An urban planner with a deep interest in Indian cities and making them more equitable spaces, Nithya Raman is also the woman behind Transparent Chennai – a project that she started to empower ordinary citizens with data to understand how their city is growing, what the needs of city residents are and how local governments are delivering on them.
In this interview with Nithya, we discuss how women’s safety in India is closely linked to how cities are built and maintained, and why the issue of slums and land rights is close to her heart.
Based on your work in studying the structure and growth of urban areas, what would you say are the top 3 barriers to women’s safety?
I think there are actually two important biases among city planners and city managers that really prevent cities from being safer for women: first – city streets are planned and built for cars rather than people. Secondly, there is a real bias against street vendors. These two biases often lead to the creation of wide streets that are empty of pedestrians, which can be very unsafe for women.
After studying urban planning at MIT, what led you to set up your work in India?
I actually went to MIT after I had already moved to India. I moved here after I finished my undergraduate degree at Harvard University. I was working in Delhi when I heard about a massive eviction of slums along the Yamuna River. I was shocked – more than 100,000 people’s homes were demolished and the issue got barely any news coverage. That’s when I realized that there was a real conflict between rich and poor residents for space and resources in Indian cities, and that policymakers had not figured out how to mediate this conflict in a just and effective manner.
After the Yamuna Pushta eviction, I started working with the Hazards Center, an NGO in Delhi that coordinated an alliance of slum-dwellers organizations. My experience with the Hazards Center pushed me to study urban planning, so that I could return to India and continue working on these issues.
Is there any one issue very close to your heart?
My work on slums and land rights is closest to my heart. It was where I started thinking about cities and how they could be improved.
Cities are exciting places because they are full of possibility. But policies in Indian cities right now are stacked against the poor. Poor people are priced out of the legal land market, so they settle in informal settlements. But most slums don’t have government recognition, and have no protection from eviction.
In Chennai, Delhi and many other Indian cities, a spurt of new infrastructure construction has meant that many slums have been evicted in the last decade, and residents have been left homeless. In cases where the government provides resettlement housing, it’s usually located on the outskirts of the city, far from residents’ sources of livelihood and far from good schools and subsidized government healthcare, leaving residents trapped in poverty.
I think Indian cities can do much better than this. They can be places of real opportunity for all of their residents, and I believe that changing existing policies is key to achieving that vision.
Nithya V. Raman’s work is focused on questions of human rights and urban planning, particularly the access of the urban poor to land and livelihoods. She has worked with various groups including Amnesty International, the Hazards Center, and the Unorganized Workers’ Federation. Nithya co-authored Clouds of Injustice, a report published by Amnesty International on the environmental and health impacts of the Bhopal gas leak of 1984, She is also trained as a classical dancer, and has performed solo and with groups in venues throughout India and abroad. Nithya graduated from Harvard University with a degree in political theory and has a Masters in urban planning from M.I.T. Read more…
© The Way Women Work/Aparna Vedapuri Sing