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Street vendors, e-riksha operators ask: Do you really care about us? #BoloGurgaon

Gurgaon, the city that has been my home for over 15 years, is infamous for the stark contrast between its gleaming office buildings and crumbling infrastructure. It is a city that exploded its seams in a little more than a decade (coinciding with the time I have lived here) through the land accumulation and development by private sector real estate companies working in close cahoots with politicians to ensure conducive regulation and laissez-faire governance. A city that attracted well-educated globe trotters and young BPO workers from mid-town India, but also poorly educated rural migrants from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal to work informal sector jobs in manufacturing, construction, transport, security and domestic work. While the city’s ‘planned’ development trajectory has sprouted numerous gated communities that house the former, the latter occupy the crevices of the city as renters in urban villages and unauthorised colonies. With State assembly elections looming ahead, some of us are asking uncomfortable questions, aiming to provoke thought about the real problems Gurgaon’s residents face. And by doing so, articulating a Citizen’s Charter of demands for candidates for the MLA seats from Gurgaon and Badshahpur.

Today’s blog post draws on conversations at a joint meeting of two collectives representing street vendors and e-rickshaw operators in Gurgaon, held on 29th September; it asks: What are the daily struggles and aspirations of Gurgaon’s urban poor? How can a Citizen Charter best articulate these?

Now, street vendors and e-riksha drivers are not natural collaborators; in fact, they are engaged in an everyday tussle over space in the city, as they jostle for spots at the edges of roads. A lack of space to earn their livelihoods is the key issue they brought forward. Not just space, they talked about a lack of services that are vital for them, like clearance of waste bins and dhalaos and the availability of drinking water and public toilets at their places of work. Far from a litany of complaints, these men and women proposed solutions: the creation of e-riksha stands, the implementation of the Street Vendors Act, and road designs with lanes for high speed and low speed vehicles, for cyclists, pedestrians, e-rikshas and for vendors too! In another conversation, e-riksha drivers proposed a redesign of the public transport system by enhancing and recognizing their role in providing sustainable and affordable last mile connectivity for buses and the Metro. Not educated? Many of their suggestions sounded more intelligent than the expert opinions we hear in conferences and seminars!

Everyday experiences of violence and harassment were common to both groups, as well as the experience of systemic corruption in which the agents of local politicians, police personnel and the local government bureaucracy constantly demanded bribes from them in return for temporary reprieves from harassment. The harassment was not only for ‘illegal’ activity or illegal occupation of space however; many vendors complained that they were being accused of dirtying the streets when in fact the municipal workers and contractors deliberately did not clear refuse from their vending areas.

Fiery youth leaders, men and women, spoke at the meet about the need to organize and resist this constant oppression but giving up a day’s work to protest was also clearly a struggle for many. I was struck by the broader narrative of business being very slow. Some in the group were, till recently, factory workers and supervisors and had recently been laid off! It was apparent to me that the numbers of those in the informal sector was rising everyday, but there were no plans to accommodate their livelihoods or create new opportunities for the poor, many of whom were migrants who had been in Gurgaon for varying lengths of time. Even as minor wins were reported from protests within the city, there were volunteers being lined up for a larger agitation at Delhi the next morning!

The meeting helped us add specific demands about the needs of informal sector workers in Gurgaon. We demand spaces for them to pursue their livelihood, and an enabling ecosystem that, instead of oppressing them, integrates them into supply chains for goods and services. However, the detailed stories about corruption drive home to me a key point: Gurgaon’s economy is in trouble, and rent seeking is the one sure means to earn money. The city, like others across the country, is a stage on which a macabre and elaborate dance is being staged; a dance in which those with relative power relentlessly prey on the powerless to capture rents, not just at the cost of lower incomes but also of the health and well being of residents. Rupturing this cycle should be the citizen’s overarching and clear demand!

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!

Excited about elections: Anecdotes from middle class voters across India- Feb 29, 2012

Election fever is all around. And this time round, I’m seeing the voters I know getting excited about things, for the first time in my living memory. I’m talking middle class, salaried people, not known for their love of the poll booth and most of who are happy to indulge in armchair discussions without any real political affiliations.

Perhaps we should thank Anna and his team for this gift to the nation- some sort of awakening of the middle class voter towards his responsibilities as opposed to his usual emphasis on rights (voter turnout has been increasing steadily for local and assembly elections throughout India and many voters claim to vote for development and not traditional reasons like caste). Or perhaps its my eyes that have opened, late in life.

A few weeks ago, at a wedding in Lucknow, much of the discussion among the local guests was about the impending voting in the city, which was to be the following Sunday. Rahul Gandhi’s every gesture was analyzed and Akhilesh Yadav seemed to have impressed quite¬† a few with moves that reminded old timers of the Mulayam of their youth! Strangely, it was unclear what the election issues were from these conversations, the focus was entirely on the personalities!

Last night, a chat conversation with my cousin Pooja who lives in Goa spoke of the absolute excitement about the elections in our constituency of St Cruz, a bit outside Panjim. The villagers are being wooed by promises of better infrastructure and connectivity and of course, the possibility of real estate development is a huge lure for politicians in wards surrounding Goa’s large cities, where several residential projects are mushrooming in a rather haphazard manner.

An infamously corrupt and flamboyant local politician Babush Monsterrat from nearby Talegaon, she told me, was contesting from St Cruz this time round. Of course, his wife was contesting from their home seat, which got us into a discussion about women often being dummy candidates.

Last week, I was having dinner with friends, one of whom is from Pune. The recently concluded elections for the 152 seats of the Pune Municipal Corporations, this friend informed me, resulted in 51% of the seats occupied by women  corporators, who number 78 as opposed to 74 men. This means that beyond the reserved seats, several women have won general seats as well. The number of woman applicants this year was 1,260 as against 2,080 men. The NCP and Congress gave tickets to 76 women, out of which 24 NCP and 14 Congress woman leaders secured a place in the House. Again, many of these could be dummy candidates put up by male politicians (husbands, fathers) who are seeing a decline in their political fortunes, or have criminal charges against them, or are embroiled in some controversy. Even so, locals feel there are many noteworthy, serious women politicians in power, which is a heartening thought.

It is unclear what these changes mean for our cities and citizens. Unfortunately, better voter turnout in a democracy does not result in better politicians, better governance or better accountability. More needs to be done to make politicians accountable to the people, and a lot needs to be done to mobilize communities to debate issues, list priorities and place adequate pressure on governments and bureaucracies to perform; but getting the middle class slightly more excited about elections is a good start, don’t you think?

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