Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Musings in the Mall

Where we congregate significantly reveals how we look at communities, I feel. What kind of spaces do we congregate in? Who has access to those spaces? Who uses those spaces? What kind of physical ambience do these spaces have? How does it interact with the larger external spaces and community? … and so on.

These many questions and ruminations went through my mind, as I sat in the local “mall” and “relaxed” and “chilled” with a cup of coffee, while my children played interactive, audio-visuals games in a designated area – either on the larger screens or on the ubiquitous mobiles. I sat alone. As I buried myself in my coffee and magazine that was so kindly laid out, with stray pieces of conversations floating from around, I felt my isolation completely. Felt suffocated. Somehow the table-space – my table-space – the space around my table felt plastic, inelastic and had the capacity to remove all connections from the rest of the world. Perhaps if I had a couple of friends sitting with me I might not have felt it so sharply. But I didn’t think my connection to couple of my friends could have compensated for the loss of the larger web of sense of connection.

Strangely enough, I had never felt this intensity of isolation in rural areas… where communal spaces are defined entirely differently. Not knowing the language, or coming from a significantly different background and socio-economic frame, did not render my connections to the larger world null and void. Whether I sat under the “rachhabanda” – that platform around the magnificiently spreading tree, or sat on a rock at the pond or river where people bathed and washed their clothes, or even hung-out on the benches of the chai-ki-dukaan, or the courtyards of individual houses, it did not matter. The spaces somehow inevitably stretched out to include other spaces around. Even though people around me did not speak to me, I didn’t feel disjointed or unconnected. If not the people, then there was always the breeze, the sun, the leaves, the birds and animals, the joyfully shrieking and playing children, the happy chaos of tinny, blaring music… that connected me to the world.

Had I grown old? Or was I a misfit in an alien society? Yet I dressed similarly as others, spoke the same language, and shopped and needed similar “things”. I was of the same socio-economic background… similar lifestyle. So what was wrong?

It was the Space. It is then one understood the importance and impact of the psychology of space… and how it is designed. How it inevitably creates or eliminates connections and relationships.

Public Space – that fragile, much needed space that fosters and maintains the sense of community - is a very important element that has fallen to the sacrificial guillotine of development and growth. It is the first that gets sacrificed to the increasing density and needs of infrastructure and internal structures. Parks, play grounds, public walk ways, ponds, lakes, beaches, etc. have all fallen to the juggernaut of growth. Today we find public space to be a luxury available only to very few in the luxury of malls and shopping complexes. Places that are clearly “closed”, its ambience and internal atmosphere regulated, unexposed to external/ natural elements – safe, controlled and exclusive. Even open spaces with trees that breathe in the Earth are only available in controlled, manicured environments.

More significantly, it is the children’s spaces that the first to shrink and go. Play grounds, and parks are fast becoming things of past. Similarly women too lose their congregational spaces early on. More and more communal congregations are expected to happen in “closed” spaces – the new fad being the “community centre” where meetings happen, events held, functions and celebrations hosted. It also doubles as the “hang-out” inevitably only for men.

To me, how we design, maintain and manage our public space is very much reflective of the psyche of the society. The Public Space is a representation of how society has changed in the last few decades. Privatisation of the larger Public Space such that it is molded and converted into a private Public Space, controlled and exclusive, expensive and inaccessible to the larger part of humanity, is symbolic of Us today.

I finished my coffee, picked up my “things”, called out to my children and plunged into the chaos of the road outside… into the footpaths that had become public spaces to the remainder of the humanity out there.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

meaning of "development work"

It all came together today... as i woke up with the thought in my head... of what a farmer earns in the field producing grains and the farmer (who works in the cubicle farm) earns in producing corporate consumer/service products. The disparity in monetary earnings is amazing, of course... but what is amazingly similar is the choices made by each...

Yes, development is about personal choice... and socio-economic situations are outcomes of collective personal choices.

What made the penny drop was when my eyes fell on the jowar I had bought. Jowar - that hardy millet that survives adverse conditions, erratic rainfall, requiring very little farm inputs, and above all having superb nutritional value.... and i asked myself, as i had asked umpteen number of times, why isn't the farmer growing things like jowar than opting out for killer cash crops? sure, the decision is market/subsidy driven.... but what stops him/her from also growing the stuff enough for personal use so that s/he doesn't get catapulted into starvation conditions? Nothings stops him/her... and these decisions do not require 'awareness' etc. It is a personal decision, and a personal choice - perhaps influence-able at a certain level by external factors - but beyond that - no.

How often have we encountered the frustration at the grassroots of 'people' opting for more unsustainable choices... inspite of our constant dirge of information and 'awareness' building processes? Sure, one does manage to influence a little bit here and there... but somewhere, somehow most people, irrespective of where they are on the socio-economic-political ladder, do opt out for a monetary bottom line. In contrast, one does come across enough number of people opting for more sustainable choices... sustainable being defined as those options that can ensure the longevity of happiness and maintenance of balance through a choices of food, clothing, shelter, livelihoods, where and how one will spend and expend one's resources, what social 'rules' will one choose to impose and follow... and so on. Development, thus, defined as optimization of choices that go towards building personal happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment, definitely then is a personal choice.

Yet how does one view and reconcile the larger, external conditions - imposed by the juggernauts of conglomerations and tie-ups between decision-makers and power-brokers. Sure one would say it all depends on who we choose to put at the helm... and that person's/organisation's psychological and emotional structural strengths and weakness... which again brings us back to what we have chosen. Sure, I personally didn't choose to put the thugs at the helm... it was after all a collective choice... but it was a collection of personal choices... we inevitably pay for each other's choices too. Whether i like it or not, whether i believe in it or not, whether i personally choose it or not... i have to pay for my brother's (and sister’s) choices too.... just as much as somebody else pays for my choices.

The only thing I can, perhaps, do under the circumstances, then, is to be aware of what I choose and why I choose... and hope to make considered choices that can maximise my 'happiness' while minimizing the larger damage.

I conclude, for now, with a few thoughts:

1. that perhaps development-work could mean to be an effort to influence choices of the community such that we move - individually and collectively – more and more to the centre of the fulcrum…

2. that development-work is about being at the stern working with the rudder than being at the bow at the wheel…

3. an acceptance of “what-is” as an outcome of personal choice does not mean an end to work towards influencing balance…

4. that though one feels deep sadness, one cannot just cry in futile angst at inequity and injustice – but one has to engage, in whatever way one can, in whatever niche one finds, in influencing the balance…

5. and most importantly it cannot be left only to a few sectors to “do” development-work… but that everyone can engage in “development-work” one way or another…

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What do I care for Change...

All I care for now is to live
To find the place from where
The next meal for my children
Will come; All I care is for the
Few pots of water that I have to
Walk miles for; through burning lands
To slake the family’s raging thirst;
All I care for is those pieces of coal
Live coals on my heart
For they are hard-earned; Earned
By my eight year old daughter
After playing hanky-panky with
That aging, soul-less engine-driver

No… I no longer care
For your politics and causes
I have been to enough rallies
And protests, waiting endlessly
Mind, heart and spirit numb
Under the ruthless, blazing sun
All to no avail; for I still struggle
Just as my grandmother did
And before that hers.
Nothing has changed one bit…
What then do I care for Change.

I no longer care for the system
That has bled us and fed off
Our dying bodies; stripped off us
The lands of our forefathers
And parceled and sold them off
Chunk by chunk into the hands
Of new Big thieves; so much so
Now we don’t even know who they are
At least the old Landlords threw us
Pieces of chewed up bones now and then
But these new corporate thieves
Live, if at all they are human,
In far-away lands; never to be seen
Only felt in the marrow of our bones.

No… I no longer care.
All I care for now is to live
And be left alone to our fate.
I will take my chances
With the Fates;
It can't be worse than
Waiting for Change...

Friday, July 30, 2010

Playing Energy

Designs that harness energy... is a wonderful concept for harnessing the boundless energy of children as they play, and stored for later use for mundane everyday living!

check it out!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What is very interesting to see in the current times is the global anxiety generated by the growth potential of the Asian economies. As long as they were just markets, they weren’t as threatening… and Climate Change debate has given everyone the exact tool needed to rationalize this anxiety.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Starfish v/s Spider

One thing that business, institutions, governments and key individuals are coming to realize is spiders and starfish may look alike, but starfish have a miraculous quality to them. Cut off the leg of a spider, and you have a seven-legged creature on your hands; cut off its head and you have a dead spider. But cut off the arm of a starfish and it will grow a new one. Not only that, but the severed arm can grow an entirely new body. Starfish can achieve this feat because, unlike spiders, they are decentralized; every major organ is replicated across each arm.

But starfish don't just exist in the animal kingdom. Starfish organizations are taking society and the business world by storm, and are changing the rules of strategy and competition. Like starfish in the sea, starfish organizations are organized on very different principles than we are used to seeing in traditional organizations. Spider organizations are centralized and have clear organs and structure. You know who is in charge. You see them coming.

Starfish organizations, on the other hand, are based on completely different principles. They tend to organize around a shared ideology or a simple platform for communication- around ideologies like al Qaeda or Alcoholics Anonymous. They arise rapidly around the simplest ideas or platforms. Ideas or platforms that can be easily duplicated. Once they arrive they can be massively disruptive and are here to stay, for good or bad. And the Internet can help them flourish.

So in today's world starfish are starting to gain the upper hand.

How can Toyota leverage starfish principles to crush their spider-like rivals, GM and Ford? How did tiny Napster cripple the global music industry? Why is free, community based Wikipedia crushing Encyclopedia Britannica overnight? Why is tiny Craigslist crippling the global newspaper industry? Why is Al Qaeda flourishing and even growing stronger? In today's world to answer this it is essential to understand the potential strength of a starfish organization.

The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, explores the phenomenal and unstoppable new power of the starfish organizations and will change the way you look at the world.

(reproduced from http://www.starfishandspider.com/index.php?title=About_the_Book)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kosi Embankments – an elephant in the room

It is impossible to talk about floods in Bihar without talking about the embankments being built around its rivers. The embankments are “an elephant in room” which everybody knows about, understands and can see, but refuses to acknowledge - either its presence or its impact.

When we went to Bihar, and we talked to people about the August 2008 floods, it became more and more clear that this particular floods, which were highlighted so much in the press, is the least of their problems. We found out, by talking to the people, that the Kosi has breached its embankments several times, eight times to be exact, earlier, and the people living along this river have repeatedly been subjected to the impacts of river in spate rushing out. It became clear that life in Bihar could very clearly be demarcated – life before the embankments and life after the embankments.

The rivers in Bihar come rushing down the Himalayas, bringing with them silt laden waters that flood and spread during summer and monsoon. The floods would spread over a large area, leaving behind filled up tanks and ponds and a layer of live-giving silt that rejuvenated the agricultural lands. The people would have to “manage” living during the flood-season which was about 2-3 weeks in a year which they had learnt, understanding the rhythm of the rivers.

However, during the “modern development” and growth period, the government decided to “fix” this problem by building embankments on both sides of the Kosi, thus forcing her to flow inside it. The solution worked – but only for a little while. Before long, the embankments became one of the biggest problems of the people living along the river. The silt brought down by the river, kept filling the channel up and thus raising the height of river. Today we can see the river flowing 8-10 ft above the ground-level – a sure recipe for disaster.

Every engineer, scientist, technologist knows one fact about embankments – that they will breach. It is a given fact, corroborated with experiences from all over the world. The problem then is what happens when the embankments breach? In people’s language “Kosi used to come like a cat before, now she comes like a tigress”. The river’s force has become destructive and damages thousands of houses and structures, fills the lands with sand and silt and costs the government and the people millions of rupees.

The problem does not end there. The biggest problem is that there is nothing that can done now, except live with the embankments. For the 300 and odd villages within the embankments, life is uncertain at the best and death and loss of livelihood certain at the worst. For the other many villages along the embankments, people live in constant threat and fear of an embankment breach.

The embankments have brought with them long-term problems. The whole drainage in the region has been upset and the monsoon waters have nowhere to go. This has meant water-logging of thousands of hectares of land. Where earlier these regions were agricultural lands, they have, over the decades, become “wetlands”. There is a change in the whole eco-system. Habitats have changed.

Reconstruction under such circumstances has become a way of life. Discussions on Habitat planning, development and design rendered useless when faced with the issue of the River embankments.

Scientists have argued that a Technological solution is not the problem. That it is imperative and goes without saying that embankments have to be maintained and a lack of maintenance is bound to create breaches and the resulting impacts.

What line does a discussion on Sustainability have to take, under such circumstances, where a Technological solution has created a perpetual disaster for the people – and especially those who are the most vulnerable, poor and the marginalized. A 'man-made' solution that has been violent, unjust, unsustainable and that has totally eliminated a peoples’ way of life.

All discussions on Disaster Reconstruction, Recovery and Rehabilitation skirt around the issue. The guidelines and the policies do not acknowledge the root cause of an unsolvable problem, but continue to posit further, similar ‘technological’ solutions.

How does one reconcile the contradiction in the situation where a solution by the “government + expert” combine have imposed a perpetual disaster on the people on one hand and on the other, as they now come with ‘support’ and ‘assistance’ and talk about people’s participation, ‘earthquake safety norms’, disaster-proofing and sustainability?


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Un-Built Environment

We have a total design failure on our hands. We have ended up with a built environment does not take account of the needs of the vulnerable, it does not produce intrinsically healthy environments either indoors or outdoors, and it has evolved in a manner that has obliterated place. Totally in contrast to what built environment is expected to achieve - to make life safer and more comfortable, productive, and enjoyable. From an ethical perspective we are witnessing a transformation that penalises those without a voice (e.g. children, elderly and disabled), rewards those with higher levels of material wealth (luxury spaces and products) and reorganises the built environment with no reference to any process of debate or consensus building with local residents.

The built environment is a powerful determinant of who gains and who loses in the distribution and redistribution of its positive and negative impacts, and has played a significant role in creating inequalities, inequities, social injustice, loss of community, loss of place identity, and a loss of spiritual dimension of life.

- Warwick Fox

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spirituality Needed
in times of Climate Change

I will begin with what Eve Ensler (of the Vagina Monologues fame) said about killing our “Girl Cells”, the feminine principle within each one of us. We have killed our ability to display our emotions, we have killed our “heart”, our spirit and have given precedence and all power to the mind.

Being connected and contented comes from being whole. Truth, justice, compassion, co-operation, etc. comes from the wisdom that comes from being whole. It brings with it pluralism, diversity, and respect for the other.

We see what we have lost by losing the feminine within us, the spirit within us. We have a world gone beserk, unbalanced, and skewed by excessive want, acquisition, power, control, domination. It has annihilated everything around so much so that it is now in danger of annihilating itself. The male principle of protectiveness, care, leadership, governance has degenerated to divisiveness, combativeness. We see this in every field, in every aspect – politics, economics, religion.

We see from the testimonials from the communities, from the people - that left to ourselves, we humans are not divisive creatures. There is a natural tendency to work together, to collaborate and co-operate. This is reflected in the way local communities respond, function and live. Where very clearly the principles of ‘no-harm to another’ and ‘no-harm to nature’ gets automatically followed.

So, the answer is all around. It is, as Bob Dylan says, blowing in the wind. We need only to reflect, to see. The answers are inside us – individually and collectively.

At an individual level we need to withdraw within ourselves, we need to go on a inward journey that will help us to reinstate the feminine/the spirit/the heart within us. We need to become whole.

At a social level, too, we need to go within – to our roots, to our communal support systems and take up once again the power and responsibility of decision-making, governance and self-sufficiency.

We cannot wait for this to be ‘given’ to us. We must start doing it pervasively. There are many, many examples where local communities have already, in the past and also in the present, taken matters in their own hands. These processes are however unconnected. And are happening sporadically. They need to become a way-of-living.

I would like to take you to an example from the book ‘Spider and the Starfish’ by Ori Braufman. The Spider being the centralised, all-powerful, monopolistic systems. The Starfish having a nature where when one arm breaks, it regenerates not only the lost arm, but also regenerates a whole starfish from the broken arm ! Its processes of rejuvenation not centrally governed, but inherent in its every cell.

Globally, there is no better example than the Open-Source movement that has challenged and brought down mighty corporations and posited themselves as serious alternatives. So much so that these mighty corporations have had to make adjustments to integrate such alternatives within their own centralised systems.

Google is an example of creating tools and spaces and giving it away for ‘free’. Wikipedia, a brilliant example of co-operation with no profit-motive. The Social media a space of non-prescriptive gathering defined entirely by the individual. The internet itself an example of global communities. The individual blogs a rich, diverse source of thoughts and reflections of individuals.

The climate change negotiations themselves – the process – has been an example of hundreds of countries coming together for a single cause concerning all of us.

The Gen-Y is a classic example of how youngsters are countering the monopolistic culture. The ‘sprite bujhaye pyaas, baaki all bakwas’ a wonderful counter to ‘yeh dil maange more’. They are rejecting the cubicle-farms, demanding and creating more space for themselves, on their terms. The opinions of this generation no longer influenced by external, imposed ideas or ‘the Brand’, but through a communication within their own networks. They are know to be a community oriented, compassionate, take-everyone-along thinking generation. These thoughts though scattered will go a long way to affect and impact and change the collective conscious, the morphogenetic blueprints, as Rupert Sheldrake called them.

Now that Copenhagen has failed and one has seen that the scorpion has finally stung, as is its nature. So without much ado, what remains to be done is to take matters in our own hands – at individual level and at community levels. Actions for coping with and adapting to climate change consequences have to be debated within ourselves and be put in place. We need no sanction, no ‘higher’ agreement to choose differently.

We need to educate ourselves from our own experiences, go back and rediscover technologies and systems in every field that have worked for us, rejuvenate and adapt our local governance systems, protect whatever natural resources that remain and help them to revive themselves. We need to prepare ourselves for frequent disasters. We need to prepare ourselves to rebuild our homes and reorganize our cities.

One good thing that has come out of the Copenhagen collapse is that it has eliminated our dependence on “them” and squarely brought the action to “us”. With no external, international, solution coming to our rescue, we are forced to solve the problem ourselves. The feminine needs to take over. Needs to get to work on survival issues, as women have done for millennia.

We need a Satyagraha. A call for non-co-operation. We need to opt out of the ‘larger’ system. We need to ‘reject’ the “big” damaging systems and build co-operation amongst the “smaller” ground-level and viable systems. We stop contributing and participating in the larger centralised markets. We take away our dependence on centralised production systems. We need to move towards local self-sufficiency. We need to stop damage at local levels.

We have given away our power, our dignity, our capacity to the “other”. We now need to reclaim it and bring back all that we have lost. We need to reclaim our "Girl cells", our innate Feminine half.

We need to behave like the Starfish.

We need to not just adapt but mutate ! Spiritually mutate. We need today a militant spirituality. Active. Strong. Alive. Not a passive, pacifist spirituality. We need a male-female combine. A Whole.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Buzzing Future

Google has launched its Buzz ... a social media tool ... and unlike FB which is a standalone, it seeks to integrate its various utilities, offering a seemingly seamless experience of all that we have, we do and we want.

Today's Technologies, like Science, are moving more and more towards these quantum dimensions ... the space where certainties cease to exist and we move into the exciting realms of possibilities and probables. Where anything can happen. Where any tiny movement can create an undulation that changes reality. It will not be long before even the perceived division in between these two realms cease to exist and it will be possible to move freely within this continuum. The utilities and the instruments are but a physical manifestation of the what society is living through. What is even more interesting is the schizophrenia between a society that is moving towards fusion and a society that is polarizing - the more it polarizes in the economic and political realms, the more it fuses in science and technology and socio-cultural realms. The more society fragments and divides, the more it unifies and merges. The more physical and certain it becomes, the more nebulous and ethereal it becomes.

And one enjoys actually 'seeing' and 'living' this contradiction. And that too in the mega-scale and mega-dimensions it is happening. What fun !

I wonder how the current history will be written. And how this period of transition and ascendance will be seen by our future selves.