By Cally Hardy, MURP ‘16
When learning that I would be traveling to Ahmedabad for two months this summer, countless friends, family members and random strangers came out of the woodwork to share their experiences from prior trips to India. Many of them shared warnings, like: “Don’t go out alone after dark;” or, “Stay away from the monkeys;” and of course, “Don’t even think about wearing jeans or a sleeveless top.” Others shared positive experiences, ranging from the warmth and generosity they encountered from the people here, to the amazing foods I must try during my stay. Common to most of these tidbits was one theme: that I would be traveling to a country extremely different than my own.
Here’s the thing: we are talking about an enormous, incredibly diverse country. Maybe the advice I received was very much true to the experiences of these fellow travelers. But, while I appreciated their guidance, I knew that I would need to set all that aside and approach my summer with a completely open mind. So, taking it all in with a few grains of salt, I set out on my way.
Some warnings rang true. Yes, it was scorching hot. Yes, the monsoon is a force to be reckoned with. Yes, I am still afraid of the monkeys. But other things, not so much. Much of the time during my first few weeks I was struck with just how strong some of the similarities are between here and home.
On my first day of work at the Centre for Urban Equity – a planning research center at CEPT University where I am working on a UN Women Gender Responsive Budgeting project – it was casual Friday. And during our first week, my colleagues invited me to dinner and a movie. We ate pasta and watched Pixar’s latest: Inside Out.
Other aspects of India also bear significant similarities to home. Sure, traffic is chaotic, but it has a definite rhythm to it that feels akin to LA during rush hour. My college-aged roommates love gossiping and taking selfies. A street food vendor makes pizza in a wood fired oven, inspired by California Pizza Kitchen. But one of the most poignant parallels is just how rampant wealth inequality is here.
I remember watching Ananya Roy’s TED Talk on unknowing poverty for the first time a few years back, and being struck by the power of her examples. After a few weeks in India, I decided to re-watch it. As I anticipated, the second viewing brought new understanding. This time, what stood out the most was the story of the young man she spoke to in a slum in Kolkata. He explained that while living conditions are inadequate in most slums and accessing basic services is a daily battle, the poor in India, for the most part, have a fundamental right to property and citizenship. As we know, the same cannot be said back home, where even the right to sleep on a public sidewalk is challenged and homeless encampments are seen as a threat to the economic and moral order of the urban fabric.
Before I go too far out on a limb, I should say that I am in no way attempting to minimize the life-or-death poverty conditions here, or even to fully equate homelessness in the US to poverty in India. Even those who do have access to some form of shelter are threatened by dangers such as violence, disease, and the specter of slum redevelopment and resettlement (as occurred recently at the Sabarmati Riverfront redevelopment project here in Ahmedabad). My intention is not to brush these concerns aside, nor is it to equate poverty in the United States to poverty in India.
Yes, I continue to be immobilized and angered by the extreme poverty that is visible in everyday life in India – not to mention the wealth inequality between here and my own country. But I am learning in new ways how poverty is interrelated, and am doing my best to observe and understand policies that aim to create greater urban equity in India. I am not yet sure how I can bring this knowledge to my planning research and practice in the US, but I know that being open and willing to learn is an important first step.