Telling a personal story of
Talking Less, Doing More.
Telling a personal story of
Talking Less, Doing More.
Naresh Fernandes, addressing participants at Intellecap’s “The Future of the Urban Poor: A Searchlight Convening” supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Good evening and welcome to Bombay. This is a city in which I’ve lived for much of my life and there are few places in which I feel more at home than right here, in Bandra. My family’s roots in this neighbourhood go back at least two hundred years. At the other end of this stretch of seafront is St Andrew’s Church, where five generations of my family are buried. My grandfather used to farm a small plot of land not so far from here, and, over the past century, my family has witnessed the city springing up around it. Recently, I’ve been working on a book I’m tentatively calling Hill Road Stories, named after Bandra’s longest street, in which I’m trying to describe how Bandra came to be absorbed by the big city.
This spot in which we’re meeting (Taj Lands End hotel, Band Stand) holds warm memories for me. When I was a child, this was an overgrown hill with the remnants of an old Portuguese fort. During our school holidays, we’d ride our bicycles up here and play act at fighting pirates amidst the ruins. Bandra was in the possession of the Jesuits from the early 1600s, and the tax revenues they gained from my ancestors allowed them to entertain their guests quite lavishly. In 1675, a young British doctor named John Fryer stopped in to visit the Jesuits. He writes that they showed him “great civility”, offering him fine fruit and wine, “diverting us with instrumental and vocal music”. Later in the day, they even staged a mock naval battle for him in the bay out front. So it’s evident that we in Bombay have a long tradition of showing our guests a good time.
About 15 years ago, after a long court battle, this hotel was allowed to come up over the remnants of the fort and only a small section of the battlements remain now. If you walk down to the water’s edge, you’ll see an old stone plaque bearing the date 1640. But you won’t actually be able to walk all the way out onto the parapet. It’s been blocked off for security reasons. Evidently, if you try to take a deep breath of the sea air at that spot, you could pose a grave threat to the structural stability of the Bandra-Worli Sealink, which links Bandra to the mainland.
This hotel offers a fabulous vantage point from which to observe Bombay’s metamorphosis in the new millennium: it’s built atop a 17th-century fort and looks out on the bridge that many people believe symbolises Bombay’s potential to take on the world in the 21st century.
Like so much else in this city, though, that bridge, to me is a sign of how much we in India have been getting wrong, ever since we began our policy of structural adjustment in the early 1990s. The bridge cost six times more than expected and took more than ten years to complete – that’s five years longer than they expected. When you drive off at the Worli side, there’s a large sign that says South Bombay – but weirdly, the direction it indicates is actually north. To get to South Bombay off this bridge, you actually have to drive about 300 metres north and then take a U turn before you’re set in the right direction.
But it’s more than the awkward engineering and the delays that made this a bad use of money. Of the 14 million people who live in the city, 6.9 million people take the train. Only 37,500 vehicles actually use this bridge every workday. The sealink was planned as a public-private partnership and was supposed to demonstrate how Bombay’s residents would actually be willing to pay for infrastructure they used. Think again. When they bridge opened, they actually had to reduce the toll, because it was so poorly used.
There’s another delusion involved. Many of Bombay’s newly affluent people that users of public transport are subsidised. When you do the maths, it turns out that isn’t quite true. While the average passenger on the sealink pays Rs 25.25 per journey, the average first-class ticket holder on the railways pays Rs 54. It turns out that we’re actually subsidising the inefficient car-users. Despite the shaky assumptions of this project, the state government is still proceeding with its plan to extend the sealink all the way down to the very tip of the city.
While we’re still up here on the hill, let’s also turn our eyes east, to the neighbourhood of Dharavi, where you’ll be headed over the next few days. While some Bombayites have adopted the Sealink as a symbol of everything they believe is right with the city, I must confess that I’m quite astonished by how many others seem to believe that Dharavi is a shining example of the city’s potential. That’s a process that’s greatly accelerated with the success of the film Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, when Barack Obama visited Bombay a few months ago, he made it a point to praise the people living in the “winding alleys of Dharavi” for their optimism and determination.
New urban studies jargon now refers to Dharavi as “an informal city” that has been created by the boundless enterprise of its residents. Almost every news report about Dharavi informs readers that its residents produce several hundred million dollars worth of goods each year – some estimates suggest a figure of $500 million or $600 million. As a corollary, this school of opinion believes that informal settlements like Dharavi and the hundreds of others around Bombay should be left undisturbed, so that they can continue to keep displaying boundless enterprise and keep being productive citizens. There’s also an ecological edge to this argument. Dharavi’s residents are praised for how efficiently they use scarce space and resources. Academics who celebrate Dharavi say that the world can’t really afford to live any other way.
Don’t get me wrong. I entirely support the right of poor to live and work in the city. In fact, I believe that we must do a great deal more to ensure that they get a fair deal in Bombay. But to me, this fetishisation of Dharavi makes a virtue out of very dire necessity. Besides, it’s tinged wth a condescending, neo-liberal lining. As I see it, this rhetoric implies that Dharavi residents should be allowed to live there mainly because they’re contributing to our great economic machine – not just because they, as citizens, have the same rights to the city as we do.
When you visit Dharavi, ask its residents about the struggle they face getting water in the morning, about how many people are packed together with them in their homes, about the rats that nibble at their toes each night and then reconsider the alleged magic of Dharavi. Dharavi is now more than 80 years old and to me, it’s a symbol of the failure of our society that we’ve allowed it to continue to exist in this squalid form all these decades later.
Between the Sealink and Dharavi, then, lies the whole range of Bombay clichés. We’re a city in which India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, recently built the most expensive home in the world: it cost about a billion dollars and it’s home to a family of four. We’re also a city in which about 60 per cent of the population lives in slums. In the Indian imagination, Bombay is the place where anyone with the will to work hard will never starve. But it’s also the place where children in some slum pockets face acute malnutrition, which means that they’re actually starving to death slowly. It’s the city in which everyone has the space to dream of becoming rich, but in which actual space is at a terrible premium, given that about 20,000 of us are packed into each square kilometre. (By contrast, London has a density of about 4,600 people a square kilometre.)
With typical Bombay swagger, we’ve come to celebrate all these distortions and we’re pretty smug about our ability to survive the daily grind in the place Suketu Mehta called the Maximum City. But all of this worries me a great deal. It’s apparent that Bombay has always been the barometer for the rest of India. If Bombay sneezes today, you know India will get a cold tomorrow, they say.
Over the past century, some of the most powerful ideas to influence India were born in Bombay. The very idea of India was born here when the Indian National Congress held its first meeting here in 1885, the first Indian trade union movement was born here in 1890. Since the 1930s, Bollywood has been pumping celluloid dreams into the heartland, suggesting that any adversity can be overcome if you work hard enough — and dance around a tree in the appropriate fashion.
Since liberalisation, though, the Bombay dream has changed. Where the movies once celebrated the communitarian space of the Marine Drive promenade, our film makers now showcase gated communities and malls. The self-help institutions that we once prized are being replaced by lotteries that promise to make you rich overnight. If this is the way Bombay and India are heading, I believe that the future is a little more uncertain that it’s projected to be.
It’s clear that the jarring contrasts you see everywhere in Bombay are a concrete manifestation of this neo-liberal economic model we’re flogging so desperately. If there’s one lesson Bombay teaches us, it’s that the future of cities can’t be left to the whims of market forces. It seems apparent that, despite the caution in the Western academy against the problems of what’s described as overplanning, there’s no alternative to strong regulation to ensure the public good.
I wish I could be more optimistic, but for now, things in Bombay are going pretty badly. Almost every day over the past few months has brought news of yet another real-estate scandal, in which developers have colluded with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to make extortionate profits from public resources. Though some citizens groups are trying to resist, the odds against them seem overwhelming.
And yet, of course, life goes on. Every few days, when yet another scandal has broken, I take a walk by the promenade here to catch my breath and take stock of things. Most often, the rocks on the shore are filled with courting couples. Since space is so tight in this city, couples, even married couples, are forced to grab moments of privacy in full public view. They shelter behind colourful umbrellas to talk and grab a kiss and remind us that, no matter how bleak the world seems to be, there’s no reason for normal life to grind to a halt.
In fact, they often get so absorbed in each other that the tide sometimes rises around them and the fire brigade has to be called in to rescue them. This happens so often that, a few months ago, the authorities mounted bells across the coast and they’re sounded when the water begins to rise. To me, that’s come to represent the madness of Bombay. The water’s swelling fast and bells are clanging but we can’t hear them because we’re all too busy having a bit of fun. I wonder how it’s all going to end.
– Naresh Fernandes
Editor, Time Out Magazine
I come from a family of well-educated engineers, doctors and civil officers. I grew up in a sheltered environment, learning about the significance of a credible education, of stability, and of planning as far ahead as possible. Most of my extended family relocated to study in the U.S, and have built comfortable lives there. If I was writing this a decade ago, I might have had a similar story to share.
But I have grown up in the “new” India, and in this land of expanding opportunity, I chose the road less traveled.
In my 26 years I have traveled the world, started a not-for-profit, spent a month in the Antarctic and have chosen a career that attempts at “good” business. Turning down several opportunities to continue working abroad, I chose to return to India. The emergence of a pulsating, dynamic new India has triggered a reverse brain drain. Indians living in different corners of the world, who had gone looking for opportunity, chose to return to a vibrant, exciting land of promise. So did I. I came back to an India ‘whose faith in success was far greater that her fear of failure’. An India that was poised as the fastest growing free-market democracy in the world. Globalization with all its challenges and opportunities had created a country of paradox, success, failure and hope. The development of a young, new India in the face of a globalized world economy has greatly influenced my thinking and life choices.
India opened its doors to the global economy, transforming the lives and aspirations of its people. This evolution came to life with A.R Rehman winning two Grammy Awards, Kalpana Chawla being the first Indian-born woman to fly in space, and Slumdog Millionaire winning an Oscar. The world was looking at India with curiosity, and inter-cultural connections multiplied exponentially. Consequently, my dream of traveling the world became a reality. I worked with an international team in Rotterdam that led a global organization to achieve 45% growth in results. Our mantra was ‘Connecting to Deliver’, and we leveraged technology that supported people across the world to learn, share and achieve. I developed programs that mobilized youth to experience new economies and cultures. Recognizing these successes, I was awarded a scholarship to participate in a sustainability leadership program in the Antarctic. This would have been unheard of for a young woman in the India that was. The world had literally become my playground, and these experiences completely changed the way I viewed my country, my future and myself.
Today, India is riding high on its so-called “demographic dividend”. While India’s youth hold significant promise, the lack of education, inadequate infrastructure and skewed employment prospects present a daunting task. Young India needs empowerment, training and access to livelihood opportunities. Being a young Indian, my work has focused on youth mobilization for social impact. Recognizing the need for ethical and sustainable leadership, my work in AIESEC was directed towards exponentially increasing the quantity of leadership experiences the organization provided young people in India and globally. While leading the Global Entrepreneurs Program, my team trained aspiring Indian entrepreneurs and gave them a platform to develop business skills by interning with growing enterprises. Today my work leverages India’s demographic dividend through social enterprise. The enterprises I support are transforming the lives of unemployed youth through door-step business training, providing technology-based interactive education to disadvantaged communities, and generating employment in rural India through BPOs.
India’s entrepreneurial spirit is being harnessed in whole new ways. The world is attempting to learn from Indian innovation or ‘jugaad’ in Hindi, as a tool to find uncommon solutions to common problems. Earlier this year, a business acquaintance from Accra experienced Dharavi, Asia’s largest ‘five-star’ slum as part of a global initiative on Urban Poverty that I managed. He reflects that ‘Dharavi’s future is different from the slums in Ghana because Dharavi has the ability to grow organically through the entrepreneurial spirit that is being nurtured there.’ This observation isn’t limited to Dharavi, but is the energy that drives India. The deep-rooted ambition, innovation and risk-taking ability of my people set them apart. As an actor in India’s entrepreneurial story, the traits that define the country, define me. I’m an innovator; I practice the art of lateral thinking, of resilient creativity and of improvisation in the face of adversity. I enjoy trial-and-error and making things work with limited resources. I’m excited by opportunities with an element of risk, which I believe is critical to unraveling the complex challenges of today’s world. India’s tryst with ‘jugaad’, as one part of its entrepreneurial success, has deeply influenced my development in recent years.
My connection to India’s complex growth story is best described in these lines – ‘There are 2 India’s in this country. One India is straining at the leash eager to spring forth and live up to all the adjectives that the world has been showering upon us. The other India is the leash. One India says give me a chance and I’ll prove myself. The other India says prove yourself first and maybe then you will have a chance….’ The two India’s are slowly drifting apart – one rich, the other poor; one living in luxury while the other struggles to sustain itself. The future of our country depends on closing this gap. My work in social enterprise aims to increase conversions from one India to the other side. I co-create sustainable solutions with grass-root innovators to transform the less advantaged to assertive customers, thus contributing to build a more sustainable growth curve for the country. I support enterprises that provide low-cost sanitary napkins to rural women, deploy easy-to-use water wheels in villages, and empower rickshaw pullers to be owners. Choosing social enterprise has been a natural career path. With all its challenges, I draw immense satisfaction and learning from my work. The India phenomenon and my choice to return to it, has been a profound influence on my thinking, learning and actions.
“While we will not forget the brutality of Apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against against the forces of evil. A triumph of of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness; a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness; a triumph of the new South Africa over the old.” – Ahmed Kathrada, imprisoned for 26 years at Robben Island.
A short walk through Robben Island left me reeling from the blackness of oppression, despair and death that the place holds. Emerging to impart such generous wisdom after living in that environment for 26 years, fighting for dignity & life every hour of every day, is an indescribable legacy. Nine years later looking back, I realize that I still have a lot to learn from my experiences in South Africa.
Afrikaans : Dutch apart, separate (from French à part, apart; see apart) + Dutch -heid, -hood
As Vice-President of AIESEC International, I was responsible for leading 40,000 young people towards achieving AIESEC’s target of 45% growth in results (number of international internships) within 1 year with a team of 22 people from 17 countries.
AIESEC is the world’s largest youth run NGO enabling leadership development for social change.
Adapting – I was in a new country working with 22 strangers under high professional pressure. I missed my family, friends and India. Building a meaningful life in the Netherlands while delivering high performance is one of the toughest challenges I have faced.
Influencing – AIESEC did not believe it could achieve 45% growth as it hadn’t seen such performance in the past. Positively influencing people across the world to believe in the target while making sure everyone’s concerns were addressed, was a significant barrier I crossed.
Achieving – After generating momentum towards 45% growth, I faced the challenge of execution. How do I focus the efforts of 40000 volunteers towards one goal? I believed it was possible & persisted with new ideas & actions.
By overcoming these challenges, and more along the way, I was able to achieve 45% growth.
WHAT I LEARNED
Inner strength – The personal and professional intensity of this assignment forced me to deal confidently with complex situations. I appreciate the importance of independence and interdependence in achievement. Humility, hard work and simplicity are values I strengthened through this experience.
Skills – Not-for-profit management, team work, process enhancement & statistical analysis formed the core of my work. The environment taught me to be assertive and culturally sensitive.
The future – One of my most important learning’s is self-awareness. I understand what makes me happy and what my future goals are. I have clarity of purpose and the strength to translate my ambition to action.
“It is unsafe and risky to have foreigners and bachelors living in our housing society….” – this, coming from “New” Mumbai. And we proclaim that India is a leading player in globalization, poised for super-powerdom! I agree, of course India is pioneering globalization, I’m a product of that trend. However, this is limited to just one of our country’s many faces. There are 2 India’s that exist, one that’s shutting itself in with borders and another that’s flying borderless.
I have never felt as angry about the attitude and beliefs that come from some parts of my country as I did a few days ago. I think that’s also because I didn’t really care much earlier. So here is the cause of my frustration – I have lived in a decent colony in New Mumbai for the last 3 months. Last weekend I finally got a Korean flat-mate. A few days later, I hear that my housing society has passed a resolution that they do not want bachelors or foreigners to live in their apartments anymore! The reason – it’s dangerous, risky and unsafe.
Is this the Mumbai I think it is? Have I been living and believing in a society that doesn’t really exist? Or is this a reflection of the beautiful contradiction that is my country? Mumbai symbolizes to me, as it does to many other young people, hope, success and freedom. If there is one city in India which is liberal in its thoughts and actions, it is Mumbai. 3 years living in the city of dreams, and I hadn’t seen the shadows lurking beneath. Shadows of conservative beliefs, mistrust and selfishness.
“Atithi devo bhava”, a famous Indian saying – guests in our home and country are a form of God. Well, really? If in a city like Mumbai, we proclaim that it’s “dangerous” to have a 21 year old Korean girl living in an apartment and we decide to ask her to vacate, are we welcoming her to our country? “Foreigners” – in these times of globalization, I do not understand how people can use that as a dirty word! Families spend hours watching idiotic shows on the idiot box, and this is one of the results.
One of the best things about India is its “community living”. I missed it in the Netherlands! However, there is a limit to how much one can interfere and take decisions in another person’s life – a person who is not related, is not a friend, who just happens to live in the same apartment complex. What time I come home, whether I sleep at 10:00pm or 4:00am, which friends visit me or stay with me, is really no one else’s business as long as it is not harming or causing a problem to other residents.
And what of contracts and agreements? We signed an 11 month contract on the apartment. Completely disregarding this contract, the housing society is considering giving us a notice to vacate. Forget about the legal system and implications, but do we not respect an understanding or promise between human beings?
This small story echoes many other realities of our country – Gaps in our education system, equal opportunities for all, general awareness of our people, moral policing Vs personal freedom. Most of all it tells the story of the 2 India’s, and sadly one is leaving the other behind in a cloud of dust. It’s these nuances of life in Mumbai and in India, that make it a challenge and no matter what I love this city and my country. I will fight to bridge the gap between the 2 India’s and make this a better home for my people and the world.