The Liveability Lens

My phone’s alarm flashes me the message “Take it one day at a time :)” when it goes off every morning at 7:30. And every morning in Bangalore, I need to see those words. I have patched together a routine already, because until I can gather my scattered self and lead my life, I need a routine to lead me.

I normally press the snooze button around 4-5 times before jumping out of bed with a heart attack. But I’m forced to cut the snoozing short now, because I have to turn the geyser on about 10 minutes before I take a hot shower. I use the term “shower” loosely, because I’ve joyfully reverted to taking “bucket baths”, which save an incredible amount of water. You fill up a bucket with half hot water, half cold, and use a large plastic mug to pour water over yourself. On days when I wash my hair, I might use a maximum 2 buckets of water. “The average 10 minute shower uses anywhere from twenty to forty gallons of water.”

I make my way down to Ulsoor Lake and walk along the footpath,  on the lookout for empty auto rickshaws. Finally one stops and I say, “Thimmaiah Road, Vasanthnagar.” If I leave early enough, plenty of them will take me, but the closer it gets to 10 AM, the less incentive they have to brave the city center traffic. I get in and we set off on the now familiar route down St. John’s Church Road, climbing up a ramp and onto another road that gets me to the inconvenient one-way that is Queen’s Road. It costs exactly 32 rupees, and I confidently laugh in the face of any auto driver who asks for more.

We get our first round of tea at Janaagraha between 10 to 11 AM. The staff make it in huge pots and bring out large trays of small blue or white tea cups. I’m being forced to get over my phobia of the wrinkly layer of cream that forms at the top of a hot cup of tea. It used to make me gag, but now, I bravely sweep it up with my finger and smear it on the side of the cup, trying my best not to look at it as I drink.

Overnight, Arjun and I became the Project Managers of the Liveability Score, and it’s a role we are grappling and struggling with. The team is very understaffed, and while we have a few other part-time members, Liveability is ‘our thing’ full-time. With this score, we aim to measure standard of living in all 198 wards of Bangalore, based on criteria such as mobility, sanitation, water supply, and environment.

I now look at the city and my daily life through the “liveability lens”. For example, I walk down footpaths and count the number of obstructions that make me step onto the road, because that is how our team of surveyors will be assessing quality of footpaths when ground survey begins. I see sullage and garbage flowing through an open storm water drain, and give that street a low score for having 1) an open storm water drain in an urban center, and 2) a contaminated storm water drain. I see a man pissing on a wall, and mark down one instance of open urination.

The project is fascinating, and I pick up random urban planning factoids every single day. (Street lighting should have a luminosity of 30 lux. One manhole is the converging point for sewerage lines for 30-50 households.) The project also seems impossible, with very tight deadlines and limited resources. But then I close my eyes and picture a future, when this is all behind me, and I have no idea how, but we did it and we did it well.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, so I open my eyes and go down with my motley crew of Indian-American-Dutch-Singaporean-Australian-Canadian work friends to Alliance Francaise, the beautiful green paradise across the street. We eat at their canteen, and every single day, I order a [probably mediocre] egg biriyani for 70 rupees. When that plate is in front of me, and I am shoveling the delicious rice, eggs and salty yogurt into my mouth, nothing bothers me. Afterwards I inevitably enter into a food coma, but then the 4 o’ clock tea helps me out of it and gets me to the end of the day.

My evening commute is not easy. Almost no auto drivers are willing to turn the fare meter on and go to Ulsoor Lake, because they “won’t get any customers out there.” Yesterday, after a particularly difficult day at work, I just wanted to get out and meet my friend. Four auto drivers refused to go, and when a fifth one pulled up, I was on the verge of tears. He shook his head ‘no’, and I just burst out in exasperation “I’ll give you how much ever you want, I don’t even care. Just please don’t say no!”

He very gently replied, “No, madam, I’m only stopped here for a repair. You just sit in my auto and relax, I’ll get someone to take you.” He stepped out onto busy, one-way Queen’s Road and flagged down an auto and sent me on my way. In my head, I created a new Liveability indicator and marked down one instance of kind person in Vasanthnagar.

Having spent half her life in India and the other half in the United States, Swathi gained a unique perspective on inequality that sparked her interest in understanding and combating poverty in its various forms. After six years of college at a stretch, Swathi is eager to balance the academic knowledge with practical experience in the field. She is looking forward to the rewards and challenges of rediscovering her drastically transformed hometown of Bangalore. Most recently, Swathi worked at the NGO Entreculturas in Madrid, Spain, to support education programs all over Africa, and to develop a global advocacy network on the right to education. She speaks four languages and is trying to decide on a fifth.

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3 thoughts on “The Liveability Lens

  1. As an insider at Janaagraha I know how significant your project is for India. By getting down to details maybe there can be real fixes.
    About that man I always thought they should make special bricks for walls , each with an imprint of a Hindu god, a mosque and Jesus Christ . That way only the atheists , Buddhists and Jains will use them and even the latter two could be dissuaded if you added the images of Buddha and Mahavir. When that happens we will be able to identify all the atheists in India.

  2. Work sounds challenging but really interesting- especially since its completely changed your perspective walking around Bangalore. I could definitely benefit from thinking about the “liveability lens” when I start doing site visits or even when I walk around new neighborhoods in Mumbai. I feel like that kind of perspective can help all of us be more aware of our surroundings and allow us to really see how people actually live around us. This is something I struggle with a lot here- checking in and out of my surroundings. Sounds like you’re checkin in….which can be really insightful but challenging. Measuring these kinds of things in India often seems like measuring the intangible- but obviously creating methods to go about these types of studies is super important.

    As a side note I definitely face the 4-5 snooze wake-up heart attack syndrome here! And even though I spoil myself w showers I should definitely start taking more “buckets” cause you’re right- they are super wasteful. Keep on keeping on! Im sure you and I have similar challenges with scalability/implementation with our projects- we should share!

  3. “Take it one day at a time”–yes indeed. A great reminder.

    Really interesting work you’re doing. Sanitation is so important, a fact I’m reminded of every time I walk by an overflowing sewer here in Madurai.

    And mediocore biriyani? There’s no such thing! 😉

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