The joke is always on women, but why are we laughing?
Last week, I (among others) took offence to a recent outdoor hoarding. I was shocked by its casual sexism and peeved about the use of cheap publicity to get eyeballs. A half-baked apology only added insult to injury. But it is hard to hold on to outrage—especially when we all seem to be outrage-ing so much about so many things nowadays—and by Monday I was much calmer.
But I couldn’t get the episode out of my mind. I found myself wondering about the diversity of reactions to the ad itself, which used abbreviations for common Hindi abuses that depict incest. I also kept thinking about how some folks on social media who found the ad funny, not offensive—and I’ll be the first to say that they are entitled to their opinion—also expressed their distress about the rape of a 4-year old girl, which was reported in the media around the same time. It is hard for me to wrap my head around this dichotomy and yet, it aptly demonstrates the extent to which sexual violence against women has got normalised in our society. It takes the rape of a child to upset us, but mothers and sisters being raped is now par for the course!
I find it fascinating that, for the majority, there is no relevant link between sexist advertising (and jokes) and the dismal record of Indian cities on women’s safety. Recently released data from NCRB shows that reported rape cases increased by 12.4% between 2015 and 2016. While crime data on domestic violence, sexual assault, abduction and rape is collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), many others forms of violence that women experience on a daily basis remain poorly documented. We know from media reports as well as many micro studies these too are widespread and on the rise. The statistics on child abuse, unfortunately, are worse. Across the country young children, mostly girls, are being sexually assaulted, often times by teachers, family members, neighbours and caregivers, people whom they implicitly trust. The NCRB reports a dramatic 13.6% increase in crime against children over the last three years, with about 35% of the cases registered under POCSO, or the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012.
These numbers, shocking as they are, no longer make an impression on us because we seem to have accepted that this is how Indian society is. Our reactions to the news items about raped children comprise expressing anguish, tightening security around our families and securing good marriages for our daughters, thus passing on the responsibility of their safety to someone else. Or, for the elite, sending our children abroad.
Unlike in other issues like terrorism or national security, we find it hard to pin point the enemy in the case of gender-based violence and so we blame the ‘other’, usually folks from another class and/or religion. Helpless and frustrated, we take solace in our WhatsApp groups, our laughter clubs, our kitty circles, our YouTube stand-up comedies, our Friday beers and we enjoy a few ‘husband-wife’ or ‘blonde’ jokes. The next morning, we read about another rape story and hurriedly turn to the sports page, where BCCI slamming pollution-troubled Sri Lankan cricketers makes for an entertaining read.
‘Fix the pavements, lights, roads…Just fix my city!’: Notes on #public #safety
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!
Better design of city roads can and must deliver safety
My twitter feed and today’s newspapers are full of lament over the tragic death of Rural Development Minister Gopinath Munde, who is considered a rising star in the newly elected BJP government. Munde died of internal injuries sustained in a road accident caused by speeding and rash driving (it’s controversial who was the culprit, his own driver or the one who hit him).
The tone of the lament heavily leans towards the political implications of losing an important political persona. A few articles here and there talk about the issue that stares us in he face- If a Minister on the central government dies in a road accident in the central part of the capital, what hope is there for the millions who use this country’s roads everyday. Should we not use this incident to highlight and drive home the need to do something about killer roads?
India’s road safety record is perhaps the most dismal in the world- 140,000 ppl died in 2012 alone as per official records, one death in every 4 minutes! Often we consider only fatal motor accidents. Many pedestrians and cyclists die every day and many more are severely injured. The fact that the majority of those injured and killed are the urban poor, whom no one mourns except their families, is one of the reasons these issues never make it to the government’s priority list!
Mulling over the the press coverage and adding knowledge gleaned from friends and colleagues (Special thanks to Bharat Singh, Romi Roy, Nipesh P Narayanan, Monolita Chatterjee, Amit Bhatt and Sarika Panda Bhatt), I’d like to make a few points about the issue of road safety in India.
On policy: A revised Motor Vehicle Amendment Bill has been pending in Parliament for a decade, which will bring in stricter consequences for traffic violations like speeding and drunken driving. However, experts say that the provisions in this law are outdated already. The Hindu today carries a piece on how UN goals need to be actualized, in which Save LIFE Foundation founder Piyush Tewari says: “The sole statute governing road safety in India, the Motor Vehicles Act-1988 (MVA), has proved ineffective in addressing any of these issues decisively. Even the last tabled Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2012, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2012, was archaic and contained recommendations which will not solve the current situation on Indian roads.”
On road design: Of the three factors- human behavior, driving behavior and infrastructure- the third is the most easily fixable while the other two take time and a combination of awareness building as well as stringent policy formulation and implementation. The best way to fix transportation infrastructure is through improved road design. There is considerable evidence to show that flyovers and pedestrian foot overbridges are NOT the way forward for city roads. Rather, controlling speeds and offering cyclists and pedestrians at-grade crossings is the humane and intelligent way to design roads in the city. This means accepting that the automobile is one of many modes in the scheme of things and not all-important and this is a huge mindset change that needs to come in if we want safer cities to live in.
Let me use an example closest to home to explain what I mean. As mentioned in coverage in Hindustan Times today, one fatal accident happens every month on the road that I live in- Sohna road in Gurgaon. The road is designed as a highway instead of a city road, complete with crash barriers on the median, slip roads and minimum crossover points. The automobile is encouraged, by design, to speed up to 60-80 kms per hour and experts tell me the road is probably designed for over 100 km per hour speeds!
Stand on the road at any time and you will see pedestrians run across the road, climb over or under these ugly metallic barriers and then dart across the remaining stretch on the other side. There are no traffic signals for pedestrians to cross at all on the entire 4 km stretch despite heavy residential and commercial activity on the road. This is a complete design failure and therefore the roads deaths are also designed to happen. The authorities mus take cognizance that they are responsible for people dying and losing livelihoods owing to injuries every single day!
Friends and acquaintances within the design community have started various initiatives to convince the government to involve both designers and citizens during the conceptualization of infrastructure projects. A failure to do this will only create more inhuman cities to the detriment of everyone.
On changing ourselves: I harp on this all the time, but I see merit in self-reflection on these issues as citizens. We all care for our own lives and the safety of our families, but do not do anything about it. Starting with changing our own behavior behind the wheel. So sensitizing ourselves to better road behavior and above all, including pedestrians and cyclists in our scheme of things, is important. We plan to take this up on Sohna Road through RWAs soon.
In another way, it is our reluctance to engage with local politics that allows government officials to get away with ad hoc decisions, poor planning and design resulting in unsafe neighborhoods. It is our duty to be aware of what is happening in our neighborhood and the more who involve themselves to raise a voice for improved governance, the better our lives will get!
Join us in our fight for better roads in Gurgaon by spreading the message that Better design is the most effective solution to safer roads and decreased casualties. By better design we mean roads designed to control speeds, proper at-grade crossover points for pedestrians and cyclists, footpaths and cycle paths to be included, properly designed speed brakers (not the poorly constructed car breakers we get), etc. There are guidelines available for urban roads with Ministry of Urban Development and UTTIPEC and we need to pressurize MCG and HUDA (and other local authorities wherever you are) to follow these and not bring in ad hoc designs that kill more people and make driving and walking a nightmare in our city.
Savouring Dubai, the land of opportunity and refuge
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.
Savar, Thane, Delhi- Continuing building collapses and our moral imperative
Each time a building collapses, our team at micro Home Solutions is severely pained. In the early years, each collapse meant long discussions about the possible causes and solutions. Now we know that the reasons are obvious–poor construction quality, no structural precautions, low lying areas prone to flooding, overloading, etc.
As I read last night about the latest 4-story building that has collapsed in north-east Delhi that has killed one and injured 14 people, I remembered this excellent post by Architect Marco Ferrario, co-founder of mHS on the company blog that reminds us (professionals, government, citizens) of the moral imperatives of building unsafe structures and putting lives at risk. Am reproducing it here and the original can be found here.
I must put in a word here for how impressed I have been with Marco’s sense of empathy and dedication to the cause of building safety. Far away from his home in Italy, he has spent several years in India, documenting and finding solutions for self-built settlements that represent perhaps the most pressing challenge and opportunity for Indian urbanization. Thank you, Marco, for teaching me so much 🙂
Savar and Thane highlight a moral imperative we cannot ignore
May 1, 2013 by Marco Ferrario
In the last month we have been witness to two building collapses. Or at least two have been widely covered by the media. The first one happened in Thane (Mumbai), with a toll of 74 lives. The second one happened last week in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over 400 people lost their lives, and the death count is still rising.
These events happen quite regularly in rapidly growing South Asian cities, often involving small buildings in low-income, semi-formal and informal neighborhoods.
There is not an official record of such events, but a graph recording their incidence over recent years would inevitably show an upward trend, with an increasingly exponential shape.
These collapses are not usually investigated and their causes are explained with generic reasons. In Mumbai the media reported ‘use of substandard materials’ as the cause. In Dhaka they are simply talking about ‘bad construction’.
‘Bad construction’ is not far from the truth. But what the media must realize, and what communities in informal settlements may or may not be aware of, is that this ‘bad construction’ is the rule rather than the exception.
Normally, buildings in the same settlement are built in the same way. It is likely that only marginal variables (level of use and degradation, slight differences in amount or quality of materials) leave buildings around the collapsed garment factory in Savar or the collapsed apartment building in Thane still standing. It is alarming how minimal these differences really are.
Collapses caused by heavy vertical loads, as in these recent cases, are relatively rare. But how will buildings in these types of settlements behave in the case of horizontal loads (i.e. earthquakes)?
In India there are many examples of earthquake-resistant structures, especially in the Himalayas, where timber and stone have been used together effectively. However, India’s current urbanization, with the cost of land rising and only tiny plots available for low-income dwellers, leaves only one option: going vertical. Settlements one storey high 10 years ago are now full of three- and four-storey buildings.
The other critical factors are materials used and construction method. Poorly designed RC (reinforced concrete) frames, with fired clay brick walls, constitute the majority of these buildings. The problem is that RC structures require design input from engineers, who, along with architects, are not working in low-income settlements.
There is a dramatic difference between a well-engineered structure and one that is not. Sometimes adding one column in the whole structure can make the difference. These units are built by masons and builders without technical knowledge. Often the basics of construction are not respected.
Because for different reasons—social and economic being the most relevant—architects and engineers are not serving these neighborhoods, we all need to find an alternative solution to address the problem. Especially given that these self-built settlements house over 60% of people in Indian cities. Cities, in particular informal settlements, are growing at steady peace with higher and higher multi-storey buildings.
One positive note is that large-scale impact could come from simple interventions: dissemination of information on safe building practices, and more mason training for construction teams that work in informal settlements. The government should play a key role in this. Furthermore, a simpler building code and monitoring system should be implemented, since the current system doesn’t even work in formal settlements. All this requires an accountable government willing to take responsibility and invest in safety.
The cost of inaction is almost impossible to estimate.
Building collapses, mapping woes and other stories about planning and construction
I browse through BBC News on my newly acquired iPad mini, and my glee at trying out my new toy abates as I read about the horrendous building collapse in Thane, Mumbai that has killed 45 and injured over 70 people. It’s one of those aspects of the construction industry hardest to reconcile, this widespread prevalence of low quality and illegal building practices that goes unnoticed across India, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each year. Whereas preventive measures have been accepted as necessary by citizens in the field of health (think immunisation, health check ups) to some extent, an investment in quality and safety while constructing a roof over their heads does not seem to command high priority for the masses in India. This has been the experience of many organisations like mHS that work in the field of mass housing. Increased pressure on urban land and rising home prices make it imperative to find policy measures that enforce minimum standards for construction but also find ways to offer cheap and widely accessible technical assistance to all those who build their homes. Plus strict penalties for contractors and builders who indulge in malpractice.
On another note, I was amused to see in this morning’s paper that Google is facing a police enquiry basis a complaint from Survey of India because they consider their Mapathon contest a threat to national security. As planners, community-driven mapping is a powerful tool we use to help prioritise and even design interventions. If calling upon people to map their neighbourhood is illegal, then the profession of planning is illegal too! And if city maps that mark landmarks and buildings of national importance like the Parliament House are illegal, then the same goes for all those involved in tourism, business development, marketing or indeed anyone who needs to use a map to get around! Bizarre, to say the least!
Not a day goes by when I don’t find one or the other news item in the general news that directly pertains to the work I do as an architect-planner working on affordable housing. Yet it takes me several minutes to explain what I do to most people outside of my profession. Ironic!
Verma Committee report kindles hope: Let’s fan the flames!
Most, if not all reviews of the Justice Verma Committee Report on Amendments to Criminal Law in the context of gender-related safety and sexual offences, declare it to have seized the moment in proposing changes that could have far reaching impact if implemented. It is indeed a hopeful sign for all those of us who have fretted and worried, stood in protest, and hoped to hell something will happen of the momentum of activism and sheer anger that our nation’s citizens unleashed post the Delhi gang rape.
To sum up the report’s positives, rape is now defined within the context of sexual crimes as any act of non-consensual penetration, while sexual assault includes all forms of non-consensual non-penetrative touching of sexual nature. Marital rape is very much recommended to be within the purview of this criminal offense. The committee recommends that marriage cannot be offered as defense and is not relevant to the matter of rape. A huge step forward for the country this would be, if implemented.
Much praise has come in for the committee’s inclusion of people of all sexual orientations in its recommendations. This broader view of dealing with sexual crime as perpetrated against any citizen regardless of gender or sexual orientation, in my opinion, is really relevant in making this issue universally relevant and not just about women’s safety. For the inclusion of a gendered perspective in our society is necessary so that we all evolve to be more sensitive citizens and so that we deter criminals of all types.
Further, the recommendations of increasing the punishment terms of rapists from a minimum of 10 years to a maximum of life imprisonment is a balanced one; the report rules out both the death penalty as well as castration and this too sends out the right signals about India’s position as a humanitarian democracy. I have been really disturbed about the baying for blood that has been a strong strain in protests post the Delhi gang rape and am heartened by the Verma Committee recommendations.
Police reforms and the amendment of AFSPA, in which sexual offences in conflict zones are specifically addressed, are other positives that deserve mention.
Of course, we can take the cynical view and despair about whether these would be implemented. However, this is precisely the reason why the activism must continue. Not just women’s groups, but all concerned citizens must speak out for the need for legislation to prevent sexual exploitation. This, along with physical planning measures to increase safety in public spaces as well as support groups to help victims speak out and tackle sexual crime in their lives, are the way forward, certainly. For once, I would think the Opposition wouldn’t really have objections to most of these recommendations.
So friends, don’t let the fire die out. Speak, protest, write, do what you have to do and we can together hope for a safer India!
Think! What can we change around us this National Girl Child Day?
So today is National Girl Child Day. The ubiquitous mugshots of Sonia Gandhi and our PM stared at me from every newspaper I read this morning, along with a poorly designed full page advertorial with the colour pink all over it! Yech!
What does this mean to us ordinary folks? I thought I’d come up with the strains of thoughts and conversation I consider relevant to the theme.
In 2012, Aamir Khan’s TV show Satyamev Jayate put the spotlight on the issue of female foeticide and infanticide, getting the issue more attention than years of government sponsored advertising or content issued by health institutions. The average middle class TV viewer spent more minutes (or seconds) thinking this issue through than they did when they signed on that ominous declaration while getting pregnancy-related ultrasounds done at the radiologist’s clinic.
I found interesting that this month, there have been several articles, like this one, pointing to China’s skewed sex ratio as well. Of course, much has been written in context of the rising concern over women’s safety since the Delhi gang rape last month. This particular piece conjures a picture of frustrated unemployed men roaming city streets, a potentially hazardous situation, and too few women! In both India and China.
All of this makes us wonder about what we can do, as ‘ordinary’ people? None of us are ordinary and I believe we are enormously powerful in our own spheres of influence. As mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, role models to colleagues and students, etc. I have had many discussions with friends about how to communicate the harsh realities of the world to their children. Much of this concern stems from an urgent need to ‘protect’ our daughters, with very muted attention to how we raise our sons I must say! I’ve admired Natasha Badhwar for writing about the need to tell kids the truth. My own mother wrote an eloquent piece, a year ago, on how fathers need to set the tone for gender neutral thinking inside a home. And now, a dear friend Monolita in Kochi has started a movement to get women in her city and across the nation on an online platform to share experiences, plan strategies to bring about a radical change in attitudes. The initial discussions on the email group she started show how scared even educated middle class women from privileged homes are to speak their minds, how they would rather accept status quo. It has also shown how some of us are willing to work hard for change, to leverage each freedom that we have won or been lucky to get so that women across the world get the same. After all, as Mono puts it, “all I have ever demanded is to be equal!”. Do read our initial posts on our blog and you could follow the blog for activities that we are planning in the future.
Today, as we celebrate the girl child in India, let us not only feel ashamed for the wrongs we have done, but also remember the sheer joy that children have brought to our lives. And resolve that all the little girls we know, along with the little boys, are the seeds of our future. We owe it to them to instill in them values of equality and tolerance, to lead by example lives that are ethical and sensitive, and to see together with them the sheer beauty in our lives….even as we dream of a better world.
Pics below: Aadyaa and a little girl in the Sundernagari slum, where mHS has designed a redevelopment project. Both represent hope and the future. What are we going to do now to ensure they can both reach their potential and enjoy a safe world?
Beyond protests, what’s next? Snippets from the media that cleared my mind
It’s been hard to lead a normal life amid the shrill noise of protest and violence in India-out on the streets as well as in the confusing, noisy world of news and media, life’s been tough. Especially for those of us who tend to be emotional, patriotic, easily involved and passionate about issues like rights, respect, dignity and all that good stuff.
For many of us, there has been no doubt that protesting the state of affairs has been long overdue and yet, there is a sense of despair about what the outcome of protests could be, will be. I work in the development sector, though not in women’s development, but since so much is interconnected, I have the small consolation that I do get to play my little itsy bitsy role in the fabric of ‘change’.
Satheesh Namasivayam’s editorial on The Hindu’s Open Page on Sunday, though, was a mood-lifter. It gives tremendous credence to the act of protesting as well as clearly outlines the various ways in which protests can be and must be taken forward to bring out meaningful outcomes. The last of Sateesh’s points addresses the work to be done within us. “You do not go too far in the work of leadership without beginning the evolution work on self,” he writes.
And in that vein, Tabish Khair’s piece in the Magazine section of the same day’s Hindu turns the discussion on young men. Titled ‘A letter to young men who protested against rape’, the article praises men for joining the protests, but also asks them to really prove their intent by shunning the patriarchal habits ingrained in themselves and those around them. The piece speaks to the youth and I’m curious about reactions from young men about being asked to cook, clean and do housework alongside their mothers and sisters. More importantly, Tabish tears apart a lot of the generalizations and assumptions we have been making while protesting crimes against women. Which women? What kind of women? He exposes us- we have been driven to impassioned protest because we see in Damini ourselves, what of the thousands of ‘other’ women who face worse? In calling on men to set an example for their sons and daughters by shunning age-old patriarchal values and truly respecting women, Tabish calls for real change.
And finally, there can be no change without collaboration. Union Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid’s editorial in The Hindustan Times today is likely to be seen by anti-government readers as a too-late too-false too-tame apology, but I would rather acknowledge his point. Perhaps there is no way for a public figure to grieve publicly without seeming to resort to cheap publicity or adding to the stress of the already too-tense atmosphere (or take the risk of falling flat seeing as we are so used to political figures turning up with blank faces to announce relief money or empty condolences after a tragedy). It is true, though, that governments and citizens would need to be on the same side to truly fight societal menaces like corruption or lack of safety. Khurshid brings up the issue of India’s image in the world’s eyes at the end of his piece.
Yes, India is being touted as unsafe for women, unsafe in general. And while there are rape statistics, records of poor justice, etc to back up these claims, I think we go completely overboard with sweeping statements about safety after a sensational crime takes place. At our weekend workshop with students from Katha and University of Minnesota, we inevitably ended up discussing the infamous Delhi rape case, and safety in general. One participant from the US pointed out that she felt safer (in the daytime at least) in a Delhi slum that in a poorer part of an American city; another mentioned that in a Brazilian favella, it would have been impossible to take out an iphone and take a picture without having it stolen (or forcibly taken from you) and so on…. We judge ourselves too harshly and we let the world pass judgement on us too easily. Yes, we hate the government right now, but in our passion to protest we also forget that we are proud citizens, that we love our country and our city and that there is so much positive about where we live as well. Let’s not forget this even as we go about doing all we can to make our public spaces and our lives safer and better.
And I have to point out, as a parting shot, that the best thing to come out of all the protesting, from my perspective, is a renewed focus on public spaces, urban design and infrastructure. When citizens begin demanding better urban spaces, a lot can be done. Here’s to a permanent change from citizen apathy (and sheer lack of awareness) to an informed, invigorated bottom-up process of urban renewal!
Let’s campaign for Indian cities to create long-term spatial plans: It’s a matter of survival- Sep 12, 2012
Despite the numbers being thrown at us everyday, it is hard for many of us to truly grasp the fact that the world is becoming irreversibly urban. Urban in the way we live, think and function. At the same time, even those of us, like me, who thrive on everything urban, long to escape to quieter places from time to time. We enjoy nature, we crave fresh food, we pine for the sight of green.
How are we going to reconcile these two worlds- the urban and the rural? Deliberations at the World Urban Forum, held recently in Naples, suggest that cities across the world need to wake up to the fact that endless sprawl is counter-productive, resource-wasting and a terrible way to deal with urban expansion.
Urban areas need to be dense to be efficient. In being dense, they demand intelligent planning of resources, but offer opportunities to optimize investments, for instance, in services like public transport. In being dense, they also accommodate more people on less land, leaving land that can be used for other purposes. Urban farming is one such opportunity that cities in India must think about actively. Parks and urban forests are also critical groundwater recharge zones, also recreation and breathing spaces for human inhabitants.
All this can only be achieved by stringent spatial planning, as experts in the WUF concluded. I read about this in an article published by the Global Urbanist, with much satisfaction, but warning bells went off in my head as well! Hold on, hold on! There is a problem here!
Founder member of mHS (where I work) Marco Ferrario was also at the World Urban Forum. He reports that there was a scarce representation of both India and China, the two most populous nations in the world and among the fastest growing economies (there was more representation from Africa though). Also, these are nations that are really struggling with the problems of urbanization. Local governments in India are struggling to keep their heads above water and long-term planning and vision is not something they have the capability to do at this time. There are many minor success stories, but largely, the landscape is bleak and urbanization is haphazard, gobbling up vast amounts of land with no thought for balance and sustainability, food shortages and long-term survival.
This is a strong case for the involvement of urban professionals, ecologists and environmentalists in developing long-term area plans for Indian cities. If we do not heed this advice, we will disintegrate at a speed faster than we can imagine and we leave a world devoid of hope for our future generations. If we do take heed, we might have the rare chance to steer our civilization away from disaster to an existence that is as vibrant and efficient in its urbanized networks as it is sensitive and joyous in its conservation of nature.
I am tempted to start a campaign across India to impress the urgency of spatial planning upon state and local governments. If institutions and professionals join hands, perhaps we could wake up politicians and bureaucracy from their slumber! On that note, my FB page is resounding with the success of a citizen’s effort to clean up a certain area in the city and Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon’s laudable response. Efficiency in rendering municipal services is essential, but so is the creation of a sustainable future through long-term spatial planning that has essential not-for-sale (how naive, what is not for sale? I hear the sniggers people!) components like green areas, urban farms, parks, public spaces, revitalized natural water bodies and forest zones, etc. The right densities, people-centric development, walkability, all that good stuff- it’s high time we demanded it for our cities instead of being happy to read about interventions in nations far away!