Who needs philosophy?

Definitely not folks who work with technology. Most definitely not engineers. I was one of those people, an engineer. (There is a certificate somewhere that attests to that.) Philosophy for me was about looking out into the distance and thinking about whether I was really thinking or dreaming or existing in some sort of fugue state induced by the Mumbai heat searing metal compartments of local trains. The word ‘Philosophy’ conjured images of busts of men whose names were as strange as the non-spelling of ‘Irinjalakuda’ is to the English language. Even though I went through Sophie’s World, it seemed her world was never mine to hold and understand.

Around six years ago, I read a paper, and something shifted. It was called ‘Classes versus Prototypes: Some philosophical and historical observations’ by Antero Taivalsaari[1]. The paper spoke about Plato and object oriented programming in the same breath. I knew about object oriented programming but I didn’t understand its relationship with Plato.

I encountered object oriented programming in a book by Timothy Budd and was smitten by it. Budd’s book is innocuously (and sincerely) titled ‘An introduction to Object Oriented Programming’. It does not have the identity of the murderer tucked away in the last page, but I read it as though such a revelation was sure to come.

Budd starts about how people who are new to object oriented programming understand it better than those who have worked on procedural programming. Procedural programming models the world as a set of steps, a process or a procedure. In other words, you instruct the computer to perform actions by coding these actions as a series of procedures. On the other hand, object oriented programming was about seeing the world anew, as a set of objects that belonged to certain categories and the relationship between them. You change the world by performing different operations on these objects. Budd argued that it is easier for someone who has not thought of manipulating the world in terms of procedures to start conceptualising it in terms of categories, objects that belonged to those categories, and the relationship between them. An untutored mind could adopt to this new way of seeing rather than the one that was already moulded and ossified. As a regular student, keen to see the world in radical new ways, I was eager to reshape my mind, and read the whole book in one go.

I never realised until I read Taivalsaari’s paper that what had gotten me excited about Budd’s book and object oriented programming in the first place was the philosophy behind it, which is to see the world as a set of objects that are related to each other. What I didn’t understand back then was that philosophy was about a way of seeing the world in order to understand it, and every discipline, including computer science rests on philosophy.

Every discipline tries to understand the world, and therefore, every discipline has a certain philosophical foundation that tells you how that discipline perceives the world. Plato and Aristotle thought that the world has a certain fixed ‘order’, and we discovered that ‘order’ as we understood the world. For a long time most disciplines in the Western canon adopted this approach to looking at the world, and computer science was no different:

What Plato and Aristotle thought:

“… categories were thought to be well understood and unproblematic. They were assumed to be abstract containers, with things either inside or outside the category. Things were assumed to be in the same category if and only if they had certain properties in common. And the properties they had in common were taken as defining the category.[2]

Relationship between Aristotle’s model of the world and object oriented programming:

“His [Aristotle’s] classifications were based on the same idea that underlies object-oriented programming today. A group of objects belongs to the same category if the objects have the same properties. Thus, categories of objects are defined by common properties that a group of objects (the extension of the category) share.[3]

For a second, think about the consequences of adopting Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophical position for different disciplines:

  1. There is one ‘ideal’ world out there
  2. All of us ‘discover’ this world when we understand it

Image 1 – Is there an ‘ideal world’ we all discover? Or the world we perceive is the world we know?

But, if you think that the world is not fixed, and the world is what we perceive, what we make of it, you adopt a different philosophy, a different way of looking at the world. A lot of disciplines, including computer science, started grappling with this different way of seeing the world, a way of seeing that was rooted in being human. By virtue of the bodies we inhabit, we understand the world a certain way. We perceive the world a certain way because we as humans are made a certain way; our bodies influence our cognition: if we adopt such a philosophical position, then we understand cognition as ‘embodied’. This in turn means that there is no ‘ideal’ world out there for all of us to perceive the same way, but the perceptions differ based on the vessel doing the perception. And as there are many kinds of human beings, there are different ways in which this classification can be done, this understanding can happen.

Consequences of adopting an ‘embodied’ understanding of cognition, and therefore a different philosophical position for different disciplines:

  1. Each of us understands the world in our own way, and that understanding is shaped by our bodies
  2. There is no ‘ideal’ world for us to understand, but there are ‘interpretations’

It is a dramatic shift in thinking about the world, a fundamental philosophical shift. It means moving away from thinking there is one world we all are trying to understand, to thinking about everyone’s perception as a valid interpretation of the world.

Different disciplines from economics, cognitive science, linguistics, computer science, psychology – all of them grappled with this philosophical shift. And in a series of blogposts, I hope to explore this shift, and what it means for research and practice. (There will be politics too – after all, what doesn’t have politics?)

[1] Taivalsaari, A. (1996). Classes vs. Prototypes Some Philosophical and Historical Observations. Journal of Object-Oriented Programming10(7), 44-50.

[2] Lakoff, G. (2008). Women, fire, and dangerous things. University of Chicago press.

[3] Taivalsaari, A. (1996). Classes vs. Prototypes Some Philosophical and Historical Observations. Journal of Object-Oriented Programming10(7), 44-50.

On Janaagraha’s response to FoV’s critique of the ASICS survey

The Hindu had published Fields of View’s critique of the Annual Survey of India’s City Systems (ASICS report) by Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. We had critiqued the survey at two levels — the methodology used and the broader framing. The critique of the methodology examined the survey design, the questionnaire, and the ranking. The critique of the framing looked at the broader frame the survey subscribed to, that of looking as a ‘city as a service’.

Janaagraha wrote a response to the critique that was recently published in The Hindu. Overall, Janaagraha’s response is more of an iteration of what the ASICS report does (which has already been explained in the report) instead of a substantive argument responding to FoV’s critique. In the post below, we provide our argument as to why that is the case by examining Janaagraha’s response in its entirety. The post is divided into five parts, and every part begins with Janaagraha’s response in italics and our argument follows.

Part 1

“Life in India’s cities is an urban nightmare that we just cannot wake up from. Potholed roads, garbage fires, flooding, traffic congestion, air pollution are daily bugbears that our citizens have been facing for decades, clearly indicating a systemic failure of governance in our cities. Fixing urban governance is key to fixing our cities, and hence the importance of diagnosing and measuring what’s broken in our governance. ASICS aims to do just that. ASICS is an objective evaluation of 23 Indian cities across 20 States on 89 questions, covering 150 parameters, and 3,900 points of investigation. It takes a systemic, data-driven approach towards urban governance. ASICS is a diagnostic tool indicating the health of urban governance systems in a city and therefore, its ability to deliver good quality of life in the medium to long term. The evaluation is based on the ‘City-Systems’ framework consisting of four distinct but inter-related components — spatial planning, municipal capacities (both human and financial), political leadership, and lastly transparency, accountability and participation. ASICS is based on the premise that fixing systems across all these components are critical to city governance.”

The beginning of Janaagraha’s response is about what the ASICS report does; there is no new information, either to clarify the methodology or the framing.

Part 2 

“One of the significant criticisms raised by the authors was that ASICS argues for ‘city as a service’ model. ASICS see quality of life comprising of two distinct but inter-related aspects — ‘quality of urban infrastructure and services’ and ‘quality of citizenship’. Thus ASICS is not about evaluating the relationship between the city and the citizen as one of service provider-client, but rather about the extent of ownership and empowerment of both the city government and the citizens in the running of the city. ASICS evaluates the extent of devolution and empowerment of our Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and strength of formal institutional platforms, such as ward committees and area sabhas, for citizens to participate and actively engage with their government in line with the provisions of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act (CAA). ASICS looks at parameters such as mayoral tenure, powers of the council over staffing practices, voter turnout in municipal elections, and extent of functional devolution in practice. It examines availability of information on civic services, service levels, financial information, status of public works, revenue collections, spending, etc , all of which would enable citizens to gain a better understanding of the functioning of the ULB and make their engagement more objective and meaningful.”

Janaagraha claims that the ASICS report does not argue for a ‘city as a service’ model, contrary to what FoV’s critique claimed. The evidence Janaagraha offers is that the ASICS report evaluates the quality of citizenship too, and not just quality of infrastructure. There are two aspects to our response:

 

  1. As we mentioned in the critique, when engaging with the primary question of ‘Who is a citizen?’, there is an inherently limited notion of citizenship that the survey espouses. For example, to gauge citizen participation, there are questions on online information access. This question, by its very conception, excludes wide swathes of citizens who do not have access to online resources. Incidentally, even though mobile phone penetration is high in India, smart phone is not. In addition, cities need to contend with multiple literacy-levels, and diverse languages. Even a preliminary engagement with the complexity of citizenship, and the associated challenge for cities would mean the parameters used for evaluation have to be expanded.
  2. Though quality of citizenship is said to be a criteria on which ASICS evaluates cities, the way the criteria is conceived demonstrates that it is still within the ‘city as a service’ frame. Citizen participation does not translate to just providing feedback about services, which is what a customer does. The relationship of a citizen to the city is that of responsibility, of ownership, and of being a guardian and a partner of the city’s future.

Part 3

“ASICS is based on an analysis of relevant laws, policy documents and websites of city & State governments. One may argue about the unfairness of evaluating cities based on the quality of State legislation. But given India’s quasi-federal governance structure, where governance of cities lies in the domain of the State governments, the quality of urban governance is also a commentary on the quality of State legislation. As the report clearly indicates, to deliver good quality of life in urban India, reforms are required across all levels of government — Centre, State and the city government, with the king’s share to be undertaken by the State governments.”

Above is Janaagraha’s response to what the critique has pointed out as the ‘unfairness of evaluating cities based on the quality of State legislation’. Janaagraha agrees that India has a quasi-federal governance structure. Knowing this, we are puzzled as to the rationale for designing a survey that penalises cities for something that is not under their control, by their very admission. It is, again, conceptually unfair and therefore, not well designed.

Here is a snapshot from just one section showing different questions that evaluate the cities, while the power lies with the State.

A snapshot of the issues with questions in ASICS Survey by Janaagraha

Question No. in Evaluation CriteriaQuestionIssue
1Is there a provision for a state spatial planning board which is mandated with planning policies and reforms for the state, and is the final approving authority for regional and municipal SDPs ?TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
2Does the Act require 3 levels of SDPs (master plans) for metropolitan cities: regional, municipal and ward(s) /localTC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
2a, 2b, 2c, 3, 3a, 3b, 3c, 4, 5, 6-TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
7a, 7b-Plans are made by the relevant city development authority, to score the ULB (elected city council) on the timeline and validity is irrelevant
8a, 8b, 8c-Whereas 8 looks at a "clear decentralised procedure" for approval of plans, 8a, and 8b go onto scoring the ULB based on the state's actions.
9, 10TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
11Do the SDPs reflect a stated articulation of future vision and development priorities?The stated objective is to look at "objective" parameters, whereas in the evaluation of this question, the ULBs are evaluated on a score of 10 based on if the SDP mentions metrics for the objectives. Also, these plans are created by the respective city development authority/agency.
12Do the SDPs at each level, integrate the plans and priorities of various sectoral public departments and agencies?
14Are there provisions in the act for modifications to notified SDPs?TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
15Has an MPC been constituted?The state constitutes the MPC, why is the ULB being scored on this point? Under Article 243ZE, Constitution of India

The ‘Town and Country Planning Act’ is a law passed by State governments. Hence, using its features as a marker for a city’s governance and functional processes is unfair. It may be argued that documenting and evaluating such absences of this law (or certain features of it) will push cities to negotiate with the state government in order to improve their urban governance. However, this assumes a high level of city-state government synergy, and more importantly, an inherent value in strengthening the law. When a city such as Bangalore, which receives high focus from the state government, has been unable to push changes to the state law to improve its urban planning or governance, it would be a monumental task for other cities, which include non-capital cities, to press for the same. Further, Town and Country Planning Acts have mostly enabled urban planning to take place in a top-down approach through city development authorities in direct contravention of the spirit of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution.

Part 4

“As the authors have rightly pointed out, lack of capacities in urban local bodies is a huge hurdle which affects institutional aspects such as maintenance of accounts, budget preparation, audits, and aspects of service delivery such as approval of building plans, environment protection, road design etc. ASICS believes in fixing the City-Systems and identifies that gaps in financial and human capacity is a significant handicap in the ability of ULBs to deliver better quality of life to citizens in a sustainable manner. The author’s assertion that the ASICS report recommends outsourcing of many functions of the ULB appears to be a misreading of the recommendations. Firstly, ASICS suggests exploring options such as ‘outsourcing’ only in functions such as revenue collection where the lack of adequate number of field staff has severely impacted the ability of the ULBs to collect their dues. States like Jharkhand have demonstrated that engaging professional agencies through a transparent tendering process can help ULBs to plug the personnel gaps due to significant vacancies in Accounts and Revenue departments. States and ULBs must explore a gamut of options such as building a professional Municipal Cadre, facilitating lateral hires, to address the debilitating levels of vacancies in key departments.”

 At the outset, we wish to state that we are in full agreement that personnel gaps, and skill-based gaps have to be filled.

We argue it is not a misreading when our critique states that ‘ASICS report recommends outsourcing of many functions of the ULB’. In the recommendations section of the ASICS report (page 17 & 18 at http://janaagraha.org/asics/report/ASICS-report-2017-fin.pdf), “outsourcing” is mentioned five times as potential ways to fix the problem under ‘Urban Capacities & Resources’. One could argue that it is ‘only’ five out of seventeen recommendations, and therefore not the primary motive. Unfortunately, as researchers we do place these five recommendations in perspective with the other recommendations and the survey questions. A few questions that arise are, are these recommendations only possible because of this ‘objective’ survey or have these recommendations been made in the past (10, 20 or 30 years) by other groups without the benefit of such an ‘objective’ study? Are the other recommendations feasible and under what conditions? If these recommendations are implemented and the status quo does not change? Would the fall back then be to ‘outsource’?

In the spirit of debate and engagement, it is wonderful when a response leads to further questions just as it is futile if the state of debate does not progress.

Image 1 – A screenshot of the recommendations in the ASICS report, with all the recommendations to outsource highlighted.

Part 5

“The authors have evocatively questioned the choice of benchmark cities in the survey — London, New York and Johannesburg. The benchmark cities were chosen to evaluate the institutional and governance mechanisms within a democratic framework which enabled these cities to provide the high standards of services and infrastructure to be recognised as global hubs of opportunity and talent. Cities are economic growth drivers, innovation hubs, job creators and providers of social, cultural and educational opportunities. It is undisputable that New York and London are melting pots of culture and diversity and global engines of economic growth and prosperity. These are qualities that most cities aspire to have, and these cities are desired destination to live, work and play because of the underlying strong institutions, policies and processes by which they are governed. ASICS is not about pushing Indian cities to become a London or New York, rather it suggests looking at these cities and seeing what Indian cities can learn from them. ASICS underscores the importance of systemic approach to solving urban India’s challenges and recommends that all of us must collectively do what is necessary to strengthen our ULBs as institutions, and the systems and processes of their governance.”

Janaagraha’s response still does not provide any reasoning as to why “looking at these cities” (these cities being London, New York, and Johannesberg) to learn from them is more useful than looking at any other city – Buenos Aires, or Beijing. The reason we questioned this choice of the three cities as any form of benchmark continues to be the following:

“For instance, in Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking of 2017, London is nowhere in the first 10 or even 20; its ranking is 40. In The Economist’s World’s Most Liveable cities, both London and New York are not in the top 10. The recent edition of the UN Habitat’s biannual ‘State of World Cities’ report says that ‘the most unequal cities in the region, and probably the world, are in South Africa’. If it is not about quality of life, what do London, New York, and Johannesburg stand for?”

The response from Janaagraha is: “It is undisputable that New York and London are melting pots of culture and diversity and global engines of economic growth and prosperity.” (emphasis ours)

For starters, this claim has been disputed by Mercer’s, by The Econonmist and by UN Habitat. Moreover, as we argued in our critique, the budgetary inflows for Indian cities are limited as property tax is the only major source of revenue. Not only is this not true for London and New York, the budgetary and regulatory environment is also completely different. Consider this snapshot of London[1], New York[2], Mumbai[3], and Bangalore[4]:

Comparison of London, New York, Mumbai and Bangalore

ItemLondonNYCMumbaiBangalore
Population8.79 million (2016)8.55 million (2016)21.3 million (2016)11.5 million (2016)
Number employed by city council369,942(estd.)327,793 (2012)104000 (2017)18000 (2017)
Avg annual budget(last 3 years) US$31.5 billion (FY2014-2017)US$78.13 billion (FY2015-2018)US$4.9 billion (FY2015-2018)US$0.97 billion (FY2015-2018)
Sources of revenueRing-fenced education grants, Settlement funding assessment, council taxes, special and specific grants, HRAs, capital grants and receiptsBusiness taxes, capital IFA (Inter-fund agreements), Disallowance of Categorical Grants, Federal Categorical Grants, Miscellaneous Revenues, Other Categorical Grants, Other Taxes, Personal Income Tax,Real Property Tax, Sales Tax, State Categorical Grants, Unrestricted inter-governmental aidOctroi taxes and duty, property tax, various receipts, interests, grants, supervision charges, service charges, development chargesFees, fines, service charges, cesses, property taxes, recoveries, statutory deductions, GoI grants, GoK grants, interests
Avg exp on IT(LAST 3 YEARS) US$47.22 millionUS$515.4 millionUS$46 millionUS$160 million
Per capita (city council) employed0.042086689420.038338362570.0048826291080.001565217391
Per capita (city council) budget3583.6177479138.011696230.046948484.34782609

 

 

 

[1] http://ukpopulation2016.com/population-of-london-in-2016.htmlhttps://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/current-future-populations.pagehttps://data.cityofnewyork.us/City-Government/Expense-All-Funds/am45-6syqhttp://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/downloads/pdf/misc/workforce_profile_report_12_30_2013.pdf, https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/2015-16MayorsCapitalSpendingPlan.pdfhttps://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/2015-16%20Final%20Budget.pdfhttp://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/sites/default/files/images/londoncouncils/LGFrevenuefundingfinallargge.JPG, http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/node/4929http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Policy%20themes/Local%20government%20finance/Total_Funding_15-16_01_0.jpg.

[2] ibid

[3]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/citizen-services-likely-to-be-hit-as-bbmp-employees-set-to-protest-on-monday/articleshow/62973932.cms, http://bbmp.gov.in/documents/10180/2746234/Final+BBMP+Budget+Book+Revised+9-6-2017+-+Copy.pdf/377be30a-60e8-46de-89d8-6c4c67da8b53http://des.kar.nic.in/docs/Projected%20Population%202012-2021.pdfhttp://bbmp.gov.in/budgets.

[4]http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-41464636http://www.mcgm.gov.in/irj/go/km/docs/documents/MCGM%20Department%20List/Chief%20Accountant%20(Finance)/Budget/Budget%20Estimate%202017-2018/1.%20MC’s%20Speech/Budget%20A%2CB%2CG/ENGLISH%20SPEECH.pdfhttp://www.mcgm.gov.in/irj/go/km/docs/documents/MCGM%20Department%20List/Chief%20Accountant%20(Finance)/Budget/Budget%20Estimate%202015-2016/1.M.C’s%20Speech/English%20Speech%20Budget%20A,B,G.pdf.

[5] Appadurai, A. (1993). Number in the colonial imagination.

Internships at Fields of View

Recently, we were asked, what intern profiles do you seek at Fields of View. For a minute, we were wondering what to say .

We have had interns whose backgrounds range from law, social sciences, technology, and art. We conduct workshops and courses at design colleges, architecture colleges, as well as engineering colleges. Our projects are at the intersection of art, design, technology, and social sciences, and so we necessarily need people from diverse backgrounds to participate, and the profiles of all researchers at Fields of View and our interns mirrors this need for diversity. We realized the only possible answer to the question of what intern profile we seek is to say that we are discipline agnostic.

Image 1 – Some interns who have worked with us in the past.

Mail work@fieldsofview.in if you are interested in pursuing an internship here, with details of your background and what areas you are interested in.

Day – 2 Global Goals Jam

Day -2

Day 2 was about prototyping. There were exciting brainstorming sessions and discussions to design interventions for the  problem statements identified by each of the teams. The teams produced different prototypes that modeled their intervention, which included a booklet, videos, and visualizations.

    

The design interventions the teams came up included:

  1. An institutional framework to provide micro-entrepreneurs with timely credit after a natural disaster
  2. An activity module for students that would spark discussions on gender perceptions
  3. A handout ‘Leave to Stay’ on easy-to-implement policies to make an organization gender inclusive
  4. A reframing of the craftspersons and artisans so that they are seen as a champion of sustainability — and how the Indian craftspersons and artisans can provide an alternative way of conceptualizing sustainability in India.
  5. A competition — ‘Attack the Pack’ to spark research and innovation in designing ecologically safe and economically viable packing materials and waste management processes for FMCG companies

 

The two-day high energy jam then ended with the participants demonstrating their prototypes, and thought-provoking discussions on what support these interventions needed to move from a prototype stage to a fully developed product stage.

Day 1 of the Global Goals Jam at FoV

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a United Nations initiative and they came into effect from January 2016. The 17 SDGs form a set of Global Goals with 169 specific targets to be achieved before 2030. These 17 Goals build on the successes of the previous 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focusing on inclusion, collaboration and cooperation.

 

Global Goals Jam is a world wide jam being held across 15 cities across the globe where creative teams of designers, developers and jammers from the local community would come together and brainstorm over a two-day sprint to deliver innovative solution prototypes focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

For the India jam, we had 18 participants from different backgrounds, including arts, social sciences, technology, development and design.

 

1.       Pallavi Sharma Photography, design, art
2.      Mohit Varyani Development studies student APU
3.      Vaishali Rao Energy, livelihoods, social entrepreneurship
4.      Anisha Nazareth IT, Sustainable sities and communities
5.      Agam Arora Design
6.      Sucharita Eashwar Enabling women’s entrepreneurship
7.      Miguel Computer Science
8.      Arzu Mistry Artist, educator
9.      Subir Rana Sociology, Anthropology, Ethnography
10.  Madonna Thomas Architect, Urban design, public transport systems
11.  Olga Alexandrova Sustainability, agriculture
12.  Tejas Shah IIIT H
13.  Morgan Campbell Urban Planning, public policy, Gender, transport
14.  Brindaalakshmi K Marketing and communications
15.  Jayasimha K IT
16.  Tushant Jha Cognitive science
17.  Sabira Lakhani Waste management, circular economics
18.  Aakarsh Sustainable cities

 

The Jam began in the morning at 10:30am with a short briefing and introduction to the UN SDGs and the Global goals. The participants were grouped into 5 teams and they focused on SDG 1, SDG 5, SDG 11. They were also introduced to the Fields of View methodology to design for complex problems. The Fields of View methodology involves a guided process involving two phases — the problem articulation phase and the design phase.

The participants went through both the phases today with great success. The first phase, i.e. the problem articulation phase, involves participants working through different activities that lets them generate a common problem statement.

 

The problem articulation phase is then followed by the design phase, where the participants work together to imagine futures and figure out how to design for these transformations.

 

 

Day 2 will follow with prototyping and presentation of the same by the respective teams.

What is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children?

‘Zero Hunger’ is the second sustainable development goal, the first being no poverty. The key to achieving both these goals lies in ‘all people at all times having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food  that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’, which is how ‘food security’ is defined as. And what holds the key to food security is agriculture, on which around 40 per cent of our population directly depends on for their livelihood. Given that agriculture and food security are such key concerns, how is our Government planning for it, how much are we investing in it, and what does our union budget have to say about that? These were some of the questions tackled by Dr. Madhura Swaminathan, Professor at the Economic Analysis Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore, in her lecture on ‘Food security and agriculture: Implications of current policy and budget’. The lecture was organised by our neighbour in south Bangalore, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, as part their annual lecture series on budgets.

Even before going into issues of access, the first question that comes up when it comes to food security is do we have enough? Do we have sufficient food to feed a population of little more than a billion people? According to Dr. Madhura, up to the 90s the answer to that question was yes. The graph of food production she showed hovered above the line tracking our population growth. But after the 90s, the situation reversed, which is bad news for both sides — those who grow food and those who eat food.

How badly have the producers of food been affected? For starters, there is little data on income of producers, said Dr. Madhura. To address this paucity of data, a group of scholars including Dr. Madhura conducted detailed surveys of 5000 households in 22 villages as part of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI). From the income data collected, Dr. Madhura highlighted two observations — one of extreme inequality. In the same village there are farmers who earn around Rs. 29 lakh a year, and others who barely make do. The other was of what she termed as ‘negative income’, where what you earned was less than what you spent. A significant number of farmer households have negative incomes. This leads farmers to abandon farming entirely, which exacerbates the situation we have now where already the food we produce isn’t enough for us all to be food secure.

Why?

Why is agriculture not making profits for these small (less than 2 hectare holding size) and marginal (less than one hectare holding size) farmers? First is that the input costs (seeds, fertilisers, machinery, etc) have shot up, something that is particularly hard on the small and marginal farmers. Second, the Minimum Support Price set by the Government isn’t enough to compensate for the investments that have gone in.

What then is the Government doing?

Not nearly enough, said Dr. Madhura. Though newspaper headlines hailed an almost 94 per cent increase in Government spending on agriculture, she said the increase was the result of some deft statistical jugglery with ‘interest subvention’. When the Government gives banks money so that they can then lend to farmers (or any sector) at a reduced rate of interest, it is termed as ‘interest subvention’. The money allocated thus for interest subvention goes to the banks, and not to farmers directly. The amount Government allocates for interest subvention for agriculture was earlier not added to the agricultural budget, but this year it was. And the sum of Rs. 15,000 crore allocated to interest subvention accounts for the gigantic leap into agricultural acchedin. What happens if you remove that figure? What you the get is an increase of around Rs. 7000 crore, which would not have garnered the kind of headlines that the budget did. (For a detailed analysis of why the allocation ‘math for the agricultural sector in the budget doesn’t add up’, go here.)

If we take away the interest subvention, does the figures still indicate an increased spending in agriculture?

If you look at spending in agriculture as a percentage of GDP, in 2012-13, it was 0.3 and in 2016-17 it is again 0.3. Therefore, it isn’t a big difference from what has happened earlier.

But the interest subvention has been increased from Rs. 13,000 crore to Rs. 15,000 crore. Isn’t that a good thing?

Apparently not, said Dr. Madhura. As mentioned earlier, the money given for interest subvention goes to the banks and not the farmers. One study shows that most credit goes to urban and metropolitan banks rather than rural banks and is disbursed to either large farmers or even large corporates. For instance, if a soft drink company wants to put up an irrigation system, it would be eligible for a loan. Therefore, the small and marginal farmers, who are in dire need of timely and affordable credit, are not the main beneficiaries. (For more on how ‘rural’ is agricultural credit, go here. The op-ed piece draws from studies by the same authors Dr. Madhura referred to.)

In this scenario, what happens to people who need food? We are worse off than all our neighbours when it comes to malnutrition figures, and so there is no question that there are a large number of desperate people who need immediate attention.

What are we doing for nearly 30 per cent of India’s children who are underweight? (For more on the ‘overlooked malnutrition crisis in India’, go here.)

Not much, according to Dr. Madhura. There has been a gradual policy shift toward targeted schemes, where the Government ‘targets’ who needs attention, rather than go toward universal food security. Now targeting has two kinds of errors – errors of inclusion and exclusion. If those who don’t need subsidised food get it, it is an error of inclusion. If those who need it don’t get it, it is an error of exclusion. The focus has been on errors of inclusion, because you can estimate financially what that error costs you. On the other hand, the error of exclusion is tricky.

For example, what is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children?

What happens when people who need the food don’t get it? Malnutrition, disease, inter-generational issues — all these are intangibles, and therefore difficult to put a cost on. Numbers can prove to be tyrannical. Easily quantifiable, something that can be plotted in graphs and charts is tangible, and something that evades that kind of easy quantification becomes an almost ephemeral entity. If there is no calculable cost to not giving children food they need, then it becomes intangible, a non-headline grabbing entity that fades into and falls off the margins.

Before asking the question of what is the cost of not feeding India’s malnourished children, the, more crucial question becomes, should we know the answer to that to make us do something about it?

An aria in Babel or what happened at DotXDab

What happens when artists meet coders meet journalists meet scientists meet …? Different people, diverse disciplines, multiple voices, and many ways of seeing. Will there be a Tower of Babel tangle of tongues? Or will we witness an emergence, a gradual becoming, an unrehearsed harmony?

We were curious, and decided to hold Dot Cross Dab, a one-day design jam on April 2, 2016, where we invited artists, coders, journalists, scientists, … — you get the picture. Twelve brave souls joined us, who were split into groups of three.

The first group had Ayontika Paul, a writer; Antony William, who teaches at the National Institute of Design, Bangalore; and Tanmayee Narendra, a student of computer science at IIIT-Bangalore. The second group had Padmini Ray Murray, who teaches at Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology; Shramana Dey, an environmental scientist; and Angshuman Das, a student from IIIT-B. Shakti Banerjee, who teaches at the National Institute of Design; Anisha Nazareth, a student from IIIT-B; and Akash Hans, an artist who works in advertising, were in the third group. And the final group had Karthik Krishnaswamy, a sports journalist; Adishesh Iyengar, who runs a start-up; and Soumitro, a student at the NID, Bangalore.

 

Ways of seeing

The teams were given a choice — either they could design on their own, or they could have a firsthand experience of the FoV methodology, which we use in-house for interdisciplinary design. All the teams chose to go with the FoV methodology.

The theme of the first edition of DotXDab was ‘Equity in the City’. At the outset, every one individually mulled over different lenses with which you could view the theme. Caste, class, gender, education, access, appearance — these were just some of the different lenses folks came up with.

The lenses went up on the wall on post-it notes, and slowly a clustering began to emerge.

Collectively, the participants debated over different lenses, and each group found an affinity to a certain lens, with which they worked with through the course of the day.

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

Now that the lenses were chosen, the teams split up to discuss about what was the problem they wanted to focus on, and think through different dimensions of the problem. The problem formulation session had two parts — the first where the team thought over the problem they wanted to design for, and the second part where they listed different actors who affected the problem, and who were affected by it.

The first team chose to focus on how external appearance affects the way you ‘see’ different people.

The second team focused on how language creates barriers rather than bridges.

The third team wanted to recreate that lost sense of community by bringing people together for fun,

and the fourth wanted to think about the problem of loitering at night.

FRAMING THE FUTURE

Post-lunch, the teams focused on designing an artifact that would address the problem they chose, and presented it to others at the end of the day.

 

Is what you see what you get?

The first team came up with a song (and sang it too, with chorus and all) that spoke about how what you see is not always what you get.

The Language Cafe

The second team came up with a ‘Language cafe’, where Kannada can meet Bhojpuri over coffee and kodubale, and in doing so understand each other a bit better. The ‘Language Cafe’ is an end-to-end concept, complete with a curriculum, a flag, hashtags, and a detailed schematic for an app.

Talk to me

The third team came up with a message board — something you can perhaps soon spot in elevators or corridors of apartment complexes. With empty pockets of spaces, the board invites you to fill in messages for your neighbours to see — ‘Cricket match at Apartment #304’ or ‘Congratulations to Seema from #402 on completing tenth standard!’

Stories of the night

The fourth team who wanted to encourage people to loiter at night, first came up with the idea of creating a map that could travel on different streets, where you could add on your own story of what happened that night.

Building on that idea, the team came up with a ‘Story machine’, a machine that prints you someone else’s story of the night if you tell it one of your own.

The team invited someone from the other groups to tell a story, as they had a quick prototype to convert speech into text that could be printed out.

From a broad theme of ‘Equity in the City’ there emerged four different ideas of how to make the city a bit better. And lest we forget, the idea of what that ‘better’ meant was debated, discussed, and decided over many cups of buttermilk, nippatu from Nippatu Nagaraj, and organic millet cookies from Orgtree.

We leave you with the song – to be spoken out to the beat of 1-2-123. Last two lines tobereadwithoutstoppingforbreath. And the chorus goes

‘What you see is what you get.

What you see, you soon forget’

– sung twice between each stanza.

 

Sumandro on data, people, and smart cities

For the second podcast of our Smart city podcast series, we have Sumandro Chattapadhyay, a Research Director at Center for Internet and Society (http://ajantriks.net/).

You can listen to the entire podcast below. We apologise for a drop in audio quality after 9.47 due to a technical glitch.

In case the embedded audio doesn’t work, you can download the entire podcast here.

Some of the highlights of the conversation are in the post below.

Smart cities is the usage of certain sensor-driven methods of measuring various patterns of urban life, analyzing that, and acting upon that analysis through various network actuators,says Sumandro. In the Indian context, smart cities are seen more as an “infrastructural initiative” where the Government is interested in developing more efficient systems for urban management, and attracting private investment for such initiatives. He points out two areas where it is probably still early to say how things will pan out. One is about the kind of responsibilities private investment will have when it comes to public infrastructure and the other is about how different government verticals will talk to each other. In the past too, the Government has attempted to use information as a resource to better manage different verticals such as water management, waste management, etc. The challenge continues to be integration of these verticals.

Given Sumandro’s ongoing work with open data, another area where he thinks more clarity would be welcome is about how the Government would share open data related to smart cities. Though the Government has spoken about initiatives like a data portal for cities, it is still not clear what shape such portals would take, and what potential there is for the different kinds of data to be compared and understood across cities.

There are a lot of concerns raised about people’s participation in smart cities, and according to Sumandro, “participation is not a smart city issue – participation is a city issue.” Drawing a distinction between people’s participation in administration, people’s participation in democratic governance, and people’s participation in technological decisions, he says that while we have a sense of how to involve people in administrative processes, it is still unclear how to do the same when it comes to technological decisions. Overall, he says there is more clarity required when it comes to different aspects of technological policy and urban policy, and the ways in which these two overlap and inform each other.

Citizen Engagement in the Indian Smart Cities Challenge

ISCC

The Government of India has initiated the Smart Cities Challenge, where they let the states nominate cities that meet the necessary criteria. Among the different entries submitted, 98 cities were shortlisted for the challenge.

Between August and October 2015, the selected cities will further develop their proposals for the final round. It is interesting to see the different approaches being adopted by the cities in this round, while one consistent theme being online modes of citizen engagement. The city councils are planning to interact with citizens in various ways to get feedback about the kind of smart cities they desire.

While cities like Trichy and Vishakapatnam have prepared a questionnaire to share with citizens, but I couldn’t find the links, not sure where they are hidden. Nagpur, on the other hand, wants to go door-to-door and interact with citizens for smart city concepts. Rajkot came up with a unique concept of wanting to paint graffiti on city walls with ‘social messages’; which is a lot of work for artists, says our in-house artist Kshiraja. Agra Municipal Corporation invited intellectuals, social workers, doctors, businessmen and other dignitaries of the city to discuss the smart city project; it does seem to leave out large sections of the general population. Hubli-Dharwad distributed 2 lakh leaflets to its citizens, but I do wonder how that would translate to collecting the citizens’ opinions. Indore on the other hand, has its own website. IMC launched a social media campaign to get feedback and suggestions from residents. The Mangaluru City Corporation organised essay writing competitions for students and general public about smart cities. Kakinada City is quite active on Facebook and they opted to use the digital route to collect data and suggestions from citizens.

City Modes of Engagement with Citizens
Trichy www.mygov.in/group-issue/ smart-city-tiruchirappalli
Vishakapatnam www.mygov.in
Nagpur Door to Door Citizen Engagement
Rajkot Wall Painting Competition
Agra Agra Municipal Corporation invited intellectuals, social workers, doctors, businessmen and other dignitaries of the city to discuss the smart city project
Hubli-Dharwad
Indore Social media campaign to invite suggestions from residents on smart city project, www.smartcityindore.org
Mangalore The Mangaluru City Corporation has organised essay writing competitions for students
Udaipur Udaipur sets up 100 booths asking citizens’ priorities for smart city
Kakinada http://facebook.com/smartkakinada
Bubhaneshwar Children Voice Opinions on Smart City

 

It’s really interesting to see how every city has got its own approach in reaching out to public for their opinions and suggestions. Bhubhaneshwar engaged with children and they got some interesting feedback about transportation, waste management and also how elders need to change their behaviour toward children. One step closer to being a child friendly city!

Here is the link of 98 nominated cities, every city page has got its own feedback link where you can share your opinion and suggestions.

Secrets of Bengaluru’s lakes

Kantereeva stadium was once upon a time, which is not so recent past, Sampangi lake. The Cantonment and the Pete had a tug of war as to how the lake had to be used. A part of it was allotted for recreation. And a part of it was important for some people’s livelihoods. The same tug of war continues today – lakes continue to be seen as either a space for recreation and aesthetic expression, rather than a space that has a more fluid identity — an identity that the people who were once its stewards, and now marginalized, struggle for.

Here are some photographs of the talk by Hita Unnikrishnan, a doctoral scholar at ATREE, Bangalore, where she delved into the history of Bengaluru’s lakes combined with her field studies, and showed us the myriad ways people have relationships with lakes — from using the lakeside for livelihood (fishing, collection of greens, fodder collection, etc.) and other more uncommon uses (burial ground for monkeys, ceremonies, and rituals).

The talk was part of our Research in Play series.

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