A group of passionate environmentalists, citizen activists and some thin walls of bureaucracy stand between the bulldozers and the remaining Aravalli forests suurounding the city of Gurgaon, where I live. Successive governments have permitted the not-so gradual destruction of the Aravallis at the behest of powerful real estate developers (this latest piece in The Wire finds evidence of the alliance between Hooda-led Congress govt and DLF, for instance).
Today, the Khattar-led BJP government in Haryana has the ability to withdraw that nail in the coffin that the Congress drove in, shortly before it lost power in the State. By adding the clause ‘except in urbanisable areas’ to the inclusion of the Aravalli hills in the Natural Conservation Zone on Page 294 of the Sub-Regional Plan 2021 for the Harya part of the NCR, it sought to not just favor a single project or developer but in fact pave the way for a large-scale development of the Aravalli hills.
In their online petition, citizen activists have made a strong case for saving the Aravallis. In no simple words, they demand that Khattar remove the above-mentioned clause in the interests of the ecological survival of Gurgaon and Faridabad, whose rapidly dwindling water supplies depend on these forests. In my piece in The Alternative, I highlight the need for an alternate imagination that re-imagines urbanisation (and indeed tourism, industry, economic development) to include nature.
However, I’m the first to acknowledge that citizen pressure is inadequate. How do we impress upon CM Khattar that saving the city is imperative to, in the long-term, profiting from it? How do we convince politicians, who think in five-year caches, that survival is at stake here?
Going beyond that, how does a landlocked small State like Haryana re-envision its fortunes even as it milks the promise of high-profit real estate development in the shadow of the capital, Delhi? Let’s not be naive, the milking is bound to happen. But certain ‘hard limits’ must be recognized in the interests of human survival and quality of life. And the Aravalli forests are certainly one of them!
Activism is not a choice, but a means of survival. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rewards of embracing activism, mentioning our family’s weekend participation in a protest to protect the Aravallis around Gurgaon and Haryana. That urban expansion has become a threat to nature is something that has bothered me for a while, but I also believe there must be ways to co-exist and imagine a new kind of city, where the richness of nature and the density of humans can co-exist and even benefit from each other. Or at least the latter from the former!
I’ve tried to articulate this vision in an article for The Alternative published recently. I welcome your comments and views on this piece: Death on Arravali: Stopping the squeeze on India’s oldest range between Gurgaon and Faridabad
Moreover, I would urge you to read and sign our petition to the Chief Minister of Haryana that urges the State to protect these forests and work towards making Gurgaon and Faridabad ecologically smart cities.
Writes Bob Cesca on the Huff Post blog about hor Martin Luther King’s dream is still, well a dream: ‘The violation was known as “vagrancy.” If you were a black man in the South following Reconstruction, and you were unable to show proof of employment on-demand to the police, you could be arrested and delivered into what Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, called “neo-slavery.” Beginning in the late 19th century through World War II, various Jim Crow laws required that African-Americans carry pay stubs or, if they were lucky, a letter from an employer; some form of evidence proving to a police officer that they had a job.’
He goes to note that recent laws that enable arbitrary stopping and frisking, demand of immigration papers and Voter IDs in some cities and States in the US are just modern versions of the same sort of discriminatory laws used against African Americans earlier.
In India too, the urban poor are often stopped randomly and asked for identity or employment papers. Indeed, there are drives to ensure that employment is not offered without police verification about the citizenship of the employee. Whereas in the US,a defaulter would end up in jail, in Indian cities he doles out bribes to police constables and carries on, further embittered and impoverished.
Colonialism, racism- we never defeated them. They are here in other virulent forms. Class bias, insecurity tantamount to paranoia fuel discrimination perhaps more widespread than ever in human history. Clearly, with resources perceived as limited and a general fear psychosis across the planet as economies limp along, we are not moving toward a society of increased justice and tolerance.
So what must we do about it? How do we teach our children to think beyond the confines of the war all around us? If we don’t, aren’t we signing away the last opportunities to enjoy our beautiful world?
I told Aadyaa a story about a carnivorous plant last night. She was really upset with the idea that a beautiful flower could snap up a butterfly! Stung by the unfairness of this, she struggled as Udai and me tried to explain the concept of survival and the food chain. Overpowering and annihilating another creature for survival is so fundamentally different from doing it for malicious ends. And then, I thought, we believe we are in a race for survival in which there isn’t enough to hate with the ‘other’!
It really isn’t that dismal folks! There is enough to go around if we can be rational and logical about our needs, place the best human values at the core and collaborate to achieve breakthrough solutions to problems.
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!
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!
A few days after I read about CII’s initiative to initiate blue ratings in India, probably the first in the world to monitor industrial water usage in a holistic manner, an encouraging story about the revival of a river caught my eye.
Today’s The Hindu supplement carried a great story about the revival of the Hindan river that originates in Saharanpur and joins the Yamuna, crossing Ghaziabad and other parts of the NCR. The Jal Biradari is a community organization comprising environmental activists and citizens from all walks of life that has consistently campaigned to create awareness among villagers about issues like falling water tables, pollution and exploitation of water resources. They do this through padayatra, or simply by walking through villages and interacting with people.
In contrast, the urb.im blog outlines Mumbai’s struggle to put into action measures to clean and manage the Mithi river, a massive gutter that flows through Mumbai. Images of the July 2005 floods in Mumbai are still fresh in people’s minds. Public clamor for a clean up that could create much-needed green spaces for the city grows, but migrants keep pouring in and the poor who live alongside the sad trickle of water are increasingly threatened, by lack of action and potential action alike!
Rampant discharge of industrial effluent into rivers is the primary cause of the sad states of rivers like these across the nation. Coupled with increasing urbanization and the consequent pressure on land (often translated into greed for land), rivers are threatened; and so are we who depend on water for our existence. The ill effects of polluted rivers need no elaboration- among other things, toxic vegetable and fruits threaten to damage our future generations irreversibly!
Interestingly, one only needs to stop discharging the effluent for a river to do its own thing and clean itself up. More importantly, green areas that allow groundwater recharge are critical to our survival. Governments, while they blame private developers for the evil deeds and wish to regulate them, are known to be responsible for the ‘unkindest cut of all’. The proposal to develop the Mangar village area into an amusement park is one such hare brained scheme in the news recently.To amuse the people who won’t be around when the water taps run dry?
Life has always been about survival, and will always be. For all animals, humans included.
At present, I am reading ‘The White Queen’ by Phillippa Gregory, an author better known for her book ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’. As I read about the rise and fall of the fortunes of Edward IV, Yorkist King of England in the 15th century, I marvel at how hard life was for royalty, nobility, peasant and serfs in Medeival times. To lead a regular life even as a moneyed landlord or a noblemen in the King’s Court, one had to be remarkably astute, alert, politically savvy and brave enough and talented enough to go to war several times for your King. If you lost or fell out of favor, the change in your fortunes could be so dramatic as to cost you your life, your wife, your children and your lands. People lived in constant fear in the years before and during the first half of Edwards’s reign, when Edward (claiming right to the throne through his York lineage) and Lancastrian forces under Henry (with support of the French owing to his wife being Margaret of Anjou) clashed time and time again.
Boys went to war in their teens, women learnt to survive in difficult times through remarriages and by changing loyalties, and royal women were constantly under pressure to produce mail heirs to continue the line. Boys and girls were given away in alliances when they were as young as three or four!
A lot of what went on sounds remarkably like what we still see in conservative Indian society. Marriage is still regarded as a method to consolidate kinship, make strategic alliances or improve fortunes and is a decision your parents take for you. Clan (in our case caste) is more important than any sensibilities you might acquire through education and exposure.
Medieval nobility was also amusingly irreverent. Men married women far older than them for their fortune. Men accepted the children of their wives by other marriages because they saw advantage in marrying her. Edward of York married Elizabeth Woodville (who is the heroine of the book I am reading) who was older than him, a widow of an opponent and a mother of two sons because he literally couldn’t keep his hands off her and she wouldn’t sleep with him unless he married her! Royal women had to accept mistresses and whores their husbands took on and live with the knowledge that their husbands sired many children outside their marriage and provided for these families as well. A far cry from the almost prude workings of Indian society today, whether rural or urban, conservative or relatively modern.
As I read on and look around me, I am amazed at the final truth. In the end, no matter how much society progresses, human beings are animals too. Viciousness, pettiness, infidelity, lust, jealousy, a fanatical desire to be superior (and to procreate to further our species) are attributed coded into our DNA. We can thank our stars that ‘civilization’ and the rules of modern society protect us somewhat from loot, plunder and rape at the hands of the victor when we are on the losing side. We can also lament that the negative side of human nature asserts itself anyway and we get looted, plundered and raped by people who sometimes don’t even know us too well or bear any serious grudges against us (or are on the other side of the war in a very different sort of conflict, as we have analyzed in the recent rapes and molestations in Gurgaon)!
We would all be wise to be warned that it is and will always be a wild world where survival is of the fittest and success goes to those who seize opportunities confidently and give no second chances to those they defeat.
A slum of about 80 houses burnt down in Sector 57 in Gurgaon yesterday. When a group of us visited this morning, the sight was not pretty (see pics below). The fire happened in the daytime when everyone was at work but all the children were in the slum being watched by a few adults. By some miracle, no lives were lost. Everything these poor families possessed- clothes, vessels, savings, documents- was lost to the fire, that consumed the jhuggi in 12 minutes flat!
At site, we found people sitting around in various moods. Despondent, sad, industrious, belligerent, curious, resigned and even indifferent. We gathered within minutes that this is a community of migrants, predominantly Muslim, coming from West Bengal. A few families from Bihar, MP and UP live here as well, but relations are strained between the various linguistic groups.
Nobody is aggressive towards us though and they are more than willing to share information, talk about their lives, what they need, how things work or don’t work in their jhuggi, etc. In fact, some of the conversations are so normal to almost be surreal if you consider these people, who are already living on so little, just lost everything they have! They don’t focus on what they lost, they want to talk about how to rebuild their lives.
The realities of their lives hit me over and over, walking through the charred remains of their homes. Kids don’t go to school. Most residents are cleaners, domestic workers, rickshaw pullers, etc. Cellphones are common. The homes are tiny, most able to accomodate only about three adults sleeping side by side. Yet there were no tears, kids played around cheerfully, I saw little anguish and no greed for what we would possibley give them. Only an expression of genuine need.
Jhuggi dwellers told us that the first response was by the local mosque, which distributed clothes and provided food. The maulvi assured us when we spoke to him later, that the mosque would continue to supply food. Some government departments have reportedly provided some bits of help- a water tanker, some clothes, food. Our team that has had experience with disaster relief before (they ran the super successful Mission Julley in the aftermath of the Ladakh flash flood), felt immediate and sustained and above all, organized efforts are required to really meet the needs of these families.
A positive experience came in the form of a couple of contractors who were building on plots nearby. They had seen the jhuggi burn down yesterday and they were shaken. They promised to get together a group of their friends working in the vicinity to support our work monetarily or in whatever way possible, promptly sharing their contact information and standing with us till the end of the visit.
There’s a lot to be done and fast! We’re chalking out a plan to move ahead and help these families. I will convey the details soon via facebook and twitter.
My blog will continue to follow the story of this jhuggi for the next few days. I have in mind to write about the condition of housing and the system of administration in such communities, the unique systems they develop for survival in a harsh urban environment, the lack of initiative I observed in then to form a community and analysis of why, and of course, how we are able to help and our experiences whole doing so…..Keep reading!
So this is how the conversation went between this little street girl outside a Gurgaon market and me.
Child: Didi, paise de do, pen khareed lo [Sister, give me money, buy these pens]
Me: Pen to bacche ye acchhe nahi hote, par batao paise ka kya karogi? [Child, these pens are useless; tell me what you will do with the money?]
Child, instantly: Pichkari loongi! [I will buy a water pistol]
Me, having just done the rounds in the market: Pichkari to bahut paise ki aati hai. Wo to jut nahi paaenge. Kahin aur kharch ho jaayenge, hai na? [The water pistol would be too expensive. You will have to save money for it and that will get spent elsewhere, no?]
Child: To phir kuchh khila do! [Then give me something to eat!]
Eventually, Rahul walked across to the little streetside shop and bought her and her tinier companion bread and double egg omelettes. We were struck by their spontaneity, honesty and complete lack of self-consciousness. They knew the best chance they had was to ask for what they really wanted and hope we were in a benevolent mood! We were rewarded with lovely smiles at the end of this, but I cannot stop thinking about what their lives must be like. I have seen this same girl child the past few years, from when she was rather little to now, when she is much more grown up and very confident. Denied of any form of security, with no access to education or opportunity, these kids stare into a future that is bleak. Yet, because they are kids, they can smile, be witty and spontaneous; you may argue that these are only survival skills, but I find it hard to believe all of it is put on.
The recently releases ‘The state of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ brought out by the United Nation’s Children’s Fund underlines the need to pay attention to children amongst the urban poor. What future are we talking about for our nation and our people if we let our children go hungry, get raped, remain illiterate and ensure their innocent smiling faces turn into those lined with bitterness, misery and hatred? I think this everyday and I wonder what more I can do to change things around me.