Post written by: Pooja Varma. DPU alumna 2009
About a month ago I had the opportunity to attend the 361 Degrees Conference on Design & Informal Cities in Bombay, with my friend Laura. The event was compelling as it boasted respected academics and practitioners within the urban development field. The theme for the conference, Design and Informal Cities, was also extremely pertinent for India and myself as a planner. But I also wanted to satisfy a personal curiosity of seeing how such a relevant theme would be managed and showcased by Indian organizers in Mumbai, which has become a poster city for slum dwellers and housing rights.
While the panels of speakers were well regarded, knowledgeable and effective, the conference itself came across as a confused and self-indulgent attempt to achieve relevance and prominence, a reflection perhaps of India’s overall urban development. I can pin point many out of place elements such as the abrupt dance performance celebrating India’s “achievements” barely minutes after discussing the lives of more than 6 million people in Bombay living in poverty, in slums, everyday stripped of their dignity, without adequate access to basic services like shelter, sanitation and toilets. Having a world famous architect who has no connection to informal cities showcase his work as a grand finale to the two-day conference on design and informal cities as the theme is another.
A major disconcerting aspect of the entire experience was the realization that the students and professionals in the audience, educated in Bombay within the fields of architecture, planning and urbanism were completely ignorant about the failure of Indian policies on appropriate housing. They seemed to know nothing about alternate slum upgrading schemes that have successfully reduced health risks and improved quality of life in informal housing like the Slum Networking Programme implemented in Ahmedabad, the active and effective women’s NGOs like the Self Employed Women’s Association and SPARC that work on the grassroots level, with poor communities, slum dwellers acting as facilitators and intermediaries, advocating for housing rights.
After two days of listening to the impressive work and projects undertaken by people and organizations around the world on informal settlements, the concluding questions session left the impression that the vast majority of the audience did not know much about slums or slum dwellers. These students, the future city managers, designers, architects and planners of Indian cities are not equipped to understand the greatest urban issue facing most countries in the developing world. Their unabashed ignorance and lack of understanding resonates the cusp of the problem in an economically fast growing India. And that problem is the deep disconnect within Indian society. A disconnect between the social classes. The privileged or middle class leads a life so far removed from the reality of the poor that it is not their reality. They may live in the same city, on the same street, but live in different worlds.
India as a country does have technical experts, thinkers, academics, and financial resources it needs to improve the cities and realize equitable development. What is lacking is the political will that stems from the general attitude of the majority of the influential, the privileged and middle class that looks away while claiming to look beyond the appalling civic condition. But the divide is not just one of class, but also of a grave lack of understanding of what the poor want or need. They are perceived as beneficiaries of government spending while the middle class relentlessly evades taxes, builds gated communities and fancy homes over dilapidating infrastructure and rubbish piles. The government is blamed for not doing enough, for overt corruption and inefficiency; while the privileged occasionally hindered by the absence of domestic help, continue to pursue a self-interested life style.