Letter Home from Ahmedabad, India

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics Spring 2014 program:

New York City was a cocktail of raw talent, concentrated within blocks and blocks of an urban planner’s dream landscape.  As we, IHP Cities in the 21st Century students, skated up and down the grid, no borough was left untouched.  Our frost bitten hands furiously took notes on anything and everything.  After two weeks of introductions, classes, and presentations we were left more than confused by the fundamentals we had once believed in.  As we began to question ourselves and our understandings, we also began to yield to the blindingly spontaneous nature of the program.  As this wave of spontaneity inspired several students to belt their favorite tunes on the bus to the airport, in what would become a bus ritual, an uneasy, nauseous feeling crept into our stomachs.  Taking our seats on the flight to Ahmedabad, India no one quite knew the adventure we had in store.

After a mere 24 hours, we arrived in Ahmedabad at a ripe 4am.  The hot, sweet air enveloped our skin as our country coordinators, Sonal Mehta and Persis Ginwalla, eagerly waved from beyond the airport barricade.  We were dropped off at a fancy, western-style hotel where the jet lag soon began to set in.  Many of us, however, put our tiredness aside and thrust out into the sun-strewn streets of Ahmedabad with newly focused eyes.  Within these first few hours the left-side, lane-less driving and crosswalk- and sidewalk-less roadways awakened our senses.  This was our first foray into the world of non-linearity; of grey spaces, as a lecturer later explained.  At first shocked and disoriented, we soon got our Ahmedabadi legs and began to consider this city, full of contradictions and idiosyncrasies, home.

The combination of experiential learning coupled with our in classroom analytical work pushed us to link the abstract with the physical.  Our first lecturer, Professor Riyaz Tayyibji, helped us reflect on what we had observed as muddled grey “in-between” areas strategically placed within the winding streets.  He discussed how these streets are a product of the natural flow of waterways and how this gives way to grey areas, or places with an unclear specificity of purpose.  This conversation set the tone for our understanding of Ahmedabad; classroom conversations would help ground our physical observations as we attempted to make sense of the unfamiliar and “grey”.

Our primary mode of transport was auto rickshaw—essentially a fortified gold cart on three wheels brightly painted and ubiquitous on the Indian roadway.   Like the NYC subway, we realized the friendly drivers could take us wherever we needed to go.  Each morning, the place was St. Xavier’s College where Sonal and Persis had painstakingly curated an engaging and comprehensive program for us.  Day by day, our sense of Ahmedabad history grew and the current sociopolitical context came into focus.

During our first week, we journeyed to Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram.  The historical prestige of this place permeates the city.  It was in this city that Gandhi lived and worked; reflected and planned.  It was from this city that he launched his infamous Dandi (salt) march in 1930.  Here, the roots of Gandhi’s philosophy gave way to Hindu nationalism and propelled the nation into independence.

And so, it was with uneasiness that from this hallowed place, we first began to glimpse the tensions at play within Ahmedabad’s society.  For within the calm tranquility of this place, we were encircled by the newly constructed, and highly contested, riverfront development project promoted by the current state Chief Minister Narendra Modi, frontrunner in the next Indian prime minister elections.  The Sabarmati Riverfront Project was to become one of our central themes of study, bringing to light questions of citizenship, informal versus formal housing, and property rights.  This riverfront project, however, is just one of many examples of Ahmedabad’s heralded growth and development schemes.

Though Ahmedabad is rapidly changing, consistently confronting large-scale issues, and disrupting ways of life, we found our homestays to be islands of calm where we quickly felt at ease.  Warm and welcoming, our “aunties,” “uncles,” and host siblings were eager to learn about us, our families and friends, and our lifestyles.  They invited us to weddings, took us on road trips, and even proposed to some of us, happily showing us a piece of their culture.  Dinners were always home-cooked and delicious.  Composed of fresh ingredients obtained at the local markets, the mouth-watering smells filled our homes.  Although adjusting to the spiciness and continuous refilling of our plates by our host mothers was a challenge at first, we soon learned to love the many new flavors and how to say “enough” (“bus”).  Chai tea became a universal favorite and a symbol of hospitality that we came to enjoy several times a day.  With the continual aid of our host families, slowly but surely we began to adjust to the rhythm of Ahmedabad.

The middle class comfort we experienced in our homestays contrasted starkly with the lives of the informal settlement dwellers we began to meet in our second week of classes.  The agglomeration of tents, lean-tos, and small brick structures where these Ahmedabadis live is perpetually at risk of destruction by the state, ahead of the redevelopment schemes we saw blossoming throughout the city.  Although “slum” dwellers make less than $100 annually in some cases, often selling homemade products, keeping small shops, or working in dangerous construction or sanitation jobs, we found that the residents did not lose their sense of agency and were able to retain their family life and cultural traditions.

One defining characteristic of Indian society is the caste system.  The highly complex and all-encompassing social stratification system fascinated us. Although initially linked to the Hindu religion, the caste system affected every member of the city.  The potency of this system left many of us to question the own ways in which our own society is stratified.

This issue of caste was illuminated when we headed into the field with the sanitation workers’ union to explore issues of waste management and industrialization.  These Ahmedabadis working in sanitation jobs belong to the lowest segment of the lowest sector of the lowest caste.  With no protection against the waste they are collecting, many workers fall sick or even die.  The men and women of the community shared their stories with us.  They generously invited us into their homes and told us of their fight for principles such as permanent work contracts and higher wages.  They gave us a tour of their neighborhood; an informal settlement built on top of the landfill where their daily trash collections are deposited.

As we stumbled wide-eyed through these communities, excitedly exchanging high-fives, we remembered lecturer Rutul Joshi’s motto: as members of society, we’re not stuck in traffic—we are the traffic.  While we question the definition of citizenship, the legality of redevelopment, and the pre-development nature of Ahmedabad public policy, we constantly grappled with Professor Joshi’s words.  We cannot offer or even identify immediate solutions to these vast social concerns, but we can recognize that we are a part of the social system.  Still we knew we had only studied a minute portion of the highly complex and intricate Indian society.

Students who took a weekend vacation to the Taj Mahal came to see that the struggles of wealth and poverty, power and subjugation, have existed for centuries.  An opulent palace like the Taj was the almost obsessive project of Shah Jahan in memory of his late third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  Taking 22 years to build, the Taj is now a stunning white marble monument contrasting the clear blue sky.  The greatness of this project fell, however, on the backs of thousands of laborers who were perhaps no less mobile than the marginalized communities we met with Ahmedabad.

As the days passed, the questions within our minds swelled.  How can we judge the merits of the riverfront beautification project, one group asked, when this enormous public park was built at the expense of thousands of informal settlement dwellers, displaced and then resettled kilometers away from employment and transportation?  How can we applaud the technically advanced Bus Rapid Transit system, another group asked, when its high cost excludes the most vulnerable in favor of the upper and middle class population?  The still fresh scars of the 2002 violent riots against Muslims in Ahmedabad left questions of how the city can progress while ignoring the continued religious tensions infiltrating both physical and social spheres of the city.  Complexities of the historic preservation process and Ahmedabad’s desire to obtain UNESCO World Heritage status reminded us of the issue of gentrification we encountered in New York City; the pressures of retaining the old while conceding to the new.

As our month of study came to a close, we agreed that while the massive growth seen in Gujarat seemed to hold great promise, it simultaneously reinforced patterns of religious, economic, gender, and social inequality.  As we continued to consider Professor’s Joshi’s words, “we are the traffic”, our curiosities and reflections only ushered in more questions.  Of our many varied questions, though, one common answer was revealed.  Yes, Ahmedabad is a land of grey areas – but we now see that this grey is a blend of countless colors, flavors, faces, and stories that we won’t soon forget.

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