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Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen

We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration.  After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.

This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.

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The impressive gate and ancestor hall in Nantou remains unchanged. The white blank wall with the UABB signage on it hides a politically contentious painting that caused a furor during the event’s opening. The controversy led to the review and censoring of many artworks, raising queries about the UABB as a space for dialogue, creativity and expression.

Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.

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Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.

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What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.

On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!

Shenzhen Diaries: In anticipation

I first heard of a possible trip to Shenzhen in mid-March from Partha (we work together at the Centre for Policy Research) during a taxi ride from Delhi to Gurgaon. The name Shenzhen triggered memories of conversations we had about the buzzing Chinese city across the water from Hong Kong back in the early 2000s when Amma and Papa (my in-laws) lived in Macau. Those were the years shortly after Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macau (in 1999) were handed over to China and much was changing in the Pearl River Delta. Papa was flying helicopters for a private airline at the time; and in addition to his usual stories of the rich folks he ferried between Hong Kong and Macau on the famed casino circuit, he was talking about the rich business investors he was flying to Shenzhen and Zuhai, both among 5 Special Economic Zones set up by China along the Eastern seaboard in 1980 as key elements of economic reform. On my trip to visit them in 2000, a year before my wedding, they even took me on a day trip to see the wonders of Zuhai’s swank streets, tall glass buildings and sparkling amusement parks. I wondered if I should expect Shenzhen to be something similar. Over the next few days, however, Shenzhen slipped my mind and I got busy with other things.

Then, in the last days of April Mary Anne and Fu Na arrived in Delhi from Shezhen, full of immense curiosity and enthusiasm, surprisingly unaffected by the oppressive heat of the Delhi summer. Over the intense conversations we had while showing them around the urban villages and slums of Delhi and Gurgaon, I began to piece together a different picture of Shenzhen. Of spaces similar to the ones we work in here in Delhi where migrants and long-time residents squeeze together, feeding off the glitzy growing city and yet, strangely distanced from it. Of a city of hope and entrepreneurship but also struggle and despair.

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Our plans to visit Shenzhen began to crystallize over the month of May and I crammed as much reading about the city and its environs as I could. The picture became fuzzier with every paper I read. Facts and figures, strains of urban history and theory mingled together, shapeless and drifting. I stored as much as I could in a mental shelf labelled “Shenzhen, China”.

We landed in Hong Kong airport in late May and the mountains rising out the water greeted me like familiar friends. On the ferry across to Shenzhen, I finally allowed myself to give in to the excitement of anticipation coming to an end, of the relief of seeing and feeling a city that I’ve tried in vain to conjure out of mere words. Join me on my journey as I attempt to synthesize and interpret what we saw over an intense week of exploration in Shenzhen. Presenting, the Shenzhen Diaries.

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Finally, we may have ‘slum’ data in Gurgaon! And then what? #Housing #Growth

So, after a rap on its knuckles, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon sets out to survey the slums in the city. The Union ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (MHUPA) had pulled up the MCG and asked them to find out why there is a high percentage (28%) of uncavassed households in the 2011 socio-economic and caste census. Uncanvassed households means the surveyor found nobody present/door closed or the respondent refused to answer. Certainly, this is strange and will need to be resolved if this data is to be used for any sort of policy making or planning purposes.

But that’s not the only strange thing I found in the data, which is available for download on the MCG website. Employment data was really skewed as well. For the three wards I read in detail, an overwhelming number of people were reported to have ‘other’ or ‘income from any other source’. The form was detailed and had codes for all sorts of informal work including home-based work, and codes for specific occupations like cleaner, gardener, transportation employee, shop helpers and waiters, dhobi/chaukidar, skilled workers like electricians, mechanics, assembly line workers, repair people etc. Strangely it did not consider that the recipients would work in IT or pharma or BPO or any of the sectors that Gurgaon is known for; there were no codes set out for those employed in white collar jobs! No wonder the surveyors were forced to list many residents as ‘other’!And the ‘other’ comprised of anyone from an urban village resident who has turned petty real estate broker to the Country Head of a Fortune 500 company!

What is the point then of collecting this sort of data if the survey questionnaire is poorly designed and the quality is so poor. If I were HUPA, I would be questioning that too! Of course, other indicators like material of roof, wall, etc of dwelling unit could tell a different story and one could correlate these different data sets to arrive at some idea about people’s socio-economic conditions in Gurgaon.

MCG officials have blamed the errors on problems in data collation and processing as well on the high level of migration in and out of Gurgaon. And hence the survey of ‘slums’ to find the data in the gaps. The pilot here begins in 4 urban villages and certainly, urban villages bear the brunt of the migration of low-income workers into Gurgaon, reducing them to slum-like conditions. Many villages in Gurgaon are very prosperous, neat and organized and offer a better quality of life than most of the city’s gated communities. It is precisely because they are not formal settlements that they have been able to tap into the opportunity that migration offers and many land owners are earning a living out of the rental units they have constructed. The aim of this exercise is purportedly to enable local government to implement a scheme to bring basic services to slums.

My research intends to look at the status of the low-income migrant in the city from the lens of housing. While the city benefits hugely from the labor that these migrants provide, there is little done to extend basic facilities like housing or basic services to them and they live in poor conditions. In fact, those migrants who can afford rentals in the city’s urban villages are at the top end of the scale; others live in squalid temporary jhuggis that are demolished at will, a very precarious existence indeed. Can a city, where migrants are steadily paying home rentals, not think of a way to ensure decent living conditions and harness the benefits that will come with a more secure labor force? I am curious about the government’s thinking on this and looking for a way to interact with people in government about this aspect. Would be happy if anyone can point me to the right people to talk with!

Urban villages fill the gaps precisely because they aren’t zoned! Amid pots and basins in Sikanderpur – May 4, 2012

A few days ago, mum and me did the the rounds of Sikanderpur, an urban village in Gurgaon that has a concentration of building material stores, especially hardware, electricals, lighting and all sorts of other knick knacks. In the NCR, urban villages are the default location for all things messy. Except for the few villages like Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat and perhaps parts Khirki and Lado Sarai, that have become gentrified and accommodate eclectic tastes in art and food, many urban villages consist of a winding maze of streets crowded with miscellaneous goods that service the zoned, usually higher income, residential and commercial areas in the vicinity. Often, some of these markets, like Sikanderpur in Gurgaon and Kotla Mubarakpur in Delhi, specialize in certain types of goods and serve a larger urban area.

Planned development in Indian cities has not been able to accommodate many essential components. I write often about planned development not catering to low-income housing, but I observe that small retailers too are being pushed out of high-income areas where shop rents are unaffordable for them. Urban villages or illegally using residential property for shops are viable options for them, especially if they sell something as unglamorous as pipes and wires!

In Sikanderpur, we realized the posh bath accessory stores did not exist. They were located in DLF Phase I and similar colonies where moneyed people went. These swank stores displayed foreign brands like Grohe and American Standard, while it was the back alley in Sikanderpur that finally satisfied my search for a Hindware dealer!

We had a good time choosing pots and washbasins and kitchen sinks, as you can see from the pics below!

Mom in pot heaven!

The vibrant market thrives even as the Metro soars up above: Kind of parodies India’s paradoxical, interesting development and growth, doesn’t it?

Cannot wish the urban poor away; can we try new housing solutions like rental housing to accomodate them? Feb 20, 2012

Today’s newspaper carried two stories that highlight how completely clueless we (citizens, governments, bureaucrats and planners alike) are about how to address the issue of housing the poor.

The first piece of news narrates a conflict in the numbers of homeless people in Delhi. The government figure is 55,955 while NGOs in the sector claim 150,000! A 2008 survey by IGSSS, an NGO prominent in working for the homeless, put the figure at 88,410. Apparently the government survey was done in the wake of the Commonwealth Games, when many of the homeless were evicted from the city as part of a ‘cleanliness’ drive! This is a typical example of the kind of data scenario policy makers work with in India. Very often, there is little desire to arrive at authentic, realistic figures; consequently, policies that evolve are unrealistic and do not cater to the present, leave alone plan for the future.

The second story, set in Gurgaon, highlights another typical conflict. Sector 45 residents pressurize the urban development authority (HUDA in this case) to remove slum encroachments in the area, citing poor sanitation and law and order issues. The slum, which occupies government land (apparently disputed and hence not developed), gets water supply and electricity, but has poor sanitation facilities and many residents use open lands for defecation. Whereas private property owners are fully entitled to complain against slums if they see them as threats to their quality of life, clearly governments choose to wait for complaints and fail to check unplanned illegal settlements. Further, there is a spectacular failure to provide low income housing to an urban settlement that is growing as rapidly as Gurgaon is. Conflicts such as these will continue to escalate, while the government mouths buzwords like ‘affordable housing’ and ‘RAY’, which have failed to see the light of the day and provide housing in sufficient numbers to meet even a fraction of the demand.

Poverty in urban India isn’t something we can simply wish away, yet we continue to look for stop gap solutions and refuse to adopt inclusive planing in the present and for the future. I am aware that this is a common refrain and I have no innovative or practical solutions to offer. I do, however, see enterprising landlords in urban villages in Gurgaon creating several affordable housing formats for rent, from dormitories, to single room sets and tenement style housing, there is a range of options for employed migrants who can pay rentals ranging from Rs 500 – 5000 per month. That’s taking a definite step forward. It would be heartening to see the government step in to facilitate the creation of rental housing for the poor in the city, while they continue to evolve greenfield affordable housing projects as well!

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