Earlier this week, I had the marvelous opportunity to be part of a Parisian soiree. The occasion was a housewarming celebration of a senior researcher in the lab I am visiting. The house in question was a beautiful apartment in a 19th century building adjacent to Gare du Nord. The neighbourhood was fiesty. Crossing the road outside the station, my eyes swept past a dosa joint and a sex toy shop among the usual cafes and tabac stores.
We punched the code and entered a hallway with the most gorgeous mosaic tile floor. A service elevator, perhaps no longer functional, marked the days gone by when servants had separate entrances. Carpeted and curved stairs led to level 1, while a square stairwell with wrought iron rails led the way further up. The red carpet, slightly frayed, was placed as a runner at the centre of the stairs and a wrought iron gas lamp, no longer functional, hung all the way from the ceiling far high up till where we stood waiting to alight.
We did not need to find the house. The voices and music wafted down to us. Pushing open the door, we walked into the lobby, where now stood a modern kitchen. The proud owner explained to me that in the original apartments, the kitchen was located at the back of the house, connected to the chambers through a long corridor and of course with a separate access for the staff. In the modern avatar, those alleyways have not been retained and usually one of the bedrooms is converted into a kitchen. This particular bold placement of the kitchen, right at the entry was refreshing to the owner, who thought it fitting with a modern lifestyle that has “nothing to hide”!
We walked into the main living area of the apartment where the party was on in full swing with much ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ wine flowing and a typical French spread of cheese, cold cuts, bread, dips, grapes and olives. The room was striking, with white walls divided into broad panels and a high ceiling. The street facing side was full of open windows, through which the city’s sounds and smells streamed in. But more striking than the room itself was the fantastic art that it was filled with. Oils, bright and somber, figures, portraits, expressionistic landscapes and number of sculptural pieces too, modern as well as ethnic, from Asia and Africa. I was enchanted. Looking around at the house still being set up, I found more paintings, frames lined up against the wall, waiting to find their spot. Inside, in the study, two fantastic male nudes looked impassively onto the mass of handbags and jackets that guests had dumped there.
Being the only person who couldn’t speak French was an initial advantage. I took many moments to soak in the atmosphere. The Parisian academics had understated style. They were all here directly from work, so nobody was overtly dressed or made up. But there were subtle touches. A statement neckpiece here, a colourful scarf there, a dress instead of the usual pants. Conversation flowed easily. These were people who had known each other for a while and the comfort was easy to see. It also absorbed me seamlessly.
I must have had long conversations with half a dozen people I hadn’t met before. Some had halting English on them, others were more fluent. Another colleague teasingly chided me for not making some effort with my French! With each of them – historians, geographers, anthropologists – I found some common interests, which only goes to show the depth and breadth of their own experiences. This was an educational experience, packaged as a genteel evening of socializing. The conversations indicated how India, is history and present, has a nuanced place in the world. I felt a bit sad about the reductive understanding of India that is being bandied about in everyday life and politics today.
At some point in the evening, I got an education on organic wine, its making and its distinct flavours, particularly the nuance that comes from its inherent instability. I found that fascinating and I’ve been thinking about this since then. The notion that food must conform to some set standard, rather than its natural range, is something we have all adopted without really thinking about the implications it has for our environment band our lives. I thought about the experiments with growing organic food that some of my friends have been engaged with back home and how much of a movement organic and local food is here in France.
At some point in the evening, a large group had seated itself on the rug around the centre table. The rest of us continued to hover around the dining table. The seated group reminded me of parties back home with close friends and family. The lack of formality, the deep and engaged conversations, the congeniality, made me immensely happy to be there. I felt strangely at home. The only thing missing was singing!
It was late and people began to leave. Goodbye pecks and thank you’s filled the room. Through the evening, I observed, not one person had checked their mobile phones. No pictures were posed for and no selfies were clicked. I think perhaps the host had taken a few generic ones. No one went back to their social media feeds even. Phones remained firmly inside those bags, in the other room. Mine too! And this, perhaps, was my biggest takeaway that evening. The realization that I, like many of us back home, use my phone like a security blanket. To combat any unexpectedness and awkwardness, and to draw a cocoon around me even as I remain present in society. It doesn’t need to be this way. Part of the reason I could have those meaningful conversations with people I had not met before was the absence of the phone and the presence of participants in the here and now, without distractions. I’m holding onto that lesson with new resolve!
Of the 40-odd people who attended this workshop on the 11th of December in Mumbai, most came in not knowing what to expect. Urban poverty is a term that confuses and confounds many, even among those of us who work in the development sector. Lina Sonne from Intellecap, which brings out the Searchlight South Asia newsletter for the Rockefeller Foundation and had organized the event, pointed out that there is still an overwhelming focus on rural poverty and a need to move away from thinking of urban poverty as a problem that stems from a failure to address rural issues. Urbanization is clearly a force by itself, the urban poor face issues that are distinct and overwhelming, and there needs to be a focus on resolving these if cities are to truly be the engines of economic growth that India is pinning its hopes on.
As the first presenter, I struggled a little bit to gauge the mood, the interest areas and the expectations of the audience, which came from diverse backgrounds. Some were here to listen and learn, and there were others with a fire in their belly who were already doing really interesting things on the ground with poor communities as well as corporations that were striving to drive change through more sensitive leadership.
So I decided to focus on mHS’ vision for housing solutions that envisages a portfolio of housing options ranging from dormitories and shelters for the homeless and pavement dwellers, all the way up to ownership housing. The idea is that the urban poor are a heterogeneous bunch, every bit ambitious and enterprising as any other citizen if not more, and they should be able to self-select what sort of housing they want to live in. (Within this portfolio, mHS is currently focused on catalyzing self-construction in informal settlements through providing technical assistance in the form of engineering and architectural services to homeowners). To make this portfolio of housing possible, not only do we need policy changes and involvement from the government, but essentially there is a need to look at urban problems from an interdisciplinary perspective with the goal to make cities more inclusive and provide better opportunities for everyone.
The other presentations were also very interesting and a lot of the content was new to me. Abhishek Bhardwaj from Alternative Realities spoke eloquently about the homeless in Mumbai and his proposal for “housing in continuum” aligns closely with mHS’ vision. Baby Mohite and Vishnu from Swach in Pune presented the pioneering work that an association of 2200 wastepickers has done in association with Pune Municipal Corporation in being able to bring solid waste management to about 4 lakh households in the city. This happens through door-to-door garbage collection. The wastepickers then segregate the waste, utilizing the ‘wet’ waste to produce manure and biogas and recyclable materials of all sorts are picked out of the ‘dry’ waste. The results are dramatic and the high level of innovation impressive, like the ST Dispo Bag that allows women to dispose sanitary napkins in a distinct bag so wastepickers don’t have to directly handle soiled napkins! They sell about 50,000 bags per month and all because the wastepicker women had conversations with the middle class women in the households they serve and connected on a woman-to-woman level.
I was quite touched by the presentation by young Shweta from Kranti, which is an NGO run by two spunky women to rehabilitate young girls who have grown up in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district. Shweta, one of the ‘girls’, spoke in an endearing pseudo-accent and told us about how her confidence has grown, how she doesn’t care about what society thinks, how she is influencing her sisters to stand up for themselves back home in the red light district and how she wants to change the world. Shweta and other “krantikaris” (revolutionists) are actively involved in teaching and holding workshops with marginalized girls and children across India. Two other presentations discussed initiatives in education (Doorstep School) and health.
The presentations spun off some interesting discussions. One was the conflict between being innovative in addressing urban poverty through grant-funded initiatives and the need to go to scale and impact a larger number. The future of social enterprises was a concern and some felt acutely the need for social entrepreneurs to get real and find sustainable business models. Some exciting sparring happened on that one!
Another takeaway for many of us was the need for more interaction among those working in the development sector among the urban poor. There is considerable convergence in how different grassroots organizations are beginning to think about the huge problem of how to provide better quality of life for urban residents and much can be learned through sharing and collaborations.
I’m in Bangalore again, driving through the city to get from the airport to Electronic City, where we will spend two days brainstorming our preliminary research on setting up ratings for affordable housing. Always known for its simplicity and charm, Bangalore screams out its penchant for opulence today. Billboards advertise homes for Rs 5 crore and jewellery advertisements are numerous as well. Affordable housing is going to be difficult to talk about in this setting.
Why blame Bangalore though? Indian metros are seeing a distinct trend of imbalanced development. Two clear victims in this have been the poor and the environment. It is impossible for our cities to survive this way and we are at the brink of two types of disasters- social and environmental.
Gated communities are offering a refuge to the privileged and rearing a generation of people who will have words like equity, balance, multicultural and cohesion in their dictionaries without really grasping their meaning. Two worlds that do not understand each other are springing up before us. Intolerance is fuelling the flames and we are experiencing a severe social schism that urgently needs correction. How do we build trust and eradicate feelings of suspicion?
In this scenario, the concept of developers building homes for the poor strikes me as unsustainable. The gulf is wide. This will only be possible if the government steps in to make the investment profitable to developers. And if organisations and mechanisms can bridge the gap between developer and the low income customer. Institutionalising such a process seems an onerous task. Add to that the fact that access to finance is a key ingredient that also needs to be tackled in an institutional manner. Mammoth changes in policy and attitude are needed.
Working on this rating with Ashoka and other partnering organisations has been revealing. But I am unsure if I am any more optimistic than when we begun. At this point , I feel we are still shooting arrows into the dark and the answers lie right before our eyes, but we are unable to see them!
On a day when the maximum temperature was above 40 degrees C, some enthusiastic parents of kids in Aadyaa’s class decided to get together for a picnic. I must admit I considered the scheme rather addle brained and I wondered who would turn up!
As evening approached, I realised I wanted to go. These kids miss their friends during the long summer vacations and if anyone was taking the initiative to help them meet up, it was fair to attend .
And so we trudged to Gurgaon’s Rajiv Gandhi Renewable Energy Park, set in a green belt known as Leisure Valley and better known for its eatery Roots Cafe that serves a sumptuous veggie fare. Despite the heat, which gave way to a violent dust storm, which turned into a squall and finally ended in a bit if welcome pitter patter, there were a few hundred families all gathered to enjoy the open space and exercise, from a variety of backgrounds. In half an hour, we saw our kids make new friends cutting across the usual social barriers of class and income. We saw families spending quality time, parents and children discovering new challenges and overcoming them together on the various play equipment. Clean air, healthy lifestyle, the experience of a vibrant public space, unfortunately, elements often absent from the lives of our privileged protected kids! If anyone needed proof about why green open public spaces are a city’s best asset, here it is!