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Govt, please don’t squander the last opportunity to redeem our city. Sincerely, A Dilliwali

Dear Minister for Urban Development Mr Kamal Nath, Chief Minister of Delhi Ms Sheila Dikshit and Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Mr Tejendra Khanna, and all those who can influence the planning process in Delhi,

I write to you first as a citizen who is proud of Delhi, the city that shaped her identity, accepted her for what she was, that made her fall in love with urbanism and the big-city life.¬† I also write to you as an architect and urban planner, because I can sense sharply the enormous potential of Delhi and am heartbroken by the seemingly myopic attempts to ‘leverage’ available government land without consulting the people, and without adequately giving back the city, its people and its vast and rich history. Allow me to explain.

Delhi is fortunate in being one of the only mega-cities in the world to have large amounts of government owned land located centrally. This means that the government has the opportunity to plan and implement ambitious urban renewal schemes of the scale that most governments across the world can only dream of. Especially in the case of an ancient city like Delhi with tremendous heritage, social and political value, this is a golden opportunity indeed.

From what we know, however, it seems that the government is seeing these lands as opportunities for financial gain rather than as a chance to create lasting social and physical infrastructure that would benefit future generations. ‘Densification’ is being seen as a lucrative solution to redevelop vast amounts of under-utilized land (read low density). However, while the city does urgently need more housing, it also desperately needs parks, recreational spaces, cultural spaces, water bodies and much much more.

Within the bucket of housing, for the sale of illustrations, we know that a spectrum of solutions are required as opposed to only creating ownership ‘flats’ for government employees and for sale via the private sector developer. I would like to see, for instance, government-created rental housing stock for low- and middle-income families and singles. Located centrally, such a stock, similar to housing created in cities like Amsterdam (In many Dutch cities, ownership and rental housing co-exist in a nearly 50-50 ratio), would be instrumental in creating a vibrant city centre with a diverse population that has excellent connectivity to employment centres such as Connaught Place and Central Secretariat and metro links to peripheral areas as well.

As I ponder and bring to my mind the areas in question–Laxmibai Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, the dysfunctional Safdrajung airport, Sarjini Nagar, etc, I feel strongly that the government should invite a competition to create an urban design scheme for this entire area. Once seen as a large bloc, new opportunities will be unraveled. Young, creative minds will contribute fresh ideas that an expert panel can vet. Shortlisted designs must be displayed publicly, using large-scale models, interactive audiovisual exhibits and citizen meetings. The city’s active civil society will be delighted to participate in mobilizing public opinion. Once informed by this wide consultation, I am confident that the government will take decisions that are far more relevant to the city’s future. Delhi will truly be able to emerge as a ‘world class city’ in a way that is environmentally sensitive and inclusive and not merely cosmetic. Above all, India would be able to put forth an example of participative, forward looking urban renewal, the likes of which the rest of the world can admire and imitate.

The powers that be, I beseech you to not push this letter aside as the ravings of an unstable mind, but as the passionate and anguished outpourings of a young citizen who desperately wants her country to take its (rightful?) place in the global order, as a country that stands up for her citizens across barriers of class and economy, as a country that has the wellness of its citizens right at the centre of its political and economic philosophy, as an upright nation with a bright and golden future.

Sincerely,

Mukta Naik

Citizen, Architect, Urban planner

Feel free to react at mukta DOT naik AT gmail.com

The little girl with the artist’s eye!

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just the easy access to technology via phone cameras. Or a narcissistic streak. Or a penchant for documentation.

What is it that draws my 5-year old daughter Aadyaa to obsessively take photos of her art work, random creations or just certain objects? It started with her asking me to click pictures of things that caught her fancy. Now she simply asks for permission and does it herself (she has complete mastery over my iphone).

I look back at these pictures often in an attempt to see the world through her eyes. What do you make of them?

Tomatoes from our kitchen garden, placed on a saree I was about to wear!

Tomatoes from our kitchen garden, placed on a saree I was about to wear!

She sorted out all hairclips of the same kind from a box of assorted hair accessories, arranged them and clicked!

She sorted out all hairclips of the same kind from a box of assorted hair accessories, arranged them and clicked!

At a friend's place, she just made that clothes pin sculpture for a new born baby. Those are Aadyaa's feet as she photographs her work

At a friend’s place, she just made that clothes pin sculpture for a new born baby. Those are Aadyaa’s feet as she gets me to photograph her work

Three colour ice gola at Bikanerwala!

Three colour ice gola at Bikanerwala!

The watermelon ginger fizz at Chilis completely fascinated her!

The watermelon ginger fizz at Chilis completely fascinated her!

Mumma, is mar hui butterfly ki photo lo na!

Mumma, is mar hui butterfly ki photo lo na!

After one hour of watching the ants do their job...Mumma, cheentiyo ne apna khaana le liya, ab phir se butterfly ki photo lo na!

After one hour of watching the ants do their job…Mumma, cheentiyo ne apna khaana le liya, ab phir se butterfly ki photo lo na!

Lego afternoon! Self-clicked....

Lego afternoon! Self-clicked….

Her own drawing amused her endlessly- self-clicked!

Her own drawing amused her endlessly- self-clicked!

Aadyaa made her own roti. Then she placed it in this composition and clicked the picture herself

Aadyaa made her own roti. Then she placed it in this composition and clicked the picture herself…and only then, she ate it!

Power in the hands of the poor: Why are we uncomfortable with that? Oct 17, 2012

A few days ago, I mentioned that I feel angry when someone calls me an idealist. It’s not the word, it’s the tone that implies that idealism is foolish that really gets to me.

I get called an idealist by fellow professionals essentially for being pro-poor. Architects and urban planners, being trained in the ‘technocrat’ mode, like to pose physical solutions to problems that ail our cities. Hence tools like zonal and master plans, design proposals and such like are seen as change drivers. However, because these and many other tools for change lie in the hands of bureaucrats, policy is used to steer and obfuscate what is actually happening on the ground.

Neither policy nor the tools for physical planning are completely rooted in the realities we exist in. The realities are political, social and economic. The realities are the stuff we want to shove under the carpet- class divides and political gain, vested interests and goon power, caste-based thinking and skewed gender equations. If I am an idealist for believing that we need to make a strong political, economic and social case for uplifting the poor, then I am proud to be one indeed!

At this stage in my research on migrant housing in Gurgaon, urban designers and planners I interact with are telling me that I cannot influence the sociology and politics of any place, so its best to focus on a physical solution. So propose some mixed use, opine on resource distribution, talk about land values, density, the magic word FAR, etc etc. On the other side are the activists and NGOs who work with the community. They advise that I look at the problem squarely in the eye and find out what stops governments from providing migrants housing and more importantly, what will convince them that this is unavoidable. So basically, they ask me to place the political and socio-economic considerations at the center of the problems.

These two aren’t essentially different opinions; they both intend to arrive at physical solutions perhaps, and yet they look at the issue in two very divergent ways. It appears to me, and my judgement is informed by various interactions in the sector, that mainstream professionals¬† in fields like architecture and urban planning have begun to view themselves as service providers, and are disconnected from a sense of their role in society. They view the government as a significant client and the migrant worker as a beneficiary of a policy. Therefore, the proposals are not intended to empower the community, but to find a solution palatable to the government.

Activists and not-for-profits in this space, on the other hand, intend to give power directly into the hands of the poor, equipping them with information and arguments that will help them carve a space for themselves in urban India, where they compete for resources with the upper classes while at the same time being a huge part of the ecosystem.

Clearly, solutions that place decision making in the hands of the poor are clearly uncomfortable for decision makers. Perhaps we can blame it on the general need of both bureaucrats and technocrats to find the sort of solution where there is a measure of control and predictability. Solutions that involve incremental steps, are long-term in nature and do not come with guaranteed results are hard to buy into.

No one has a crystal ball that tells us the future, but it doesn’t take a soothsayer to know that the workable solutions will emerge out of a skilful, considered mix of both approaches. That it is necessary to consider the poor a vital part of India’s growth story, while at the same time being pragmatic in the means we employ to give them their rightful place in this unfolding saga of a rapidly urbanizing India. In the end, we must confront our discomfort with handing power (especially in aspects as vital as health, education, housing, basic services, etc) to the poor.

 

Disturbed by the lack of a tolerant, inclusive, plural vision for India- Oct 16, 2012

So what’s the logical option for left of Center, liberal people like me in the current political situation in India? It’s a thought that’s plagued my generation no end. I distinctly remember drawing room discussions about electoral politics when I was growing up and this is pretty much the question that plagued my parents and their friends as well. Often times, they ended up voting Congress because all other political positions were simply too extreme. Today, when the Congress appears to be crumbling under the weight of its own pretensions, pseudo socialism and dynastic obsession, even that isn’t an option any more. So what do we do, when we no abstaining from political participation is not an option either. When we know we have to keep our voice, but there is no voice out there that seems to represent us!

I can’t help feeling that we do need a new perspective and a new voice in today’s post-liberalization scenario where everything’s changing rapidly and the existing political establishments are simply too jaded and narrow in their focus to appeal to a new generation of voters. The demographics have changed. We are a super young nation now and young blood wants to see positive changes fast. Rapid urbanization and much exposure via all forms of media means people have too much information, too fast, information that is often half-baked, half-processed and can fan flames of discontent and anger. There is entirely too little reflection on many issues covered in the media and its easy to believe what you already want to believe.

But is that new voice Arvind Kejriwal? No. An emphatic no. Each time I cringe at his methods, I find myself questioning my own reactions. Why am I uncomfortable about the IAC’s way of doing things? Well, I find them too flashy, media hungry and exhibitionist. And I wonder if there is a real plan behind all this drama that is apparently for political gain. So what happens if the IAC does prove some of their allegations? Do they really have a plan for taking on a leadership role at the national level?

But my problem is that the IAC’s gimmicks and world view seems far from the liberal, secular, tolerant establishment I dream of. It thrives on hatred. I cannot believe that anything built on hatred can foster a society of tolerance and compassion, which is certainly what India must aspire for.

Am I too idealistic? Should we give up the dream of living in a society that is diverse yet tolerant, multicultural, plural and also respectful of other cultures? How do we resolve all the various conflicts around us- urban-rural, modern-traditional, religious majority vs minorities, if we don’t even have a vision for inclusion and tolerance?

Forgive me my rant people, but if anyone has any non-negative thoughts on this, please enlighten me….

Venturing beyond the realm of what I know- Oct 7, 2012

Sometimes life simply overwhelms me. Interestingly, these are not the occasions when something momentous, fantastic or traumatic, have happened. That sense of life being larger and more complex than I am able to comprehend overcomes me without warning, swiftly and sharply. Caught unawares, I bumble around for a while. Reason some. Eventually, the feeling passes, but not after the collateral damage (mouth ulcers, kids screamed at, spat with the husband) has already happened.
At work though, the feeling of the insurmountable drives me to make more effort. The more nebulous and threatening the brief, the more I resort to the simplest of strategies. To use the powers of logical reasoning, the steps of problem solving, the confidence in my intelligence.
But what happens when you set out to do something you have never done before. And that something is an opportunity you have waited for, one you sense will change the shape of the future.
I am currently embarking on a research fellowship in which I know I will have to synthesise all the knowledge and skills I have, and some. At this point, I am struggling for clarity. How do I resist the urge to fit the vision and scope into the boundaries of my knowledge and skills? If I presume I can acquire the skills I need but do not currently have, would that be compromising my research? How do you ‘think big’? How do you imagine a future you haven’t seen?
I flit between feeling inadequate and knowing that the clarity will come. I know that, after years of anchoring in a safe harbour, I have taken myself out to sea and there will be rough weather to face. At some level, this is a test of discipline and survival as much as it is an exploration of my capability to find data, critically analyse and find solutions. But most of all, it is about letting go of self doubt, of soaring above the clouds and making the impossible possible.
To retain the passion and idealism that I feel even as I negotiate the harsh realities of urban planning and governance will be the mother of challenges. To evolve a template for an inclusive city seems like taking a crack at an unresolvable problem. To shed the skin of socialism I live in and approach the issue of migrant housing with a market-based solution that can be sold to government and private sector alike is a tall order indeed.
You would agree then, that this time round, the feeling of being overwhelmed is entirely understandable! While I go on with the rituals of my weekend (music class, family outing, errands and chores,doses of mainstream and eclectic entertainment), I carry inside me the excitement and fear of the huge distances I must travel and the leaps of faith I must make. The calm on the outside belies the tempest within.

Can we evolve new tenets for our democracy? Musings on India’s bankruptcy of vision – Aug 17, 2012

The last issue of HT’s Brunch carried a one pager by Shashi Tharoor on the 40s as a decade for India. In this piece he outlines “democratic institution building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of non alignment” as the 4 pillars of the Nehruvian legacy, which was evolved equally by Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and Ambedkar, the four stalwarts that guided India through that tumultuous decade to a bright future in a world being torn apart by fascism and violence.
All four pillars stand contested today. Institutions are severely crippled by corruption, nepotism and a serious lack of vision and direction. Secularism is threatened not just by communalism (which was top of the mind for statesmen in the aftermath of the bloody Partition) but by racism, regionalism, casteism and the class wars. The incidents unfolding in Bangalore and Chennai, where hundreds of people from north eastern India are fleeing home in fear underlines that many Indians feel threatened in their own homeland, for absolutely no fault of theirs. It is a despicable situation and whoever is behind this is both racist and cowardly. I am upset that there were no strong steps taken by the city and state governments to counter this fear and the resulting exodus. That is another sign that even those in power inadvertently accept the unfolding disintegration of India. Scary!
The remaining two pillars. Socialist economics is something we are struggling with in the face of capitalistic forces, the need to be competitive in the global scenario. Our large population of poor people is a drag on our economy, no matter how much we try, we are unable to translate this into an opportunity. Mind you, there is real potential here and several social sector entrepreneurs have shown that innovations in technologies and trying new business models can harness the aspirations of the poor and fire the double bullet of giving them upward mobility while creating modestly profitable businesses. The problem is that even the government looks at the poor as objects of pity and not as customers for services or even as citizens with equal rights. That is the real failure, the failure of vision.
I won’t discuss non alignment. The world has changed much in the past six decades and I am no expert on foreign policy.
If all these four pillars are contested, it means we urgently need to re- envision the tenets of democracy for India today. That is what political manifestos are supposed to do, but instead they pay lip service to vision and announce populist measures. Why are we shying away from asking the vital questions? There are certain things every Indian wants- security, opportunities for growth, etc- but there are many issues on which consensus may not be possible. We need to build a climate of debate, an ability to hear the plural voices out there. Instead, we find it easier to watch and wait for the end, the revolution, the disintegration into chaos. I suppose it is time for me to read the latest works of both Chetan Bhagat and Tharoor to explore these thoughts further. Until then, I am attempting to place my agitation on hold and focus on making my weekend productive and enjoyable!

Is a new political entity an answer? Random conjectures on the future of Team Anna- Aug 2, 2012

Will Team Anna enter politics? Should they? Will such a move end our woes, provide a more rational, appealing option to voters, especially urban voters in India? It’s a question that has daunted me the past few days and something I wondered about even last year when Team Anna’s movement against corruption was its focal issue and at a high point.

Today, the team clearly announced that they would enter politics to provide a “political alternative” to the ‘corrupt’ political class”. They also said they would support candidates committed to “patriotism” and “country’s development”.

If I were to be outright cynical (and I confess I feel that way about a lot of things happening in the Indian political scene right now), I would say Kejriwal’s original plan has always been to start a political party. Even last year, his comments betrayed his leaning in this direction, but Anna himself maintained a neutral stand. The debate on extending this movement into a political one seems to be growing right now.

What does this development mean for us as citizens? For very long, our sense of disillusionment with politicians has been intense. Many urban, educated voters are really caught between a rock and a hard place while trying to take sides between the Congress-UPA bunch and the BJP-NDA lot on the other. Theoretically, a third front has always been an option. But putting together such an alternative is an enormous challenge.

It is one thing to call upon politicians to answer on charges of corruption and demand change as a citizen group. But will Kejriwal and his allies be capable of the political acumen required to play the power games? Will they remain clean when they are in the system? I don’t see in this team the kind of charismatic leadership you need to upset the power balance in a democracy as large as India. I’ve heard Kejriwal speak up close and while he has his facts pat, he came across as hot headed, even a bit rabid. His simplicity and uprightness is very appealing, but I wasn’t bowled over. Not by a long shot. Who else, with Anna clearly taking a non-political stand. (Of course, one could argue that the two main parties are just as bereft of capable leadership!) I’m also wondering if TA has a pan India base. I don’t know enough and would love to learn more. And importantly, an alternate political party needs to have a bigger vision for the nation. I don’t quite see that here, though it can evolve by logically extending the current principles of transparency, democratic process, etc.

Despite my doubts, I do admire the courage and conviction of the movement. I wish it had not waivered, but rather stuck to its original agenda of targeting graft. I also wish it had focused as much on efficiency of governance as on corruption; efficiency and optimization through technology and better processes would go a long way in solving most of the day-to-day problems citizens face, and control low-level corruption.

I also understand that it is logical to fight the system from inside if you cannot make a dent from the outside. If Team Anna can unveil a well-rounded and more palatable vision for India, then they might well get popular support. However, I suspect a lot of their appeal until now has been that they represented the common man and fought against the establishment. Now that they aspire to be the establishment, the expectations will change drastically. To keep their agenda afloat in this new milieu will be quite a challenge. Let’s wait and watch- the run up to 2014 is getting exciting!

Too dependent on mega cities, we need fresh perspectives to urban growth! May 17, 2012

That the world is urbanizing rapidly is by now something we all understand. The implications of this massive shift in how humans live is still a subject of intense scrutiny and research among urban professionals, sociologists, geographers, demographers, economists and experts from a growing number of fields hitherto unrelated to spatial planning.

Delhi at No 4! An intriguing phenomenon of urbanization has been the formation of urban agglomerations, large urban areas that grow around a nuclear urban core and create a dense economic powerhouse that in turn attracts more businesses and people to it. In the latest edition of the Demographia World Urban Areas finds our own Delhi (along with its urban extensions in Haryana and UP) as the world’s 4th largest urban area, behind Tokya, Jakarta and Seoul. The cities considered big when we were growing up feature further down the list. New York comes in 7th. London, which ranked 3rd till the 1960s is not even in the largest 25 urban areas! Asian cities take center stage, followed by cities in South America and Africa. Within India, Mumbai (13th) and Kolkata (18th), usually considered larger urban concentrations that Delhi lag behind. Those in the real estate industry, who have been tracking closely the growing economic power of the Delhi National Capital Region, would perhaps not be so surprised as the rest of us.

The subcontinent is exploding! From a density perspective though, Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad and Jaipur are Indian cities that feature in the list of the ten densest cities in the world! Seven of these ten are in the South Asian subcontinent (add Dhaka, which tops the list, Chittagong and Karachi)! To me, these statistics have driven home the need for much more urgent responses to our urban issues. And since the problems are going to stay, we need long-term, sustainable solutions, not stop gap ones.

Fresh ideas please! To me, it also makes me worry that we are overdependent on urban agglomerations and mega cities. It shows a terrible lack of imagination on the part of policy makers and planners to be unable to give impetus to smaller towns and create new urban areas that offer economic opportunities and offer quality of life to residents at the same time. These might stand a better chance at building a sustainable foundation (environmentally and socially) than the mega cities, where interventions are expensive and hard to implement!

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