I enter 2017 almost financially broke and I feel no embarrassment or awkwardness in discussing the issue. Financially broke and with a stubborn and debilitating health condition. While I figure my options I thought I should record the situation.Everybody who passes this path should leave their thoughts. And as I finish writing this note I can see Shahrukh Khan speak ONLY to me – here
I feel it should be as much a topic of interest among those who either take interest in my work and follow my work and comments on public issues or claim to care for the environment. And it is not a personal topic limited to me. What I narrate here gives an insight into something more important that society should be paying attention to but is as blind as a bat to, to use a popular metaphor. If anything bats should be a metaphor for being adept at navigation.
And it is not a surprise when we see quality of life only deteriorate in our cities and environmental challenges seeming unsurmountable. When the vision or ability to navigate of the society is so poor then constantly hitting obstacles is a given.
A family emergency left me eroding any saving I had and then I stepped out of formal employment sometime during the year. I have had patchy income from either lectures or being a resource person for projects. Helped me pay the regular utility bills.
In between I have had meetings with the usual sprinkling of youngsters who are pursuing environmental or developmental courses and hoping and eager to develop a satisfying lifelong career in impacting environmental issues. The very first question they have of me is that is there any income in the same. I do not have a rosy picture to paint for them, not just from my own state but knowing well the situation many others find themselves from serving community issues. The curse of the commons.
My situation of course is such not just because of my being in this domain but primarily because of the spectacular collusion by the universe in ensuring enormous legacy issues from my family situation, which has persisted as such since we folded up a business. Happens when you challenge status quo.
This post also follows from a recent article of mine in Mumbai Mirror, where I essentially question the state of the environmental movement in the city, which according to me really is in tatters. And it is in tatters because as a society we have no clue about supporting this ‘industry’. Yes engagement in civic and environmental issues of your city is an industry like any other which provides value to the city, like the finance industry, like the fast moving consumer goods industry, like the entertainment industry, like the education industry, like the media and communications industry, like sports, like politics! The nature of value is different from these industries.
Like in any industry we should be discussing the size of the market, the growth in the industry, its prospects and its employability, ability to attract and nurture talent. These are aspects completely missing in discussions about environmental issues. It is as if these are alien and taboo topics.
It is because some human needs have an industry status that the goods and services keep flowing, from entertainment to fashion goods, gadgets and cars. The flow of environmental goods and services is so poor because it is not seen as an industry, it is a mental affliction which affects some unfortunate souls.
If one were to draw up a list of people working full time on the urban and environmental issues of Mumbai in advocacy or as a green business and draw up their incomes and arrive at a turnover of the industry it would be a figure too small and embarrassing to even discuss. A lot of people would come in as subsidizing through a mainstream source of income or a working spouse. Whoever wastes their time in challenging the city administrators on solid waste management policy and transport investments, the way the budget is handled, having more open spaces and walkable streets.
Environment and sustainability could be an industry which see annual recruitment drives and youngsters eagerly looking forward to join a slew of organizations working on exciting public policy and governance challenges, working with technology, green businesses and law and much more. Sanitation, air quality, waste management, green buildings, transport policy, biodiversity conservation street design, land use planning, the list of topics is fascinating and endless. Incredibly soul satisfying careers can be created around any of these subjects, which should pay well and would rapidly draw the world out of a cliff fall it seems headed towards most times. But no such is not the case here. Why? Because there is no money to be made here. No resources here. At least in the Mumbai, which I have known since the mid-90s till now. That this should happen (and why) in the wealthiest city in the country is another long commentary.
Instead you have some foolhardy youngsters taking a risky plunge every year. Invariably it is a tough launch received with shock from family and friends. Invariably there is deep despair after a few months and a course correction.
In any other industry the followers lustfully lap up the financial prospects of the industry and the juicy bits about how much the star performers ‘take away’. From salaries of CEOs to how much Salman and Sachin gross, the financial prospects of the industry are as much of a gratifying part as the core business. Their houses, cars, where they take vacations, favorite restaurants, their health regimen. Health and well being of the participants is of key interest to everybody not least the handlers.
In the environment domain it seems a given that all that you have to discuss is depressing news and go from firefighting one crisis to another. How people participate in this industry is no concern to anybody. Whoever discusses that. The crises happen in the first place because there is not discussions on the state of this industry.
It is a silent acceptance in society (the mothers that is) that this is anyways not a domain to come to as a career. They have their valid concerns. Its all fine to (occasionally) lament in the usual cliches during coffee table discussions but who ever comes to these fields as a life long involvement. You have to be stupid and you need to suffer the consequences of your stupidity. Careers are made in the mainstream.
In 2007-09, Jairaj Phatak, the then Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai drew the ire of civic activists when he refused to give any importance to the subject of open spaces in the city citing that in a survey conducted by him citizens placed concern for open spaces 13th or so in their list of importance. Understandably so. When you push fifty percent people to stay in slums begging and desperate for basics then where is the room for them to demand anything more. Always a good strategy by the ruling elite to stay in power and continue unchallenged with their nonsense.
When you think dispassionately then what the Commissioner said does hold true. He is clearly far better in touch with the ‘market’ than fuzzy idealistic me and others. Forget those who stay in slums, in the urban middle class or elite would the same sentiments be generated when shown a full page advertisement of an iconic smart phone (or any other) as compared to when they read about the efforts of an NGO working on saving and enhancing open spaces in the city?
On seeing the advertisement the majority check their credit card statements and make calculations on whether it can take the direct brunt of a single swipe or EMI option will be needed or some portion of savings and some portion of card will do. For the more endowed there are no such plebeian concerns. At a max three year replacement these people will over a lifetime reward the iconic smart phone with a few lakh rupees. The NGO will go multiple existential shocks during its existence and maybe fold up while the smart phone makers piles of cash become the envy of the world. The NGO has a poor base of people who take interest in its work and it is a non-paying base.
The more interesting are those who will read about civic issues and express concern but will never show the same commitment as the person showing towards the smart phone.
Careers in the environmental or developmental arena have refused to evolve over the time I have spent my time with them since the late 90s till now. At the most in the past decade or so we have corporate NGOs and Think Thanks but those have poor ability to challenge the establishment and cannot be a proxy for advocacy groups built by grassroots community campaigners looking at seriously impacting issues. If raising a family is your prime concern then the Corporate Think Tanks are a great place to go to. Serve some industrialists never satisfied gloated ego all your life and work with compliant CEOs with little or no skin in the game.
When you look around invariably all organizations and individuals arising from grass root campaigning and fiercely independent are in complete doldrums, going from one financial crisis to another. They rely on a type of community support, which has not seen the light in so long and appears nowhere close.
I now have a feeling of abhorrence at working with the kind of organizations I have worked with till now, which was anyways more to have a source of income. I never relied on them to provide me with relevant and satisfying environmental issues to work on. I was frequently found saying then that of all of my work, that which added the most value to the city has happened outside my formal paying jobs in the past 15 years. Had there been independent and crowd funded financial support for doing mainstream what I was doing on the sidelines I would have contributed a 100 times more to environmental issues in Mumbai. And before the tumble of family affairs the plan was to proudly self-finance.
And as a result of this abhorrence I now find myself stuck without income prospects. I would much rather sell that iconic cell phone than peddle my talent cheaply.
When the youngsters ask me about income prospects it is a most valid question I feel. I cannot give them an enthusing answer. Somebody who is a corporate lawyer or a marketing or finance professional in mainstream businesses does not have to go through such a situation. There such conversations are more about the enormous scope for personal enrichment, there is no question of anxiety on income.
Why is the state what it is? That could be a very lengthy discussion. There is no prospect of capturing the value created, capturing it in a manner that it is available for sole consumption and then being able to provide a point of sale for its dispensation. More importantly there is no instant gratification. What a luxury sedan or a premium smart phone can provide those in the environmental domain can never. Unfortunately Mumbai seems to completely lack in having a market size of another kind.
More mature societies and economies know these challenges well and hence you have generous philanthropy from the state or individuals and institutions supporting advocacy as a public good. That supplemented with social security and an overall high per capita income.
One would have hoped such an evolution in India but no. On a number of fronts evolution happens at lightening speeds in India but not on these fronts. The Indians who enjoy their canal rides and cycling in Amsterdam and clean air and open spaces in London, New York and California are quick to evolve in their consumption of material comforts but show a granite resistance to any transformation in thoughts. And so India trudges along. I need to figure out where I go from here and listen to King Khan.