Issue 15

‘We are a country which hates its poor’: Planner Paromita Roy on moving mountains in a metro

Central Delhi’s Karol Bagh which once had no space for shoppers to walk, is now pedestrian-friendly. Dwarka, a sub-city in southwest Delhi, has carved space on the same road, for cyclists, e-rickshaws and is on its way to get the longest cycling track in India. With the 2011 census showing the rise in Delhi’s population from 1.39 crores in 2001 to 1.68 crores, space is at a premium. Some planners are fighting all the way to keep it inclusive and in some cases, winning.“I was shocked to see the drawings, they are making road designs and there is no footpath”, urban planner Paromita Roy’s initial response as a consultant with the DDA (Delhi Development Authority), as part of UTTIPEC (United Traffic And Transportation Infrastructure (Planning & Engineering) Centre, a DDA think tank). But it is not just people on the street, she is standing up for.

While CoP26 pays lip service to scrutinizing the flying habit, in India, it is festival rush hour for trains.‘We need to connect the stations back to people.’Roy argued recently, as part of the key IRSDC team (*Indian Railway Station Development Corporation) Setting up new codes to ease  moving around an Indian railway station. Habibganj, MP’s capital railway station is already showing some proof of a shift.

Aritro Sarkar speaks to Paromita Roy to understand how giving people the freedom to move about with affordable and convenient public transport options, can make climate change relatable.

Part of Issue 15 of OpenAxis. Interviews with path-breaking Indians responding to climate change challenges. 

As an urban planner who has worked in China, Brazil, the United States and India, what is it like, in terms of differences, challenges?

In terms of work, of course, I learned a lot. The US gave me a lot of self-confidence. Over there, talent is valuable.That is, I think, the most important thing. They teach you how to value yourself. It’s not that they value everybody. You can discover your own strengths when you are in a place like the US and then you can build on your strengths and you can excel in that field and you will always get respected. Here, even if you are good, nobody will respect you. People will always put you ten steps down and there, if you are good, then you will always be pushed up ten steps. So in terms of my stature and with the amount of respect I had, I definitely had more respect in the US than I have in India. Having said that, in India, I have been able to do much more work because in the US I was working only on private sector projects. 

I spent about a year in China working in the Shanghai office of ARUP. They were very nice and very, very hardworking. They don’t believe in rest. So there are no sofas in the offices – you are not supposed to rest. Only work. That was Chinese work culture. Too much.

Honestly, when I came back, I was a nationalist. I used to be like, desh ke liye kaam karna hai (I want to work for the country). Now I am indeed working for the desh, but what disappoints me about India is that we don’t take care of our own people. Every single person is out to outdo the other person. We don’t know how to co-exist. We don’t know how to collaborate. That’s why good professionals are not happy in this country. They want to just leave. Honestly, if I was not India-born, I would have probably left.

Given your wide experience working in sync with governments across the world, what kind of projects have you led with central and state governments in India?

Most of my work [in India] primarily has been with UTTIPEC. It’s a brilliant organization that the DDA formed. Before UTTIPEC was formed, everybody was working separately and everybody had to run behind each other. Every urban project involves at least five to ten agencies minimum, maybe more. UTTIPEC allowed for them to talk to each other. All agencies would come and sit together and discuss and fight and brainstorm things. I remember we were doing this multimodal integration plan for phase three metro stations in Delhi, which are now implemented. These meetings used to be chaired by the secretary, honorable secretary of PWD and co-chaired by the commissioner of traffic police. And then DMRC, PWD, UTTIPEC, MCD, all these organizations used to be sitting around the drawing board and everybody was looking at a drawing and giving inputs. I’d never seen something like that in my life. They were so collaborative, which doesn’t happen easily in our country. We had ten departments giving inputs into a drawing, which was going to be implemented on the ground. That was amazing. 

You have also worked very extensively on the concept of transit-oriented development. For our readers, what exactly does it mean? 

It’s very simple. It’s not actually transit-oriented development, it is actually just common sense. 10 years from now, you have your wife waiting at home and you are coming back from work on the Metro and then you are walking home. What would you like to do? Would you like to get out of the Metro and then stand in line and wait 15 minutes for a rickshaw? Or, would you just love to get out of the train and immediately get into a high rise apartment, in a nice airy apartment? I don’t have to tell you, now you can answer for yourself.  So TOD is about this convenience. For people who are using public transportation, don’t torture them right now.

For instance, my house is 250 meters from the Metro station and I’m scared to walk. Believe me. I take a rickshaw to go through 250 meters. 250 meters is a three-minute walk. In the US, I used to walk two kilometers from my office to the metro. So why am I not able to walk? I’m scared because there is no light on that street and then are dogs over there. And of course, the men. It’s so dark. It’s so scary. I was scared to walk alone in that three-minute walk. Now, TOD is about making that walk pleasant, fun, safe. How can you make it safe? Through lighting, and natural surveillance through crowds. In Lakshmi Nagar, it’s chaotic, but I sometimes will get on the station at 2am and even then I feel safe because there are vendors and it’s got people running across the streets selling things. I never feel unsafe there, but here, in Dwarka, I feel very, very scared.

Somebody said this to me which I really liked. Hope is not a plan. You can’t hope that one day some hawker comes on my street and makes it safer. No, you have to plan for safety. You have to design for safety. You have to design for people to be comfortable. You have to plan for people to find convenience so that they don’t have to take the car out after coming back.

So all of these things, the planning principles, which enable this better quality of life for people, is transit-oriented development. Anyone who uses metro, if you ask to list three or four things that they would like, that is TOD. 

How does efficient urban design address climate change? Can you give an example which can help our listeners?

Climate change is a very broad thing. For the first 10 years of my life, I was working on climate change, but I don’t like talking about it. Why? Because it doesn’t matter to the common man. My housekeeper or the driver who drives my car – do they know the meaning of climate change? I’m not interested if they’re not. We need to stick to the basics. The basics are just giving convenience, giving good healthcare, giving good education. Let them earn money. If a guy earns a hundred rupees a day – more than 70% of our population earns a hundred rupees a day – and is spending 30 to 50 on travel, then we have failed as policymakers. Right? So beyond whether he’s polluting or not, it’s more important for me to see that out of the hundred rupees, he should not have to spend, ideally nothing, but if he’s spent something, then it should not be more than 10 rupees or 20 rupees, which is also a lot. So I think we as designers, planners, policymakers need to understand what we want, and what people need.

It’s a key performance indicator: let me reduce the expenditure of this guy to less than 10%. They all invest in cycles, unka cycle chori ho jata hai, puncture ho jata hai. Metro station mein parking karne ka jagah nahi hai. Maid jo aati hai unke liye bhi cycle parking ki jagah nahi hai (Their cycle gets stolen and punctured. The metro station has no place to park them. Domestic maids also have no space to park their cycles). We talk about climate change, but do we realise that climate change is linked to giving cycle parking to your housekeepers? You have to see whether you can give people basic resources within walking, cycling distance, or you can make it cheaper and you can give them housing where they are working. Or you’ll give them housing where there is a transportation port, like a bus station. So they are absolutely interlinked. 

Over the last few years, you have been working with the Indian railway station development corporation, the IRSDC. To what extent is climate efficiency a part of the IRSDC’s plans, when it comes to rethinking India’s railway stations? 

I don’t think we ever talked about climate change in the context of stations. I’m not saying it’s not real, probably it is important for policymakers, but I don’t think I need to engage in that. But where we do want to focus is – and I think the honorable PM also wants this – is to focus on railway stations as institutions. Think of the famous quote that [Spanish urban planner Santiago] Calatrava has: railway stations generate cities.

Image Credit: Paromita Roy

So most of the smaller towns that have developed around India have generated or, have taken, birth around the railway stations. They were made for whatever purpose. But the towns grew around these thousands and thousands of stations that we have. So, these cities have grown around the railway station. Wherever we go, whenever we say that we are redeveloping the railway station, the local bodies are always so happy. People are so happy that finally our railway station will be new and modern. It’s something that brings immense pride to the locals. 

With the railways, I travelled all over the country, saw the railways from inside, learnt how the stations work. We need to connect these stations back to the people, because when the British built these stations, they would actually be on the peripheries of the city. So our goal is to reconnect the people and the stations: it’s always very people-centric and we don’t really talk about theoretical things. 

I think all the work that IRSDC has done, it’s a rich legacy and I’m sure that will be taken forward. In fact, the team is mostly going to merge with the parent department at the RLDA, who will be now taking over and integrating all of the work. For administrative reasons, it’s just much easier to connect, and to bring accountability when there’s a single organization. So that’s why the government decided to merge the two organizations.

In your work with the Delhi Development Authority, could you tell us about one project that has benefited mass transit in Delhi?

The most important memory I have. When I used to attend the first two, three meetings, I was shocked to see the drawings that were presented because – and I was coming just from US, so it was a bigger shock – none of the drawings had footpaths. That was the first thing I noticed

my god, they are making road designs and there is no footpath. In the States, we could not imagine drawing a street section without a footpath. Luckily, the honourable Lt. Governor, at that time was very, very traveled and very, very aware of these things. When I pointed it out he was quick to be cognizant and repair these designs. That’s where street design guidelines took birth. I can say with absolute certainty that at the time there was nobody in the country who was even talking about footpaths. The team of UTTIPEC prepared those guidelines and then it was adopted. A lot of it was of course already being implemented as part of the Commonwealth Games project, but it was at that time, looked as beautification. 

So it took us a while to move away from looking at footpaths as beauty elements, to viewing it as a utility element. That was one of the major things that I think UTTIPEC started. Then of course, transit-oriented development also took birth in UTTIPEC. That’s also a very important concept because when the metro was being built in Delhi, there was no concept of the kind of TOD that I talked about: access to station safety, around stations, pedestrian spaces around stations.

Image Credit: Paromita Roy                                                             Pedestrian shift at Karol Bagh

All these concepts were not there. I remember, when we used to be living wherever, which had a Metro, most of the time you would meet friends near the Metro station because it was just easier to get home after that. So we would just get out of the station and go to some restaurant right in front of the station.When I came to Delhi, I didn’t want to get off at the Metro station and then take a taxi to go to a restaurant. Why can’t I have my restaurant at the station? It didn’t make sense.  Dr. Sridharan was very much aware of these things. He was saying that he has been championing it for a while. 

It was actually his pet subject. Of course, it had to be done through an agency, which was empowered to do that. The DDA was empowered to do that. DDA is currently doing a pretty good job of taking TOD forward. Hopefully in the coming years, we will see the plan’s implementation.

From the various projects you have done, can you tell us about a project that either got stuck or failed?

Oh, there are many, but I don’t think projects are ever scrapped. I feel that everything gets implemented, some early, some late. Good work never goes to waste. Karol Bagh also got dug out after ten years of gathering dust, when the MHA took it up. After the implementation of the Karol Bagh redesigning, the recent Dwarka cycle track project got implemented. What I find is that compared to what we envisioned, reality turns out to be a hundred times better. In Karol Bagh, when we were starting the pedestrianization project, I used to tell the stakeholders that we just want to see people sit here peacefully and have ice cream. If I see that, I’ll be happy, but when the project got implemented, these are thousands of people, old, young, sitting and having chai and ice cream, hanging out on the streets. I was crying that day. I could not believe it. It’s like your life’s dream has come true. And come through 10,000 times better than what you had imagined.

It’s like the people of Delhi are waiting for a place to breathe. When you give them that, they are like, just out on the street. In Mumbai and Calcutta, it’s not so bad because over there people find their nooks and corners to hang out. In Delhi, it’s very difficult because of all the other safety issues, traffic issues. People don’t like being outside. There’s no space to give and the moment you give them space, everybody’s there. 

I was very fascinated by the concept of Delhi’s bus rapid transit system, which got scrapped in 2016. I could never really understand why. Why do you think it didn’t work out, because on paper it sounds like a great solution to a lot of traffic issues and it also promotes public transport? 

Yeah. We are a country which hates its poor. We hate poor people. I can say this on record. We work only against the poor, and I don’t expect that to stop, unless there is a tremendous political will to push it, which there was at that time. There were some planning flaws, too, admittedly. It is very difficult for a system which is meant mostly for the poor of sectional society to compete with space from the richer section of society. And I think we are very far from that, very far. 

That leads me very organically to my last question. What are some situations of hypocrisy you have faced from upper class and upper middle class in designing urban projects?

I’m trying to think. I mean, I don’t know where hypocrisy is not there. I mean, if they can afford three cars, then obviously they will always insist on wanting to drive them. So I don’t really blame them. As a government body, we always have to look at everyone’s needs. So the super rich people who own more than three cars are less than 1% of the population. But having said that, it’s not that we don’t have to take care of them. But the way to take care of the rich is different from the way to take care of the poor.

I’m not against anybody, I am for everybody. It’s like being a mother. If she has three children, and one of them is suffering from a disease, the other one is okay, and the other one is very healthy, the mother will make a decision: where do I invest my limited amount of food. So a government officer, I feel, is like a mother. I think if we just mandate that every government officer has to use public transport at least three times a week, you will see all the changes that are required.You won’t have to do anything, because then they will realize, oh, I can’t walk to the station. Oh, it’s too expensive to take an auto rickshaw to the station. So let me move my housing close to the train station. Let me make a good foot path. They will apply their own brain because it’s all common sense: you do this and all your problems will be solved. The people who are sitting on the seat are extremely intelligent, much more intelligent than you and me. 

They just don’t know what’s wrong, because they never see the problem.

*The IRSDC was merged with the Rail Land Development Authority (RLDA) in October 2021.

A few questions and all answers have been shortened for brevity and ease of reading. The tone and tense of the conversation originally recorded on audio, has been kept intact.Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

India’s Fight Against a Pandemic Leads to an ‘Infodemic’ Targeting Minorities and the Poor

The tackling of the Coronavirus pandemic in India — book-ended by the announcement of a stringent lockdown in March 2020, and now an ambitious nationwide vaccination plan in January 2021 — has laid bare social, economic, religious, and cultural fault-lines across the country. Fears and restrictions compounded pre-existing challenges in a country where an estimated 70 million people live in congested slums with little access to water, sanitation, and healthcare. For half of India’s population, ‘social distancing’ was a luxury they simply couldn’t afford. As a result, rumors and misinformation around their hygiene levels swirled in both real and virtual communities, feeding the vast Indian middle class’s apparent need for an enemy in the ‘war’ against COVID-19. Structural inequalities and institutional, inherent class biases fueled fear and stigma in India’s middle class against an ‘underclass.’

The number of domestic workers in India ranges from official estimates of 4.2 million people to unofficial figures of over 50 million, most of whom are women and girls. Largely illiterate, uneducated, and unskilled, domestic workers are completely dependent upon their employers and have no legal protections as workers under India’s labor laws. The National Domestic Workers Trust estimated that approximately 24 percent of Mumbai’s domestic workers lost their jobs permanently due to middle class India’s paranoia around their congested living conditions and assumptions around both hygiene standards and the rate of infection in their neighborhoods.   

Under quarantine, as fears of COVID-19 skyrocketed, Mumbai’s sky-high apartment complexes and Delhi’s bungalowed neighborhoods shut their gates. Messages circulated in such wealthier communities on WhatsApp groups, questioning hygiene levels of domestic workers living in such slums – many of which were declared ‘containment zones’ and COVID-19 hotspots. Even kitchen appliance manufacturers added to the fear mongering. One such firm advertised a dough kneading machine on Instagram, suggesting that it could replace domestic workers who typically do this manually since their hands ‘may be infected.’ Public pressure forced the manufacturer to pull down the advertisement and apologize.

In the first serological surveys conducted to assess the spread of the Coronavirus in India, two facts emerged. First, even though COVID-19 arrived in India by airplane via wealthier Indians who could travel abroad, those who worked for them suffered the most. The second was that nearly 60% of slum populations had developed antibodies, and that most of the infected were younger, had little or no symptoms, and suffered significantly fewer fatalities than their wealthier employers. This actually brought down overall death rates from COVID-19 in cities like Mumbai.

The worst effects of COVID-19 were suffered by three specific layers of the population. Urban migrant workers were forced out of the city with the imposition of one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns, sprayed with disinfectant as they tried to return home. Domestic workers – cleaners, cooks, and drivers living in congested urban slums who form the backbone of the informal employment sector – fell victim to community paranoia. Worst of all, deliberately crafted disinformation campaigns targeted India’s Muslim minorities, an already vulnerable group targeted by bigoted discourse on many levels in the state and community. Predominantly Hindu, upper caste, and upper class groups were largely insulated from these dynamics and able to take the necessary pandemic precautions without the same kinds of damage.

Referring to the residents of an upper middle class South Delhi neighborhood, Guddi, a domestic worker from Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj district, says “They are being careless themselves. They are going out, traveling around the country; they are calling guests home.” Taking in the capital city’s warm winter sun after a morning of cooking and cleaning, she says, “That’s how the disease is spreading.” Lifelong victims of class and caste-based oppression in Indian society, street cleaners hired by the local government, who are also considered essential workers, were made to stand outside the gates during the summer’s blazing heat, even though the government began easing the March 2020 lockdown in stages. Rinku, who sweeps the streets for a daily wage, says things have improved slowly since 2020’s harsh summer, but the discrimination still continues. “They say they will get the disease [COVID-19] because of us. Everyone in the neighborhood said this.” Several Residents Associations banned all ‘outsiders’ – e-commerce delivery agents, vendors, and domestic workers – from entering their communities. Yet, these restrictions did not apply to those driving through the gates in a car, a ubiquitous symbol of wealth and upward mobility. In spite of eased restrictions that allowed people to return to work in the first phase of India’s re-opening, such associations formalized their own layer of controls. Private security guards, usually empowered to record visitor details, unleashed their newfound authority upon a host of workers coming to earn a day’s wages. “The guards told me I am not allowed to walk down the streets here because I may spread disease. I pleaded with them, but they didn’t listen. Finally, I was forced to call my employer from her home to come and talk to them, and allow me to go back to work,” says Anita, another domestic worker from Karimganj in Uttar Pradesh who works in Delhi.

The worst hit, however, have been those who lie at the intersection of caste, class, and creed – the Indian Muslim community. While insidious caste and class divides dominated rumors and restrictions, there was an ‘infodemic’ accusing Muslims of deliberately spreading a ‘corona jihad’. The Delhi government’s decision to segregate COVID-19 cases in the general public from ones directly linked to a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat (a proselytizing Muslim religious group) in Delhi in early March 2020 fueled biased media coverage. It emerged that foreign participants from South East Asia were coronavirus carriers, and several other Indian delegates became infected and returned to their hometowns as carriers, unknowingly. Defying data, logic, and empathy all at once, right wing social media rhetoric and reportage around the so-called ‘super spreader’ event amplified the bigotry. Although the meeting had taken place with the knowledge of government and local law enforcement, Islamophobia fed generalizations blaming a single community for the spread of COVID-19.

Yasmin, from Uttar Pradesh’s Badayun district who cleans homes in Delhi, says even though her employers agreed to keep her on, her landlord protested when her poorer relatives came to live with her as the lockdown began. “He said there was no need for them to return. That they were spreading disease,” she says, lowering her voice. Similarly, Mohammed Shamim, a vegetable vendor in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba district, was forced to return money to his customers and flee after a group of men threatened him and accused him of deliberately spreading COVID-19 through the goods on his vegetable cart. In Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state governed by one of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s most strident leaders, the pandemic exacerbated everyday bigotry against Muslims. 

Police officers who tackle everyday misinformation have limited tools at their disposal. Senior Indian Police Services (IPS) officer Rema Rajeswhari in her district of Mahbubnagar in the southern state of Telangana has made a name for herself by actively conducting ‘awareness’ campaigns through ‘town criers’ who debunk myths and rumors, digital literacy workshops to help citizens question what they receive and share on messaging platforms like WhatsApp, and enabling her team of officers to intervene where they feel it will make a difference. People like her, as well as journalists who run fact checking websites, did their best to address misinformation from unrelated or manipulated videos about Muslim vendors spitting on their wares, which spread quickly on social media. Prominent news networks, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘IT Cell’ – which has often been accused of designing coordinated disinformation campaigns to target its critics – and many social media users were all complicit in the spread of such misinformation. Rajeshwari says her officers had no choice but to make their own videos to create awareness. Fuzail Ayubi, the Tablighi Jamaat’s lawyer, says things have improved since the summer, but the damage inflicted upon a community already under pressure to prove their patriotism and secularism is irreparable. Cases against hateful media reporting are being heard in India’s Supreme Court.

It would be easy to argue that much of the discrimination was a result of rumors and misinformation that exacerbated the existing wedges within Indian society. Yet, if there is one thing 2020 has taught us, it is this: the prevalence and virality of misinformation is not just about the algorithm that may amplify it, but also the fear and division within society. Addressing the technology that fuels misinformation, without actively improving inter-communal relations and public messaging on the pandemic, is not even half a battle won.

Maya Mirchandani is a journalist, a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Maya Mirchandani

This piece was republished from The Soufan Center with permission of the author. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).