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Busting myths about the poor and less educated: Field notes from Gurgaon

It always strikes me when I go out and interact with the poor; how much of our understanding of the world around us comes from deeply ingrained biases about social class.

In our survey work in Nathupur Village, Gurgaon (which I am doing as part of my research on shelter conditions for migrant workers), we clearly do not have a lot to offer those we are speaking to. For the moment. But that does not put people off. They are interested to listen to us because we seem empathetic to their lives and their problems.

We tend to believe that being illiterate and uneducated hampers an individual’s understanding of systems and processes that govern their lives. But I am happy to see that that is not necessarily true. Many of the people we meet are intuitive and intelligent and have very insightful comments on why they are in a situation of poverty and disenfranchisement. For instance, one construction worker told us “Kheti karne se paise kisne kamaaye hain, kheti karne keliye to paise chahiye”, which translates to “One does not earn money from farming, one has to earn to be able to be a farmer.” A telling commentary on the plight of the million engaged in subsistence farming across the nation, with small land holdings supporting large families.

In the context of women’s issues as well, many upper class urban people assume that less educated rural folk treat their women badly, or that they have less regard for the rights and dignity of their women. That is not true either, even though cultural norms make this seem so. For instance, the fact that women cover their heads and behave in a more subdued manner in public may not mean that they are dis-empowered within the household. Many of the women we met were vocal and completely involved in decision making for the home, including financial decisions. Many women in urban migrant families work as well and therefore have a fair understanding about financial issues like affordability, savings, repatriation of income, expenditure, etc. It must be said though that these women find it much harder to have identity papers in Gurgaon because the nature of their work is far more informal that their menfolk who usually work in semi-formal or formal jobs (drivers, guards, cleaners, retail assistants) with contracting agencies.

An interesting case in this regard was that of a middle aged gentleman from Bihar who works as a security guard in one of Gurgaon’s glittering skyscraping office buildings. His two grown sons work somewhere close to their village and are educated until Class XII and BA respectively. Their wives, though, have BA and MA qualifications and the latter aspires to do a PhD! I was intrigued and I asked him about how this came about. His story was so simple and interesting.

He said: “Girls nowadays want to study too. When we fixed the marriage for my older son, we knew there would be some time between the wedding and the gauna (when the girl actually comes to reside with the husband’s family) because my son was still studying, so my daughter in law asked me if she could study too. She completed her BA in her father;s house. When she came to our home, my son was away from the village working, so she went ahead and did her MA as well. Today, she has a job as a secretary in the local Bank of Baroda Bank and supports her own financial needs as well as her child’s. Why would I object to something that helps my family be more financially secure? Together, my son and his wife can be financially independent and maybe I will not have to be here in Gurgaon so far from my family forever!” We also found out that the same man had paid Rs 20,000 in bribe to get his younger daughter-in-law a job as an Aanganwadi worker in the village; a government job is considered the ultimate panacea for all troubles in Bihar, UP and most of rural north India.

If I think of the many urban educated households I know that actively or passively deter their womenfolk from going outside the home to work, or at least give them a darned hard time about it, stories like these seem reassuring and logical.

I was also struck by the number of fathers who take hands on care of their infants in poor migrant families, contrary to our perception that women are saddled with all child rearing responsibilities among the poor. With no extended family for support, these families live in one-room tenements with shared toilets and baths and working in partnership to rear children is a key for couples to be able to make ends meet and survive the harsh lives of migrant workers who are far from home in an alien, urban environment.

I come away from the squalor and filth of those village streets, full of grime but full of hope. It is ironic that many of us who drive around in air conditioned cars and live in homes we own struggle to keep at bay the negativity in our lives; while those who have nothing in the bank and live a financially and socially precarious existence are willing to share their meager resources with you when you visit and are able to be positive about the future. Their biggest source of happiness is that they are spending their hard earned money on investments into the future like education for their children. It is another matter that the quality of the education they pay so much for can be very questionable. A story for another day….DSC_6513DSC_6516DSC_6529DSC_6552

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.

Improved citizenship is a must to provide good governance: Synthesizing Patrick Heller’s talk @ CPR, India

When I set out to work this morning, I didn’t know I would end up hearing Patrick Heller speak at the Centre for Policy Research. I’m glad I did attend his talk, though, for it informs a critical area of my research on Gurgaon’s housing scenario. Patrick is a professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University and works in the area of democratic deepening, institutional design and participatory forms of governance. The aspect of citizenship and the relationship between civil society and government that he spoke of today is one that has tremendous potential to make or mar cities as places to live in and is certainly a very weak area for Indian cities, a stumbling block- indeed, one of many.

Patrick led us through the three major theories that have informed our understanding of cities in the last few decades during which urbanism has really come to the fore of research in sociology, political sciences and economics. The Global City thinking, a term coined by Saskia Sassen and which proposes that a global city is one which is an important node in the global economic system and attempts to envision the world as an hierarchy of cities, rather than nation states. Unfortunately, as Patrick pointed out, cities across the world have misinterpreted this term liberally, and in their hunger to move up the hierarchy of cities, have taken drastic and often thoughtless measures to simply ape another city without considering its own special position and needs. Hence, Mumbai is to be Shanghai and Delhi is to be London, and so on and so forth…

The Urban Regime thinking focuses on the politics of cities and looks at a city as an entity that has an agenda (usually growth), is supported by a coalition, is reasonably successful in achieving coordination, can mobilize resources and resolve collective problems as well as mediate conflicts. Prototypical of this is the growth machine model adopted by American cities. The real estate developer plays a key role here, and development is seen (in the US, but I could say this of India as well) as the adding of value to land to extract surplus value from it. The obvious criticism of this model is the absence of ‘people’.

That brings in the third construct- Citizenship theory, largely attributed to Lefebvre. Here, the city is viewed as an entity created by and for, governed by people, a democratic entity. Citizenship is a practice, not just a right and the intersections between state and civil society become very critical. In this, the ‘right to the city’ concept seems relevant to my attempt to build the argument that shelter is something every citizen must reasonably expect.

Patrick mesmerized the audience with his presentation of case studies from South Africa and Brazil, where citizenship takes absolutely different forms. It was revealing to learn that, in South Africa, there is deep discontent among urban populations against the African National Congress. The discontent is rooted in the alienation of the ANC from the activist bottom-up roots it had during the struggle against apartheid. While service delivery is efficient, citizens are upset that they are being treated like clients and that there is no participatory governance at all. In fact, ANC leaders have mostly become rich and move out of black neighborhoods. In a sense, they are the new whites. Yet, South Africans vote the ANC in every time because they feel they cannot vote against the party that Nelson Mandel founded and that led them to freedom from apartheid. Strong parallels with the Indian voters allegiance to the Congress in the many decades post Independence and the current sense of intense disillusionment with their politics, even as we struggle to find political alternatives.

On the other end, Brazil has moved away from the growth-obsessed autocratic model of governance to a social city model where both participatory processes as well as devolution of power have taken place. Innovative mechanisms like participatory budgeting and sectoral councils have changed the game, and Brazilian cities are seen to have consistently invested in socially beneficial areas like healthcare reforms, land regularization, social welfare, etc. Participatory budgeting is an example of how moves to strengthen citizenship have captured the nation’s imagination. PB, in which councilors as well as ordinary people paralely decide on municipal budgets, is not formally institutionalized but helps bring in transparency and breaks the deal-making, ‘clientelism’ that we have come to expect from govt-business (elite) decision makers. The changed relationship between politics and civil society is allowing new forms of co-production and making governance accessible to people like never before.

Patrick’s attempt to compare his work in these two nations with India are still in preliminary stages. However, it is clear that the essential issue in India is the lack of political autonomy and incapability of cities to govern themselves. Cities in India are not yet autonomous, usually in poor fiscal health and clearly do not have a sense of where they are going. Civil society is fragmented and the outcome is what Patrick calls “growth cabal”, a situation in which a regime of land-grab operates, with politicians, bureaucrats and the rich colluding to appropriate assets and hijack growth while the citizens are excluded from the process of wealth creation and the benefits that come from it. Moreover, we can all see that citizens in Indian cities continue to be, akin to South Africa, steeped in feudal/caste/class allegiances and have no systems for participation that help them participate in and influence their city in any way. Can South Africa’s experiences and the Brazilian success story teach us lessons on how to go forward? Can Indian cities find ways to involve civil society, strengthen civil society across classes to act as a check and balance? These ideas seem still far away for a nation where even the basic services are not yet available for the majority, but we must premise our future on the idea of citizenship and the ‘right to the city’.

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