Home. Casa. Griha. Haus. We know the place by different names in different places but everywhere it symbolises the feelings of rootedness, warmth, assurance that we often seem to take for granted. Some 15 Mof people across the world are however not as fortunate. for them their homes are long lost, razed, burnt or otherwise lying empty in a faraway country that was once their homeland. Driven out of their countries by persecution, war, genocides, poverty or desperation, these people stay on the fringes of the host countries carrying various monikers such as immigrants, refugess, infiltrators etc.The UN convention on regugees defines the term to mean Any person who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. The definition is not broad enough to cover some of the common causes of displacement such as wars resulting in generalized violence, poverty starvation adding a whopping number of 32M illegal immigrants to displaced people.
Tracing back the practice of seeking refuge originated in ancient Egypt and Greece where people sought sanctuary in places of worship such as churches. This was codified as a law in 600 AD by the King of Kent. In 1685 when protestaniasm was outlawed in France, thousands migrated to escape persecution. After the theory of nations came into practice somewhere around the 18th century.creating national boundaries governed by strict immigration laws, there have been several man made events which have triggered mass exodus from one country to the other. The civil movements, World wars, the rise of Nazism have been some such triggers. Religios and ethnic beliefs have been the strong bases for persecuting particular sects of people causing them to flee the familiar corridors of their homelands. Infact Jews from East Europe and Russia have been fleeing their homes subjected as they were to persecution in these countries even before the advent of Nazism in Germany. Making Jews one of the largest ethnicity constituting refugees over time. Turkey as a nation was shaped by followers of Islam fleeing the persecution in the Balkan regions.Distressing, is it not being persecuted for a narrow identity defined by religious beliefs alone? When in a multi-cultural globe humanity should be the only facet defining the human population.
Over the last 100 years, wars and civil strifes have reared their ugly heads again and again rendering one prosperous nations into ghost countries and happy people into haunted wanderers. Wars be it the World war I and II, the Vietnam war or in Afghanistan have spiked the number of refugees, where people have been fleeing certain destruction into an uncertain darkness. While there have been several humanitarian legislations seeking to confer rights and dignity on the refugees or the immigrants, the truth most often is that they are the outcasts in the host country. Speak of refugees and you have images of stoaways and castaways desperately seeking to land on the coveted land that hold the lure of a happier life. However most of the time these people have worse fates to suffer. There was a shocking article in Guardain the other day of a 26 year old Angolian stowaway falling to death in London from a British Airways carrier. The man was fleeing abject poverty in his homeland, a condition which is too relative and broadbased to be covered by refugee laws. Overall refugees are a rootless tribe vaccilating in a zone which belongs to no country, they are the no land’s men, women and children. During the world war II for example Soviet refugees were tortured in Germany and the few who survived the concentration camp there were treated as traitors when they returned to their country. It pains to live in a world where the basic dignities of the human life are subjugated to egos or whims of the ruling class, arcane laws and the rules of a divided world. In fact possibly most of us in have casually commented on migrants and opined thay they should be packed off to home. Not realizing these people be it the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka or the Tibetean monks or the liberal Bangladeshis have really no place to call their own. I had happened to visit the Tibetean settlement in the Coorg district of Karnataka. The tibetean monks here have built a home away from home, and as a country we have afforded them a sanctuary they desperately sought. However most of the time refugees and immigrants and asylum seekers are not remotely afforded a similar chance. While we know about and campaign for the more famous causes such as that of Tasleema Nasrin, the lesser humans huddling in dingy camps invite our wrath and ridicule. Their exploitation does not end after thety leave their borders – they are exploited further by touts and miscreants who take advantage of their vulnerability. People run expansive immigration rackets sending illegal workers to slave in the fields or the homes of the prosperous lands. Either existing laws do not protect them or these people are ignorant of the provisions of such laws. In fact so enshrined are human prejudices, that migrants even from within the same country are ostracised, forcing such people to live wretched lives constantly on the run. The midnight’s children who no land claim as their own
There are organizations such as UNHCR- United Nations High Commission for Refugees have done some exemplary work in the rehabitililation of refugees. However the onus of understanding the problem and empathising with the migrants is much wider. Would you for example tomorrow be happy to hire a refugess from Afghanistan fleeing the war ravaged countriy? Would your eyes moisten as you hear him tell stories about his little girl and beautiful wife that he lost, about the green fields which now only yield the poisonous opium. Would you understand he is a person like us, but without the luxury of what we casually refer to as the home and the homeland. Could we say that in such a beautiful world there is place for the no land’s man and there is for him a piece of land where he can build his home where he sits down to a quiet meal with his family?
I keep falling in love. Over and over again. With strange people. Or even ghosts, apparitions or intangible things. Yes I know it is love because of the restlessness that comes with it. That does not let me sit still. Or get anything sensible done. I remember the first time it happened. Or atleast that is the first time I remember it happening. I would be about eight and was pulled against my wish to a kirtan at our village temple. I was sitting beside my mother, twiddling with her anchal, soaking in the familiar scent of her body. When it hit me. An out of the world voice singing about a little bird struggling to escape from its gilded cage. I do not know what I fell in love with- the krtaniya with long hair in a saffron costume, the voice or the little bird he spoke of. But I remember following the kirtaniya around for the rest of our time at the village and beseeching him to sing more about the little bird. My mother tells me that I unnerved her and they had to cut their stay short. But love always found a way. In other forms. In other places. The objects differed. The cat with the broken leg. Or the old woman who lived down the lane and fed me cookies every time I passed her house. Or the happy prince who stared at me from the book shelf. Or that irrepressible ghost, that I was convinced stayed in our attic and played pranks like hiding my homework copy. I was in love with all of them. In various forms. In varying degrees. I felt strange attachments to all of these. I fought with the world(which at that time was my formidable father) to keep the cat in our house, hiding it in the attic, saving the biscuits I had for tea so that I could feed her. I sat with rapt attention at the knees of the old woman, looking at her knit together colourful yarns of wool. I had a curious fascination for the ghost which lingered in our house and made sudden ‘appearences’ or rather disapperaences because it never really appeared. As I grew older, the nature of the love changed. The first years of adolescence. And the sudden realization that you feel strangely unsettled when that tall boy who lives in the opposite house walks by. This was a different feeling, unlike what I had felt before. The restlessness remained. The similar magnetic attraction I felt to all things I had fallen in love with. But what I was not prepared for the waves of euphoria and excruciating pain. I realized with a jolt, another human being can hurt you without tripping you over or pushing you into a mud puzzle as the mean boys I played with as a kid did. They can hurt you even without being actually mean to you. Or worse still hurt you without even realizing you exist, the gawky 13 year old with braces who got all jittery when these seemingly divine creatures walked past. Ofcourse the saving grace for me I always had a thousand and one distractions and a hundred odd reasons to fall in love every morning. There were trees to be climbed and puzzles to be solved and help to be sent to little boys and girls in Somalia. And naturally you develop a fascination for the boy who spoke with such fervour about how should we be doing our bit for these little kids. You are enamored of his ideas and then you no longer feel bad that the brown eyed boy in the apartment opposite yours pay scant attention to you. As I have said before, for me love kept coming back. Like the warmth of autumn. And the colours of summer. Or the first showers of monsoon. Fervent, passionate, wondrous. It is too beautiful a feeling to not come back. Or be made to follow the rules of a prosaic society. Or be denied because it does not follow the nomenclature you can safely assign your emotions and relationships. Human beings are multi-faceted and there are various people or causes or animals or ghosts who appear in your life at different times appealing to that one sense or dimension of yours. So the poet in me fell in love with the kirtania, the nomad in me loved the banjaras I met while working with an NGO and the do gooder in me loved the activist who fought for invisible children in Somalia. Is there something as happily ever after? Is monogamy justified? Yes, I am sure. There is that one special love you want to grow old with, bickering about the frocks your children should wear or who would put the garbage out. But can life really become as monochromatic to close the gates to love completely? I cannot imagine living life without the agony, the bliss, the headiness of falling in love. All over again like the advent of a brilliantly coloured morning in spring. The reasons to live would seem too pedantic otherwise.
650 million USD in annual revenue. The affable guide told me referring to the annual wealth that the commercial units in Dharavi, the second largest slum in Asia generates. Do the math and it is 30 billion Indian Rupees. Surprise. More so on the faces of the motley European group who had accompanied us on the tour of the slums. Understandable reaction; when you look around and the incredible figure seems to be lost in the filthy lanes, open drains and the toxic fumes. Where are the flashy cars and glass-front houses such wealth could build? Why does the wealth not translate into better living and working conditions for the residents and the workers? Why is the poverty advertised so blatantly for the tourists to gape at while the wealth disappear down mysterious channels. The questions haunted me as I negotiated the alleys where one has to walk sideways, heads bent. The answers oscillated between rational to disturbing, sometimes startingly simple at others extremely complex. And everytime they reminded me that Dharavi which is a universe within a city, a living, breathing organism with deeply entrenched tentacle, need more than the casual observer to unravel its layers of human dynamics. To allow you a glimpse into the soul of the citadel.
The history of Dharavi, in its present form goes back a hundred odd years when Bombay started taking its shape as a commercial hub ,inciting people to come and try their luck. They came in droves, they still do, and settled down on the edge of the marshy swamp. Zoom in on the petridish and the survival games become clearer. Where with time, the Morlocks and the Eloists got separated. The workers who kept the wheels turning stayed on. The resourceful owners built robust businesses across a few tens of square kilometres. They used the hunger of the migrant workers to fuel industries which today would be banned at several places within city limits or attract stiff fines. The highly toxic plastic and aluminium recycling units where the fumes are dense enough to prod you to move on after a minute. The Morlocks work and live here.The Eloists on the other hand have moved into highrises just beyond the invisible curtains separating Dharavi from the rest of the plush Bandra-Kurla zone. They come at times in their big cars and survey that the well-oiled machineries keep running. The workers surprisingly do not complain. The people who work in Dharavi are mostly migrants from all over India. Coming from small villages where they were dependent on the seasonal agriculture produce, this place represents good money. Indeed. The average pay is 5000 per month. Roughly between 150 and 250 per day. Not enough for them to rent a house in Dharavi- the average tenement comes at a rent of 2000 per month – but enough to send back home and ensure decent living for their families. I passed a worker calling his family from one of the improvised STD booths- he wishes them a happy new year and insisting that his wife should buy herself a new sari. The guide tells me that the workers have refused to wear the gloves and protective masks that the NGO’s have provided them with. He is not exactly right, I thought observing that several people actually wear gloves. But then the pathetic working conditions and poverty make an attractive package that the foreign tourists can lap up.
Ofcourse there are other explanations of the leakage of wealth. As I ask about the prices of the goods produced here, the jeans and the fabric and the leather bags I start tracing the long supply chain along which wealth depletes before it reaches the walls of Dharavi. A piece of fabric valued at 150 here is a pricey 2000 when it reaches an upmarket mall. There are several hands along the chain who in their interest would keep the chain from being shortened. In a disbalanced world, is it possible to pump the wealth back into where it originates? I do not think there are any easy answers.
As we move from the commercial units into the residential areas, I start feeling like a voyeur. I am seized by pangs of guilt of an intruder, as I negotiate the dingy lanes and look into the houses with the low doors and the conspicuously absent windows. Most houses have a refrigerator and TV in front of which the family congregated on the precious off-day. Several houses have air-conditioning – a luxury still in ostensibly richer parts of India. So all the wealth has not disappeared after all. The guide explains that most of the residents, unlike the workers, go to earn their living in the city.(Note how he talks of the city as another world whereas in reality it is only a bridge apart). The wages are decent there anything between 8000 and 15000 per month. There are policemen and cab drivers, rickshawwallas and BPO employees. Many of them have lived here for generations and are too entrenched in the community to move even when the government offers them alternate housing. Some are driven here by the prohibitive rents and real-estate prices in Bombay. A few are living here as first generation settlers, carefully putting their savings in bank because they want to buy a nicer house somewhere else. Not necessarily as a means of escape but as an astute investment. Many give away their government houses on rent and come back to the familiar place. You can start deciphering the puzzle to an extent. Some of the wealthier communities represented by upper-caste Hindus have spacious houses larger than the 225 square feet offered by the government. To add to this, they have many of the amenities topping the wish list of urban dwellers – municipal water, electricity, an ecosystem of 3 schools, 2 hospitals, 7 banks and departmental stores. And a thriving community where Muslim carpenters chisel out altars which house Hindu gods. The government thus have a tough job on its hands of convincing the dwellers about plans for an ambitious redevelopment project. The officials have to come down from their high altars and delve into the labyrinth of humanity at Dharavi. The official figure puts the consensus figure at approximately 70%. A vast amount of unlearning and relearning of the workings of the slum are in order before the consensus climbs up. Yet for many people living in less than humane conditions, on the periphery of the wealthy cities they help create- such a redevelopment can represent an escape route. However in a country where human equations work in strangely bizarre ways, such conclusions may be too simplistic. Unless then the giant organism will continue living and breathing – cut off from Mumbai by only a tenuous bridge.
I stare blankly at the depressing news feed. Falak dies – an inhuman saga of sadism, sexual debauchery, human trafficking. Where the sexually abused 14-year old who claimed to be Falak’s mother is a child herself. The uproar is but natural, the civilized world erupts in outrage. How long will it last? A week, a month, six months. While many Falks and their teen-aged mothers will continue going through hell while the administration conveniently looks the other way. After all what can you expect in a country where the police chief in Gurgaon asks women to come back by 8 because the state cannot protect her. Lets say the women accept the dictate because the altenative is to get abused, raped or killed on the streets. The organisations practising gender diversity put up their hands in helplessness. Women are welcome but the fact that they want to leave early will come in the way of their progress. Or even their induction into the workforce in the first place. If the police and the sex-offenders do not come in the way, the neighbours, the family, the society will. Mired in their prejudices against women. Conditioned to treat them as the silent cogs. Who play some role in keeping the wheel moving. Who get battered and bruised as the wheel negotiates rough terrains. But who do not decide the direction. And in a country scoring abysmally low on gender ratio and female development index, the fact that a large section of its population is not a master of her destiny should be a source of huge concern. Paradoxical since we celebrate the Stree Shakti so ardently in our religion. Ironical when on the morning of women’s day which also coincided with Holi, my 45 year old cook tells me that her husband still hits her. Scary when a survey conducted among low socio-economic groups reveal that a majority of these women think it is but natural for the man to hit his wife, for a wife not to control her destiny.
Ofcourse amidst all this gloom there are the extraordinary stories of courage and strength – many a time co-authored with the help of men. The fourteen year old Beena, living in a remote village in Bengal,who thwarted efforts to get her married and has now created self-help groups which voraciously campaign against child marriages. The man from Chennai who battled social stigma, many a times from women, to create inexpensive sanitary napkins for rural women. The societal changes accelerate as you climb the socio-economic ladder. There are more girls getting education- though the ratio of male to female secondary students is an abysmal 2:1. There are more women entering the work force. Yes they are till mostly employed at lower paid jobs but as the numbers increase, these women will gather the courage to demand better deals. Which start with better pay and include things like cribs at the work place, longer maternity breaks, provision for paternity leaves and opportunities to get re-inducted back into the workforce. I remember a friend in London. A doctorate and a chief researcher at a large corporate there, she was given several options including flexi-hours, work-from-home so that she could be cushioned back into work after delivering her lovely twins. Too much to ask in a country where women strap on their infants to their back as they carry heavy loads balanced precariously on their head. Or little to ask in a country where women have made amazing strides despite the odds against them. I pensively look at the plastic rose they gave me on women’s day. In a fair world, we would not need the women’s day. We will be celebrating her every day. Falak can then rest in peace.
Any global crisis doubles up as a rather unforgiving mirror. Forcing societies to look at themselves. Reexamine values and fundamentals. The recession wherein the well oiled machinery of the progressive world has been showing the naked clinks have done just that. The party is over. The balloons are bust. The good timers have left and have taken the fence down as they go. There’s an awful lot of mess to be cleared. And then you start realising who your friends are. That is if you have friends left at all. Because in an uni-directional world we were not really cultivating ‘friendships’. Friends or networks were by the way dots which automatically attached themselves to us in parties, boardrooms or golf courses. In a self-sufficient world you did not really require friends. Or supporting communities. You only required to know enough interesting people who could fill up your party. Made sense. It requires a tremendous amount of effort to nurture communities of friends. A whole lot of commitment. The rule is you usually give more than you receive. And then one day when you are desperately looking for someone to mend your fence the community will descend on your place. Someone will mend the fence while a second one will bake comforting cookies for you. While a third will repaint the fence and the fourth will replant the bougainvilleas. A mutually symbiotic relationship. Not transactional mind you unlike the marketplace. Instead returns get evened out if at all over a longer timeline.
No wonder an embattled world is suddenly talking in terms of communities. Creating networks of trust. Safety nets of people who can warm the soup on a rainy day. Huge implications for the society. As lines are redrawn. Ofcourse in the post economic recession world, the deeper ramifications of a community centric alignment is for business houses. Where markets are being shaped or have the possibility of being shaped around community lines. The ties between random buyers is becoming stronger aided not only by social realignment but by a shrinking of distance courtesy Facebook and the digital community clan. Creating both opportunities and threats. Businesses can now more effectively cluster their markets along community lines, engage with influencers and leverage community ties to virally sell products or ideas. Ofcourse communities as I have said have sprung as a defence mechanism in fractured markets are not likely to be conducive to businesses by default. These units are mostly formed to protect the members or the buyers explaining the tremendous initial success of sites such as Group-ons. So business houses would not have a red carpet welcome in these circles. This is where executives have to come down from their high chairs and start engaging at a grass-root level. Where a lip service to community welfare is not sufficient anymore. A growing scepticism of touch and go global corporates and a realignment of the world’s market place require businesses to look out for all opportunities to build a fence. Or break the fence with the 99% who have very strong reasons to congregate. Build organic business with the communities at the epicentre. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the future of the planet hinges on such symbiosis.
Ajit is a businessman. He runs a garment business where he sources clothes from an intricate network of suppliers(read dealers, wholesellers) , sells them at a profitable margin. He also has tie-ups with a tailoring house who custom-makes exclusive pieces mostly inspired by Bollywood for him. He boasts of a loyal clientele making sure he does brisk business from Monday to Saturday. He keeps the Sunday for his family, helping his wife who runs a business of her own. Ajit’s business model is an interesting combination of hardwork, astute sense of the customer needs and a superb dealer network. His average sales hover around 5000 leaving him a neat profit anywhere between 50,000 and 70,000 after factoring in all expenses. Not a huge amount. But considering the fact that Ajit’s shop is no upscale high-street outlet but occupies a 4 feet by 4 feet space in Bombay’s flea market does make the figure substantial. Ajit offcourse is not the one to rest on his laurels. The lanky 35 year old is planning a door-to-door selling model. He is talking with a supplier who will supply him with higher quality clothes to sell to a more discerning clientele. He has a few other radical ideas, he tells me but wants to do a bit more thinking before he attempts those. At this point a bevy of college girls enter the store and Ajit rushes to help them. I go back to rummaging through Ajit’s ‘designer collection’, my ears picking out the master sales talk that Ajit dishes out. Talk of cross-sell and up-sell. This man is a marketing genius. I actually ask him if he would be interested in a guest lecture in a b-school. Ajit laughs. ‘I am not even a graduate, madam’ he tells me deftly counting his day’s proceedings so far.
Ofcourse Ajit is not a graduate. Leave alone an MBA. But a b-schooler looking to learn the rudiments of business will do well to take up an apprenticeship with him. Or the several other stall-owners in the flea markets of our cities. A lesson in supply chain for example. Many of these stall-owners have well-entrenched networks which ensures they buy at surprisingly low costs. They are experts in customer research. Go to any shop on the footpath and they will be stocked with inexpensive items reflecting the latest fashion trends. They manage shelf space extraordinarily well without being aware of the sophisticated retail management theories. Ajit for example stocks the ‘hot-sales’ at eye level making sure the more expensive items are stocked on top and the cheaper ones deeper down. They have an uncanny ability of reading people’s psychology . And saying the right things to clinch a sell. Call it a pitch if you may. Ajit has been doing it for the last decade without too many occasions to be in an elevator. Ajit even has a loyalty programme though it is largely based on unwritten rules. Blessed with a photographic memory, he gives discounts to repeat customers. He has also taken down the contact details of his richer and more devout customers and will use them as part of the base for his door to door selling model. The most fascinating aspect of the business model is the simplicity. Uncomplicate may well have been a buzz word in this part of the city. A mass of wealth created outside of what you call the formal structured economy. And pearls of wisdom created far from the high altars of learning. I will go back to Ajit’s store to pick the ropes of doing business without a mission, vision, strategy charter. Yet with a crystal clear view of how this small shop will help fund the dreams of his family. And a simple mantra – Give the people what they want. Be honest in the dealings. Keep a hawk eye on the costs. The money will naturally flow in.
‘Dry Day’ admonished the waiter giving me a slightly quizzical look. Realization dawned. Republic Day. Ofcourse. Not just another mid-week holiday. I still could not make sense why it needs to be a dry day though. Oh yes we are a prudish nation who lets Sunny Leone on prime-time TV but cracks a dress-code whip on women colleges. As usual I failed to make sense. Like I fail to make sense of the contradictions we accept without batting an eye-lid. For instance why the cow is more protected than women and other animals. Why the choices for drinking water are either packaged bottles that come at a price or contaminated water. Why is Hussain hounded out while Advani can repeat his rath-yatra. Why 600 crore is spent on a Dalit park while 600 babies die of encephalitis. Why is 26th a dry day in upmarket pubs. While hooch-sellers still sell posisoned salvation to the daily-wage workers. “Madam”- my chain of thoughts is interrupted by the well-behaved waiter. The special moktail of the day had arrived – the concoction sported the brilliant shades of the tri-colour. I looked around. The hip joint had brought the tr-colours out in full vigour. Even the back-ground music which usually consisted of Enrique and Shakira, comprised the feel-good patriotic songs. The giant plasma screen played footages of the republic day parade in the capital. The patriotism was too obvious to ignore. Possibly I am the lone sceptic in a sea of proud Indians. If so many people can find reasons to celebrate 62 years of democracy, so can I.
And ofcourse I did. The very fabric of the world’s largest democracy. Patched, frayed yet held together. By the love for cricket. And the animosity for Pakistan. By the search for a messiah. And the disappointment of being let down by the ones they do. By the rising prices. And the occasional sales. Threads of commonalities in the huge list of differences. Because lets face it – diversity does not unite. Look at the fumbling, bumbling EU reeling under an unequal union. The basis of unity has to be a common dream, a a feel-good factor everyone can share . Standing in the 62nd year of sovereignty this ancient nation does give me some of those happy moments I can share with a Madrasi or a Punjabi without the happiness getting lost in translation. The fact that India shined inspite of the political inertia. The nation now is strong enough to be offering bail-out packets to mightier nations. The progress, the success has come on the dint of the strength of a billion Indians who have risen over scepticism to take themselves and the nation forward. The strength of the democracy. Which can vocally attack the men and women in power without the fear of a backlash. The strength of humanity and compassion. The extra-ordinary stories of courage, conviction and compassion curated from all over the country. A young girl in Bengal who canvasses against child-marriages. A middle-aged man from Chennai who overcame social stigma to manufacture affordable sanitary napkins for rural women. People sectioned into states on the basis of differences. People united into India by a strong hope. Of a better tomorrow. Of a democracy where equality and justice transcend the preamble. Of a republic which respects humanity. The country may then truly evolve to be the nation Ambedkar conceived. A nation which does not require reservations and delineations and segregations. A nation which does not require a dry-day to enforce respect for the tenets of democracy. A democracy of the people, by the people and for the people. Have a meaningful republic day!