To Elphinstone Road

When a system is forced to run at four to six times its capacity for years on end, it doesn’t break – it was always broken. Elphinstone Road is the story of almost all urban infrastructure in our cities. It’s a template. It’s a warning. It’s our history, our everyday, and our future. It’s horrifying. It’s utterly banal.

When only death can make you think of repair, maintenance, upkeep, and expansion, then the everydayness of our infrastructure is a state of violence. When that death will still not make you change the way you manage that infrastructure, that violence is a siege, and we have Stockholm Syndrome. Not resilience, but a hostage situation.

The real challenge to us – all of us, in all our locations – is to realise the deep insufficiency of our anger if it is anger just at death. Anger is needed as much at the way we live, not just the ways in which we shouldn’t die.

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Stop criminalizing academic freedom in Rajasthan: People’s Union for Civil Liberties

PEOPLE’S UNION FOR CIVIL LIBERTIES, RAJASTHAN

 PUCL demands an end to the Harassment of Dr. Nivedita Menon(JNU), Dr Rajshree Ranawat and Dr Vinu George (of JNVU, Jodhpur)

and the

Criminalizing and throttling of Academic Freedom in Rajasthan

 The PUCL is shocked at the harassment of Dr Rajshree Ranawat and Dr Vinu George of the English Department of Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur, by University authorities, Jodhpur police and the BJP/ABVP outifts along with their fellow vigilante groups. The harassment and relentless persecution is for organizing  an academic conference titled “History Reconstrued through Literature: Nation, Identity, Culture”, in which one of the speakers was Prof Nivedita Menon of JNU, whose lecture was mis-reported sensationally in some local Hindi papers on the basis of the claims of one person. Following on this, the university authorities as well as private persons have filed police complaints against all three, and the university authorities have issued show cause notices to Dr Ranawat and Dr George. We condemn this effort of criminalizing and throttling academic freedom. Continue reading “Stop criminalizing academic freedom in Rajasthan: People’s Union for Civil Liberties”

City as a Site of Trade-Offs

To be truly radical, said Raymond Williams, is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing. Today, his words are both a diagnosis of all that ails the contemporary Indian city as well as the clearest articulation of what we must strive to be in the years to come. Amidst the smart, the inclusive, the global, the world-class, and the sustainable: how does one find the radical city?

This is no easy task. By their nature, cities concentrate both opportunity and risk, hope and despair. If growth rises, so does inequality. If diversity rises, then so does segregation. If infrastructure and built form expand, so do ecological risks. Historically, if cities have held innovation, mobility, and democracy, they have been equally adept at violence, poverty, and inequality. This is then where we must start: to acknowledge the city as a site of trade-offs, not the convenient listing of aspirations where the smart, inclusive or sustainable city can be created at no cost, no price, or without crowding out other visions and alternative futures. As India urbanizes, the only certainty we have is that these trade-offs will become more stark, with the stakes becoming higher for more and more people.

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Welfare Shocks are not “Inconveniences”

I want to make one thing clear. There is a difference in between “short-term inconvenience” or pain or difficulty, however you want to call it, and a welfare shock.

Take a very simple empiric: 80% of families in India that are above the poverty line in one year but fall below it in another, do so because of one illness, to one family member, in one year. Let that sink in please: one, one, one. That’s it. (see Aniruddh Krishna’s excellent ‘One Illness Away‘ to read more). This is the reality of the vulnerability of what is so dismissively called the “cash economy.” You can replace illness with wedding or funeral and the story still holds. Welfare shocks, as they are called, break cycles of very tenuous security and small economic gains, pushing families back into cycles of debt and depleted savings. They do it because we don’t have enough public welfare protections to guard against small risks and life events – domestic savings are the only floor.

The thing about demonetisation done in this way, where no planning accounts for the “short-term” contraction of the cash economy in a place where 60-80% of workers work informally, half get paid in cash, and one in every five of them work in cash on daily/weekly wages (see RBI, NSS data, or the NCEUS report on the unorganised sector), then you aren’t pushing a “short-term inconvenience,” you risk causing a welfare shock.

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Reaching for the Universe

 

“Universal” is a tricky word. It has an enormous appeal, an unquestioned romance of taking every one along. Universal human rights, universal access to basic services, housing for all. It is the barometer of inclusion done right. The dark side of the romance is that it’s one of the hardest things to actually achieve. Often the “universal” is a vanishing horizon and, like all horizons, the mirage is what makes you lose sight of the very real trade-off’s and constraints in your way.

This week the Delhi Jal Board announced a new horizon towards the idea of universal access to a basic urban service and human need: water. The “Jal Adhikar Connection” (a Right to Water Connection) promises to let households within slums in Delhi apply for legal, metered water connections “irrespective of the status of their residence.” This move – following the Government of Delhi’s already given pledge to extend water and sanitation services to unauthorized colonies – implies that legal, public and metered water could (like electricity) actually cover the city as it exists rather than as it is imagined in plans and laws.

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Outsmarting the Informal City

In an online documentary archive called Delhi Digest, Saleem Shakeel, founder of an e-waste recycling company in the city, speaks to the camera about e-waste. The setting is familiar. Mr Shakeel sits on the single chair in what looks like a small, partially built room of exposed red brick. There are piles of objects which, like the room itself, appear used or discarded. If you conjured up an image of “informal” and “waste,” this is pretty much what you think of. Ashish Nandy would perhaps describe an outsider’s view of it it as he once did for the way we see the “slum”: all that stubbornly refuses to bow out of modernity’s way. It’s hard to imagine technology here, let along big data or smart solutions.

Yet as Mr Shakeel speaks, it is precisely technology and data that flood your mind. He describes how e-waste circulates through circuits and geographies in the city that we rarely see. Sophisticated flows of work and labour are ready when the computer comes, each finely skilled and discerning. Different workers take the different parts – CPU goes one way, the keyboard another. They break further: mother boards, drives, power supply, wires, the iron, the gold chip. Every last bit is used, and its use is determined by the current market’s daily prices. No two days, says Mr Shakeel, are the same; you have to know, and you have to be ready to adjust. Information – that less glamourous cousin of “data” – flows quickly, endlessly, in many modes and forms. The circuits are opaque, but they work.

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A test of dignity and democracy

Today, as the Supreme Court hears the curative petition on Section 377, it has an opportunity to remember its promise to be the last resort of the oppressed, to let dignity be the domain of all.

In 2015, a student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru was blackmailed and threatened with being publicly outed for being gay. When he refused to pay extortion money, the private letters turned into notices pinned on noticeboards on campus. The words were sharp, relentless and inhumane: “I think it’s completely shameful, bad, immoral and disgusting. You should go kill yourself. Why do you think it’s illegal to be gay in India?”

Evading prejudice

For many queer people, this moment is familiar. It is one that many of us have faced or live in a constant fear of facing. In some ways, it is the latter that is worse. We live our lives anticipating prejudice. Even before it comes, we are constantly censoring, moving, and shaping our lives to evade it or, if we can’t, to survive it. Those of us who have the privilege of privacy scan rooms to find allies, weigh what to tell our doctors, measure out information in our offices, and seek safe spaces. Those without this privilege face a much more direct battle to be who they are: an unrelenting and legitimised public violence that falls on working class bodies in our streets, police stations and public spaces. The law is not the only force behind this violence, but it is an important one. “Why do you think,” the blackmailer asks, “it’s illegal to be gay in India?” When petitioners in the Naz Foundation case argued that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code played an important part in shrouding our lives in criminality and of legitimising violence, this letter was one of many that we wrote against in our heads. Continue reading “A test of dignity and democracy”