Friday, May 29, 2009

In deep Slum-ber

The attempt at eradicating, or at least minimizing, slum habitations in the city is an overwhelming task. It might not seem overwhelming if one were to shrug one's shoulders and think that it was the government's responsibility/job and give it no further thought. 

It might be the government's responsibility, but one big reason the gov. can't handle/do it is because it is too sensitive an issue and the solution is almost invariably likely to place the gov. in a bad light, no matter what the outcome. This is because there is a certain section of society (and to make it worse, its the weaker section) that will be inconvenienced to a very large degree. And this section seems to be an all too important chunk of the vote-ban for the gov. to take any chances with.

Some of the popular reasons for eradicating slums are:-

1. They give a 'filthy' look to the city

2. Unaccountability of usage of shared (between citizens) resources (like electricity, water).

3. A potential breeding ground for anti-social activities/elements and easy exploitation opportunities (because they are typically occupied by those 'desperate' to make money to get out of them).

A tangential point (recently raised by local activists) is that they form a class of 'outsiders' who 'snatch' jobs away from the hands of local residents.

So lets say there are reasons to think of means to eradicate slums. And not only that, we would like to be a little more futuristic and have a secondary goal that our means/policy should be such that it discourages the growth of slums in future. 

Firstly, is this a viable goal? Is it even possible to achieve the goal of eradicating slums from Mumbai?

Right from ambitious politicos to promising NGOs to corporate honchos and real-estate czars have had their hands burnt in this unappeasable fire. That is not to say that the situation hasn't bettered. Perhaps it has. But by and large, there seems to be no obvious relief to the city's general landscape. So whether this is a viable goal or not, is difficult to answer given that even the bright minds and the influential power-houses have not solved it. 

And the reason for that, to me, seems to be either misplaced priorities, or a lack of understanding of the problem. 

From what I understand, initially, the gov. tried to be nice and build alternative cheap (not cheaper than the slums, but cheaper than average legal residence) homes for the slum-dwellers. There seemed to be several problems with this approach. Were there enough for all? How would you find a legitimate slum dweller who claimed responsibility for such a house? Did the gov. make losses or book profits? Somehow, this didn't turn on any magic.

So a smart initiative was to involve the real-estate guys who were experts in assessing land-related situations and building houses. These guys were alloted a a slum land (land where currently there are slums), and allowed to build their commercial ventures. They HAD to house the slum-dwellers they were displacing from that land, in low-cost housings. Once they constructed housing for the slum-dwellers, they could do their usual business in the remaining part. The trick was of course, they were allowed greater FSI (Floor Space Index: essentially a ratio of how much area you can build to how much area of land you have. An FSI of 1 implies that if you bought land of 100 sq.metres, you can construct only 100sq.metres. If FSI was 2, you could construct 200 sq. metres).

This seems to be an attractive scheme. Real-estate developers could do business and do good to the city in terms of social responsibility. I personally don't know if this works, or is working, or whether it will or not.

But my guess is that this is where we are going wrong. The root of the issue is not addressed. The people residing in the slums are those whose livelihood depends much on the middle-class. The people in the slums comprise of taxi-drivers, maids, sweepers, waiters, small-time tailors etc. Their income depends largely on the activities of the middle-class. It is the family which needs a doodh-wala, bartan-wala (man dish-washer), dhobi, istri-wala, aayya for their children, jaaduwala etc  that gives employment to so many of them. If they are paid well for these tasks and not monetarily exploited like they generally are, then it makes sense to give them better housing.
Low-cost housing is of no use if they do not have the livelihood to maintain the housing. They will resort to tactics like selling the house to someone else, and go back to a slum which is a more economically viable option, given their meagre incomes.

But if one were to raise their standard of living some way or the other (don't know how!), only then it seems to be justifiable to give them an alternative better residence. And somehow, given the recent movement of 'richness', the middle-class is being offered 'better' alternatives to their current lifestyles. They have malls to buy their food from (so the vegetable vendors suffer), they have fancier washing and cleaning equipments like the classical dish-washer and laundry and drier from the western world (which eliminates the need for so many servants), and we see fewer families taking their kids to local parks and letting the street-performer earn his 2 pennies and the juice-wala or the candy-wala do their part. Instead, we have swarms of families moving into multiplexes for entertainment.

There is nothing morally, or otherwise, good or bad about any choice the middle-class makes (and in any case, thats not the point). But, it seems that cheap alternative housing, given either by the gov. or private real-estate developers will not click, no matter how plausible that solution may seem.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Barcelona vs Barcelona

She walked along La Ramblas, watching the performers and applauding them in her mind. She liked this colorful street, full of hopeful artists and starry-eyed tourists, fancy-looking restaurants and inviting bars, the colorful market with paraphernalia lying around. She had a tempting glass of Orange juice, and then a rarely delicious vegetarian lunch made for her by the Indian-origin manager at the market. He even paid for her food.

And then the typical DDLJ stuff happened. She entered the Metro station hoping to get to one of the destinations which was a must-see according to the Lonely Planet guide. Lost in her world, she stood staring at the Metro map, trying to figure out the way. He stood right next to her. 
She didn't know for how long they stood, aware of each others' presence, and yet avoiding any awkward communication. Finally, a chance glance where both were caught
She: Do you know how to get to place X?
He: Ya, do blah-blah-blah
She: Oh thanks
He: You traveling by yourself?
She: (A succinct) ya
He: Wanna join me? I am going to go to place X eventually. Until then, we could go to this highly recommended place Y.
She: (dammit...  hot guys and chance encounters are difficult to turn down.. and this was a chance encounter with a hot guy.. so hesitantly..) Alrighty

They talk and talk... he is a chef in a restaurant in England. She, well, for him, is 'into computers'. It was a fun conversation... and a little company doesn't hurt.
They saw the colorful musical fountains, and had food. They drank a little Cerveza and then finally talked through the night. 

That was the Barcelona she had seen. In May 2008.

Cut to Scene II.
Barcelona again. May 2009.
She recognized parts of the city. She wished she remembered more. But cities were rarely places to her, cities were a remembered by the feelings they triggered in her, her opinions, her inner voices. 
This time, she had company. 3 friends. She saw Antoni Gaudi's Casa Battlo again. They had Cerveza, and vino, and went clubbling. Just the stuff tourists are expected to do when they land in big cities, especially Spanish cities known for their night-life.
They danced and danced until time lost its significance. Was it daylight? Or did she stop seeing stars?
They traveled to their castle-like, museum-like hostel, and crashed on the bed.

Barcelona, this time, was sight-seeing, eating, drinking, dancing, getting friendly, getting flooded by feelings of empathy for friends, crashing and hang-overing.

The sights of the city are juxtaposed by two snapshots in time. The mind channelizes its energy in trying to force out a decision: "was it better now, or did you like the previous experience?". The comparisons and debate continues with thoughts running into dark pits of unguarded territory. The 'responsible' version of self says "why compare? what's the point? Everything is good 'in its own way'! They were 2 different things, cant be compared". 

Would one like to be the Kareena of Chameli singing 'bhaage re mann', or would one rather be Saif of DCH singing Dil Chahta hai, kabhi na beete..?