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Archive for June, 2009

City, Nights and Fear

June 30th, 2009

9 o’clock

10 o’clock

11 o’clock

Night,

dark,

inside their homes – the peoples

but, this is Mumbai, does not sleep – the city that does not sleep.

Someone asked me the other day – but you said that people do not sleep here in Mumbai. Look around, everyone seems to be asleep – and he smiled. I thought to myself, maybe it is the weekend and so everyone is sitting tight in their homes.

Then, returning back home at 11:15 PM at night, sitting in the cab, I looked around. A sense of fear had also gripped me – how will I return home? When will I return home? When will I snuggle up in my bed and feel safe. How can this happen to me in Mumbai – the city whose prodigy I am. Fear, that feeling of lack of safety, was creeping up my neck.

Sitting in the taxi, I asked the driver – no public on the streets?

He said – Sunday nah? Little public out at night.

But, I prodded further, even the bus services into the city have reduced at night. What is th deal?

The buses kya? They run empty at nights and so, the BEST has decided to reduce them. But yes, the streets are empty at nights these days, after the bamb-kaand.

Bamb-kaand? You mean 26/11?

Yes. After that, people have reduced going out at nights. A sense of fear has gripped people. We taxi drivers, our income was mainly from the fares we got at night. Now, that has reduced drastically. All the shareef, good character people don’t come out at nights. It is only the badmaash, the bad characters, that come out at night. Plus, so much naaka-bandi, police watch. Who will come out? Which shareef person will come out?

Just a while before the driver was drawing a distinction between the shareef and the badmaash, I had watched a bunch of well-dressed prostitutes and one of their clients in the classic white kurta and pyjama, laughing and making jokes around the corner of a hotel at Grant Road. And I had thought about respectability. Now, I think of the shareef, the badmaash, and the night and the city – transformation, perhaps it is happening at these subtle levels.

Then, I watched the city last night as we rode past one end to the other. Are the streets really silent? Is this what the bamb-kaand has done? Penetrated into the fabric of the city and spread fear …

We halted at a signal around the corner of one of the posh Western suburbs. There she was – no fear – just dexteriously weaving the flowers through the thread and making garlands, perhaps readying herself for the clientele in the morning who may want to offer the flowers to their gods and goddesses, allaying a fear of a different kind (that between the devotee and the devout). She weaved away quickly, without care. Is she afraid, I thought to myself?

Then we passed the roads. There they were, those people, those people we call slum dwellers. Three hutments jutting out from the walls, just onto to the streets. They had also called it a night, lying down in their beds, drawing their sheets onto themselves. There they were, stepping into the world of dreams and nightmares and desires and hopes and aspirations – some had their TV sets on, some just oblivious of the roadside traffic and preparing to go off to sleep. Are they afraid?

Then, we went pass the highway, those big roads that have been created to facilitate the movement of cars (and traffic). On the highway, covered under blue plastic sheets, supported by a few poles, they were also going off to sleep. Perhaps they were construction workers who had settled into a little space on the footpath and called it a night. Perhaps they were contract sweepers, spending their last few days in the city before the rain lashes vehemently. They were almost calling it a night, drifting off (or just about to …) … Are they afraid?

And then, just a little ahead, three-four men and women, playing hide-and-seek in the bushes by the side of the highway, perhaps some kind of a foreplay. They seemed happy, playful. Are they afraid?

Fear – what of?

Fear – of what?

Fear … and the city sleeps at night …

Fear … and we sleep to prepare for another day to come …

Fear …

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Global City, or the City an Enigma?

June 26th, 2009

I stepped out of Lokmanya Tilak terminus this afternoon, expecting to hail a cab from the taxi stand, get into one and start the ride to my destination. It was raining. Cab drivers were at the platform, asking passengers if they wanted taxis. I refused to pay heed to any of them, knowing that they would ask for the sun and the moon as fares. I stepped out of the platform and the station. In the face of the rain, I walked here and there, asking for taxis to take me where I wanted to go. Around, I heard cabbies charging passengers Rs. 500 for rides to Borivali and passengers agreeing to the fares. So, what’s going on? No cabbie at the taxi stand is willing to come along with me to my destination. Is it because it is relatively less far as compared with other fares? I then caught hold of the havaldaar mama (the famous lower level cop) and told him that I was unable to find a cab and I did not know where to go. He asssured me that he will get me one in a minute or two. I was not sure whether to believe him or not. Choosing the latter option, I continued with my search. Eventually, one cabbie came forth and asked me where I wanted to go. He agreed to ferry me to my destination on the condition that I pay him a flat rate and not go by the meter.

Why? If not by meter how else do you expect me to come with you?

Madam, it has been raining since morning. I am afraid that there will be water clog in the direction where you want to go. There is a lot of traffic. If you agree to pay me Rs. —, I take you where you want to go.

I agreed, despite my reservations, because it was not worth standing in the face of the rains with luggage and parcels. We began our journey, and as it often happens to me in Mumbai, I started talking to the cabbie. He wasn’t the chattering types. So I had to think of questions or topics for a conversation.It was not easy, but some things he said were very insightful.

What is this bridge they are making here, I asked, pointing to an under construction structure outside the Lokmanya Tilak terminus?

That? That is the new link road connecting Kurla East and West sides with Santacruz and Chembur.

So, I heard that they are revamping the Lokmanya Tilak terminus station?

Yes, they are expanding.

How? By adding more railway lines?

No. They are going to demolish the ticket counters where they are now and shift them to the rear side. Some work has been done and it is looking very posh.

Yes, they were clearing out some of the slums and extending the station.

Slums? Clearing? No. That does not happen.

A little while later:

How is the traffic in the city?

It has increased.

Increased? But they are making all these flyovers and expanding the roads?

That only increases the traffic.

So, has your business been affected because of the new private taxi services?

No, it is still the same. Local person will travel by local taxis. Moreover, these private taxis are expensive. They have to pay the driver and they get very little in their hands at the end of the day.

A more little while later:

Bombay has changed a lot.

Changed? Hahaha! No, it is still the same.

But all the development is now happening around Malad side.

That is true, but South Mumbai still remains South Mumbai.

Some more while later:

Do you have to pay to stand for fares at the newly developed Santacruz domestic airport?

Yes, but we had to do that earlier too. Even at Lokmanya Tilak terminus, we have to pay 10 rupees to park.

For a moment, I was a bit puzzled when I heard this piece of information. Are the parking rates still the same at the domestic airport and the revamped train terminus?  When you hail a cab from the domestic airport and even from some of the train junctions, the fares are twice/thrice the usual rates. Earlier, cab drivers used to levy these fares on the grounds that they have to pay halting charges to the airport authorities (or perhaps the cops and security guards) and hence, the fares had jumped up. I tried to connect the bits of information that had come through in the conversation – the belief about the posh-ness of the upcoming railway station and the levying of the higher fares. It struck me then that people at all levels are participating in the imagination of the global city which is materializing through infrastructure improvements. Perhaps the posh-ness of the revamped airport and railway stations had caused the cabbies to believe that they could levy higher fares, thus cashing in on the infrastructure improvements in their own ways. That the aspiration of the global city or the Shanghai/Singapore etc imagination prevails at all levels is not a new insight. Even my Arjun bhai, the hawker who I used to talk to outside the VT Railway station four years ago, would tell me how computerized railway passes were now a sign of modernity. In my last visit to Mumbai, my TC was complaining how issuing of tickets has become slow and cumbersome because the old punch-and-pop system has been replaced by a dot matrix printing machine which slowly spews out a card like ticket – the card ticket now being a sign of the revamped city!

Why this change at the cost of efficiency? I asked my TC.

Because we want to build a Shanghai or whatever international city out of our Mumbai, he said.

It is amazing how the aspiration is shared among people at all levels even when the global city is materialized at costs which might seem/are unjust and unfair. Yet, the imagination and aspiration prevails. People participate in it when it happens and label it in their own ways.

As I once again step into the city, trying to unravel it, to understand it and therefore myself (who has been lost), I tell myself,

… the city will be an enigma. Our every attempt to know and control it makes it known and yet,  unknown in other ways and facets.

The city, an enigma …

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Social Media and Mobilization

June 21st, 2009

Discussion by Dina Mehta and Peter Griffin

Held at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) on 17th June, 2009

Iran Elections and the Twitter Revolution …

Memes – how and why do some memes become popular on Twitter?

FaceBook – privacy, community, locality, socializing???

Blogs – once, we thought they would revolutionize the world, but how are blogs now placed vis-à-vis twitter and facebook?

Many questions abound concerning the phenomenon called “social media”, particularly in the wake of the protests taking place in Iran and how information has reached out to the world about what is going on in the country. The panel discussion on social media organized by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) on 19th June, 2009, aimed to understand how mobilizations take place through social media and how memes are engineered and spread across communities. We brought down Dina Mehta and Peter Griffin from Mumbai to share their experiences.

Dina and Peter set up the tsunami help blog in December 2004 (http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com) which for the first time showcased the importance of social media tools in coordinating local efforts and disseminating information in the region. What caused them to become involved through this medium? Both Dina and Peter used discussion forums and emails during the formative years of the Internet in India. “The sheer miracle of chat”, as Peter puts it, also allowed them to connect with people. When the tsunami struck, they became nodes through which action was mobilized and information was spread. It still remains to be explored how nodes develop in different circumstances, how spaces of conversations develop and what causes some individuals to enter the space of social media and inhabit them in significant ways, to the extent of becoming nodes for coordination and mobilization.

So, what is social media? Dina says she does not like the term. But, since it is used so commonly, she follows the tide. For Dina and Peter, social media is a set of tools which can be mobilized for various purposes – call to action, response to crisis, persuading people to support a cause, among many other things. What is curious though is that the use of social media becomes more marked and prominent during moments of crisis. This led one audience member to ask whether social media is mirroring some of the behaviours of mainstream media. Dina pointed out that social media does not exist in opposition to mainstream media – both complement each other. What makes social media more powerful during moments of crisis are some of the following factors:

1. Powerful search functions;

2. Tools for aggregating content which helps in picking up the noise;

3. Hash (#) tags which make it easy to search and to connect and contribute to ongoing conversations and mobilizations.

These help to amplify what is going on. Dina also referred to the simplicity of social media tools which enables diverse individuals to participate in their own ways. She cited the recent example of showing solidarity with the Iranian revolutionaries by adding the colour green to one’s twitter image. “I only had to click whether I wanted to show support in this way and a program automatically applied the green colour to my twitter image without my having to do anything. I don’t have to write code to participate in this medium. I can be anyone,” she added.

What is also unique is that unlike newspapers and early television, interactions via social media tend to be two-way. For instance, blogs have made it possible for individuals to become publishers of their own materials whether it is diary like entries or filter blogging. Moreover, in the case of the protests following the rigging of Iran elections, people used their mobile phones to capture images and make videos and post these on the Internet for others to see.

Individuals from the audience raised questions about how they and their organizations could use social media tools effectively to raise funds and to communicate their causes/issues to other people. To this, both Dina and Peter suggested that it is important to find the spaces where conversations about issues are already taking place and to participate in them. They also stated that credibility is built over time through acts of giving to different communities that develop around various issues. Dina also emphasized the need to recognize target audiences, what are the mediums they use regularly and accordingly to develop strategies concerning the use of social media. If the outreach group is more tuned into radio, it is more effective to reach out to them in this way. Dina mentioned that a powerful medium in today’s times is the mobile phone which is often neglected because of the publicity that the Internet tends to receive. She said that in South East Asian countries, people have better mobile phone connectivity and often, political activism has taken place by spreading messages through mobile phones. One of the participants questioned whether it is feasible to move from an existing yahoogroup and start a discussion group to which another audience member responded that it is preferable to stay with existing mediums used rather than to switch. Also, discussion forums require more participation and if the goal is only to send out announcements, a yahoogroup serves the purpose.

The issue of arm-chair activism was also raised – whether social media is in fact leading people to participate in issues only through clicking ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Peter stated that this is true, but the ease of transmitting information on to others enhances the possibility of moving beyond arm-chair activism. “For instance, I am concerned about eve teasing and harassment of women in public spaces, but I may not have the time to participate in an ‘intervention’ or gathering on a particular day. However, I forward the email/invitation my friends who are concerned similarly and they may choose to participate on-site,” he said.

The lack of connectivity to the internet and therefore to social media was referred to in the discussions. An audience member pointed out that according to a recent study, only 10% of the people in India are connected to the internet. Peter immediately remarked that the figure of 10% translated into 10 million people which is still a large number that can be reached out to. Similarly, it was pointed out that English is still the predominant language of the web and therefore social media can be exclusive. In this respect, the issues are developing technologies for facilitating the use of scripts, the extent to which the masses use languages other than English on the internet and also whether people in fact use the internet and other communication technologies as a means to learn English. Anivar Aravind, a participant, drew our attention to a twitter community of 800 people who tweet regularly in Malayalam.

The discussion brought out some interesting nuances to social media which users and novices may not have thought about. Questions still remain about the efficacy of social media, the nature and characteristics of communities that are formed around use of social media, distinctions between networks and communities, etc. Irrespective, over time, these questions will be answered as usage increases and trends are studied in all their complex aspects.

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