Thursday, December 17, 2015

Musings on the Rooftops-

Musings on the Rooftops

How empty and lifeless are the rooftops of these high-rises! The huge water tanks and dish T.V. antennas are their only adornments. Children do not go there to play, neither does a young lady dry her long tresses sitting there in the warmth of the winter Sun, making some young boy smitten on some neighboring rooftop. Winters, on them, do not resonate with the laughter of ladies sitting together, creating designs on the wool with their knitting-needles while keeping a watch on the kids playing nearby. The young, from these rooftops, do not render the sky a riot of colours with their kites in that short spring season before the Sun turns fierce. Summer evenings do not see the drenching of the rooftop floor before the cots are laid down for the night’s sleep. And, no longer do children or lasses dance on the rooftops welcoming the splatter of the first showers as it soaks the world around with petrichor.
 It was so different when the towns hadn’t turned into megalopolises and, the houses did not resemble cells of a honeycomb. The roofs of the houses were as lively, open and, welcoming as the then life. The sound of chirping crickets, the waft of an old film song on radio from some distant roof and, the soft voices of a conversing couple or someone narrating stories to kids slowly faded away, as the gentle summer breeze, with a whiff of the sweet mild smell of a mango tree in bloom, lulled all to sleep. The warmth of the afternoon Sun in the winters brought all and sundry to their rooftops and it became a stage for varied activities- sun bath for the oil glistening torsos before the water- bath, indoor games or outdoor games with improvisations according to the size of the rooftops and, a snooze for the elderly.
Life, however, in these giant residential complexes in our asphalt jungles, is a bit different. Closeted with the four walls all the day long, it is amidst the monotonous whirr of the air-conditioners and intimacy with the communication gadgets that one goes to sleep. Isn’t the word ‘complex’ denoting these giant residential buildings so apt? This word– both as a noun and, as an adjective- signifies all the characteristics of these buildings aspiring to touch the clouds. In thinking thus, I am reminded of two great thinkers- Ruskin and Tagore. While Ruskin believed that our architecture is an expression of our life and character, Tagore wrote- ‘…walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of ‘divide and rule’ in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another…. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition’.  The openness, sharing in the griefs and happiness of others and, genuine joie de vivre  in our lives, a few decades back, seems to have been replaced by canned emotions and their digital expressions. Has our world view   been limited by the size of our open terraces and the time we get to spend on it? I wonder.

                                                                    (published in HT Lko - 15/12/2015 Link-


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Primary textbooks reinforce gender stereotypes

‘Why should boys have all the fun?’ – goes the tag line of a commercial. The text books of my primary level kids may well be asked this question. The Social Studies  class 4 book of my son, in its chapter ‘Seasons’, has five different pictures on seasons- each depicting a child enjoying itself, and not one is of a girl-child; the chapter, ‘Natural Resources’, has a picture of children enjoying themselves in a pond and, all of them are boys. It’s not only about play, but also about work. The pictures in the chapter ‘Organizations that help us’, depict only men doing all the important jobs. There are five different pictures of various professionals- the police, doctor, army personnel, workers in a post office- and none of them has a woman. Interestingly however, one chapter, ‘Our Heritage’ has women in all its pictures- the pictures being of various dances in our country. Similarly, the Class 2 book  of my younger son, Environmental Studies, has pictures of 12 professionals in the chapter, ‘We Need Them’, and none of them is of a woman while, again interestingly, in the same chapter, the sub section ‘People who entertain us’ has the only  picture of a woman and , it is of a dancer !
            The outdoors being for boys and girls both, is not the only issue regarding the subtle bias in gender representation in our children’s books. An example from the NCERT Hindi book of class 3 Rimjhim, shows how finely the dominating maleness is interwoven in the tone and tenor of the text and the image. The stage directions for  a skit of the famous parable of a monkey eating the whole bread being fought over by two cats are worded thus- ‘7-8 baras ka ladka bandar ban sakta hai aur 5-6 baras ki ladkiyaan billi ban sakti hain.’ (a boy of 7-8 years of age can become the monkey and girls of 5-6 years can play the parts of the cats). A dialogue by the monkey goes so- “roti kiski? Mai iska faisala karoonga. Chalo kachehry, mere peechhe peechhe aao.” (Whose bread? I will decide it. Come to the court, come behind me), followed by the directions-‘bandar dono se chheenkar roti apne haath mei lekar chalta hai, dono billiyaan peechhe-peechhe aati hain’ (The monkey snatches the bread from both of them and walks away with it while the two cats follow). The play ends with the words- “aapas mein jhagdaa kar baithin, buddhi apni khoti…” (we fought among ourselves as our minds are weak)

The stage directions specifying the gender of the actors for the role of the monkey and the cats sets the gendered tenor of the skit. The tone of the dialogues along with the illustration-  the monkey sitting on a pedestal as the cribbing cats literally look up to him for justice- underpin the notions of requirement of aggressive masculinity for decision making and, of females given to stupidly fighting over small things.
My experiences as a teacher-trainer are that people fail to realize the gendered undertones of a text/image in our books unless strongly hinted. This is because all of us have been brought up in the same gender-construct milieu. A text book shapes the belief system of the coming generations and, the content as above, only go on to reinforce, unknowingly, our impressionable minds with the gender stereotypes. A rethink is required on our definitions, language and concepts to create gender non-discriminatory knowledge for our children. For instance, physical stamina, thresholds of pain and, longevity can also be taken to be indicators of ‘strength’ along with its usual measurement in terms of running faster, jumping higher, etc., as  The Position Paper of the National Focus Group on Gender Issues in Education (NCERT), suggested almost a decade back. Incidentally, a picture of three children playing basketball, in NCERT’s class 5 English Book, shows the lone girl’s feet on the ground while the two boys are high up in the air.
It is important that the material presented before children is such which is empowering for girls in the sense of making them realize their potential, frees the boys from the bondage of stereotype male-hood of aggressiveness and curbing of emotions, and thus, raise a generation that is capable of contributing to the making of a just and compassionate society. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

For Allahabad to be a SMART city

For Allahabad to be a SMART city
Published in HT Special Supplement on its 18th anniversary )

Those pictures related to the various public services in a city in any primary school Civics text book have always been so fascinating. But, of course, the reality has always been so remote from them. Now, however, with the coming up of SMART city, we might experience our city as a picture-perfect one – one with tree-lined, wide, clean roads with orderly traffic; tidy offices, public conveniences (even for the differently abled) etc, etc.
The concept of a SMART city, in brief, is the use of information technology and electronics for the optimum management of a city’s resources and provision of the best services to the public.
Before embarking on how the technology can be used to turn our city of Allahabad SMART, it would be worthwhile to identify the big sores that are to be addressed. Some of them being- the roads sans pavements but with lots of cattle acting as speed breakers, non-existent clean and safe public transport system, public parks encroached as parking spaces or at worst turned into garbage dumping grounds, the biggest park i.e. the Company Bagh itself in need for oxygen with the depleting tree cover, pitiable condition of the government hospitals, poor sports facilities, and non- availability of public conveniences even for the able leave alone the handicapped. 
To make this city a nice place for living some essential features required are as follows.
 A traffic system which will make the flow of traffic non-polluting, swift, orderly and safe. It would require removing cattle from all the streets and lanes of the city and creating cattle sheds or piggeries outside the city limits. It would further require creating road conditions in which cyclists and pedestrians can use them confidently and safely. Lanes have been drawn on certain roads but are not followed for many reasons one of them being the encroachments for example by vegetable sellers as on the very busy Stanley Road. Instead of the polluting tempos a credible public transport system has to be put in place which apart from serving the city connects the nearby small towns.
A green and environmental friendly city in which polythene is a strict no-no and the trees like the neem and tamarind line the roads at regular intervals. This city which, when seen from a high building as the Indira Bhavan, looked so green a couple of decades back, looks like an alopecia patient who has become  bald in large ugly patches. Even the Company Garden that has become a playground to amateur tinkering planners can be simply afforested and left to its pristine self. Also, the hundreds of parks in various localities can be freed of encroachments and filth to become green and playgrounds and spaces for leisure for kids and senior citizens respectively.
All the electricity meters can be made into pre-paid ones to ensure non-pilferage. The big buildings, both governmental and private, and the street lights should have provision for automatic switching off lights when not in use or not required.
Clean toilets for the differently abled besides both the genders at every public place and all buildings and offices are a must. The fact is that even such places as the University, the Sangam Place or the Indira Bhawan housing many offices have very poor facilities for public conveniences. They are in fact public- inconveniences!!
Waste management is essential in any human setting. Instead of dumping it at places not much visited, it would be good if it is recycled or used as fuel in an energy conserving and environmentally friendly manner.
Public services like medical, policing and sports have to be ensured by the provision of human and material resources to the respective areas.
 To make the above possible, information technology has much to do. Wireless interconnected platforms can involve public in collaborative projects and real time decision making. For example, the City of Amsterdam has had projects to reduce traffic, save energy and improve public safety. It accepts proposals from the citizens for applications and developments that can be of use to the city. An example of a resident developed app is Mobypark, which allows owners of parking spaces to rent them out to people for a fee. The data generated from this app can then be used to determine parking demand and traffic flows in Amsterdam.

E-surveillance, e- monitoring, e-collaborative planning and e-records available in the public domain can thus go a great distance to create a city as our school book writers envisage.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

Allahabad Civil Lines a Pale shadow of its grand past

Published in HT All U.P. Editions- 12-6-15 link-

Civil Lines - From Patrician to Plebeian

The wistfulness is painful. Standing in a corner, below a semi-demolished building, I look at the roads which were once so clean, so wide and, so quiet. Huge tamarind and neem trees lined these roads and little behind them stood the one or two floor pink buildings which housed the most posh shops of the city. These shops had a certain aristocratic air about them. The proprietors had a gentility in their bearings and, the shoppers were urbane and of exquisite taste. Jostling or speaking loudly were considered unseemly and, bargaining was infra dig.  A picture hall here could boast of having its ticket stall without an enclosure and a place as boisterous as a coffee house was served by liveried waiting men. Even the leisurely, aimless amblings on the grid-planned streets of this place had a distinct glamour which other market places in the city were devoid of.  Yes, the ‘civil’ in the Civil Lines was so marked till a couple of decades back.
And now? Choc-a-block with people and vehicles all fighting for space, umpteen numbers of open air eating joints encroaching the pavements and,  growth of shops like warts on the once beautiful face. Constricted by a divider, choked by bumpers brushing against each other, the streets are no longer for the leisurely movers but for the impatient honkers. With both the pink on the buildings and green of the trees having gone away long, the loss of colour accentuates the pallor.  If the big names in book shops have the e-books and e-shops as tough adversaries, many renowned names in sweetmeat and restaurants have either gone into obscurity or fighting a tough battle with takeaways. Now the shops, in keeping with the times, not only cater to those of exquisite taste but also store the commonplace. The patrician aura over these years seems thus to have dissipated to gather a plebeian tenor.
How should we take it- this metamorphosis of the once all white township developed by the British for its civilian officers? If before independence it was out of bounds for the browns, post-independence it was so for the lower on the economic and social ranking.  Since the 90’s however things began to change due to a combination of reasons.  The land-lease and free holds issue and the migration of the new generation to greener pastures led to the sale of the big bungalows either by division into smaller plots or by construction of high rise buildings.  With the economic liberalization and the rise of the subaltern politics, the neo- rich and the neo-powerful sought a space in this uptown area to announce their climb on the socio-economic ladder. Aesthetics has been the loser in the scenario.
Why should we rue this loss, if we ourselves are the cause of it?  Construction of buildings against the norms, non-provision of parking spaces along with non-compliance of parking rules, using four wheelers unnecessarily instead of (ideally)  our feet or cycles or two wheelers even for short distances, growth in the number of big motor vehicles without a corresponding, rather nil, growth in the width of the roads, ill-planned beautification drives and, of course, the absence of the civic sense has made the Civil Lines a pale shadow of its grand past.  Hope the realization dawns before it is past resuscitation.
                                                    Skand Shukla