Monday, January 25, 2010

Our five day vacation in Baroda and Anand

This is the story of our wonderful five days in Gujarat Province, to the cities of Anand and Baroda. This blog is set up from each of our perspectives on the adventure.

Cecilia: it was AWESOME! it was GREAT! we took a few days to visit vinisha's family and see the kite festival. her family was wonderful! it was great to meet and hang out with all of them for a few days and have a real vacation! the kite festival was awesome! we hung out with her granma, cousins and aunts and uncles. really great family who were just wonderful and happy to have me join in their clan! i learned a good number of words in gujarati and hindi while being here (most important of which has been "muchar" - mosquitoes, "bus" - enough, "ha" - yes, "ney" - no, "bol" - speaks/ing, "sou" - what, "cha" - 4 or tea, "pani" - water, "conheh" - who is this?!). we went to see the movie "3 Idiots" - i've downloaded it to my computer (like a proper grad student) and you all HAVE to see it! i could understand it pretty well just through context, so i was REALLY pleased with myself with that. so i think that you all would be able to understand it too -- we shall see! but its a GREAT GREAT movie! i loved it so much and am looking forward to watching it again tonight with our Mumbai host family!

vinisha flew kites - i tried, but mine started to fall.... so it was quickly taken away from me. because the real idea with kite festival is yes, celebrate the end of winter, but also to eat sweets, and to fight kites. so the string - which was a total shocker to me - is run through dye and then run through some small pieces of glass (yes. glass. the whole weekend all i could think of was this) so people get their hands cut too -- which is why everyone has their hands all taped up. but i took tons of photos and it was a really really nice experience!

Vinisha’s: On a different side of the story, it was very entertaining to see Cecilia learn Gujarati, mostly by force. I was terrible at translating because there was just so much happening and so many people to see and sooo many things to talk about. The significant part of Cecilia being forced to learn Gujarati was that I started speaking to her in it. I would be speaking with a family member on one side of me in Gujarati, and would turn around the pose the question they were wondering about to her. Unfortunately my brain did not turn on the English switch, so I would still be asking the question in Gujarati until Cecilia would slightly annoyed, say “I don’t understand… you are not speaking English.” That was very frequently the line she used, but we got better! Also, in my family, there is a lot of pointing with your eyes or head happening, which is mixed with some standard question phrases. Cecilia soon picked up on them, and we had to quickly adapt to her understanding our conversations and include her in them.

Kite flying was also a great experience. I of course was dying to fly them, and I am a self proclaimed pro at kite flying and fighting. You see, I forgot to disclose a very important detail about Kite flying to Cecilia, it’s more than just happy, la la land, flying, IT’S A COMPETITION! You must eliminate your neighbor’s kite, or yours will be gone! I suffered a few cuts but also won a few fights. Cecilia managed to sneak some awesome action shots.

Now the tale of our bold and daring excursions:
To start, getting there was an adventure. We went to visit with the Tata Institute for Social Sciences and met with one of the professors who is also from the New School - Usha Nayar. She's GREAT! And she introduced us around to so many people in the campus, it was really really great! (See other blog posts for more information on the TISS meetings.) Then because of traffic, even though we were leaving TISS at 7:30pm, and our train was at 11pm, we left and went directly to the station. We had been told that we'd gotten tickets for AC 3 tier. So there's AC. check, and awesome. 3 tier? ok, so what we were told was that it was three beds in a compartment. sure. so the third person will just have to deal with us talking and then Cecilia possibly snoring through my cold.... so we got to the station (Cecilia took as many photos as she could without calling too much attention to myself... but really, Cecilia does not look like ANYONE in this country. so not calling attention to the two of us kind of goes out the window in reality). We found out at which platform our train was coming to and then sat. and sat. and sat some more. In this process to waiting we gathered a lot of stares, but no beggars- surprisingly. Cecilia’s nose was pretty runny so Vinisha went on a mission to find her some tissues while she watched our bags. After going to three tea stalls, Vinisha found some, but the young man running the stall made her purchase the whole pack for 40 rupees. Jerk! Vinisha was pretty sure he got them for free, because it was a branded stall with the brand on the napkins. Then finally two trains left and ours came in! We didn’t know what seat numbers we had (Cecilia’s ticket had only been confirmed a few hours before leaving the house that morning....... there had been a lot of freaking out between the two of us of what a plan B could possibly look like.... for a while, it was looking pretty grim) so when the train comes into the station one of the conductors of the train runs alongside of it and sticks pieces of paper to the doors saying the names of the passengers and what seat they're in. So there goes EVERYONE and their mom's and the porters and just general onlookers to the doors of the train to see what seat they have. Cecilia pulled the bags while Vinisha mozied up to the door and found our seat numbers. The mob of people wanting to read the names was a little terrifying, simply because it was a mob. We don’t do too well with crowds and try to avoid them if we can. Also, while Cecilia was pushing the bags and Vinisha was trying to find our “compartment” the train was still moving, at a very slow pace, but still moving, and so some more caution was added when seeking out the compartment. We had seat numbers (thank goodness! Cecilia was still a little worried..... but it was all alright!) So Cecilia climbed on first, then Vinisha shoved our bags into the door hopped in, opened the door to what Cecilia thought would be a corridor a la darjeeling express or hogwarts train (although not as nicely painted of course.... after all we weren't first class....) and doors to different compartments..... ONLY TO FIND that the "compartment" as defined by Indians is the whole car. yes. the whole car. and no, we did not have three beds in a whole car.... it was well - when you think of a compartment, there are the compartment sections, just no doors. so a three tier really means that you have three on one side of the compartment, three on the other side of the compartment and two facing your compartment (here we are using "compartment" as we had understood it previously to getting on the train). So really three tier means eight. oh, and again we found ourselves in a pretty much womanless section. We don’t have the faintest idea how we get ourselves in these predicaments. We looked around us, saw the amount of stuff we had, and then realized that this wasn’t fitting anywhere but on the bunks we were sleeping on. So Vinisha climbed up first, shoved the first bag up to the top bunk, then on to the bottom bunk. We had to negotiate with each other about the rest of the luggage so we could sleep in only a semi circle. Regardless, much giggling ensued...... and then quickly stopped and we fell asleep a bit crunched up. We had quite a bit of luggage (one bag, the largest of them all, was not ours! we are not crazy packers!!) so Cecilia was on the top most bunk with one luggage behind my head and vinisha was on the second bunk with another bag behind her head. Cecilia fell asleep very quickly (as she is known to do on modes of transportation...) and then woke up once and looked around and the car was full and sleeping. And then woke up again because vinisha told her we had arrived in Baroda - 5 hours later. Vinisha was not so fortunate. She is a bit lighter sleeper than Cecilia and was constantly woken up by the two men in their area discussing their medical schools, and then later having issues with their bunks. Much later, it was just to painful to sleep in such curled up position for sooo long, but it was better than just sitting. woohoo for sleeper cars! no matter how slightly creepy and misimagined they might have been! To be honest, when I was all over, we agreed that it wasn’t so bad at all. In fact, besides the initial irritation, the whole thing was great, and even a tale to be repeated over and over.

so we arrived and went to one of Vinisha's very close family friend's house and were fed (we're ALWAYS being fed here!) it was nice and relaxing but Cecilia quickly OH SO quickly realized that no one speaks gujaratlish (gujarati-english) like they speak hindi-english in mumbai.... so she sat in the room just being talked to and over and basically trying to stay awake and pick up on what might possibly be the conversation happening around her. But she was pretty good at picking up when she was being talked about and asked for explanations from Vinisha when she failed to translate. After a while we went to visit other family friends (the ones with the luggage that we were given to bring back from the states). We ate again (told you. always eating! i'm almost convinced that i'll need to be rolled back on the plane!) and hung out.

Then we went out with the nieces from the house and took a rickshaw in to the city and went shopping. oh what an experience that is. at least oh what a difficult experience that is for Cecilia in India and for the people helping her shop. “i will never in my life take for granted walking into a store with all the clothes hanging and easily visible for me to touch and feel and see all the varieties” she promises. She tweaked. As Vinisha has said multiple times. shopping in india at normal stores is terrifying for me. Not sure why, but Cecilia just basically loses it. The vendor starts bringing out shirts and she hate them. ALL. “So then I feel bad that I hate them and that I cant articulate why I hate them.... and then i start to have a minor panic attack.” The store is small... and then we basically have to rush ourselves out of the store with a trail of Vinisha and the nieces behind Cecilia. In the end she did buy some things in that trip - surprisingly. Actually, Vinisha used a trick to help, she told the shop keeper that her friend gets very flustered with too many options, and if they don’t stop pulling stuff out when Vinisha tells them to stop, she will freak out and leave without buying anything. So they better do only what we ask them and nothing more. It worked out. Things put in front of her were limited and manageable. She bought stuff. Then back to the house in a rickshaw for - you guessed it, dinner.

Food in Baroda is awesome! its all salty-sweet, lots of sweet. For Vinisha, it was comfortable and pretty amazing as she had her favorite food- Gujju food.

We started to fall asleep at the house of the first family friends, so it was decided that this was closer to beds, and so we slept there. OOH I forgot! At this house they have a mosquito racket! Its actually pretty sadistic - its an electric racket that you swat the mosquitoes with and then they die. Sometimes they explode. but OOOH MAN after two weeks of being eaten alive, it was nice to get back at those awful little bugs for once! Vinisha walked around with it in her hands, and sought out the mosquitos, and attacked them while they napped. The were lots of oohs and aaahs, the uncle, aunty, and their son Chirayu were thoroughly amused by the girls pleasure in killing all the bugs. Then Vinisha felt bad for killing them. It was rather cruel.

So the next day we went with the second family and we went to the village of the nieces (they study in baroda because their village doesn’t have as good universities). it was great! and also an adventure.

it was finally kite festival! Getting there was a bit scrunched up, but come on- this is India, we like to be tight. It was actually super fun. So we were there, met the family, had some tea and then headed to the roof. the roof. This could have been ok if it was like EVERY OTHER ROOF IN THE COUNTRY THAT I HAVE SEEN, but no. its like American roofs. they slant down. but this one was made of corrugated steel. slanting. but since the family and the kids were convinced that we couldn’t make it.... we did it to spite them. Cecilia was surprisingly way more chill with it than Vinisha. Again, we broke into hysterical laughter. So we slinked our way up the roof holding tight to the concrete molding and then Cecilia sat herself down and didn’t move for a good long while. Vinisha got her sea legs (roof legs?) and was able to move around a bit better and fly kites. Although it took a long time for them to stop shaking. She announced to Cecilia that this reminds her of the times she climbed on her roof in the US to clean the rain gutters, but to be safe dad would tie a long dog leash on her. Cecilia took photos. LOTS of photos. and then she was joined on the molding by a three year old (yes 3.....) and they sat and actually had a lot of fun sitting and for the first few hours, he was mostly staring at Cecilia trying to figure out who she was and what she was doing there. then he took some photos with the camera and we were soon great friends! yes, friends with a three year old. he was the only one at Cecilia’s vocab level. The two of them were also the talk for the family for the rest of the day. The family kept on asking the little boy what they were talking about. So then we flew kites for a while more and then went back downstairs (at this point we were a bit more comfortable on the roof --Cecilia still always sitting though.... but she did walk over to other side where there was more shade and everyone else from our group hanging out). we went downstairs and then headed out to the farm that the family owns. It was really nice - full of cotton, castor seeds, mustard seeds, lentils, squash, flowers. more photos and little understanding of what was being said, but it was nice nonetheless. Then we headed for Anand.

anand is a smaller town about 45 minutes from Baroda where Vinisha's mom’s family lives. Her granma lives with her uncle, aunt and two cousins and not too far away are three more cousins with another aunt and uncle. It was great! Her family was sooooo welcoming, and Vinisha again snapped right back to getting caught up with people! And Cecilia started to catch on to stories and things while she was just hanging out - so now she claims to be at the level of maybe a 5 year old..... but a slow 5 year old. Cecilia had lots of conversations and made good friends with all Vinisha’s cousins and family - it was SO SO nice!

So we had, more food. OH! water! I forgot about the water! When you come into a house in Gujarat they give you a glass of water to drink (they all gave us purified water -- they were REALLY great about it! Vinisha's granma made sure to boil the water and then cooled it for us to drink -- She was sooooo nice to go through the extra effort!) but apparently Cecilia drinks really slow, which Vinisha didn’t notice because both ways were common for her. The custom is that the person who brings you and everyone else the tray with waters waits for everyone to finish.... everyone else would finish in a flash and then the person with the tray would hang around waiting for Cecilia’s.... it was awkward to say the least until she caught on or vinisha would grab her glass- absentmindedly of course. Cecilia couldn’t get the drinking fast down.... but everyone else just finally understood that she drank slow and let me keep my water.

when we arrived to the house we hung out and then Vinisha's cousins came over and all of us crowded in the kitchen for dinner. Cecilia learned that the tradition is that you eat on the floor - OH also, did you know that traditionally in India you eat with your hands -- RIGHT hand in particular. i've learned LOTS.

Then we hung out with all the cousins in the bedroom for a while until the cousins who didn’t live in the house were sent home and we all went to sleep. But just before we parted our youngest cousin cranked out the details of the next day’s kite flying plans.

In the morning there was chai and some puri (spicy cereals) and other dry grains/goods. then we slowly got ready to continue flying kites at the other cousins' house. the kite festival is only really on the 14th, but everyone loves it so much that no one goes back to work and just keeps flying kites the next day too. There really wasn’t much to do but to fly the kites because the whole town was pretty much closed. Now, to get to the other cousins house we tried to get a rickshaw.... which didnt work out. Vinisha and my stealth had to be challenged - we had to take a two wheeler, a scooter. Not something that Cecilia was looking forward to, and Vinisha just continued to live by the slogan everything is possible in India. So we went three of us on one two wheeler - so if anything happened, we were very well packed onto it. Luckily it was a very close ride! It ended up being just fine. this is a good thing because really, its the ONLY mode of transportation that's good for anything there. no walking (really no one walks anywhere in this country from what I've seen....) and buses just don’t make sense for where we're going, rickshaws were taking too long or were flying kites themselves, and there was no car - just scooters. so away we went! Scooters are pretty functional mode of transport also because they are cheap and require little fuel and also, since you can’t walk a lot due to heat, anti-pedestrian friendly roads, and the overall dirt that we would have had to walk through had we walked. Two wheelers it is! With scarves tied around our faces like burkhas to stave off any loose kite strings (covered in glass remember?) and the dust we rode our strange procession to kite flying.

We were there for a while and then just were generally hanging out. It was a nice relaxing day. Lunch was served by Vinisha’s other aunty. She had especially prepared Vinisha’s special dish, gulab jamun (a sweet dessert that you can typically get in Indian restaurants in the US – the brown doughy balls covered in sugar and syrup). Yuummmm. Even typing about it makes her mouth water. Then we went to Vinisha’s third uncle’s house, who isn’t an uncle, but rather an adopted member of the family. We flew A LOT of kites there too. Cut a few and lost a few. Mostly, tore a lot of them in the air. Not sure how that happened but it did. Trees here were dotted with kites, which is sad but pretty bold symbol of how much people love the kites. From here, we returned to my younger uncle’s house where we were flying earlier that morning. The little cousin had made us promise to come back to fly some more at night (he was trying to attached LEDs to the kites!), but it didn’t happen. Technical difficulties. So after much more hanging out we went back to gramma and eldest uncle’s house, where we were staying. There for dinner was CHAAT! mmmm best food ever! ok, not ever - mostly since I’ve had amazing foods since being here... but its WAY up there with delicious things I’ve eaten! We decided kind of late that we wanted to go see a movie. None of us had seen the movie "3 idiots" which has been the talk of India every single day we've been here. It was totally completely worth it! Again all seven us hopped on two wheelers (not all of us on the same one - we're not completely crazy!) and headed off to the 9:30pm show. Which we left the house for at 9:30, of course. Because really, everything is on indian time – well, it just makes sense! then we arrived at the theater and Cecilia kept her scarf covering up to try to fit in a bit more... we were in a lower class area in which the seven of us stuck out a lot. And again, our group was mostly women (5 to 2) and the audience of course was mostly men (because that’s how we roll). We went into the theater and here you buy tickets for specific seats and rows. We had bought the tickets pretty late so we had slim pickings for the seats - we got fifth row from the front. So one of the cousins tried to negotiate with the person who takes you to your seat to get us other seats - but being as we're 7 that was a bit difficult. My next request was made- “where should we sit?” The person working was really annoyed, he said “well, wherever you are assigned, of course!” in a “who do you think you are?” tone. So we told him, well show us to our seats then! Defeated, we accepted and marched to our lousy seats to watch the much recommended film. Unfortunately when we got there, there were people sitting in our seats already. Who had the look of shock on their faces when the theatre employee demanded them to move. They looked at the worker and then us who obviously didn’t fit in, a slightly uncomfortable posse of seven, then annoyed, moved to their assigned row- a row before ours. We took our seats, and immediately heads began to turn. This was a group. 5 girls, one of them white, and a 13 year old boy, and then a 20 year old male. there were two shows that evening in the theater: (1) 3 idiots (2) 7 idiots, 7 people who were obviously not part of the usual crowd in the theater. it was a fun time had by all (seriously -- it was great! and a REALLY REALLY good movie -- again, Cecilia has it on her computer and she will make you watch it. its AWESOME) do NOT be deceived by the name - its not a 3 stooges type film, its typical bollywood with random songs at odd moments- minus the overly romantic love story, but its SO SO GOOD! we totally got what the hype was about!

then we had another first - the seven of us were the ONLY people on the road. india with no traffic and no people. it was another universe. Unlike Mumbai Anand shuts down at 8pm. On a different note, to get on the road we had to get to where our two wheelers were parked. We unfortunately exited the theatre on the absolute other side from where they were. Also since no matter where in India, space is always scarce, so we ended up walking through a totally jam packed parking lot to the opposite side, again our group getting plenty of annoyed and curious looks. So we rode away on the deserted Anand streets to my uncle’s house where we were staying, dropped the first batch of children there, including Cecilia, and Vinisha rode with the older cousin to escort the other cousins to their home. After all the streets were eerily quiet and we couldn’t let the little ones go on there own so late. It was also a REALLY cold night.

Then too sleep! and then again we woke up with chai and some dry cereals for breakfast. During the trip, Cecilia was eating foods that were much spicier than she’s used to in the States, but having no problems at all with the heat. That was a total and good surprise! And good because she culd eat it spicy the way that everyone else in the house does and then fit in more and the families have been even happier with me. which is AWESOME! In some cases Cecilia’s spice tolerance was even higher than Vinisha’s, who usually downs 3 glasses of water at each meal.

The next day was set for shopping - this time we had a car for the whole day because we traveled from anand to baroda. we went first to get some saris for vinisha which was an event - but much easier than the last time that we tried it. hint: dont go sari shopping if you only have 15 minutes. and also, be prepared for a variation on the definition of "simple." at the first place we went (in mumbai -- sorry this is going back to another day in our trip...) for these fifteen minutes of sari shopping with our two aunties and vinisha kept saying "simple!!!!! SIMPLE!" our favorite moment was when a guy showed Vinisha this really nice simple sari (simple - our definition) and said, "look so simple! look! very nice" and then all of a sudden we were BLINDED BY THE UNGODLY AMOUNT OF SEQUINS HIDING INSIDE! oh simple. vinisha learned from this time and in the second attempt at sari shopping she was successful. what was her trick? being as aggressive as the vendor. she got three beautiful saris - two for her and her sister and one for one of the aunty's here in mumbai.

from there we went to the crafts fair with the aunty of the luggage. We were really looking forward to the crafts fair but were pretty disappointed unfortunately. it was all the same stuff that we had seen in all the stores... nothing that was "crafts fair" like. but it was nice to see anyway.

at some point during this day we had some tea (of course) at the house of another family friend of vinisha's. it was a top notch display like high tea! so. much. food. the most interesting part of the tea was the wedding photo. singular. they had one photo of the younger daughter printed earlier than all the others so that her mom could show it to potential in-laws.

then finally back home to anand and had dinner and then hanging out some more with the family and then sleep.

on our last day in gujarat we were stressed and pulled in a variety of directions. the beginning of the day was nice and relaxing, hanging out at the house while family shuffled in and out and talked with us. then we headed out with vinisha's aunt and uncle to baroda. thank goodness for them being there! they were a beacon of patience and zen in our chaos and stress. it all started when we left and headed to the friend's of the family's house that we had stayed with, as we had left some papers there. they said that they would be home... we drove all the way there and for a nice start to the trip, there was traffic. so it took a long time to get there. they had originally said that they would meet us wherever we were... but then changed their minds and asked us to meet them. when we got to their house, they weren't there. they were not at their home where they said they would meet us! so we started calling, and turns out they had stopped at a place in town ... with more traffic... to get a bite to eat of some street food...... we just needed our papers!!! and we had to goose chase around the city to find them! finally we met them.... and headed off to get more stuff (we tend to be like teenagers apparently who walk into a house and leave shoes at the door, coat on the floor, and various other belongings in random places all over the house. just that we do it in an entire city.) the next thing we needed was this luggage that we were bringing back to the states for family friends..... and some other things that we had bought during the stay in the city. We were fed (again of course! -- oh i forgot that the first night we were in baroda we were fed two dinners...... tip: NOT A GOOD IDEA! not at all! even to keep up appearances..... its painful.) after dinner Cecilia was starting to get antsy that we weren’t really moving to the door to leave and catch our train.... there as still a little packing that had to happen. we got to the train station in time. the thing that freaks Cecilia out about this is (1) She is a nervous person right before travel and prefers to be at the train station or airport MUCH earlier than might be necessary... and (2) trains run on time in india! they actually run on time!!!!!!! so we got to the train station and vinisha's friend and her parents (the friend's parents) met us there too. The whole reason we left Anand early and took the back road into the city was to see them, which went out the door between chasing down our papers around the city, and waiting to pack the bags. We saw them, and Vinisha started us crying. vinisha started crying because her friend had made such a great effort to meet her before she left the city, and Cecilia started crying because vinisha was crying... she couldn’t help it. It was just all out waterworks! they gave us some sweets (more food! HA!) and then we got on the train. it was pretty empty this time around AND it was just as we had originally imagined (or sort of) what the train would be like!

we got AC 2 tier this time and what a difference this made! we had much more room in each bunk (Cecilia took the top bunk again) and there were two bunks facing us. but THERE WAS A "DOOR!" a curtain that separated these four bunks from the rest of the car! it was awesome!! we digested the last few hours of our day in the hour ride from the baroda station to the next stop, there was some photos taken and Cecilia used her swim team quick changing skills for getting into her pjs in pseudo public before that first stop when more people were getting on the train. and then we went to sleep. it was a bit more sleepless than the first train ride - Cecilia woke up to people on the other two bunks talking (its ok if its us.... but it wasnt....) and she shushed them. we had a LONG day ahead of us and we wanted to sleep as much as possible!

we arrived in mumbai at 4:45am and took a taxi to a guest house that was very very VERY nicely provided by the couple for whom we’re bringing back and forth the luggage. its a guest house used for the company that the uncle works at (the same company that vinisha's dad used to work for). its a place where company representatives can stay in while having meetings in mumbai. it was GREAT. a five minute drive from the TAJ HOTEL!! yes! Cecilia and Vinisha were invited to meetings at The Taj!!!! wow did we not expect that! so we took a quick nap - then we were woken up by a variety of mom's (vinisha's mom in the US and our aunty here in mumbai) to make sure we made it to our meetings on time. we got ready and then headed out to the taj for a full day of meetings and touring around slums. A lot of learning happened, but we will get in to in a blog post later. we ended up staying in the guest house for two days because the first day of the conference ran late and with traffic (oh the traffic!) it didn’t make sense to go and come back from one end of the city the other extreme.

back to baroda/anand for a moment with some things that we should highlight: it was SO cold!! we never would have thought that it actually would be cold...but its a big country so yes, the northern parts get really cold - but we weren’t very far north in the least. but it was COLD! and then in the day it was HOT! The perks of living in a semi-desert, very schizophrenic…but livable and nice to not have all the mosquitoes ALL the time.

On a nice random note, which has nothing to do with our trip, but we found it interesting and we wanted to share it with you: There's a great ad that was showing on tv that she really liked and says a lot about the culture. it was an ad from a jewelry company (in english... she cheated). it was the story of a couple, told from the point of view of the woman. "ours was an arranged marriage" and there are images of them being really tentative and unsure with each other and him on the phone and her not sure what's going on or what to do. and then they're at a train station and she's looking around. "then two years 11 months and two days later, we found love." and then she realizes that he's not on the train and he realizes that she's not on the train, and they find each other in the crowd (ooh aah) and look at each other and smile and run to each other (ooh aah). and the voice over says, "for your platinum day of love." so its a ring that the couple "should" buy when they realize that they really love each other. it was a really cool ad.

if you made it this far we hope it was entertaining at least - thanks for reading!! and we give you major props. That was 9 pages, single spaced.

Friday, January 22, 2010

We're leaving... on a jet plane!

Hi everyone,

It's been a WONDERFUL three weeks and an AMAZING start to our research papers for next semester!

We'll be working while offline at the airport on some posts for you about our trip to Baroda and Anand to see Vinisha's family, our time at the Cities Alliance conference, and our last two meetings of the trip.

Right now, we're prepping ourselves for a few sunrises between here and whatever day it is that we land in New York!

See you all there!
Cecilia and Vinisha

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Aaaand we're back with more updates!

Last week we had a meeting with PUKAR. Prior to leaving New York we had been in conversation with PUKAR’s director to see if we could become their sort of interns for our three weeks here in Mumbai. In the end our trip has turned out to be just as our proposal calendar (posted early on in our blog): first week with SPARC and then a day or two with other organizations. This was our first meeting with another organization and one that wasn’t directly related to the Mumbai transformation efforts.

We had originally thought that we would be meeting with the director but she was caught in meetings all afternoon so we met with the program officer who was a bit rushed as well. There were big programs happening next week so the office a bit more fasted paced than normal. We were given a bit of an overview of the programs and we had some difficulty in getting questions answered because of this rush. We learned about their work with various organizations such as the biometric health survey that is being conducted with representatives from the Harvard School of Public Health, another project looking at the impact of the redevelopment in the former mill areas on residents, and a survey program that is taking place in Dharavi. After some time one meeting let out and another program officer of PUKAR met with us but there as some translation problems this time. Vinisha wanted to translate for her from Hindi to English but this didn’t work out. Then the officer working on PUKAR’s projects in Dharavi. Reshma was a bit less rushed even though she had programs next week as well. Reshma works with a community scholar team in Dharavi doing some research, although it wasn’t completely clear exactly with what sort of focus. The project was just getting started and she talked about having us meet with the community scholars and join them in the field.

The community scholars are an interesting concept that PUKAR has implemented as a program for empowering the youth of Mumbai. Youth come to PUKAR on their own and form groups, typically groups of 10 friends or colleagues, with a particular interest or question. We were told that one focus in a past project was from a group of women asking “What does the burkha mean to me?” or the participation of women in politics. We were actually shocked by the controversial questions that these groups were asking from within their own communities. The groups learn the various methodologies of research, are given funding to conduct the research that interests them most and then they begin. Each individual creates a biography prior to starting the project and a secondary one afterwards. This helps to provide context and information to the changes that happen with each person taking part in the program. The final products of this research are not papers because there are enough youth who participate who are not literate, and more importantly, writing is too formal – a final product which is more creative is more traditional and in the end more empowering. Individuals who participated tend to come back each year and take on more research projects and learn new advanced research methods and more complex topics as well. Those who take part do not necessarily change their line of work or bring themselves into a higher level socio-economically or academically, but rather the research informs them better of the world in which they live and the opportunity that they have to take a more participatory role in it.

The Dharavi research (as we understood it) that is being undertaken is a mapping project, and one that will look at case studies and gather data for longitudinal understanding. It's a project which will be looking at the impact of globalization and gentrification on the livelihoods of the residents. In projects like this the community is informed of the research and why the data is being collected. There is no formal presentation made to the community of the final results, but rather the community is informed of the projects and in this way they help to disseminate the vision of PUKAR and create interest in the collection of the data.

The main goals of PUKAR are very interesting and ones that would be nice to explore some more. They are most interested and work towards projects that are research based and use the research to promote action and transformation of youth into empowered citizens. PUKAR focuses mostly on youth because they form 40% of the population; India is a very young country. The research is a way to include the youth and individuals in global debates and bring their voices to the table. The programs are intended to build citizenship, democracy, and participation.

We unfortunately have not been able to set up the meeting with the community scholars this week. It seems that Reshma will not be going into the field until next week, once we have already left. Although the meeting was not directly helpful with our current research topic, it was interesting to know of the work that is being done by another of Mumbai’s important NGOs.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A day at the SPARC office, part 3

Later in the day, we found out that Sheela was still not close to being done with her conference call. While contemplating what to do next, wait for her and be late for family dinner, or leave, we spoke with Avery again. It was once again a very informative conversation. Throughout our stay with SPARC there was repeated mention of the Orissa Project. We did not know what this project was, so we asked her for more details about the project. She explained that right now SPARC is in the process of bidding on redevelopment projects, which will take place in one city in Orissa, Bhubaneswar. SPARC is now in the process of bidding on an upgrading project in Puri, Orissa. (We were just recently told about this program application.) The central government of India (GOI) is going for a slum-free India under it's soon-to-be-released Rajiv Awas Yojana plan. However, as the final plan has not yet been released. Avery mentioned that with a major focus on speed, there may be less of a focus on quality. But this is yet to be seen, and Avery continues optimistic.

We asked how this is possible, as redevelopment in Mumbai is taking decades? It’s a political move, to be able to say that within one’s time in office, the politician can claim their achievement within his or her term. We wondered about the logistics, such as surveys and building models and such. Avery explained that the project in Orissa is going to be very similar to the project in Pune. The kinds of buildings that will be built are different compared to the ones in Pune, because there is far more land available in Orissa. Pune has just finished the surveys, designs, and biometric IDs, but have not yet started construction. Orissa has one year to go from surveys to finished construction. Although this is a very short timeframe than one would like, this will be possible because the general plan is still the same: the general implementation and financing (in this project, the JNNURM projects in Pune and Orissa don't use a market component, the breakdown is about 50% central gov't, 10% beneficiary, and 40% shared between the state and the municipality). Moreover, the move from kaccha (informal) to pakka (formal) houses, construction of sewers, and bringing the roads to code will be also done, just as in Pune. In the Orissa project, SPARC was a bidder and has won the project. So, now SPARC needs to complete all of this in one year. One of the reasons SPARC got the project was that it had a model that it could draw from in Pune, which was approved by the state government in Orissa. By using the same model in Orissa, the state would be able to utilize the central resources to redevelop.

An interesting highlight in this conversation, which we believe can be understood for most locations, is that people on the ground floor will be allowed to stay in the same location with upgrades. However, others will be rehoused to different locations, such as in the apartments above the ground floor. Not being able to stay on the same plot of land can be a site of tension.

Mahila Milan acts as go between for the residents and architect, and relay the messages of what they have learned through cooperation to other communities. Avery said that in this way, Mahila Milan also explains that although the residents might not be living on the ground floor, the lofts that they would be provided has more floor space.

We do not have much information on this subject matter, but we think it is important to share that Avery briefly touched on another SPARC bid that is currently taking place in Bangalore. SPARC is likely to get the Orissa project because there are not many builders wanting to put in so much effort for a project that might not turn a large profit. In Bangalore, however, there may be a bit more competition because the bid is solely for conducting a survey project over 6 months. There may be more competition because the project is calling for a system in which the ID cards which contain all the biometric information of residents be swipable. So there are probably going to be a number of IT companies bidding for the project. Bangalore has many tech companies that can do this task far better than SPARC, but SPARC still provides a higher expertise in conducting the surveys themselves. In an unpdate received from SPARC, we were informed that they did not win this bid, but they are happy to hear that anohter CBO has and that they will be including some community mobilization components as part of their surveying.

A Day at the SPARC Office, part 2

We fell into conversation with a recent architecture and urban planning graduate of KRVIA, Adityas. We moved the conversation to our corner office (have you noticed how we enjoy being able to say that we had our own corner office with a window?!).

Adityas was very open and highly critical of the current government plans. One of the highlights of the conversation was the lack of transparency in the entire process and implementation of redevelopment.

He explained to us that SPARC is working with KRVIA in order to critique the current plan and to put together an alternative plan for Dharavi. “The government plan is developer driven and profit centric.”

The original plan that was created was to divide Dharavi into 5 separate sectors. This was done without any sensitivity to the actual location and people. “Dharavi was seen as a clean slate where lines were drawn as they pleased.” This sounds very similar to the scramble for Africa in the 1800s.

The government made it clear that they did not have the funds to finance the redevelopment, so the money had to come from the market. This means that private entities would be the leaders in the redevelopment and re-housing and thus no strict regulations would apply. The government is not involved in listening to the community, rather they expect the developers will be taking the residents’ views into account when creating and implementing their plans. The government is not involved, Adityas says, because it is easier to change policies or to stay out of it if a developer chooses a wrong plan. The government would then still be out of it.

Developers plans included housing residents in 17 to 18 story apartments which would free up more space for commercial use not by residents. Residents were able to negotiate to have 6% of the redeveloped land be for their own industry. The developers however, want to be able to use land at a ratio of 1:33 for their own commercial use. This continues to show the anti-slum driven sentiment in the policies. SPARC opposes this sector plan. The advisory committee, on which SPARC sits, has told the developers in June 2008 that they are not in favor of the 17 to 18 story buildings.

There are certain requirements that have been set by the government for the redevelopment. They are: a floor space index (FSI) at 4 which is a very high number), a 1:33 ratio for free-sale commercial use, and the fact that Dharavi will be divided into sectors. “Through these guidelines we need to create a new approach or to make the redevelopment more humane.” SPARC would prefer the following: no buildings above 12 floors, for there to be design guidelines to the homes, there be open spaces in the sectors, 6% of the land be set aside for commercial industry of the residents, spaces between buildings has to be set, and other necessary amenities as requested by the residents.

The plans for redevelopment have not been made public. Because Chatterji is in power and he is sympathetic to the slum residents, he passed along the information.

There were 20 contractors or consortiums bidding for the redevelopment. Due to the financial crisis there are now only 14 bidders. The bidders needed to present their plans for the 5-sector redevelopment to the Office of Slum Development (OSD) and to the Advisory Committee. According Adityas, the OSD announced that the developers have to show plans to the communities and that the community and has to have a voice in the designs. But this voice might not be as important as that of other stakeholders. Previously, it was decided that there had to be a 75% consent by the people but this is no longer the case. The consent was going to be arrived at by going door to door. The OSD says that the developers are chosen by community participation, but it’s unclear how true this is.

Adityas’ major concern was that the redevelopment plans are too big, “It needs to be done at a worm’s eye view, at street level.” He also suggested that development start in a small part of Dharavi, and then based on the results move on to another. “We need time to experiment, to find out what will work.”

Each of the consortiums is backed by a different politician. In our opinion, this probably makes the process all the more complex.

We asked Adityas if he had any preference between the 14 bidders. He said that, “there were only 2 or 3 consortiums that really got it. Others see it like a housing project, like a beautification project. Those that got it provided good typology which had use of mixed use materials and were sensitive to requirements (building heights), had a phased strategy for clearing, and worked more with low rise and high density options.” Why don’t they all think about the sensitivity, we wondered? “It depends on their ethics, there are no extra incentives. It’s all about the effort that they are willing to put into the thought for being sensitive to the residents’ needs.” The advisory committee provided critiques in February 2009 and then the consortiums have to redevelop their plans based on what they were told. Nothing has since happened. This could in part be due to the fact that elections happened in October 2009.

Should the redevelopment happen? “If you leave the area as it is, there is no money from the government that will come in. There are questions of safety standards, hygiene, and flooding that need to be addressed. This should be redeveloped. Some land should also go back to the city because it is a strategic location.”

Vinisha asked what would, in his opinion, happen if secure tenureships were provided. “This is something that has not been done anywhere. If you have fixed tenureships the fear is that the people will resell the land that they were just given and then move into slums elsewhere. But, it hasn’t been done before so we’re not sure how it would change the issue.” Another comment that Adityas made, which is important to remember is that, “Informal sectors work because they are informal and not necessarily lucrative enough. So maybe we are not really helping them if we formalize everything.”

“Right now we are working on voicing what will not work, because we do not know what will work.”

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Day at the SPARC office, part I

Our second day with SPARC.

We started the day imagining all sorts of questions we would ask Sheela Patel when we met and those that were still lingering from our previous days’ trip.

So we got ready in the morning and as it turns out we were running on India time again, but only by a few minutes, but those were Indian few minutes. Certainly, we were not allowed to leave the house without breakfast, so even as we were rushing out, there was the whole, “Stop! Eat before you go! We shuffled into our chairs, and inhaled Upma (some rice noodles cooked with peanuts and spices) and booked it out the door.

At this point it is important to note how fast our driver is: we got to the office in an hour and a half. That might sound like a long time, but this trip was supposed to take us 2 hours. We even stopped 3 times for non traffic related issues. Also, before leaving the house, Vinisha got an earful from Aunty about the area that we were going to. She pointed out how unsafe the region is, and we are not allowed to laugh on the street there. We laugh too loud and it attracts a lot of attention, and because of the area that we are going to, it can be misleading. We followed Aunty’s directions very very carefully. This meant though that we had all our laughter of the entire day stored up and once we got into the car for returning home, we burst out laughing over nothing at all.

On our way to the SPARC offices we got a call from Avery saying that Sheela had gone into a meeting and would not be available for us until much later in the day. However, since we had already left the house and were half way there, we decided to continue on and meet with whomever was available. We arrived that Alankar Theatre and walked to SPARC office. The neighborhood was very much under construction and most of the shops around were metal workers.

At the SPARC office we were told to go to the second floor. We went up the first flight of stairs and walked around. No SPARC office, just day care centers. Then we realized that Avery had been in India already for 4 months and was speaking Indian English, which meant that first there is the ground floor and then there is the 1st and only then the 2nd floor. So we wandered up one more flight of stairs, and found SPARC. After greeting Avery, she showed us around the office. The office consists of Sheela’s office, a room with many accountants (each at their own computer) and an office manager, and a final room where the program managers and Avery sit (again, each with their own computer). Because Avery and others in the office were busy when we first arrived, Avery gave us some reading material from the SPARC archives and we quickly found our “office.” It was nice corner office, with a window overlooking an almond tree, with nice cane furniture. If you came into our office you might have just seen couple of couches in the hallway under the window, but since this is where people came to find us and we did our reading and theorizing, it quickly became our corner office with a great window.

We began with going through the literature that Avery has pulled out for us. We flipped through the pages of a fantastic book, “Dharavi: Documenting Informalities” ( produced by The Royal University College of Fine Arts, Art and Architecture department in Sweden. The book, we were told, does not offer as much information as it could, but it brings the issues of Dharavi and the transformation process to light. We were thrilled when we were told that we could bring it back to The New School so we have much more time to pour over it.

Our first meeting of the day was with Aseena, the Program Manager. She was very helpful in presenting us with a clearer picture of SPARC’s role within the transformation processes. Aseena explained a bit again of SPARC’s history. SPARC was started as a charitable trust, which focused on housing and sanitation rights. In order to prove the work that they were doing was creating positive change, they had to continually create exhibitions for government and community groups, which would show in real life scale, the work that they were looking to produce in that location. “We had to always show that we could design community toilets that function, in order to prove our knowledge and that communities would mobilize.” SPARC sought out cities in which to do their work, and began in those where the city government was sympathetic.

Aseena stressed the reason for which the government was so interested in redeveloping Dharavi. The reason is that it is located at the center of the city and is bordered by the Western and Central rail lines. Also nearby is the financial district where many foreign companies have their offices. Therefore there is a lot of profit to be had from capturing some of this land for profit.

Aseena described the relationship between SPARC and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). NSDF is and entity that brings together many people from within the slum communities. Because it is difficult to deem whom in the government, and at which level in the government the people should voice their concerns and needs, “SPARC becomes the face of the people and of NSDF.”

SPARC also began doing construction of houses. This is a relatively new model for a charitable organization. Because of how NGOs are defined legally, which is within very conservative parameters, SPARC created a new organization, which was solely concerned with construction. This is how Nirman came into being (we got the name of Nirman from SPARC’s website, not from interviews).

SPARC is interested in implementing a plan that she called “Incremental Housing,” in which upgrading happens incrementally. “First a resident is provided with a loan with which to begin to create a permanent residence and then later, when you have more funds you continue to build and formalize your home. You make your home permanent as you can afford int. Right now we are trying to write a plan, which will help to implement this idea. We need to make the infrastructure ready and only then continue.”

An interesting point that Aseena made clear was that SPARC is the face of NSDF in the legal sense because NSDF does not want to be legally recognized as it involves much higher operational costs. For SPARC, “there is no personal agenda, we only work for what NSDF wants and needs because we need to register and be a legal and formal entity. NSDF does not want to do this. It’s a big hurdle if they are registered as a formal entity – you then have to trust your accounting and income taxes to be done to specific standards – each of the 70 centers has to be worried about their accounting. So, receipts and payments are sent to SPARC and we put it in a form that is acceptable and understood by the government. It’s better to do it here than to get individual accountants in each of the centers.” SPARC works on formatting and translating all the financial documents for submission. This is why there is a very large team of accountants in the office, each is working with different centers and grants. It’s important to note that, “SPARC receives new grants because of its connection with NSDF,” Aseena said that because of this connection, “if we did it on our own it wouldn’t be seen as viable for lending.”

Aseena’s time was short so we started getting to some of our more particular questions based on observations we had made in the last two days. On the tour, Sharmila made note that the children’s toilets in the new toilet compound were not being used. Aseena explained that, “This was due to the design of their facility. It didn’t work because when the children squat in a circle in an enclosed space they become conscious of their gender. We need to work on a better design.”

We were still not getting clear responses to our question on pro-activity. We were told that if a person or group arrives in Dharavi after the cut-off date, SPARC is in no position to be of service to them. When Mahila Milan becomes aware of the new arrivals, they do inform SPARC, but there is nothing that can be done from their perspective. They are working solely with communities that have formed into federations and have been in their particular location before the cut-off date of 2006 for Dharavi residents or 1995 in other settlements. Aseena said that, “The municipality wants SPARC to clear the pavements and keep them cleared. Yea right! We do this with the locations that are partially cleared. We provided the municipality with the idea of placing flowerpots or formal shops in the recently cleared locations. We’ll see if they do this.” There is still no defined solution in terms of the new arrivals as we see this as perpetuation of the problem. Aseena also said that new arrivals can come to NSDF to create a biometric profile which will then be presented to the municipality. But again, from our understanding of what we have been told, nothing more is done.

Another question that we were interested in was why Mahila Milan and other individuals in the slums don’t use the banks for keeping their savings. The reason is that people want the money that they have been saving quickly. In an emergency, they need the money as soon as possible and do not want to waste their time getting to or standing in the banks. “The banks had some schemes at times when they want to open a lot of accounts and increase clientele and will allow the residents to open an account. When they see that there is very little money flowing in the accounts – they don’t open any more.” People in the slums need money and the credit and debit cards are not accessible to poor. Banks will not put ATMs in slum areas, no matter how formal or old the area is. The bank is concerned about the security and use of their ATMs, but it is interesting to note what Sharmila told us, which is that there have never been any thefts in the Mahila Milan offices. The offices are functioning during the day with Mahila Milan women, and in the evening are watched over by street children. “We have learned that during the first year or two a community tends to need additional support before people are brought in completely to the system and that they understand that they now will have a set monthly payment.” In order to save on maintenance which could make fees higher y residents, communities have come to agreements, such as not running the elevator at certain times.

We posed a question regarding the conflict of interest that might arise in projects, specifically when working with various communities who all want land. We based our question on the story that Shahnaz told us about Dharavi residents unhappy with the pavement dwellers choice of land, as it encroached on their own. There was again, not a very clear answer. What we were told was that there is severe land scarcity and a question of how accessible a particular piece of land is to people.

With regards to the political scene, Aseena told us that SPARC is a-political and does not involve itself in political campaigns and works with all parties that are in power. No SPARC members run for election and during election time, all work stops so as not to seem influenced or biased towards any particular party, politician, or scheme. Sheela is, however, a member of the Advisory Committee, which is commenting on the Dharavi transformation plans. In a conversation we had later with Avery, we were told that “Sheela has a big say in the way that RAI will be written (RAI will take over the current policy, JRNNURN) and so this won’t really change the SPARC methodology, but rather will influence the policy based on the work that SPARC has done. These changes will be affecting states and politicians a lot because there is a lot of difficulty in changing from one scheme to the next and understanding what is new and different and what is positive from that change.”

There are different reasons for why the talks on transformation fall apart. The first time talks failed was due to the fact that there was no participation from the residents in the planning process. The plan very well could have gone through if NGOs and residents hadn’t at the last moment received word of the plan. Residents would have woken up one morning in 2008, to find the demolition teams in at their doorsteps. The second was due to economic and financial difficulties. The third reason, which is where the process is currently stalling is due to a continued lack of participation and collaboration.

Residents are requesting that the plans include: larger square footage, space for industry and commercial properties, and more rights for renters.

We ended our meeting with Aseena and then picked out some food for lunch. Vinisha and Cecilia retreated to their corner office for some reading and then joined Aseena, Avery, Adityas, and Kayela for lunch. It was a nice informal time to talk about planning and studying in India versus the U.S.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What goes on bakstage?

While we were typing up the previous entry, this is what was happening to us and among us.

Uuugh…it hurts. *SCRATCH*
Make it stop!!!
Ok I’m putting on my socks.
Help me…uhum…uhum…
Vinisha: Oooh that’s a good one. My toes…aaahhh….it won’t stop.
*SPLAT* HA! GOT YA! Oooohh that feels better *scratch, scratch scratch*
Cecilia: nooooooo! StopitstopitstopitSTOPIT!
Vinisha: Did you say yesterday toothpaste works?
Cecilia: I didn’t really try it? But washing the bumps didn’t work too much either.
Vinisha: Ok that’s it, I’m darking them out.
Cecilia: What do you mean?
Vinisha: well we turn off our light in our room and watch them follow the light out.
Cecilia: NOOO! Don’t turn the lights off, it’s never going to work. Our computers are on!
Vinisha: it’s ok, we’ll just dim the screen.

IT WORKED!!! It was a peaceful night no mosquitos.

Grab some tea and enjoy the show

Today we met with Sharmila and Avery from SPARC for a tour of various locations where they work. Priya, the eldest daughter in our host family joined us for the day.

We left the house a little late, in good Indian fashion. First stop was for some petrol after which we headed out to pick up Sharmila. "no, no i said meet me at dreams malls, not Nirmal lifestyles." the driver did not know where we were going. We did finally make it after a few phone calls of "where are you now?" with Sharmila and continued on our way to .... Wait! A police officer just stopped us!

Two people in the car didn't have their seatbelts fastened so the police officer pulled us over. Where he came from no body knows - he just kind of appeared out on a motorcycle alongside of us! Before we even realized that the police officer was standing there, our driver had already handed him his license. Out goes our driver to talk with the officer - then out goes Sharmila to help once she realized that the driver couldn't handle the situation. The police officer wanted to take the license and make our driver go to the station only tomorrow at which time he could pick up his license by paying a 400rupee fine or the officer said, you could pay 200 rupees now and be done with it - 100 each per passenger without a seatbelt. Sharmila looked at him and said, "just take 100 total. We're all women in the car!" once everyone was back in the car, Sharmila asked our driver, "you didn't see the officers hand before when he asked for your license?" meaning, "you couldn't tell he wanted the money sooner?!" Vinisha and Cecilia learned an important lesson here: you can even bargain your bribes!

And we continue on our way.

Next stop to pick up Avery at the "t-junction" near Dharavi. To get there though, we had to weave through some complicated traffic. Oh, and the car kept stalling - of no fault of the car. We proceeded at the speed of a well-fed turkey on a Minnesota country road in winter towards our meeting point with Avery. The speed was no matter though, it provided us more time to speak with Sharmila and learn more details about her work and the history and work of SPARC. Many phone calls then ensued, "Avery, where are you? No no, the T-JUNCTION! You know where that is! Ok, stay put, we'll find you!" Sharmila is amazing and knows everywhere and everyone!

"I don't see her," says Vinisha. Cecilia responds, "I see her. She's the white one!" We found Avery!

On to Dharavi!

We managed to get the car parked near the Mahila Milan offices in Dharavi. We sat and spoke with Sharmila a bit more, and learned more about what Avery is working on and how she arrived at SPARC.

Sharmila worked for many years previously with the Tata Institute and Avery hails from Sacramento where she was working on urban planning. Sharmila's current position has her in the field each day, going to meet with Mahila Milan leaders and learning about what they need and how everything is going. Avery is currently a volunteer with SPARC and is working on a GIS mapping of various SPARC projects. They showed us a Google Image map of Dharavi - it's ENORMOUS! There are 86,000 people living in Dharavi - according to SPARC surveys. (In the image below it's important to note that Dharavi is not just the section where Sharmila's hand is - its the entire image, plus parts which are not included that just didn't fit in the photo.)

The first thing that needs to happen in order to redevelop an area is that first the residents need to come together and form a federation. Leaders are elected by their communities and they conduct a survey which informs SPARC, and in turn any government official that needs to know, how many people are living in that area, how many people line in a particular house, their marital status, their caste, religion, etc. With this survey, SPARC found that there were 86,000 families- around 600,000 people- living in Dharavi. In the survey conducted by the government, they found that there were 35,000 people living in Dharavi. There are obviously some discrepancies. In an article that we came across on, "The survey on which the Dharavi redevelopment plans are based ignores anything above the ground floor. A majority of Dharavi's residents, especially those who came in relatively later live on the upper floors while the older inhabitants and those who have first-right on the ground level stay below. The survey is impatient with working out details of those above the ground floor since that involves a greater number of people. ... Since most of Dharavi is ground plus, often going up to 3 floors, it is evident that in the end much more than half of the present inhabitants of Dharavi will be evicted. The secure residents, who have been included in the survey, who think that a free flat is better than nothing, will even do the job for the authorities to chase the rest away." This is where roles of SPARC and Mahila Milan become very important, because unlike the government surveyors and officials who are doing the allocation, SPARC and Mahila Milan are so embedded in the communities that they can see past many of these attempts at acquiring even more land.

Next we went to some rooms inside the building. The first floor a high ceiling living room with a loft. The bathrooms were inside, but the toilets were communal. The women whose house we went to see were very king and allowed us to walk about and take many pictures.

The ladder to the loft was very steep, and the women in the house were very concerned about Cecilia climbing up to see the loft. Vinisha had to convince them that Ceci is going to be totally fine, she’s almost part monkey.

Sharmila took us all to the roof of the seven story building which Mahila Milan ground floor office, and was built by SPARC. It was as if a jolt went through our body as we felt and saw the enormity of Dharavi. On one side its borders were a major highway to a train line. On the other side it just kept on going for miles. Homes were stacked as if boxes, with no visible paths to get to the top rooms. Right below us was the tanning area, where workers were seen stacking hides. There were obvious layers of tenancy that could be seen through stacked homes, different kinds of homes, and different classes of homes that existed within Dharavi. Complexity of Dharavi was also visible to the naked eye, where unlike other slums, homes had been erecting atop of on one another for many years. The intertwined economic, social, and residential life was bustling even from our seventh story view. We must have stayed on this roof top asking many questions and looking at the living and breathing community from all angles.

From there we went back down stairs and back to the car to move on the next destination. Interestingly, a very significant conversation took place between Avery and Vinisha during that short walk. As we were climbing down the stairs, we saw that adjoining to the flats where was a jeans making factory, a lot of men in their undershirt were sitting in front of sewing machines, assembling jeans. Avery and Sharmila said that once some people from Europe came and took pictures and published them back home. Those who saw the photos labeled this place as a sweatshop, which led to the company getting an earful with regards to the poor working conditions, which was then felt here in this factory. So the factory decided to raise a wall so keep those wandering eyes out of the factory. Avery and Vinisha then had a conversation about the complexity of demanding a fair wage, because these men here, did not seem to want to create a fuss to get better conditions, especially if it meant keeping their jobs.

For a split second after reaching the car there was a scare when we realized that Cecilia and Priya weren’t with us. We went running back to the apartments looking for them. As it turns out, on their way down, they got pulled into an apartment when the owner saw them taking pictures. They wanted Ceci and Priya to take their pictures too.

From this apartment, we maneuvered through the narrow streets of Dharavi to the toilet block. This is where SPARC and World Bank made a toilet block with had a monthly membership fee. We had been reading about them on the SPARC website and in other articles. When we got there the first thing that was obvious was the lack of smell. We learned about the management structure of the bloc, where there is a 24 hour caretaker that lived on the top of the bloc. The fee for this toilet bloc was 20 rupees per family. The block it self is only available to a certain radius, and only those who are in the area could use it. We saw people come and pay one rupee to use the facility. What we didn’t see was people coming in with their passes. Went up the roof to see the caretaker’s home.

It was a modest home like the others that we had so far seen. But the area surrounding his home, the rest of the terrace, was a community meeting space where people came together to exchange problems.

Standing on top of this one and a half story building we were able to grasp the proximity of one building to another. Through out this site we noticed the creativity that went into using the little available space to carry out small trades.

It is important to point out the population density that we went through in order to get to the toilet block and back out. So first of all, by this point, in this 4 person- to American standards- car, there were 6 people in it. With a dog sleeping on the side of the road/walkway and children walking along the road, and the vegetable vendor hawking on the street, it was a tight squeeze. Let’s just say that there were frequent shut eyes, and calls to watch out for the child, and countless gasps. But we made it without hitting anyone, although we cannot say the same about brushing very close to people.

While confined to our vehicle during the maneuvering we had time to observe our surroundings as they passed us by. One of the most striking points (which Cecilia failed to notice, but Vinisha will soon teach her how) was the mixture of religions living side by side in Dharavi. In the photo below you see a Hindu temple and a Muslim women in a burkha walking past. We are not trying to romanticize this coexistence, because there were obvious regions in which one group dominated, but these groups mixed within the flow of Dharavi.

We left Dharavi for another development of houses and another Mahila Milan office. Before the next meeting however we stopped in to a restaurant for some lunch. This was a feat – not the lunch, but arriving at it. Do you know the game “Frogger”? That’s what Cecilia cheerfully announced this trek to be like. Vinisha did not agree that this was like a game – “This is real life!!” That’s what crossing the street looked like. That or mamma duck (Sharmila) with her four little ducklings (Avery, Priya, Vinisha and Cecilia) all holding on to one another and making sure we all made it across. (We should note that Avery and Priya are much more adept to crossing, so this was mostly a courageous feat for Vinisha and Cecilia!) Lunch was a delicious layout of masala bhindi (okra), malai kofta, kulcha and naan, and dahi rice (rice and yogurt) with some chuntneys.

From here we embarked on a long voyage to our next site. And believe us when we say long. There were 6 of us in the 4 person…maybe 5…mostly if you are a size of a 6 year old. We drove at snail speed, with car still stalling every 5 minutes. Then there was a funny sound from the car. Sharmila quietly said to pull over and check it out. Our beloved driver still kept on driving, until Vinisha demanded him to pull over and a passerby said there is something wrong with your car. So he pulls in front of a bus stop (luckily). We told him to move away from the bus stop incase a bus comes. We all pile out of the car. Vinisha’s entire leg was a sleep, and it behaved like a character from Harry Potter when their bones were removed from their body. Since were all in a rush to get out of this crammed space and see what was going on, Vinsiha decided to tough out the sleeping leg and just stand right up. It was hard….really hard. To help with this waking up process, Priya decided it would be good idea to slap the leg awake, which Vinisha standing on it. All the while we are trying to get this leg awake, the drive is looking for the spare tire. He asked: where do you keep the tire? Under the mat in the trunk? Duh?! Then he announced, it’s not there. We wanted to go to our next site so we gave him a bit of money and told him to get it fixed from across the street while we caught our very first Mumbai bus! It was empty by Mumbai standards. We all piled in and Sharmila got us the tickets. There were a lot of jerks and abrupt stops, and two stations later we got off. We were thankful for the bus driver who actually came to a full stop for the obvious fist timers. From this bus-stop, we follow the mama duck, aka Sharmila, across the highway. It was a pretty quiet highway for Mumbai standards. Vinisha did not see gap in the median a little ways down, and decided to just climb up on it. Of course, this is what all Mumbaikars would do, take the shortest route. She was wrong, which she quickly realized when everyone else just stared at her standing on the 4 feel tall median, and wondered: are we really friends with her? They pretended to not know her and just keep walking to the gap, where normal people would have walked through. (actually Cecilia kindly pointed to the gap and did acknowledge my unwise decision) But we made it across and into our next visit.

The building that we next visited was called “Milan Nagar” where we met with a leader from Mahila Milan, Shahnaz Shekh.

She told us the story of how they acquired the land and constructed the building. This is the story she told us: It took them 15 years to acquire the land. They could not have done it with Sheela Patel from SPARC and Gautam Chatterji from the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority. Originally the women from Mahila Milan were shown a piece of land in Sion, but people from Dharavi told them to get the land elsewhere because the Dharavi residents had been trying to acquire land rights as well, and they did not appreciate this group gaining this right on land that could potentially be theirs before them. Sheela suggested that the women take a train to Markhund. They got off and started walking by the tracks and started looking for a piece of land. They found some land on marshy ground and decided that this would be what they would request. As per the Act, they received the land and now had to decide what type of homes they wanted to build. They built a sample home. The community chose to have the loft house (which is 15feet high – as opposed to 9feet high) for construction on their land. The collector mapped out the land to see how large the area actually is and what its boundaries are. Then all of a sudden, the mill owner who was living next door to this land claimed the same land where the building was going to take place. Even though mapping was already complete with the established boundaries, overnight the boundaries were changed. Shahnaz thinks that the officials were bribed to change the boundaries. Then there was more negotiation with the government and the mill owner. FINALLY, they were given a piece of land – this time for real – but less than previously offered. Next step was the paperwork for the land, which took a very long time as well. The ladies went to the government offices every day to check on the status and they would be sent from one floor and building to another. While they were making these trips, one day was the holiday of Raksha Bandhan. On this day sisters tie a knot of raksha (yarn) on their brothers. The ladies went to the office with rakis (yarn) and tied it to all the officials in the building. The chief Chatterji, was very impressed by their strategic move, “Anything that Mahila Milan needs to get done that’s not getting done, they should call him.” The ladies told him that they had been traveling back and forth for these papers and they weren’t getting them done. He stepped in and they immediately got the papers. He saw the process through to the completion of the construction from 2001 to 2003.

As the building was going up, two areas were being evacuated and some families got moved to the new building while others were placed in transit camps. Total of 86 families were moved here of the 536 total families. All of the homes built here house people displaced from the train tracks. Interestingly since not all people were housed, some got huts in the areas where homes will be built.

This visit ended with another building resident showing us her home. It was also a ground level high ceiling loft. The woman’s name escapes me, but she was really proud of her kitchen.

She lives is the home with her husband and three orphaned children. She was also keeping her daughters’ belonging while she visited her village. She explained why her daughter needed to keep her stuff here. Her daughters’ rent for a one room for 2000 rupees plus water and electricity. While in the village her daughter could not afford to pay for the bills as she also had to leave her job as a domestic worker. As for the mother we were speaking with, she explained her trade: before she used to own a tea cart, selling tea along roadside. But after taking the kids in, the tea cart could not feed them all. So she opened a chicken store. We took pictures with her, and gave her many thank you’s before we parted.

The final destination we went to was another building in Milan Nagar, Building 98. Here we spoke with the women in their area office.

They explained their banking system, where the residents can save and lend within the building. It truly was bank for the poor.

After speaking with the women in the office, we looked at another home on the first floor. The woman residing there pointed out the number of bags with tiffin boxes in them. She and three other women had taken out a loan to start a tiffin delivery business. After cooking and preparing the tiffins, she would deliver them via rickshaw. She worked an order of 40 tiffins.

By the time we finished with this last apartment, our host family had arrived to rescue us from our very crazy and incompetent driver. The look on their faces told us to keep quiet and get in the car. Aunty announced upon reaching the car, that the driver is fired! What’s more, when we got to our shredded tire car, she was sitting in the back seat with the two uncles in the front and aunty soon to be joining him in the back. The poor man had no idea the fury he was going to face in that back seat. We were very thankful to be sitting in the other car, and not having any visual or audio of whatever that went down in that car.

Later we found out the man had caused damage of around 5000 rupees. The spare tires that our driver had announced did not exist, actually was right where it’s supposed to be, in the trunk, under the mat. But overall, we just feel bad for him being in the back seat after our family saw the tire on the car and in the trunk.

We ended the night here, writing to you with a plate of guava slices with chili and salt. Vinisha eats them happily and says, "Don't feel pressured to eat these.... mmmm these are so good!" Cecilia will take a bite and throw caution to the wind. (Sorry mom!) *10 minutes later, Cecilia's still feeling fine. All is well….actually, we spoke too soon. Vinisha’s tummy ached.

It was a very long and exhausting day in which we learned so so much! Thanks to Priya for taking so many photos and for coming with us on our adventure for the day! Thank you so very much Sharmila and Avery for teaching us about SPARC and the work of Mahila Milan. Special thanks to Sharmila who provided a most perfect tour and introduced us around to key individuals who could paint the best picture of the issues! Thanks also for helping us to escape the police (in an informal and yet acceptable manner) and also for getting us across a few streets totally unscathed! Because of you both, we are much smarter, and still very much alive!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

its been a long day...

it's been a long day and we started to write our post saying all that we did... but we've got one eye open each and we have another set of meetings tomorrow. we'll work on the update of what we did today, tomorrow (probably at 4am our time).

for the time being here are some highlights that will keep you interested until then:
- you can negotiate on your bribe
- there are large discrepancies as to how many people actually live in Dharavi
- the work of SPARC and Mahila Mila and the National Slum Dwellers Fderation is empowering and promotes creativity and ingenuity with regards to changing current situations
- traffic in Mumbai is amazing!
- we have a new driver

tomorrow is another big meeting with SPARC representatives in their Khetwadi offices.

on our drive there (which google maps told us would take 20 minutes, but we have been told it will more likely take us about 2 hours....) vinisha and cecilia will compare notes from today (which we have since been a little too tired to do) and exchange stories that we heard while we were each talking to different people.

until tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

First outing

Today we dared to venture outside of our comfortable home. It was very interesting to put it simply. Our Aunties took us to Mutunga for some shopping and city viewing. They wanted to try out the new driver they had hired for us, to make sure his driving was safe and he was a good person to leave us with for the next 3 weeks. To be honest, it was scary at first. He was having hard time putting on the break while changing gears. He also tried to make a right in a left flowing roundabout until our Aunty pointed out that he had to go to the left first to get to the right. But we made it to our shopping destination. SPLAT*

We thought that we would be grown up enough to handle being by ourselves for a bit while our Aunties shopped. They told us to go right when leaving the store they were in for shopping in the market, but we stepped outside and immediately made a left. Aunty came out running, and pointed the other way. It was a great start. Yep we are full grown adults, fully capable of following basic directions.
We went into a shopping area. It was a very narrow enclosed area and yes heads did turn as Ceci walked down the hall, but she claimed it was still better than the plane ride. There was a shop where we thought we could try our first shopping experience. Vinisha tried her Hindi skills and pretended to be Cecilia's "local" friend. We started by saying we wanted to look at some Kurtis (tunics). The shop showed about 10 pieces before he stopped and said tell me what you want to buy. Our response was, "well, why don't you show us and then we can decide. He was soooo angry at us, and asked "I'll only show you if you are going to buy!" Well, we're not buying! Luckily we got a phone call and we ran away. It will be a nice story to tell in the future (like now). SMACK*

Then we wandered over to the sari store, and did the same thing. But we weren't yelled at this time. So maybe we'll buy from this man some day.

From there, we went back to the store where we left our Aunties. We sat and had discussions about use of as gold an investment, use of accessories in weddings and other marriage customs. We also talked about socially conscious buying practices and creating a chart to qualify the quantitative measurement of socially responsible purchase. It was a very analytic conversation. Finally, we discussed "what do normal people talk about?" GOT YA!*

We finally met up with our Aunties and headed through the fruits market. Vinisha was drooling to eat the local and very yummy smelling fruits. Aunty said that we would not buy from them, because they know they are with foreigners and didn't want to pay the "white girl premium". So we crossed the street, where Ceci's hand was grabbed by our Aunty and drawn across the street to ensure safe crossing. Vinisha let a few more cars pass before she made it to the other side with the group. The street was supposedly very thin. EEW!*

AAAHHH* We then stopped at a sandwich shop and negotiated whether or not we should have the veggies in the sandwich. We decided to go for it, and take Cipro if we need to later. From there we took our car ride back home and ate our sandwich in the car. IT'S STILL ALIVE*

YES!* This time in the car, the driver was much better and we felt much more comfortable. So we'll be taking him tomorrow for our visit to Dharavi.

OH, did we mention that we have a long day planned with SPARC representatives at Dharavi? We are meeting Sharmila and Avery for a visit with some Dharavi residents and businesses! We'll also visit some SPARC projects and buildings.

Final announcement that we would like to share is that we have a meeting with Sheela Patel for Thursday!

Cheers to learning out side of the classroom!

* The great battle of the new year! Ceci and Vinisha Vs. The Mosquitos.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Article in the Business Standard

Dharavi redevelopment: Back to square one

Raghavendra Kamath / Mumbai December 10, 2009, 0:57 IST

Ramjibhai Pitambar Tak, 62, makes earthen pots for a living. He has been making them for years now in Kumbharwada, an obscure, smoke-filled locality in the 535-acre Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum in the heart of Mumbai. Putting more fuel into the large cauldron of fire, Tak says his only request to the state government is ‘leave us alone’.

Narendra Devaliya, his neighbour, says he has heard local politicians talk about the Rs 15,000-crore Dharavi Redevelopment Project which is aimed at bettering slum-dwellers’ lives, but doesn’t believe a word of it. “Nothing will happen here for at least five years. Everything is in a mess,” he adds.

The cynicism of Tak and Devaliya is grounded in reality. Almost two-and-a-half years after the Maharashtra government unveiled its show-piece project to transform Dharavi into a model township and a world-class commercial hub, not an inch of mud has moved. What has gained momentum with each passing day is mud-slinging by different authorities entrusted to take the project forward.

The red-tape, however, hasn’t tired of working overtime. The bid process was delayed by almost two years and then seven qualified bidders opted out over delays in the past one year. The submission of financial bids has been postponed thrice this year on the ground that the development control rules are still being finalised.

The original plan envisages dividing the slum into five fully self-sufficient sectors, complete with jogging tracks, open spaces, commercial set-ups, and educational and healthcare institutions. Dharavi’s redevelopment was to make available five million square feet of new office and residential space in the near term and a humongous 40 million square feet over seven years.

“The project itself was ill-conceived. The views of Dharavi residents were never considered. Sitting in an ivory tower, you cannot conceive such projects. If it is in earlier form, the people will throw it away. It has to change and be adjustable to the people of Dharavi,” says Chandrashekhar Prabhu, a housing activist and member of the state-appointed committee of experts on the redevelopment project.

Some local residents agree. “We do not want an area of 300 square feet that has been offered to us. Some of us live in 700 sq ft, some in 1,000 sq ft. How can they give only 300 sq ft? They (the government) should also give a separate place to do our work or alternative occupation,” Devaliya adds.

The project faltered from the beginning with the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) of Maharashtra extending the submission of bids thrice in 2008 and the row over the size of flats to be allotted to the dwellers. The sizes were later increased from 225 sq ft to 269 sq ft and then 300 sq ft. However, the dwellers had been demanding houses of at least 400 sq ft.

But 2009 saw further roadblocks. The expert committee appointed by Chief Minister Ashok Chavan last year slammed the project as “a sophisticated land grab and one driven by personal greed,” and called for a complete overhaul of the project.

Amidst all this, developer interest in the project has waned. Niranjan Hiranandani, managing director of Hiranandani Constructions which earlier opted out of the project, says “people have lost confidence as they are not sure whether the project will see the light of the day at a time when the property market is down”.

Sarang Wadhawan, managing director of HDIL, a Mumbai-based developer, which opted out earlier, says the main issue with the project is lack of clarity on rehabilitation and resettlement of people. “The project still has viability provided the parameters of rehabilitation are worked out. If clarity emerges on this front, we will relook at the project again,” says Wadhawan, whose company is one of the largest players in slum rehab projects.

However, some developers feel that projects of this size take time and can’t be done overnight. So, one should have patience, says Nayan Bheda, MD of the Neptune group which is still in the fray.

Though the project was expected to get a new life after the new government took charge in Maharashtra, recent studies and reviews commissioned by government bodies have put fresh question marks on the project. A study conducted by the BMC assistant commissioner showed that 63 per cent of the dwellers were ineligible for rehousing in one of the five sectors of Dharavi.

The Dharavi Development Authority (DDA) has come up with a new plan for development of the two-square-km Dharavi into 32 clusters instead of five sectors planned earlier, to avoid further delays and agitation from those who have been left out. Recently, the government also endorsed this view, saying that the entire project needed to be reviewed and certain parameters needed to be changed, thereby delaying the project further.

DDA also felt that seven bidders for five sectors did not lead to healthy competition and more developers had to be included in the project.

Though DDA Chief Executive Gautam Chatterjee declined to comment, a senior government official, batting for the original plan, said new plan would hardly make any difference and make more slum-dwellers eligible for rehabilitation and settlement. “Whether it is 5 sectors, or 32 clusters, it will not make any difference. We found that density varies from cluster to cluster. If you divide the whole area into 32 clusters, then you will have more developers which will again lead to problems,” he said.

The official also said they had taken people’s consent before starting the project as against the allegations that the original plan makers had not taken the views of slum-dwellers.