Rethinking Public Transit

I made a goal a couple months ago to avoid carbon-emitting personal transit whenever possible. My renewed interest in mass transit was sparked after going to a performance-lecture in Santiniketan by Ricky Kej, a Grammy-award winning composer and conservationist. Through his music, Ricky tries to highlight environmental issues in India including saving the Ganges, and human-elephant conflicts in Karnataka. He talked about how Americans are the top polluters (per capita) on the planet, a statistic that I had been aware of but felt new urgency toward addressing, being one of the few Americans in the audience.

I have always been interested in living sustainably–you might know that I gave up meat in middle school after learning about how the meat industry is one of the top contributors to global warming. However, it wasn’t until I moved to India, almost 9 months ago, that I became aware of how high-impact my lifestyle back in the U.S. really is. We drive massive personal vehicles, affectionately christened “gas-guzzlers,” use dryers despite having ample sunlight, take long hot showers, even in the summertime, switch on the AC at the slightest inconvenience, and buy everything prepackaged, wrapped in miles of cellophane wrapping.

My life in Santiniketan is quite different, to say the least. I don’t have AC and yet I manage to make it through the day, even in 110° weather with 98% humidity. I cycle most everywhere, buy fruits and vegetables straight from the local vendor, air-dry my laundry, and take highly-efficient “bucket-showers” (not always satisfactory, but gets the job done.) This low-impact lifestyle doesn’t sacrifice much in terms of happiness or cleanliness; as I’ve realized humans really are resilient and adaptable creatures.

While life in Santi keeps my carbon emissions low, I realized that there was a key factor that was spiking my personal carbon emissions while I was in a metro: uber. When I arrived in India last summer, I remember being struck by how “cheap” uber was. To get to the airport from my old place in Kolkata, approximately an hour-long ride, costs around Rs. 400, or $6. (For comparison, a similar journey in Portland would cost upwards of $30) While the convenience and affordability is hard to beat, I noted that there are plenty of ways to avoid using cars: share-autos, government and private buses, metros, trams, Indian railways, and of course–cycling.

Back in March, I wrote a bit about appreciating public buses in the Andaman Islands. This appreciation has turned into a slight obsession with mass transit–I actually like to think of it as a game. “How can I get to Point A to Point B quickly and easily without a car?” I end up always taking a few detours, but arrive at my destination with a better conception of how the city is planned and having interacted with many locals along the way. I’m also better able to understand broader urban policy and failures.

Here’s a quick example concerning public buses and regional airports: the Kolkata airport has a bus terminus adjacent to the terminal–a comfortable set-up for patrons and employees alike. However, at the Hyderabad airport, one needs to catch a shuttle to an off-site bus stop and wait there for up to half an hour! Considering that most employees commute to work at the airport by bus, this can’t be the best solution–though I’m sure it helps out the taxi drivers who serve passengers directly outside the terminal. (There are AC buses directly outside the terminal but these are considerably more expensive and privately operated.) It’s always interesting to think about who planned these spaces and who benefits most from such arrangements. The price differential is substantial as well: while taking the government bus to my grandparents’ place costs around Rs. 30, a taxi costs around Rs. 750–that’s twenty-five times as expensive.

Sometimes my moral reasoning loses out to the promise of convenience. Of course, I do set my limitations: if it is unseasonably hot or I have excess luggage, I do opt for an uber. There are also times when I don’t compromise–for instance, on flying. While recently traveling to Hyderabad for the summer holidays, I briefly considered the 26-hour overnight train but decided to fly instead. (To “offset” my flight, I bused to and from both the Kolkata and Hyderabad airports).

Under our new administration, environmental policy is not a priority. Even if we don’t have progressive federally mandated policy however, we can still take private steps to protect our planet, with one of the easiest ways being modifying our transit behavior. Even if you’re not American, you can consider your carbon impact and see where you can switch to more sustainable practices. And if a healthier world is not enough to convince you to rethink some habits, maybe read this article by CityLab: commuting by walk, cycle, or train proves a more enjoyable experience than traveling by car.

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South Asian Selection

A couple of my favorite recent reads concerning South Asia…

Women in South Asian Politics: I’ve written before on women in Indian politics and how I admire them. This Economist article shows that simply having women politicians isn’t enough-for the majority of women in South Asia, equality-or even equity-is nowhere close to being a reality. Moreover, many women in power often scale back women’s rights in the hopes of building conservation coalitions and winning votes for themselves.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Stories: I came across one of Jhabvala’s stories in the New Yorker a few weeks ago and then happened to find a copy of her most famous short stories Out Of India while book browsing in Mumbai. As a foreigner living in India, her stories are thoughtful and incredibly poignant. She won two Oscars and a MacArthur Genius Grant-if you read her stories, you’ll understand why. After her death in 2013, the New Yorker made 6 of her stories available to the public-I can’t recommend them enough.

Austerity at Indian Weddings: There has been a bill introduced in the Lok Sabha that weddings with over a 5 lakh budget will have to donate a portion of the costs to a welfare fund. I personally am fond of the idea-and was intrigued to find this article about how the government has played a role in minimizing wedding expenditures in the past.

B.R. Ambedkar is one of India’s most influential founders. A self-made man from the Untouchable Mahar community- he went on to study at LSE and Columbia and spent his career advocating for Dalits and the marginalized. Best known as the author of the Indian Constitution and as the Labor Secretary for the new nation, Ambedkar’s legacy can be seen in India’s unique reservation system as well as in the millions of households that converted to Buddhism after Ambedkar publicly renounced Hinduism. I myself am a huge fan of the man who inspired millions and would encourage reading this quick profile to learn more about Baba Saheb.

 

Think-tanks, Cricket, Smartphones, Partition

Think-tanks or corporate lobbying?: I have long considered a career working at a DC think-tank–this article really thereby opened my eyes to the fact that thinktanks have turned into “thinly disguised” lobbying firms due to cash incentives provided by corporations seeking to protect their own interests. Of course, many think tanks still do important work but we need to take steps to keep corporate money out of our policy. Props to Elizabeth Warren for speaking out about this travesty.

Nationalism and Cricket: Why sports don’t transcend politics–and how sport fields have become a site for not just national recreation–but national re-creation.

Is Technology Killing Us?: Found this a compelling read–we spend upwards of 5 hours a day on our phones! I know that I feel lost when I don’t access wifi all day. How can we find a digital-experiential life balance?

Hyderabad 1948: I’ve always understood Partition to be regionally focused in Punjab and in Bengal. Little did I know that Partition greatly impacted Hyderabad too. As the largest princely state at the time of independence, the Nizam had the option to join either India or Pakistan–or remain otherwise autonomous. To ensure that Hyderabad State remained part of India (and to prevent Pakistan from occupying three separate spaces–one in the midst of India), the Indian army annexed the state, leading to over 40,000 deaths due to communal violence and police-sanctioned killings.

#RIPAmma

The hashtag #RIPAmma has been trending on twitter for the past day and a half–if you have any connection to India, you’ve probably heard that the five-time Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa just passed away. Jayalalithaa was perhaps equally beloved and reviled but her legacy is a powerful one. A talented and successful actress, Jayalalithaa moved into politics mid-way through her career and has been a force to be reckoned with. Her supporters called her “Amma” as the image Jayalalithaa projected was that of a protective maternal figure. Evidently her self-fashioning worked: when she was jailed on corruption charges, supporters beheaded themselves in front of government buildings to demand her release.

Jayalalithaa’s death of course doesn’t impact me personally–but it did get me thinking about women in politics more broadly. The Chief Minister of Bengal is also a powerful woman: Mamata Banerjee. Like Jayalalithaa, she is single, self-made, and is called “Didi” or elder sister, by her countrymen and women. Mayawati–the ex-CM of Uttar Pradesh–is a third example of a powerful woman who commanded her state for four terms. Called “Behenji,” or elder sister, she was actually the first Dalit Chief Minister in India. In 2012, these three CM’s were all in office and together controlled the lives of around 360 million Indians–over 30% of India.

Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, and Mamata Banerjee are anomalies in a country where most women get involved in politics because either their husbands or fathers are political figures themselves. I have written before on how reservations increase women’s participation in local politics–however, this doesn’t necessarily translate into the state-wide or national stage. How then did these three women manage to climb the political ladder? Much of Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, and Mamata’s success can be attributed to the self-image that they project: matriarchal goddesses demanding of respect. To demand this respect and gain authority in a deeply patriarchal country, these leaders had to “renounce their sexuality” by choosing not to marry and furthermore, publicly present as austere and pious. I too have been subject to this imagery: Mamata-di’s picture is plastered all over Bengal–she only ever wears a plain white cotton sari, her hands often folded. Furthermore, by presenting as a mother or older sister, these women are able to occupy a space that men are comfortable with women flourishing in: an authoritative mother is taken seriously.

The conflation of political power, the adoption of kinship terms, and goddess worship is one that I truly find fascinating. While researching more about the topic, I found this article which is a must-read.

As for Jayalalithaa, her legacy is complicated: by her critics, she is often painted as extremely corrupt–a true but incomplete picture. Under her guidance, Tamil Nadu has become one of the most economically successful states in India. Furthermore, Jayalalithaa made gendercide a top priority, supported legislation that offers mid-day meals at schools to reduce attrition, and subsidized essentials such as salt and cement for her poorest citizens. A truly self-made and formidable leader, Jayalalithaa will be remembered for her charisma and for her historic career–#RIPAmma indeed.

Women, Work, World

How Can More Women be a Part of India’s Workforce?: Interesting article that postulates that if public transit improved, so would women’s labor force participation (LFP) rates in India. Mobility is a key deterrent for women’s LFP–along with cultural norms and lack of skills.

Fidel Castro dies: Being American, I grew up learning that Fidel Castro was a dictator and human rights violator–upon his death, I realized that his life and character were more nuanced than I had realized. His literacy and health campaigns were wildly successful and Cubans received universal free health coverage decades before mainstream Americans really even considered such a possibility.

What does Trump mean for Global Development: If America cuts back on international aid, Africa will take the biggest hit, by far. USAID might get abolished–if Gingrich gets his way. And what really will happen to the rest of the world if America really becomes isolationist and puts itself first? The future isn’t looking too bright.

The Devaluation of Women’s Work: Art Edition

One of the most cited reasons given for discounting the gender wage gap is occupational segregation. Men and women differ in the careers they pursue–this might be true. However, there is always selection into these careers–selection that is informed by imagined experiences and social norms that dictate one’s potential trajectory. I recently read a blog post about how doctors are generally well-paid and respected. However, this isn’t true in Russia where doctors make less than £7,500 a year.

The blogger at Crates and Ribbons tries to understand why and comes to the realization that:

The answer is breathtakingly simple. In Russia, the majority of doctors are women. Here’s a quote from Carol Schmidt, a geriatric nurse practitioner who toured medical facilities in Moscow: “Their status and pay are more like our blue-collar workers, even though they require about the same amount of training as the American doctor… medical practice is stereotyped as a caring vocation ‘naturally suited‘ to women, [which puts it at] a second-class level in the Soviet psyche.”

What this illustrates perfectly is this — women are not devalued in the job market because women’s work is seen to have little value. It is the other way round. Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value. It isn’t that women choose jobs that are in lower-paid industries, it is that any industry that women dominate automatically becomes less respected and less well-paid.

This article really impacted the way I look at professions. I now ask myself, “Is this an easy path? Or have I been conditioned to believe so?” More recently, I came to a realization about my own past experiences. I spent a few weeks during the summer of 2015 interning at Christie’s, the international art auction house. The art specialists at Christie’s are amongst the top in the field, truly experts in their respective departments. Christie’s, as many know, is a coveted place to work, at the heart of the luxury goods market.

It is a fast-paced environment: auctions are time-sensitive and work cannot be postponed. The entire department works tirelessly around the year in acquiring and valuing objects before generating interest to prepare for exhibitions and sales. Travel is an innate part of the role as well. Considering the amount of skills needed–and time required–from the role, I would expect a weighty salary. However, salaries at Christie’s are not comparable to other high-profile high-risk jobs, whether it be consulting, investment banking, or sales and trading. According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a Specialist at Christie’s is $66,489. For a Junior Specialist, the average salary is $41,969. This is abysmal compared to an entering analyst salary at a company like Bain Capital: $74,141.

I would argue that specialists at Christie’s have more soft and hard skills than an average consultant or finance professional. One of the specialists I worked with in the Contemporary Indian Art department was fluent in over 10 languages (a necessary part of the job), an incredibly strong writer and communicator, and had excellent people skills (also essential since building customer relations and visiting with prospective consigners is integral to success). Most specialists have advanced degrees from top institutions. (As I was working at Christie’s King Street in London, almost the entire department hailed from Oxford and Cambridge). Most critically, the job entails a thorough understanding of the art market. As an Economics major (with a strong art history bent), I know that valuations in the art market are especially tricky. After all, the most basic rules of supply and demand don’t hold.

Why then, are salaries at Christie’s so low? Turning profits of billions of dollars, the company definitely has the resources to pay better wages. Originally, I thought that low salaries at Christie’s were due to the larger elitist culture surrounding the art market. Because the art auction business is based on personal contacts and connections to a degree, it is plausible that employees at Christie’s are well connected and thereby, already wealthy. A low salary could be a way to dis-incentivize less-connected applicants from considering a career at Christie’s. However, employees at top investment banks are also very wealthy and it’s no secret that networking is the key to a job in finance. After reading the aforementioned blog, my answer became much clearer: Christie’s–and the art world in general–is seen as a feminine realm where women are the main employees. And as Crates and Ribbons writes, “Women’s work is devalued in the job market because women are seen to have little value.” The majority of my colleagues at Christie’s were indeed women, a fact that I was immediately cognizant of during my first day of work. However, these women are some of the foremost art experts in the world and they deserve more compensation for their expertise.

Reservations

Across India, there is a stipulation that 30% of all elected officials (at the local level) are women. In West Bengal, this quota is at 50%. What does this mean? It means that democracy in India reflects the reality of the country’s demographics—far more than government does in the United States.

If you talk to the average Indian (especially in my circle), reservations are considered regressive as a social policy. Upper-class upper-caste Indians believe that reservations impede their own success. I disagree—reservations work like affirmative action; there are a few people who are able to “play” the system but on the whole, the policy results in more equality.

A few weeks ago, I was able to visit with a women’s nonprofit, Nishtha, down in Baruipur, West Bengal. There, I was able to really understand what these reservations mean in action. I attended a community meeting about reporting sexual assault and domestic violence—over 100 women attended the proceedings, several of them elected officials. These women were brave as they shared their stories and demanded change in the system. Though my Bangla is not yet at a high level, I could feed off the energy in the room—it was palpable.

In the reservation system, women might take on an elected role at their father’s request- to continue their family political lineage. However, it is unfair to assume that these women never gain a voice of their own. The elected position brings with it agency and soon, elected women officials are speaking out on behalf of their own interests too. Numerous studies have shown that women govern differently—allocating more money to families and children, prioritizing social schemes, etc.-and this difference is key to representing all voices in a democracy.

This got me thinking—why don’t we have reservations in government in the United States? We talk so often about how women are less inclined to run for office due to a number of social and economic factors—wouldn’t this policy be the simplest way to ensure that our government reflects our country? I could see this panning out in several ways:

  1. A 50% reservation policy for the U.S. Senate. Because Senators are elected on a state-wide basis, it’s easy to make this happen—compared to within the House where it could become messy to allot 50% of a state’s congressional districts to women. Every state has a “male” and “female” senatorial slot and only men can run for the male slot (and vise versa).
  2. Reservations at the state level! State governments can enforce their own laws—and this would be a great way to phase in more democratic representation across the country. In Oregon for example, I could see this happening in the State Congress—there are half as many State Senators as Congressmen. If every District mandated one female and one male congressmen, we could be well on our way to (more) equal representation.
  3. Rotational system for Mayoral elections. I’m imagining something where if a city has a male mayor one term—the next term the office must be occupied by a woman. This might get complicated with reelection and other limits, but I could see this working in even a Deputy Mayor/Mayor situation where we must always have a man/woman team at work. Can you imagine how much more inclined women would be to run if this were the case? I know that I would feel encouraged.

I could see a reservation system increasing equality and democracy—and I think that even a generation (around 20 years) of this system could have long-lasting change. When we see women leaders, we are more likely to psychologically believe that women are capable of being leaders. And when we elect officials that represent all of our interests—we all win.

Heartbreak and Hillary

I’ve written before about how much I love Hillary Clinton. I genuinely believe that she has spent every day of her life working to make our world a better place. I have followed her for over a decade–reading her autobiography in the 6th grade, changing our computer background to her image soon afterward. In our social studies mock primary election in 8th grade (2008), I was one of 3 students to vote for Hillary. A few years later, I wrote about her in my college essays, how Hillary Clinton was exactly the kind of person I wanted to be. When she won the Democratic nomination this year, I was in tears. Through all these years, I have waited and waited for Hillary Clinton to finally be my president.

And then in 2016–we were so close. This was to be the year of women. Hillary would shatter that last glass ceiling and pull us all up with her. I spent the night before the election speaking with a group of South Asian-American women. Hillary’s vision for America seemed within reach. But it was not to be: I woke up in the early morning, my stomach churning, and watched the votes pour in. By the time we arrived at school, things were getting worse and once Hillary lost her lead in Pennsylvania, it was clear that America wasn’t headed in the direction I had hoped.

I burst into tears and throughout our day trip to Chandannagar, I wept and wept–for myself, for all women, and for Hillary Clinton. How must it feel to work your entire life for a cause and find yourself passed over for a sham of a competitor? To champion women’s rights across the globe and lose to a self-professed womanizer who boasts about sexual assault?  The most capable woman in America–perhaps the world–lost to a severely unqualified and immoral man.

It’s a story I’ve heard over and over but one I did not expect in 2016. As I wept, I felt dejected. The election felt so personal, the opposition openly spewing racist, sexist, nativist remarks. Huma Abedin, Hillary’s right-hand aide could have become the first South-Asian-American chief of staff. Her cabinet could have reflected our nation’s diversity–her policies would have  brought us closer to equality in both our personal and professional lives.

As I mourned the America within our reach, I watched her concession speech, a truly moving and simple address. She said:

I’ve had successes and setbacks and sometimes painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional, public, and political careers — you will have successes and setbacks too. This loss hurts, but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it. It is, it is worth it. 

And so we need — we need you to keep up these fights now and for the rest of your lives. And to all the women, and especially the young women, who put their faith in this campaign and in me: I want you to know that nothing has made me prouder than to be your champion.

And to all of the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams. 

Of course, this too brought me to tears. Even in what is probably the hardest moment of her life, Hillary Clinton is gracious and inspiring. I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that Hillary might not be our President–but she definitely can influence how we go about living our lives.

I thought about a phrase I heard earlier this summer, “Anger is a clean burning fuel.” It can create fierce advocates and pull us through the hard times–as these next four years are sure to be. I hope that my heartbreak turns into anger soon but for the time being, I found myself googling, “Is Hillary Clinton okay?” After fighting for all of us for a lifetime, more than anything, she deserves some peace. As for the rest of us? We must harness her spirit and keep marching forward–there is so much work to be done.

Weekly Collective

Give Poor People Cash: The Atlantic is one of my favorite magazines and for good reason–quality articles like this one. I’m so tired of hearing the same tropes about how low-income folks are irresponsible and bad at managing their money and was excited to see that the evidence refutes this belief.

Hillary Clinton’s Data Campaign: This article was actually recommended to me by my mom (who happens to be working on Hillary Clinton’s Oregon campaign! How cool is that?) After taking a programming class last winter (and designing my own data-driven website), I really began to appreciate how useful data analytics can be. Apparently, Hillary Clinton appreciates data too–her campaign relies on statisticians to deliver solid results. Clinton’s campaign is using data to change the face of political elections forever–and the Republicans are lagging an election cycle behind.

Hand-pulled Rickshaws in Kolkata: People-powered rickshaws are considered a human rights issue by many–and are actually illegal in most of the world where they once were used. Except–in Kolkata, they are considered part of the city’s heritage! Everyone from children to tourists use the rickshaws and this is a quick read about the practice–is it cruel or cool? Personally, I find the idea dehumanizing (just imagine British colonizers being pulled around by their Indian servants). But I do have to wonder what kinds of professions these rickshaw drivers would pursue if their job were outlawed-would they end up destitute or be able to shift into a new line of work?

Ignoring the Liberal Arts: I loved this line: “For me, there’s nothing more depressing than meeting incoming freshmen at Mason who have declared themselves as accounting majors.” I couldn’t agree more–even at my small liberal arts college, so many students chose a subject for job-garning potential, rather than their love for the material. I wish more policy in the U.S. supported subjects beyond the STEM bubble–I know that Congress now has a STEAM Caucus (A for Arts and Design) chaired by my Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici. Hopefully public perception begins to change about the arts and humanities.

Also-while living in Santiniketan for a week, I grew to depend on my Al Jazeera Magazine app for accessing hours of interesting articles. My lodge had no internet available so I was looking for substantial material to read offline. I would highly suggest downloading the app! I read dozens of very informative and riveting articles. (It’s always good to get a non-U.S. perspective on current affairs–I’m trying to read some Indian magazines as well)

 

Pollution gone, fairness on.

I have read the scores of articles on colorism and fairness creams but it wasn’t until I got to Kolkata that I saw an ad that proclaimed, “Pollution gone. Fairness on.” First of all—ouch. I’ve never thought that my brown skin was polluted. And second of all, how misleading! Telling people that underneath your “dirty” exterior, there is a bright and beautiful complexion waiting to be unearthed.

This national obsession with fair skin is everywhere—from photoshopped newspapers adverts to the light-skinned celebrities that represent Indians in regional and Bollywood films. After Nina Davuluri won the Miss America pageant in 2014, there were comments made about how she never could have won such a pageant in India for she was too dark to be a serious contestant.

It’s funny—before leaving the U.S., I was telling a friend how relieved I felt to be going to a racially homogenous country where I no longer would have to be reminded of race every waking moment. He promised me that I would find other challenges and identities to navigate and it certainly seems so—between color, gender, and caste, I am more than likely to find myself being othered. To locals, I am part of the “them” category, rather than the “us.” It’s pretty different from living in the U.S. where I consider all Indian-Americans to be my “in group” so to speak.

I have become quite aware of colorism during daily walks in Kolkata—being South Indian means that there is an extra level of bias—especially considering that skin color can closely correspond with caste. [I was actually asked my caste yesterday but didn’t realize what was happening and kept proceeding to ask the shopkeeper about tenants in his building]

To learn a bit more about how the issue manifests globally–check out this fantastic TED talk.