questionnaire is poorly designed and the quality is so poor. If I were HUPA, I would be questioning that too! Of course, other indicators like material of roof, wall, etc of dwelling unit could tell a different story and one could correlate these different data sets to arrive at some idea about people’s socio-economic conditions in Gurgaon.
MCG officials have blamed the errors on problems in data collation and processing as well on the high level of migration in and out of Gurgaon. And hence the survey of ‘slums’ to find the data in the gaps. The pilot here begins in 4 urban villages and certainly, urban villages bear the brunt of the migration of low-income workers into Gurgaon, reducing them to slum-like conditions. Many villages in Gurgaon are very prosperous, neat and organized and offer a better quality of life than most of the city’s gated communities. It is precisely because they are not formal settlements that they have been able to tap into the opportunity that migration offers and many land owners are earning a living out of the rental units they have constructed. The aim of this exercise is purportedly to enable local government to implement a scheme to bring basic services to slums.
My research intends to look at the status of the low-income migrant in the city from the lens of housing. While the city benefits hugely from the labor that these migrants provide, there is little done to extend basic facilities like housing or basic services to them and they live in poor conditions. In fact, those migrants who can afford rentals in the city’s urban villages are at the top end of the scale; others live in squalid temporary jhuggis that are demolished at will, a very precarious existence indeed. Can a city, where migrants are steadily paying home rentals, not think of a way to ensure decent living conditions and harness the benefits that will come with a more secure labor force? I am curious about the government’s thinking on this and looking for a way to interact with people in government about this aspect. Would be happy if anyone can point me to the right people to talk with!
Poverty and traditional living can teach us about sustainability, if we would pay attention- June 18, 2012
A friend passed on to me the phone number of someone who home delivers organic veggies in Gurgaon and I am trying to evaluate the benefits of ordering these at an increased cost. I do believe that going organic will benefit my family’s health, but how much can I protect my kids and the rest of us from exposure to all sorts of toxins in products like milk, fruits, even pulses, chicken, wheat and rice…stuff we consume all the time?
Reading about the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development organized by the UN, I cannot help wondering what a stupendous task it must be to convince people from across the globe to see the urgency of the issue. Modern lives have consumption and wastefulness at the core. To turn first principles around and conserve instead of consume is a very fundamental transformation that most people will find extremely difficult. Much easier to believe the worst will never happen and continue with business as usual! Many a time, I am gripped with fear about what sort of lives our children will lead in a future world where people will slay for water.
One of the essential themes of the the Rio+20 conference is the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and the seven areas that need attention are: decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness. There is a strong link between urbanization and sustainability. We do know that as man has rapidly urbanized, the pressures on the planet has magnified manifold and the objective of sustainability more threatened than ever.
The connection with poverty is more complex, in my view. I usually associate higher income with higher waste generation. However, I have noticed time and again that urban migrant populations at the bottom of the income pyramid lose their inherent tendency of conservation and judicious use of resources rapidly. Instead, littering and wastefulness are the first ‘urban’ traits they pick up. To me, this is strongly linked to the loss of identity that poor families must feel when they migrate into urban spaces. The lack of ownership of a home and its environs, the feeling of being transient inhabitants of a physical space, the nonchalance and thick-skinned abandon that is born out of being treated as society’s lowest rung all act together to breed a feeling of contempt for the urban environment.
Therefore, the biggest challenge of all for sustainable development is that of carving a space of dignity for the urban poor. One way is to create policy and mechanisms that ensures a basic decent standard of living for all- quality shelter and access to basic services like water, electricity and sanitation being essentials. Along with this, a code of urban conduct needs to propagated in which civic duties including aspects like cleanliness, safety and conservation are expected from individuals and households that inhabit urban spaces. Once again, community plays a critical role here. Inter-class suspicions and rivalries need to be left aside if we are to build a society that is safe for our present and in a fit condition to hand over to our children.
I suspect this is not an urban problem along though. On Sunday, I attended the book release of the 3rd Encyclopaedia of Social Work in India. The editor of the 5-volume series, Dr Surendra Singh is a family elder, an academician of repute and a man with acute sensibilities with regards to the social dimensions of developing India. He pointed out that despite over 60% of Indians still quoting agriculture as their primary occupation, only a single researcher had contributed an article on social work among the farming community. Just goes to show that we are ignoring social transitions that are happening at a massive scale across the nation. Consumed by the idea of urbanization, we are unable to see the inter-linkages across geographies, the proverbial big picture.
I’m the zillionth person to say this I’m sure, but a nation like India, which still has living traditional cultures within its folds, cultures that still practice age old traditions of sustainable living, has the unique opportunity to recognize these precious ideas and adapt them to modern life. In this, we need to hear the voices of the poor and give credence to their adaptability. We then need to help them retain the sustainable aspects of their lifestyle and adopt these across economic strata and geographies, not look down on them and force modern, usually unsustainable practices down their throat in the name of development. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the construction field, but that is a whole different subject to explore!