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.

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.

Smart Cities and the Internet of Things

Since 2008 the urban population has been rapidly outgrowing the rural population; huge numbers of people migrate to the cities for a variety of different reasons (economic, environmental and health), even in developing countries the majority of people are expected to be living in cities by 2017.

This means two things – more stress on the environment in already crowded natural resource draining areas and far less individuals living in rural spaces. With more and more agricultural workers moving to the cities, farming areas are quickly being taken over by large companies and mechanized. This has a knock on effect environmentally and also socially as farming on a large scale requires carbon emitting equipment and the corporations leading this do not have the local peoples’ interest in mind – or even the consumer’s. Organic farming is quickly being phased out in favour of mass scale agriculture.

Whilst from a GDP perspective this is seen as beneficial especially for developing economies, this does not represent the full impact on human and natural capital. How can we more intelligently measure this impact on environmental and social sustainability?

With over 30 billion sensor enabled objects being connected to networks by 2020 and a huge amount of sensors already available, the impact of economic disparity and environmental damage can be measured across a number of different metrics. The key factor is being able to turn large amounts of data into something meaningful, take insights from it and find a point to target; collecting and aggregating data is unfruitful unless change is found. Being able to quantify data that was not even possible to collect before allows the bridging of the gap between the physical world and computer based systems – creating the possibility of new initiatives which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible to imagine. The real challenge is finding what data to measure, how to combine it and what insights/meaningful data can be derived from these aggregations.

This is especially important for inorganically growing cities like Bangalore. The definition of a Smart City is ambiguous; whilst it relates to technology the idea of automated traffic lights and timed sprinklers does not make a city ‘Smart’. It more importantly describes how a city can engage its citizens to enhance public resources and maximising its potential in a sustainable fashion.

₹ubbish! goes to Hebbal

So far we have played ₹ubbish! board game with participants from Hasirudala, ELCITA, city planners and researchers. This time we wanted to take this game and play at a ward level, which could give us some valuable feedback.

We chose to play our first game at Hebbal ward, I invited a few students to play this game. Two students from NMIT, two students from M.S.Ramiah, and 1 from Florence High School. The idea was to have a mixed audience from same locality.

As you can see in the picture, the game started with people going after well known wards like Koramangala and Malleshwaram thinking it would generate more waste, but in reality areas like Chikpet, Yeshwanthpur generate more waste. Amount of waste generated is based on real data, which was collected by ₹ubbish! game designers at FoV. The game went on till 14 rounds, the players could only manage to build in 9 out of 18 wards. The game went on for about 40 mins.

RubbishHebbal

Interestingly, the two final semester mechanical students from NMIT, who had opted for solid waste management as their elective were aware of the present situation in Bangalore. In the first 4 rounds they spent most of the money on expensive wards thus making it hard for them to generate money.

At round 8, the landfill started to rise and the game dynamics changed. Players tried their best to adapt to the situation as quickly as possible, but it was too late.

Participants enjoyed the game and it was an exciting end to our first game session at ward level. Some of the participants were not aware about most of the garbage problems and also said it was good to know about landfills and about other garbage related issues.

We look forward to playing the game in more wards, to see what the feedback we get.

A few comments on ‘Our Metropolis’

Traffic woes in Bangalore are now taken to be “a given”. With the urban agglomeration crossing a population of 1 crore, and the vehicular population crossing 50 lakhs, 70% of which are two-wheelers, it has been long argued that what Bangalore needs is a mass-transit solution. The Namma Metro project has thus been heralded as a panacea for the traffic woes of Bangalore.

While the political and popular media rhetoric around the Metro has been that of its delays and/or its usefulness, what has not been as prevalent in the media are perspectives from people who have opposed the project for various reasons, be it the lack of transparency, the effect of political clout, not identifying other possible options, etc.

Gautam Sonti and Usha Rao’s movie Our Metropolis is one such attempt to show the story of the Metro (along with stories of the road widening efforts, and development of flyovers/signal free corridors in Bangalore) from these perspectives. We attended the screening of the movie at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) on 24 August, which was attended by the creators of the movie as well as a few of the people featured in the movie. The movie itself is not from an activist’s perspective. As Gautam and Usha said at the discussion after the screening, they are movie makers and observers, documenting what is close to their hearts – the dramatically changing landscape of Bangalore. And they question whether these changes are always for the better.

The movie follows the story of the Metro from 2008 to 2013, to show the side of things where people lost their homes, a large number of trees were felled, and political and executive clout suppressed voices which spoke against the project. From a transportation policy perspective, the movie documents some of the effects a top-down, non-transparent, ostensibly non-inclusive, and uncoordinated policy making has on people who live in the city, through the lenses of a few exemplars. The discussions following the movie primarily focussed on the shortcomings of the Metro and road widening projects in Bangalore, with two of the people featured in the movie arguing for other mass transit options.

As one of the people featured in the movie says, “Somehow the problem has become that of moving traffic, not people!”. Transportation infrastructure and policies have to reflect a broad-based, long-term goal of moving from a personal transport based travel to transit-based multi-modal ways of mobility. This, however, is easier said than done. To achieve this lofty goal, some of the things required are systemic changes in how policies are made, how contracting is carried out, how the infrastructure is governed, and what role each of the stakeholders at the city and State levels have.

So if one were to ask if long-term mass-transit options, which sometimes require a heavy upfront capital cost, are needed in Bangalore, the answer is probably a yes. The costs and benefits of such projects are always hard to calculate, but what is imperative to see instead is who are bearing these costs and who are reaping the benefits?

Finally, what is also required is a space for dialogue between the conflicting groups of people. With projects such as the Metro, there is inevitably going to be conflicts. But with a lack of dialogue, what results are echo chambers operating in silos, with one voice overpowering the others.

Research in Play 1 – talk by Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram

Be it mohalla sabhas or mygov.in, community participation is in. But the question emerges, who can take part in these conversations, who does not, and what about those who cannot?

The idea of citizen engagement rests on the idea of citizen – someone who enjoys legitimacy, by having certain rights and responsibilities. This legitimacy is linked to legal sanction too – when you go to vote you have an id-card, something that proclaims your right to have your finger inked.

What about those who don’t have ration cards because they do not have a home or they live in spaces that are not valid in the eyes of law? How can they too be citizens, how can they too participate in these discussions of policy and law that affect their lives?

DSC04724Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk on ‘Community participation: panacea or pipe dream’ spurred the audience to debate these questions. She is a visiting postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and is currently in India on a senior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies for her project ‘Can the urban poor speak’. Her fieldwork in four non-notified slums in Delhi and slums in Bangalore focused on how people in the slums fight for certain services such as sanitation, and how community participation is used in different ways to pressure and be heard in order to achieve those services.

DSC04736

Even though for conceptual ease, slums are seen as a monolithic category, if you take into account the specifics related to services such as sanitation and water and land tenure, there are many differences between Delhi and Bangalore.

For instance in one slum researched by Dr. Soundarya, women in the slum faced safety issues caused by young men in their own slum. On the other hand, during conversations we had with women’s activists researching for the Convers(t)ation project, we were told that in slums in Bangalore, there is a sense of protecting ‘our women’. In both the cases, there is a patriarchal culture at play but in different ways. And understanding those differences becomes crucial in understanding the context – something that can eventually help in creating meaningful policy.

Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk was part of the ‘Research in Play’ series at FoV, where we host talks, discussions, and workshops at the intersection of theory and practice.

Fields of View at Anthill Hacks 2015

Anthill Hacks was one of the first open events I attended where we were free to propose and conduct sessions to a diverse set of audiences, with very few rules. The location of the event was extremely inviting too. We were going to play our games and hack on the picturesque and peaceful hills of Devarayanadurga. (This was also the first time I was going to drive on a highway – the fancy Bangalore – Tumkur connector.)

Kshiraja and I managed to reach the location by 10:30 in the morning while driving through peaceful state forests. It was a sunny but cool morning and the conference hall of the event overlooked the hills.

Anthill Hacks Event Location
Anthill Hacks Event Location
Conference room overlooking the hills
Conference room overlooking the hills

Dinesh (from Servelots) was our host and was there to greet us. He explained the events planned for the day and the overall objectives for the events.

The village we were at, and the surrounding villages are in a fairly remote location with very little digital communication to the outside world except for an occasional signal from a BSNL tower. Dinesh and his team have been studying methods and history of community content generation and dissemination as part of their research, including oral transfer of information, folk art and music, etc. He stated that these art forms and traditions served a similar purpose as the Internet in spreading information and local community and cultural development.

At the event Dinesh explained next to an exhibit of a colourful print from West Bengal, the tradition employed for content delivery in the form of prints and folk songs. He explained that it was common in small communities in West Bengal for local artists and folk singers to be employed to create prints and come up with songs to best convey everyday events, news and information to individual families. These songs would differ depending on information and intended audience and was ideal for the differently literate audience. Not everyone could read and write. We then discussed at what point we arrive at a definition of “literate” in a country where we had traditions for oral transfer of knowledge from one generation to another.

Dinesh’s team is involved in leveraging technology for mass communication and community development while promoting the use of open-source and freely accessible communication. His team is building a mesh network in the location to connect the remote village at the foot of the hill with other villages in the area and to the Internet itself using a gateway. Due to the remoteness of the villages and a small customer base, not all telecom companies provide coverage in the area.  It is interesting that Dinesh and his team are promoting open-source decentralised methods for connecting the last mile when there is a bitter argument going on nationally about Net-Neutrality in India.

Apart from the mesh network, he explained the use of community radio. He said that the challenge for community radio operators was the ability to respond to the overwhelming amount of participation. One of the tasks for the team is to develop possible apps to handle this process and open up community radio at the location.

Community Radio Setup
Dinesh explains the community radio setup

What is further interesting is how he intends to use all of this art and technology to demonstrate community action. He led us to a location where he had laid out various maps of the region on the floor. The current Open Street Map (OSM) of the area shows very little information except for the major roads. He contrasted that with an extremely old map of the area that was prepared to map the sources of tax collection. He now intends to use a group of a hundred school children, scheduled to arrive very soon, to map out the surroundings to make the area visible on an open platform.

Local Maps
Local Maps
Old Tax Map
Old Tax Map

On to our game sessions. Kshiraja and I proceeded to have some locally prepared poha and managed to get an audience to play a session of our “Rubbish! Kaasu Kasa” game based on the garbage situation in Bangalore. The audience included a mix of artists, open technology hackers, engineers, musicians, sculptors and researchers from around India. We had an interesting session of the game where the participants were involved in heated strategic discussions to do something about Bangalore’s garbage problem.

After the game session we were able to spend some time with Renu Mukunda, a veteran researcher in the area of Urban Poverty. We compared notes and discussed at length about each others’ research and notes.  We had a quick, simple and a delicious lunch of palav (not pulav!), before it was time to play again.

Kshiraja and I managed to rally another group of players to play a session of our City Game. This was definitely one of the most interesting sessions we have had. First and foremost we were playing a game session on the face of a gentle slope of a hill, under an open sky, overlooking all the hills and villages in the area. Second, we had an interesting mix of audience from researchers, artists to kids. And finally this was one of the first sessions that I had to do the briefing and de-briefing sessions in three languages, English, Kannada and Hindi. (Although I wish I could speak Bangla and Tamil in order to have communicated better with the audience).

City Game on a hill
City Game on a hill
City Game on a hill 2
City Game on a hill

It was an interesting city with fish markers, art institutes, schools and low income housing. It was agreed that it is somewhat a small city to live in. Dinesh was enthusiastically building garbage dumps, breweries and canteens all over the city.

We managed to complete the game just before the evening showers hit. It was time to get back to my thesis and Monday Morning Meeting in Bangalore. We thanked Dinesh and promised that we would return to the beautiful venue again very soon.

And finally, the frustration of Bangalore traffic hit us as it took more time for us to get home from the border of Bangalore than it took for us to travel to Bangalore from a different city! But at least we got to get away from the city and play at a beautiful session at the event.

What is a Smart City?

The Government of India has recently launched major initiatives for building a large number of smart cities all around the country. Discussions on smart cities in India are generating a lot of debate around what it means to be a smart city.

During such discussions citizens are represented as residents who live in the city, perform various activities and are passive recipients of the city’s services. The interactions between them and the city is often reduced to an economical or a transactional one, without acknowledging the complexity of the relationship. Everyone is assumed to be a homogeneous ‘user’, and thus it becomes easy for us to imagine new cities with infrastructure, autonomous and automatic systems, regional plans, lots of glass and sensors, landscaped gardens, and various portrayals one is familiar through brochures. We are then led to estimate and imagine how existing systems would operate better by reducing the amount of time, costs, size, complexity, etc. In the race to make cities more “efficient”, we have not considered the implications of working towards a narrow definition of “efficiency”.

We fail to take into account the diversity around us, despite the popular cliché quoted about India as a highly diverse country with a diverse set of cultures, languages, and aspirations. We are diverse in terms of scale of urbanisation,  geographic size, economy and population. We also face inequality across the dimensions of economics, social stratification, and gender.

The current rhetoric on smart cities lack discussions on one or more of the above factors. Furthermore, the question of inequality and hence isolation of the poor from the city’s services is one of the problems facing established smart cities.

As we are poised at the cusp of establishing smart cities in India, we are presented with a unique opportunity. We can collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city for the Indian context, and build on that conception to design smart cities for different local Indian contexts.

What we then need is a process to elicit from citizens what their requirements and aspirations are for a smart city, which will then give us the base to design the appropriate city for a given location in the country. We may be able to use this method beyond India to define smart cities in other parts of the world or to evaluate existing ones.

Anthony Townsend in his book, Smart Cities, envisions a smart city where citizens if they wish are able to participate in the defining, design and governing of their city. What we call for are technologies that create processes that enable citizens to participate meaningfully in their city’s future.

The question then is, how do we collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city in the Indian context?

At Fields of View, we are designing initiatives for citizens to participate in defining, designing, and governing their city.

In an effort to understand how the current discourse on smart cities has shaped our understanding on Smart Cities, we have created a quick survey. The aim is to understand how we visualize a smart city and if we have a certain visual definition of the smart cities we would like to live in.

Please consider taking the survey here.

To know more, mail us at info at fieldsofview.in

References:

  1. Townsend, A. M. (2013). Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. WW Norton & Company.

How we designed waste profiles in ₹ubbish!

In ₹ubbish! each ward in Bangalore has a specific waste profile, which means that each ward generates a different amount of waste every round. What also differs from ward to ward is the amount of waste that actually reaches the DWCC. This is a reality in the city of Bangalore, some wards have a higher population, therefore they generate more waste.

After searching for some data we got our hands on detailed information about the amount of waste a group of DWCCs receives daily. This data was given to us by Hasirudala, and it was extremely helpful since now it was possible to make assumptions that were faithful to reality. Hasirudala manages 33 DWCCs in Bangalore, and they maintain information about the incoming and outgoing of waste daily.

From this data, we noticed that just a few wards actually received high amounts of waste daily. From 33 DWCCs, only 2 receive an average higher than 500 kg/day. And more than 50% receive less the 250 kg/day. The rest stays between 250 kg/day and 500 kg/day.

We used this information to create a simplified version of Bangalore. From 198 wards in the city we narrowed down to 18. Since the goal of the game is to build a DWCC in every ward, if the game had 198 wards each session would last a lifetime. Below you can see the current map of the game.

Rubbish! MapRubbish! Simplified map of Bangalore

This table shows our model of the wards in Bangalore and how much waste each of them generates every round. We also added how much that would cost to the player each round. The proportion between mixed, dry and segregated waste is something we had to speculate, since none of the DWCC we contacted could provide us with such detailed information.

Needless to say, this was a design decision we took to model this extremely complex context. Everything we designed is based in reality, not an exact representation of it.

Below are some of the cards we made to represent the storage in a DWCC, their waste profile and how much it costs per round.

DWCC Storage Cards

DWCC storage cards

What is education?

What does it mean to be “educated”? Does education necessarily mean a more heightened awareness about one’s role in society?

 

These are some questions that I was forced to ask myself after I met with John, the manager of the Dry Waste Collection Center (DWCC) near the Jayadeva Flyover. Let me tell you more about John. John comes from a family of scrap dealers. While thoughts of garbage generally trigger images of filth and refuse for most of us, the same object is a source of income for him. His grandfather forayed into scrap dealing in 1960, when Bangalore was still relatively small. His grandfather used to go around the city on foot and hand pick valuable trash. His father improved on this and bought himself an auto to collect waste. Now, he has enhanced his situation further by becoming the manager of a DWCC. He has a certificate to say that he has been trained to manage a DWCC, and he only recently passed the SSLC 10th standard exam. He calls himself “uneducated”.

 

John doesn’t consider himself a businessman, and isn’t in the scrap business for money. He himself admitted that since the DWCC doesn’t receive enough quantities of high value waste, he doesn’t cover the monthly expenses of running it. Curiously, this doesn’t seem to bother him a lot. Instead, John calls himself a social worker and thinks of his work as a service to society.

 

John was firmly convinced that if every citizen in Bangalore segregated their waste, garbage disposal wouldn’t be the problem that it is. “Today, we send our waste to landfills, dump everything into a hole and cover it up. We don’t deal with it the way we should. Maybe we can continue doing in my lifetime. But what about my children and grandchildren? They won’t have any more places to dump their waste, and they have to bear the brunt of our actions”, he said. A few bulk waste generators give their waste to John, and this waste is not segregated. When he tells them that segregation is very important if waste is to be recycled, they don’t listen to him, because “in their eyes, I’m only just an uneducated waste dealer”.

 

John believes that DWCC are a great way to make citizens more aware of the waste they generate. The landfill is like a black box – unsegregated waste is dumped there, and everyone except the people who live near the landfill are conveniently unaware of the repercussions of this unsustainable practice. Since DWCCs must be present in every ward, the citizens who live in that ward will be forced to come to terms with waste disposal, and the need to take some pro-active action (segregation, perhaps?) to ensure its sustainability.

 

After this discussion with John, we started walking on the footpath to catch an auto back. A man in a business suit nonchalantly chucked his used juice carton onto the footpath.