Is the city a place of freedom? Reflections on Priya Sen’s documentary on Delhi

Priya Sen’s newest documentary explores the everyday lives of young women in contemporary Delhi. The film is available for streaming as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week. In a podcast that accompanies the documentary, the director was interviewed by Professor Melissa Butcher (Geography, Birkbeck) about the process of film-making in urban India. Together, the podcast and the film invite the audience to reflect on how the arts and the social sciences can be used in combination to explore contemporary urban life. The event marks the launch of Birkbeck’s new MA/MSc Cities programme, showcasing its interdisciplinary approach.

Image courtesy of The Kitchen.

The social life of cities

Early thinkers of urbanization reflected on the ways in which city living was transforming the relationship between individuals and others. In the “Metropolis and Mental life”, Simmel coined the famous concept of the “blasé”, in reference to the indifference that urbanites expressed in multiple everyday interactions. Compared to traditional rural settings, he argued that urban life allowed for a certain degree of autonomy. In the city, people were liberated from the constant social expectations of communitarian life and could thus behave more freely. What would Simmel say if he could watch Priya Sen’s exploration of everyday life in Delhi?

In “Yeh Freedom Life” we follow the lives of Sachi and Parveen, two young people living in a working-class neighborhood (Ambedkar Nagar) of Delhi. The film shows their struggles to negotiate family and societal expectations for “the right to live their lives properly and openly”. Far from the “blasé” attitude, what we observe is the constant scrutiny of others in relation to the protagonists’ choices of who to love and how to live their lives. The film invites viewers to reflect on how patriarchal norms are contested but also reproduced and accommodated within India’s fast-urbanizing society. This topic has been recently discussed by Sanjay Srivastava during Birkbeck’s “Gendered cities” webinar in which he explored the spatial-politics of gender in contemporary urban India. For Sanjay, rather than challenging gendered norms, Indian society is incorporating those normative ideas through practices of “modern” consumption.

(Un)making gender in urban India

The documentary opens with scenes of an event where a female audience listens to a talk based on Hindu mythology followed by a discourse on the importance of women’s education. The event can be seen as a space where “traditional” and “modern” ideals are combined to offer a standard of womanhood compatible with contemporary India. In the event, we are first introduced to Sachi and her soon to be married friend Didi. They both work in a beauty parlor where they spend their time discussing their love affairs while threading costumers’ eyebrows with impressive dexterity. In the “Beauty Care and Training Centre”, femininity standards are being produced but normative behaviors are also subverted through Sachi’s personal struggle for a fulfilling life. Despite Didi’s protest over the sorrow inflicted on her friend’s family as a result of her unusual choices in love, Sachi refutes any critical commentary, arguing that “if you live by what people around you say, life will be very hard”.

The constrains of associational life

Similar to Sachi, Parveen also struggles for love and happiness, facing the negative consequences of his unconventional life. He works on a cigarette stall owned by her family located in a busy intersection. Despite his hard work for the family business, he remains an outcast, often facing the hostility of those around him. Nonetheless, he is unapologetic about who he is and willing to have a less comfortable life to keep his autonomy. His discourse never veers towards a rights-based language, always foregrounding instead the truth of his emotions and his need for freedom. Like many others, he is willing to accept the penalty of exclusion from social networks in order to claim a “freedom life”.

The film reveals the complex ways in which solidarity actually works. The reality is far from the idyllic appraisals of associational life often celebrated by international development agencies for its beneficial role in poverty alleviation. In those accounts, communities are often portrayed as unproblematic networks of solidarity and trust that can be accessed by its members in case of need. Particularly in Southeast Asia, schemes of microcredit and other market-oriented initiatives focused on the inclusion of the “bottom of the pyramid” usually assume the existence of such socially cohesive networks. However, as Priya Sen’s documentary reveals, the maintenance of social networks often require adherence to social norms that either constrain individual’s autonomy or exclude those who are non-conforming. The film also illustrates how the complex realities of urban life in postcolonial settings are not easily captured by rigid frameworks.

A view from the South

Recently, postcolonial urban thinkers have challenged “universal” narratives of urbanization rooted on Western experiences. Calling for a “view from the South”, urban scholars have challenged “modernizing” discourses that ignore situated trajectories of urbanization and impose inadequate analytical frames and solutions. In this context, researchers on urban India have criticized the use of binary categories, such as modern/traditional, formal/informal, as unsuitable for uncovering the complexities of contemporary urbanization in the country. In “Yeh Freedom Life”, the unfolding of everyday urban life reveals how rigid categorizations of gender, femininity and sexuality are simultaneously reinforced and contested.

Dr Mara Nogueira is a Lecturer in Urban Geography and Programme Director of the MA/MSc Cities programme.

 

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Many Days Late and Many Dollars Short: COVID-19 Institutionalised Racism and the Black British Experience

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector studies, reflects on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Asian and other global majority heritages.

I watched my first virtual funeral this week. I and around 80 others joined the 15 or so people who were physically present in Bristol UK to say goodbye to an amazing woman. I first met this woman nearly 20 years ago, when I moved to the city. She was then recovering from a brain tumour operation. My wife and I would give her a ride to our local church and on the way she would tell us stories about her nursing career in Britain and the obstacles she had to overcome as woman of Jamaican heritage to gain recognition in her profession. She would talk with pride about her children making lives for themselves in the UK and in the United States and of her dream that when she was able to drive again, she would buy herself a Jaguar. I never quite believed that she would get the car, but lo and behold eventually she did. She was the quite the character, one of a number of wonderful people in that congregation in St Pauls in the heart of the city.

I fondly remember tasty lunches with people of Indian heritage, playing games with families from Singapore, becoming a godfather to a daughter of Malawian descent, being pastored by a man of white south African descent and praying and fasting with Nigerian descendants, Guyanese, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Romanians, Croatians, Australians and white and black British. In that small church we weaved an international tapestry that criss-crossed continents, cultures and identities. Doctors mingled with taxi drivers, who talked to cleaners, dentists, lawyers, barbers and cooks. It was a living, breathing community with a network that was global in its reach and connections. The death of one the precious members of that community at this time is a very hard pill to swallow.

The bitterness of death is made even harder by the fact that the precious life of this woman will barely register outside of her immediate community. She alongside so many others will invariably be reduced to a BAME statistic. Night after night via the media and the data machine of the day, complex individuals with amazing stories and profound life experiences are reduced to racialised entities. In this reduction they are robbed of their humanity and their dignity. In life they faced discrimination in death they face denigration by statistics.

The primary data sets that reference the Black British experience primarily tell their/our story in proportion or disproportion to the ‘white’ population. The value of Black lives therefore according to the data only exists in relation to ‘whiteness’.  This invariably leads to them/us becoming a freak side show. Them/us are people that require further research and investigation, as opposed to being human beings that first and foremost need support and protection!

The statistics reveal that people from Black, Asian, and other global majority heritages are dying in some cases at four times, the rate that ‘white’ people are. A question that should be asked is why is this public health disaster only warranting calls for a public enquiry and a Public Health England investigation? We might not know why they/us are more prone to the virus, but we do know without question that they/us are particularly vulnerable so why are they/us not being shielded as a matter of priority? Why are they/us not being placed on automatic furlough?  Why are the circumstances around Black deaths not considered a national health emergency that demands immediate action?

Why oh why yet again after Windrush, Grenfell and so many other countless failings by the authorities of this nation are Black citizens once again left to suffer and die? Time after time like clockwork all we hear are words of regret and the promise of an investigation. Is that really all we are worth? Is this nation pathologically predisposed to continually s…t on its non-white citizens?

When a migrant descendant doctor, nurse, care worker, bus driver, supermarket assistant dies the impact often goes far beyond that of their immediate family. ‘Successful’ migrants and their descendants are often at the apex of complex and unfolding pyramids of influence. Their finances, knowledge and influence support communities and individuals both locally and globally. Where the state is absent here and abroad these women and men are often a vital cog in sustaining families and communities. COVID-19 is fracturing these community structures and the state through its lack of action to protect its ‘global majority’ citizens is adding salt to the wounds.

The country faces challenging times ahead. How we treat minorities and the vulnerable in a time of crisis is a true test of how ‘Great’ a nation we are. Britain’s Black, Asian and other descendant communities with origins from all over the globe have demonstrated once again their courage, loyalty, and integrity to support the nation in its time of need. What will the nation do in return? We need a systematic and comprehensive plan backed by substantial resources to eradicate racialised discrimination from our society. It is ultimately the only way to end the curse of the BAME label and stats with all their marginalising characteristics and connotations. There are many lessons that the nation needs to learn from this life-changing event, but one must be that it is time to end the madness of racialised inequality in this country once and for all.

 

 

 

 

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The Effects of COVID-19 on Carbon Emissions and how longer-term remote working may impact it further

Dr Becky Briant, Department of Geography and ​Marianna Muszynska, Sustainability Officer, Bloomsbury Colleges Greenthing, consider the impact of the current pandemic on the environment

A picture of a steam locomotive train

A steam locomotive train

There’s a certain schadenfreude in the community of environmental campaigners about the impacts of the current coronavirus crisis on travel and therefore on carbon emissions, but is this crisis really good for reducing our impact on the environment long term?

A reduction in carbon emissions in response to a reduction in economic activity is not a new phenomenon. As Dr Becky Briant teaches Birkbeck Geography MSc students on our Climate Change module each year, one of the only reasons that global emissions only grew 11% between the early 1992 commitments to reduce emissions and the year 2000 was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic is having similar effects, with an estimated 90,000 barrels of oil per day reduction on 2019 levels at the start of March. Oil production is particularly hard hit by this crisis because it is mostly used for transport. This has other knock on positive environmental effects such as a reduction in air pollution in urban areas.

Whether or not these initial effects will have a long-term benefit for the environment, however, is entirely dependent on what decisions are made in relation to energy usage and infrastructure once society returns to ‘normal’ after social distancing restrictions are lifted. The only way to reduce global carbon emissions in the long term is to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. There is some evidence that this has been happening in many service-based economies over the past few decades, even if you account for the carbon in the goods that these economies buy from other countries (consumption-based emissions).

Closer to home, here in the UK, Government data shows that UK production-based emissions were about 45 per cent lower in 2019 than in 1990. This is a 3.6 per cent drop on 2018 levels and the same value as during 1888. Even consumption-based emissions have dropped somewhat. There is therefore some evidence that the UK are starting to decouple emissions from economic growth, with emissions reductions of 29% and economic growth of 18% between 2010 and 2019.

This is really good news for our environment, and of course the emissions reductions due to coronavirus are a welcome addition to this, but they are a short-term disruption to a long-term trend. Climate change is a long-term environmental issue and so only long-term changes will make a difference to reducing it.

Reverting to ‘business as usual’ after this crisis will give only another 10% fall by 2030, whilst meeting the UK’s carbon budgets require a fall of 31% by 2030. There is also the danger of a ‘bounce-back’ effect where Government is so keen to stimulate economic growth they reduce environmental ambitions. As a country, we are currently doing well at decarbonising our electricity supply (moving from coal to renewables), with gradual decrease also in the use of gas for space heating although mostly due to increased efficiency rather than switching to electric. Transport, however, is proving less tractable. Oil emissions have only dropped by 6% since 2010 and transport as a sector is now the largest contributor to UK emissions, even without international aviation and shipping, which are not accounted for by country.

Whilst at Birkbeck we are committed to long-term solutions to educate staff and students and reduce emissions and other environmental impacts, we too have seen examples of short-term changes that will not suffice in the long run to decrease carbon emissions. For example, two months of lockdown would reduce Birkbeck’s energy use by 17%, saving almost 400 tonnes of carbon emissions. Indirect emissions from staff travel are also reduced. However, with good planning and resolve carbon savings can still be achieved when restrictions are relaxed.

It is here that the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to leave a lasting legacy – reinventing the concept of the workplace. Having been restricted to remote meeting and discovered that the technology is frequently good enough to make these effective as well as saving time and money, organisations may decide to move to more remote meeting in the longer term. Working remotely for 5 weeks in a row, already, is daunting for some, but not all. Due to the long travel distances of many staff and cost of commuting into London, remote working is already common amongst academic staff. Forced lockdown for all staff has planted a seed of possibility of remote work more often than we previously anticipated is possible or productive.

We hope that once stay at home restrictions are relaxed, Birkbeck’s recovery plan will include encouraging more staff to work remotely a few times a week. This will have the benefit of reducing onsite energy use as well as emissions associated with commuting and business travel.

Whilst we can make these shifts at a local scale, for global changes to be effective, changes are also needed at national level. The key is in what Government policies are in place globally to ensure that economic recovery post coronavirus encourages environmentally positive activities. This is the moment to make this case, as can be seen in a the output of a wide range of organisations from the International Energy Authority to Extinction Rebellion. If we don’t, we risk bouncing back to higher emissions in the search to recover from the economic hit taken during this crisis.

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When gardens become a nature reserve

Frustrated by a lack of political interest in conservation issues, Dr Adrian Cooper, former Associate Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, has been developing an innovative and successful approach to community-based conservation in Suffolk.

Felixstowe’s Community Nature Reserve was born out of my frustration with politicians during the 2015 General Election debate. None of them mentioned the catastrophic decline in bee and other wildlife populations. Clearly, local grass roots action was needed.

Dr Adrian Cooper - gardenI started talking and listening to people from local government and the local community about what might be possible, and gathering a small team of volunteers. Most people understood that wildlife populations in Felixstowe were falling, and they wanted to help, but they simply did not know how. It also became clear that getting hold of a single plot of land for any kind of nature reserve project in the Felixstowe area would take too long, and would be too complicated.

Participation in this initiative had to be as simple as possible. First, I re-defined what a nature reserve could be. Instead of it being one area of land, I suggested that local gardeners and allotment owners only had to allocate three square yards of their gardens or allotments for wildlife-friendly plants, ponds and insect lodges, and we could then aim for 1,666 people to take part. That combination would give us a total area of 5,000 square yards – the size of a football pitch.

In this way, we are developing a “community nature reserve” composed of many pieces of private land, but between which insects, birds and other wildlife can fly and develop sustainable biodiversity.

Creating our new nature reserve  

With my partner Dawn Holden, I started a Facebook page, on which we advise local people about appropriate wildlife-friendly plants. I also wrote articles for our local advertiser magazines and gave an interview to our local community TV station and BBC Radio Suffolk. We were thrilled with the early take-up of our ideas, and at the time of writing, we know that 207 people have bought and planted at least one of the plants we have recommended. But the good news hasn’t stopped there.

Where are we now?        

Thanks to Facebook, we’ve had enquiries from people all over the UK, asking about how we set ourselves up, and how the initiative has developed. BBC presenter Chris Packham found out about us, and his tweets to his 145,000 Twitter followers have produced a small avalanche of enquiries about our work and achievements.

In the Leicestershire villages of Cosby and Burbage, people decided to copy our model to develop their own community nature reserves. So now there is the Cosby Community Nature Reserve, and the Burbage Community Nature Reserve. That’s why I wanted to write this blog – to inspire and help other communities to take responsibility for their local conservation in a way that means everyone can get involved. Even window box owners are encouraged to take part – after all, they can grow herbs, crocus, snow drops and much else. So, no one is excluded.

Further action

During the first three months of this year, we’ve recruited lots more volunteers and received some wonderful new ideas, such as the organisation of a plant-swap opportunity, to keep the cost of buying and growing wildlife friendly plants as low as possible.

We’ve also started to work alongside Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s community projects officer to help with their grassroots conservation initiatives and to raise our profile. As a result, this month, April 2016, we hope to help the Trust to raise awareness of falling populations of swifts, and what people can do to help. In September, we plan to help the Trust raise awareness of local hedgehog populations.

Lessons learned

The most important lesson we can offer groups who may wish to start their own community nature reserve is to listen to as many local people as possible. Be patient. Don’t rush on to Facebook until your local community feels comfortable with what you plan to do.

The next lesson is to keep listening, so fresh ideas from the community can be fed into Facebook and other social media as often as possible. We like to use Streetlife.com because it’s a great way to get discussions going among local people who otherwise might not get involved in community engagement.

Finally, we recommend using as many different types of local media as possible to spread the message. We have used Facebook, Streetlife.com, LinkedIn (including multiple LinkedIn posts), local magazines, our community radio and TV station, BBC Radio Suffolk and Twitter. For more information have a look at our Facebook page

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