IHP Cities Spring 2016
When asked to describe her experience in India using just one word, a fellow student simply stated, “sensory.” We found this incredibly apt—Ahmedabad, India, captures and entrances every sense, overwhelming you with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels. One of our first rickshaw rides encapsulated this perfectly. The smell: clogging exhaust fumes and the musty scent of farm animals roaming the street. The sounds: an overwhelming raucous of horns, yells, and fireworks. The sights: colorful saris; flashing and blinking strands of lights; vehicle headlights; a flurry of activity. The taste: dust kicked up by the animals and vehicles. And the touch: a comfortable warm winter night with a cool breeze.
One of the first things we noticed upon our arrival was the warmth of the inhabitants of the city. The hospitable nature of the Amdavades was instantly endearing. We experienced this welcoming spirit within our first twenty-four hours in India. We woke up late in the afternoon practically delirious from our jetlag, but were quickly invigorated by a welcome ceremony prepared for us by Sonal, Persis, and many of the program’s volunteers. We were showered in flower petals, adorned with flower necklaces, given bindis, and invited to set aflame small tealight candles.
Aubrey and Caitlin post-ceremony
Caitlin and Sonal prior to leaving for Brazil
Caitlin and Persis prior to leaving for Brazil
These showcases of hospitality, however, were not limited to those intimately involved in our program. On numerous site visits, we were treated to steaming cups of chai tea, assortments of crackers and candies, and once even imported delicacies from Pakistan.
We were introduced to the streets of Ahmedabad through a historical walking tour of the old city the day after we arrived. The city of Ahmedabad was built inside a massive wall 600 years ago. It has since expanded beyond the walls and more recently to the other side of the Sabarmati River. The old city refers to the original area within the walls characterized by Pols, or multistory neighborhoods with connected houses and a strong history of community. Our walks were led by a guide who took us to temples and mosques and told us a bit about the history of Ahmedabad. We learned how the geography of the city impacted the daily experiences of the residents.
We are charged, this semester, with completing an independent research project, focusing on one urban issue and comparing our observations of this issue across the cities we visit. While we developed our topics in New York City, the observations and complexities we have experienced in Ahmedabad have significantly shaken these. Juan and Carmen, our traveling faculty, reminded us that if our comparative analysis (CA) project did not change in India something was wrong. The more we learned, saw, and experienced the more challenging it became to approach a topic. Although it was a frustrating process, the constant adjusting of our CA topics revealed many of our assumptions and challenged our notions of what we believed true of Indian society.
A recurring phrase during our time in Ahmedabad characterized India as “a land of immense contradictions.” Much of our time, both in academic settings and in our daily lives, had us trying to come to terms with those contradictions as the visible and visceral nature of inequality and discrimination revealed themselves. Emotions ranged from sadness to anger at the overt nature of the systemic injustice we observed.
Much like the United States’ official narrative of colorblindness, the official discourse in India continues to view caste-ism as a thing of the past. Reality showed this to be false: newspapers list marriage ads by caste; Dalit individuals (members of the lowest caste) continue to face discrimination as well as perform the most underpaid, menial jobs. A particularly stark example that touched many of us in the group of this was the suicide of Rohit Vermula, a Dalit student at The University of Hyderabad, whose powerful letter denounced the caste-ism that he personally experienced, as well as the reality of its pervasive nature in Indian society.
In our time in Ahmedabad we found that religious conflict marked the physical, economic and emotional landscapes of the city. In 2002, Ahmedabad experienced violent riots after a train caught fire in Gujarat resulting in the deaths of Hindu pilgrims. The incident was blamed on Muslims by the media and Hindu mobs were encouraged to commit violence. With the government’s tacit approval, thousands of Hindus descended on Muslim neighborhoods and committed atrocities. While officially listed as a communal riot with around 800 killed, many of the sources and individuals we spoke to described it as a genocide, and estimate that closer to 2,000 Muslims were killed. The legacy of this violence continues to lay its mark on the physical landscape of Ahmedabad, with barbed wire topped walls separating Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods. Muslim neighborhoods also have a stark lack of public services and face constant police harassment, as the ruling nationalist political party chooses to leave them in a redefining of India as a Hindu nation.
Our experience has been polarizing as we have studied the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project in our Urban Planning and Sustainable Development class (UP&SE). The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project is currently in the early stages, but the goal is for it to contribute to Ahmedabad’s global recognition as a riverfront city with public and private riverfront space. The concept of a “smart city” is being used to equate Ahmedabad to other major cities. Since other cities have used their riverfronts as a means of financial development, Ahmedabad similarly aims to use its riverfront to bring the city a renewed identity. The Sabarmati River located between the East and West sides of the city, is perfectly positioned to boost commercial and real estate development. We got the chance to speak with the urban planners and developers involved with the project, as well those affected by the project, including residents of a community adjacent to the river poised to be displaced and street vendors with a 600-year history of selling along this riverfront.
It was stressed that we not view these contradictions as somehow detached from realities in the United States. The truth is, our existences mirror each other, and the global trends that the United States is complicit in creating manifest themselves in the local conflicts that we observed in India. The local is global.
Through community building sessions, academic classes, and interpersonal conversations, we began to process our feelings of discomfort and recognized them as signs of culture shock. As a group, however, we were reminded that a part of being a student on IHP is to be uncomfortable, and one of our professors, Juan, rather asks us to consider “why are we feeling uncomfortable?” Some of the situations that made us uncomfortable as a group was the guilt associated with feeling helpless, constantly being stared at in public, and having our photos taken by random Ahmedabadi citizens. We met many people who live through discomfort daily during our site visits in Ahmedabad—from the residents who live in the River Front Development relocation housing who were separated from their communities, to the sanitation workers who need alcohol to sedate themselves in order to carry out their work— and as a group we had to and still have to come to terms with the fact that our discomfort on IHP is temporary, while we continue to meet people who cannot escape discomfort. As we enter Brazil, we continue learning to embrace the discomfort in order to challenge our previous notions of the world in the classroom and of our own character in our daily lives.
Rehabilitation housing: Ahmedabad, India
Although we have left Ahmedabad and are currently a world apart traveling the city of São Paulo, Brasil we will carry with us what we have learned. The conversations we have shared with our peers, faculty, guests, and the larger IHP community have created a learning environment that craves deeper understanding. Our time in Ahmedabad has allowed us to begin the process of unlearning and refocusing our attention to those that are pushed into the margins of society. By critically looking at the ways in which caste systems and Hindu-Muslim divides conquer the social landscape of the city, dissecting the vibrant Gujarat model and assessing its consequences in the context of the current built environment, and reflecting heavily on global trends and dominant ideologies in the context of Ahmedabad, we have begun the process of becoming global thinkers working towards just global cities. We hope to carry the same critical eye to create space in order to use and expand what we have learned in the new context of São Paulo.
IHP students with IHP volunteers visiting the ancient Badra fort