Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The devil is in Dharavi's details

HOW DO you bake a cake if you don't know the exact ingredients? Ask the Maharashtra government. This is precisely what it is attempting to do through the Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), a scheme that is now expected to yield over Rs. 10,000 crore to the coffers of the state government.

The government knows the size of the area to be redeveloped - 223 hectares. But how many people live on it? The agency tasked with implementing the project has now acknowledged that it does not know.

Dr. T. Chandrasekhar, Officer on Special Duty for the DRP, has gone on record to say that no detailed survey has been done to determine precisely how many people are eligible for rehabilitation as part of the DRP. In other words, the entire plan has been finalised on what Chandrasekhar calls "a plane table survey, not a detailed survey". He has stated the obvious when he told a newspaper, "A survey is a basic necessity. It is a minimum accurate input required for preparing policy and implementing the project". Surely, this should have occurred to those who finalised the project. Instead, on the basis of "a plane table survey" it was concluded that there are 57,000 families that are eligible for rehabilitation as they will be able to prove that they have lived in Dharavi before January 1, 1995.

The absence of hard, accurate data is an extraordinary admission at a time when the government has already asked international bidders for expressions of interest and is on the verge of announcing a short list of eligible developers. At the same time, one must appreciate the fact that Chandrasekhar has taken steps to set this lacuna right. He is also trying to set up a more inclusive and consultative process so that all the objections that have been raised about the DRP, several from retired planners and bureaucrats, are taken on board before the project is implemented.

In the meantime, the number of 57,000 families is used in all official documents including the Ex pression of Interest (EOI) document that outlines details of the DRP while inviting bids. If the new biometric survey, commissioned by Chandrashekhar and contracted to a non-governmental organisation, actually puts the number of eligible families at twice that number, or considerably more than that number, then what happens to the economics of the plan?

Currently, the reason developers might be interested in redeveloping Dharavi is because of the value of the real estate on which it is located and its proximity to the Bandra-Kurla complex. The DRP requires to rehabilitate in situ all eligible slum dwellers and provide the additional infrastructure and civic facilities mandated by the plan. Once this is done, it is expected that there will be an adequate amount of land that would remain free for building either commercial or residential property, or both, for sale. This would more than compensate the developer for the amount he would have spent on the rehab component.

The DRP has also made two special concessions to attract developers. It has raised the FSI (floor space index) to 4, higher than the 2.5 FSI available for other slum redevelopment projects in the city. And it has waived the criteria of getting the consent of the residents of Dharavi before proceeding with the redevelopment. These two concessions together, it is hoped, will have developers rushing to grab pieces of the project.

Even before the first brick has been laid, the government has begun to collect money from those showing an interest. Once the bids are finalised, it expects to rake in around Rs. 10,000 crore as developers will be required to pay for the additional FSI they are being granted. In other words, the government expects builders to pay a minimum of Rs 450 per sq ft as premium for every additional square foot they will build after fulfilling the rehab component. Such bounty might have the mandarins of Mantralaya salivating, but will it grab the interest of the really big developers? This still remains debatable as the DRP has more than a few problems.

A major problem will crop up once the new survey is ready. For, if many more people need to be resettled in Dharavi as opposed to the numbers mentioned at present, the calculations on profits to be made will change quite drastically. It will be recalled that when the Slum Redevelopment Scheme was launched in 1995, initially there was enormous interest by builders. But once they saw some of the slums, and realised that selling property next to resettled slum dwellers would not be that simple, many of them backed out. Only slums located near major roads or in localities where property prices were high, found takers for redevelopment. In fact, even in Dharavi, the new buildings are all along the main roads.

Additionally, each of the developers bidding for the five sectors into which Dharavi has been divided will have to contend with the growing opposition to the project. The Kumbhars, for instance, have refused to be clubbed with other slum dwellers. They have petitioned the Bombay High Court to be allowed to design and execute their own redevelopment plan. Others too will not quietly accept what is on offer even if their consent is not needed.

Of course, if you listen to officials and politicians, you would never believe that there are any serious hurdles to cross before the DRP can be implemented. So taken is the Maharashtra government with the concept of the project that it has laid down in its new housing policy that all large slums will follow the DRP pattern of development. And not just the larger slums. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has announced that three smaller slums in Ghatkopar, including Ramabai Nagar which was the scene of clashes between Dalits and the police some years back, will be redeveloped on the lines of the DRP. This essentially means giving a licence to builders to profit from the real estate without bothering about the consent of the slum dwellers. So without waiting to see whether and if the DRP is practical or workable, the government is going ahead sanctioning more projects along similar lines.

Mukesh Mehta, the architect and prime mover of the DRP, remains convinced that all slum redevelopment, not just in Mumbai, but in the rest of India, will go the Dharavi way. However, he, and the rest of us, will have to wait and see, for the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And when the cook does not know the precise measurements of the ingredients, then the results are likely to be more than a little unpalatable.

(Published in the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times on the Op-ed page on October 25, 2007)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The freedom not to choose

How much freedom should our daughters have? This is the question that has become the topic of discussion nationwide thanks to the media attention given to two young women, Telugu actor Chiranjivi’s daughter, Shriji and Kolkata industrialist Ashok Todi’s daughter, Priyanka.

Both chose the men they wanted to marry. They did not wait for their family’s approval. They considered all the possibilities, expected opposition, and chose to go ahead and get married. In one case, this free choice has ended in a terrible tragedy with the mysterious death of Priyanka’s husband Rizanwur Rehman in Kolkata. The truth has yet to unravel. But its repercussions are being felt in Kolkata society and in West Bengal’s politics.

We don’t know yet whether there will be a happy ending to Shriji’s story. But both these incidents illustrate something that is happening in Indian society. Parents are bringing up daughters to believe that they can do anything, are capable of doing anything. For a young woman who is sent to university today, the possibilities seem immense. Gone are the days when the only choice before girls was to choose to become a doctor or a teacher. Even engineers were rare. If you were not interested in either, then you did a “pass” course and waited for marriage proposals. Instead today, women are making diverse choices are entering fields that were closed to their mothers.

Proof of this is available in the many stories you read about the “first” woman in a particular career. Last week, at a meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, I heard Sreelekha, the “first” Indian Police Service officer in Kerala speak. She was addressing a group of young women engineers working for an American software company. Sreelekha’s story was inspiring. With disarming honesty, she admitted to the women how she was not a particularly bright student. Her father expected her to choose science. Instead, she followed her heart and chose the humanities, particularly literature. Career options then were limited. Inevitably she ended up being a teacher. But not satisfied with this, she joined a bank. And after that decided to try for the Indian Administrative Service. There again, she did not get a high enough rank to enter the IAS. But she did qualify for the IPS. Could she join the police, she asked herself? She abhorred violence. Her background was arts. She loved literature. What would she do in the police? But eventually, she accepted the position and today she stands out as an exceptional police officer. She is also known in Kerala as much as a writer as a police officer.

Sreelekha’s story is remarkable because it still remains an exception to the rule. She made her own choices and luckily for her, no one stood in her way. But millions of girls in India today are led to believe that they can choose only to realise that their choices are severely constrained by what society thinks they should do and above all what their families believe is best for them.

The tragedy is that even if in their choice of careers they get their way, when it comes to the most important decision in their lives – that of marriage – they still do not have the freedom to choose. The family knows best. The girl’s own judgment is not respected. She is not given the freedom to make a mistake.

Why is this one part of life denied choice? Girls have to agree to marry, and to choose a “suitable boy” acceptable to the family. They cannot, for instance, choose to remain single. And they cannot choose a groom who the parents don’t like. So in other words, they really have no choice.

Marriage and family honour remain deeply entwined. Somehow, the individual, or individuals, are forgotten in an institution that should be based on mutual love and respect between two people. What we are seeing today is the obvious contradiction between permitting choice in one area and denying it in another.

What is even more unfortunate is that those young people who have followed the logic of freedom – that is having the right to make life choices – are the ones being penalised.

Of course, for every one Priyanka or Shriji, there are many who have followed their hearts and are happy, as also are their parents. But in 21st Century India, such instances continue to be very rare. Many girls, even after receiving a modern education, have created a separate compartment in their heads when it comes to marriage. Even as they enjoy the freedom they get in colleges and universities, and in jobs – such as the new IT sector – they accept that their freedom is limited in their choice of groom, and in their choices after marriage.

You find today that even women in modern careers, such as software engineers in the IT sectors, speak of the pressures they face from society and in their homes. They have to get married by a certain age. And after marriage, they have to set aside their careers for children and the upward mobility of their spouses. Their own ambitions, careers, dreams, don’t even enter the picture.

This is an issue that we as a society have to confront. Why does the middle class in particular, irrespective of community or religion, place the question of marriage on a completely different pedestal? Why are people willing to accept anything except a couple that defies family and community for love? Why should young people, who are led to believe that they are free individuals, be forced to pay such a heavy price for this terrible contradiction?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The 'invisible' half

The Hindu, Oct. 7, 2007

Sunday Magazine section

The Other Half column

They came dressed in their Sunday best even though it was a Saturday. The Warli women of Dapcheri village in Thane district, a few hours away from Mumbai, had been summoned to meet some “important” people. They gathered under a small shamiana erected in front of their Panchayat office.
The “important” people were four Members of Parliament cutting across party lines. Sachin Pilot of the Congress, Supriya Sule of the Nationalist Congress Party, Jay Panda of the Biju Janata Dal and Shahnawaz Khan of the Bharatiya Janata Party, young MPs who are part of a Citizens’ Alliance Against Malnutrition.

Does it ever change?
Why malnutrition? Because, in a country where the stock market has crossed 17,000 points, where inflation is under control, where the economic growth rate is climbing, almost one in every two children under three years of age is hungry. This is the invisible half of our population, people who disappear from our consciousness until they die in large numbers. Then, the media wakes up and takes note, the incident becomes “breaking news”, the government squirms when tough questions are asked, some remedial measures are put into place, and soon life reverts to “normal”, or, should we say, abnormal.

I am not sure the women really understood why these “important” people had come. They only knew that this would be a chance for them to say something. And in the predictable style of visits by “dignitaries” to poor villages, the women sat on the ground while the visitors stood. One woman was asked to speak for the rest. Instead of saying anything about lack of food, she said, “Give us work”.

(To read the rest of the article, click on the link above)