S01E17: A Question Of Well-being

Episode cover for Episode 17 with a smiling ball in the water and the episode 17 title: a question of well being. It also has a green box with the words: Season 1 with Deepika and Arpita.

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Arpita: So here we are – The last month of season 1!

Deepika: Here we are indeed! I can’t believe that it’s been almost nine months of doing this!

Arpita: It seems all the more surreal because we had this vision of being so sorted and planned just last December – we had our excel sheets with too many columns and our campaigns lined up – we thought we had every parameter covered and bam – within 2 month of the podcast taking off, we have the pandemic come and hit us front and centre!

And somedays it feels like I’m living in some sort of suspended time bubble cause I mean it’s crazy to think that the 3 of us – Srinidhi, you and I – were actually together here in Bangalore just before the first lockdown happened in March! And now we’re in 3 different cities but also that somehow in the times of social distancing the length of the distance almost doesn’t seem to matter – we’re all just at home! We could both be in Mumbai and I would still not be able to see you!

Deepika: Yeah there is definitely something surreal about this time. Within our bubbles – our individual homes you can have days when it just feels like a long Sunday. The crows are at my window sill cawing for fruit, my partner and I go about cleaning the house, figuring out our supplies, cooking, sitting and chatting, maybe watching a movie. And it feels like for a little bit that everything is fine, that there is order in our world. But on the edges of your vision looming constantly outside this bubble is that big sea of doubt – cause really everything is far from alright – we’re in the middle of a pandemic and such terrible things have been happening!

Arpita: True, making sense of what feels like a pause but isn’t quite – is hard. But just before we go any further, I think we should share with our listeners that this month is going to be our last month for Season 1 of The Curio-city Collective podcast and so we wanted to do things a little bit differently. Instead of opening a new conversation – we thought we’d look back at the ones we’ve had in this season and try to sift what we’ve been learning and thinking – especially about the idea of well-being.

Deepika: You know we began this conversation on why we wanted to open our little NGO somewhere in 2019. We had all been working a long time in the development sector in India then and I think we had begun to feel deeply in our bones the impact of the multiple crises of our times – and at that time it meant particularly the climate crisis related disasters that we were seeing around the globe, that were not just you know environmental situations, these disasters had consequences which were socio-cultural-psychological-economical – just multi-faceted; and alongside you had all these huge global scientific research bodies like the UN IPBES coming out with dire warnings of civilisational crisis based on the human impact on the natural world.

Aljazeera News: Life on Earth is in the worst state and hundreds and thousands of years of human activity is to blame – that is the key finding of the UN body tasked with assessing the state of our planets the biodiversity. A million species face the threat of extinction and some within decades because of habitat destruction on land and sea. Animal and plant species are being lost at a rate tens or even 100s of times faster than in the past. 

Arpita: These crises as the reports were telling us were strong indicators of us as a species making some seriously questionable choices and this was something that required collective reflection and from there to evolve to corrective action.

Deepika: Yeah and that’s how we decided that the space we wanted to create would be a learning eco-system – beginning with our podcast – where we can bring together progressive thoughtful people and ideas and discuss how each of us can consider, imbibe and then practice the change required to alter the course.

Arpita: And I think the second element which we should acknowledge is that it was also deeply personal – I mean we chose to focus on Indian cities because they are the larger eco-systems within which we’ve all grown up. We’ve seen them change massively through the last two decades of our lives and through various aspects of our work in the past, we’d been grappling with the idea of how these spaces were increasingly stretched and might possibly be becoming less friendlier to live in.

Deepika: I think you’re saying that rather gently there. Remember the stats we came across in the McKinsey Report when we were researching this: By 2030, India is expected to have 590 million people living in cities. 68 cities will have a population of 1 million plus. To put this in perspective, the population of the USA is currently about 330 million.  The implications of such rapid urbanisation are unprecedented and multiple cities are already showing signs of being under severe stress.

Arpita: You’re right of course – they are truly very huge numbers to begin to grapple with or make sense of. And this sense of urgency to consider the future and how we adapt to it that multiple reports have been indicating, was also very much present in the conversations we had, for example in the case of waste, when we spoke to Poonam Bir Kasturi of Daily Dump. She shared how large and overwhelming the issue of waste generation by one city could be if we viewed it at that level.

Poonam: I think 2006 we were looking at two thousand eight hundred kilos…. 3,800 tons to 2,500 tons. Now the figures are four and a half to six some people say so that’s the growth rate in last 13 years and the density of the city has tripled almost. The composition of waste has just completely changed. 

Arpita: So yeah she’s explaining there how B’lore in 2019 produced almost 6000 metric tonnes of garbage per day, up from 2500-3000 tonnes in 2014-15, implying an almost doubling of waste production just within the span of a few years. And of course B’lore is far from alone in this. Cities have been struggling with their wastes and just about each one of them has a haunting story of one or many waste yards where waste piles up without segregation, polluting ground water, being an absolute health hazard.

And you know the other conversation that really made me sort of sit up was the one with S.Vishwanath from Biome Trust. Because as I was prepping for that conversation I realised something quite disturbing – that in 2019, all our metro cities had come really close to being completely out of drinking water – almost touching what is known as day zero when taps run completely dry. And this major issue of scarcity of water is also acknowledged by the Government in a NITI Aayog report which warned that ‘54% of India’s groundwater wells are declining, and 21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater as soon as 2020’.

Deepika: One more jolly fact that lightens up 2020! Well you are right of course, that from various perspectives our cities might very soon be in serious trouble. And issues like water and sanitation are at the heart of the idea of well-being. Poorly managed waste and water – both can imply serious health repercussions and of course there’s the stress of living in constant uncertainty of not being able to access basic resources.

Which really brings me back to the pandemic – cause it some ways like you’re saying, these issues had been building up and were behind why we wanted to explore the concept of well-being in cities. But you know in some ways the pandemic, the lockdowns that ensued and the terrible humanitarian crisis of daily wage workers having to leave the city in thousands, hungry and without wages, and walking 100s of kilometers back home; and the fact that our public health systems were and continue to be so overwhelmed, told us just how precarious life in the city already was for a huge number of people.

Arpita: Yes, working on that episode on the lockdown related return migration was really heartbreaking I must admit. Just so many stories of endurance that should not be asked of anyone.

Deepika: You know though, as we were discussing some time back, in one way this is very hard to acknowledge, the immense suffering that we are seeing now and also hardships that people are facing during this period of social distancing. But I think, in our case the reason for wanting to say this out aloud, to explore and map the many problems our cities are facing was not to chalk out some dark prophecy of doom.

Arpita: Most certainly not, in fact quite the opposite. I think …hmm.. I think how we’ve come to understand this is maybe how Rilke, the poet, once put it to his student: “Why should you want to exclude from your life all unsettling, all pain, all depression of spirit, when you don’t know what work it is these states are performing within you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where it all comes from and where it is leading? You well know you are in a period of transition and want nothing more than to be transformed”. 

Deepika: I feel like copying that out and pinning it up on my soft board as we speak!

Arpita: I think it’s taken me a while to really process this advice. You know he later adds: “All one has to do is help it to be ill, to have its whole illness and let it break out, for that is how it mends itself”. It sounds grim but I think what he’s simply saying is that our acceptance of the problem or the illness, of its existence and of its power over us, is the first step towards beginning to mend.

And you know in some ways, how I see it is that the pandemic and the climate crisis – what they’re doing is asking for our collective acknowledgement, our acceptance that something is not right. And till we begin to see this and accept it – we continue stalling and working against ourselves.

Deepika: Yes I see what you mean. It strangely reminds me of the stages of grief. Grief because – there is loss. So much loss, right? Especially with the pandemic you can see it all the more clearly – there is a loss of control, of steadiness, of predictability, of access to people we love and care for, of access to planning our days and our lives ahead – these might seem abstract but they’re very real parameters which allow for us to feel settled and directed. So the loss of these really is quite an overwhelming one. And the process of grief is now famously supposed to be of these five steps right – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – and then once you plough through some mix of these experiences and emotions, in time one hopes you arrive at acceptance.

Arpita: And from that place of acceptance we can then begin to consider what needs to change to make things better.

Deepika: It’s not lightly that the word transformative change is thrown around in the context of what we are experiencing. Unless we acknowledge and grieve for what was and is, how do we begin to know what is important – because only by that hard won knowledge are we granted the roadmap of truly transformative change.

Arpita: You know the Greeks have this concept called Metatonia which is making a grand come back I think. I keep seeing it bandied about. And it implies a form of transformative change of heart, change that goes deep and reorganises our insides. And that can only come through the hard task of dealing with our unpleasant realities. 

Deepika: But we’ll come to really breaking down transformative change in our next and last episode for the season! So let’s get back to well-being and what we’ve been learning through this season.

Deepika: Well the one really important thing for me is certainly just how well-being is so complex – how its an outcome of so many things that interact.

Arpita: Oh absolutely, I think this was made evident right from our episode one and two where we explored mental health in cities and Aparna Joshi of ICall – a psycho-social helpline – shared what they meant by the psycho-social approach.

Aparna: I think we have been trying to unpack this word called psycho social for a very long time. Because people either talk psycho or people talk social and we are trying to combine both. What do we mean by that? What we are trying to say is that people’s internal realities which are comprised of their own private thoughts, emotions, or their bodies, their own experiences are not so isolated from the larger social context in which they are living. Their social contexts are very much a part of their narrative. They are either determining the distress, they are contributing to the distress that people are facing.

Deepika: Actually this approach that emphasises the relevance of social contexts and environments in shaping people’s experiences – is also something that Jehanzeb Baldiwala from Ummeed emphasised in our most recent episode! So it feels almost like coming full circle!

Arpita: Aparna also put it across very nicely with an example if i remember this right!

Aparna: Poverty and unemployment are huge contexts particularly in the city. So even struggles to find home and some safe spaces to talk, love, live i think are missing. So we are trying to say that those larger social contexts are contributing to your personal narratives and personal distress. While providing this service we are mindful of both and definitely the conversations therefore iCALL holds are not only addressing the personal distress but are also trying to make people mindful of the larger social contexts and in our very modest way, we are trying to figure out how can people can be made more resourceful so that they can negotiate better with these larger social structures also.

Deepika: And really nothing makes this clearer than what we’ve seen with the return migration of the poor – from cities to their native homes – during the pandemic.

Arpita: Yeah I kept trying to capture the level of distress the lockdowns had precipitated but it all felt inadequate somehow. Poverty and sudden unemployment were exactly the reasons that people who had been hovering on the edge of precarity, found themselves completely thrown over. The distress in this case was certainly not inspired by any biological reasons. Yet as research has shown, the conditions such as those the migrants experienced can be severely detrimental to their holistic health in both the short and long term.

Arpita: As the lockdown extended into a period of two months, stories of herculean journey’s of more than 100s and 1000s of kms made on foot, cycles or hitchhiking began making it to the news. One 20 year old migrant boy cycled 1700 kms in 7 days from Maharashtra in the west of India to reach his home state of Odisha in the east! On the road were not only labourers from the cities, but also those who were out of work from other regions where factories and farms had come to a standstill. Undertaken in moments of deep duress with little or no access to food, water or shelter through the length of their journey in the height of Indian summer with temperatures soaring to 40 plus degrees in many parts of the country, these stories of gargantuan physical undertakings were also stories of distress, abuse, starvation, exhaustion and suffering. In their Report, Jan Sahas noted how ‘Anguish, helplessness and desperation – largely defined the distress calls they received’, about 12,000 in just a span of ten days.

Arpita: So yes, definitely, one thing that hits home is how multi-faceted the idea of well-being is and that immediately makes it complex. There are just so many factors – internal and external – that mesh together to create a meaningful life.

Deepika: Actually it reminds me of the model we were talking about within the organisation – you remember? Bronfrenbrenner’s ecological systems framework for human development?

Arpita: Of course! It’s one of my favorites really! I remember coming across it in my early 20s and it felt like an absolute ah ha moment.

Deepika: So I really love the way the diagram of the model helps represent some of the complexity we’re speaking to. So what it does is it puts an individual at the centre with their inherent multiple unique qualities and then there are concentric circles that this person is at the centre of. And each of these circles represents a systemic level – so the first innermost circle is micro system, then there’s the meso, exo and macro systems.

Arpita: Yes, like those Russian nesting doll sets, one system nested within the next! So the micro system could represent for example your family and peer groups and then the larger circles like the eco system reference larger contexts like communities and institutions and then the macro is about the attitudes and ideologies of the culture you’re embedded in. So it’s called the ecological systems theory because what it’s doing is mapping the ecology and the multiple layers of systems within which a human being exists!

Deepika: Yet what is most powerful about systems based models and approaches is that, even the psycho-social approach to mental health is that it not only tells us about the complex number of variables and layers that form the context of a human being, but it also tells us something very powerful about the interconnectivity of things!

Arpita: You’re right – that is powerful. There is not only the person-context interrelatedness which is represented there but also just how within an ecology multiple variables mesh and interact with each other. And in that sense a set of concentric circles are possibly a simplification of the multi-relational nature of ecologies, though pictorially its useful in understanding the concept.

Deepika: So it’s interesting also that Bronfrenbrenner first came up with this idea specifically keeping a child at the centre and explaining how the ecology of the child functions. Which i think is great because just last month we mapped something along the same lines in terms of the question of how children were experiencing and responding to the pandemic. And I mean this is where we map the well-being of a child by keeping them at the centre and beginning to see her or him nested within their immediate family, extended family peer groups, communities and then we look at those embedded within larger institutions that support them like schools and healthcare and then at a larger level, in terms of policies which oversee these institutions and the cultural belief systems of the society they’re embedded within.

Arpita: Yes, and when you approach it like this then you can immediately see that a response to augment a child’s well-being is across all those systems. From policies which have guided and determined 10th std boards for example, or work related policies which determine if parents can take time out to care for their child even as they’re trying to work from home or coming closer – if the child has a sibling or a peer who is around to spend time with them through this period of social isolation.

Deepika: I find it’s a neat methodology to adopt as its applicability in understanding well-being and then responding is quite powerful. It’s a great tool for reflection and if used from the perspective of keeping ourselves at the centre as a citizen and then seeing the multiple layers of systems which we are nested within – it gives us in some sense an idea of which elements of our environment need tweaking and what actions we can take to then change them – it’s really quite empowering!

Deepika: You know as we are speaking of the systems approach with regard to understanding how human beings interact with their social environments, what has been powerfully the theme to explore for this year is also how human beings interact with their natural environment.

Arpita: You’re right – and you know it’s not just because of the climate crisis. The two part series we did on understanding the roots of this pandemic especially spoke to this too. The Covid-19 coronavirus is what is termed a zoonotic disease and these are diseases that are caused by the transmission of pathogens such as viruses from animals to people. And what is disturbing is that zoonotic diseases are on the rise in the last few decades and the reason for this is human impact on ecosystems.

Reading by Abbas: “Zoonoses threaten economic development, animal and human well-being, and ecosystem integrity. Over the last few years, several emerging zoonotic diseases made world headlines as they caused, or threatened to cause, major pandemics. These include Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Rift Valley fever, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), West Nile virus, and Zika virus disease.(…)

Researchers studying records that date from 1940 to 2004 detected an increase in the rate of emerging infectious disease over those years. Of the 335 documented events, 60.3 percent were zoonotic and 71.8 percent of the zoonoses originated in wildlife.”

Deepika: Yes that was shocking to consider really from the perspective of the current pandemic – I dont think most of us even now realise that this pandemic is caused by the huge impact of human interventions in natural systems.

Arpita: You know during that time I was reading this fabulously interesting book called Spillover by David Quammen. It was published somewhere in 2012 and follows the trail of multiple zoonotic diseases to demystify them and understand their origins – and in the book he clearly says: “Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another. And they are not simply happening to us; they represent the unintended results of things we are doing. They reflect the convergence of two forms of crisis on our planet. The first crisis is ecological, the second is medical.”

Deepika: And didn’t you tell me that he also says: “the most serious outbreak on the planet earth is that of the species Homo sapiens”?

Arpita: Exactly – as an old NatGeo associate, it’s amazing the places he travels to, the stories he traces, from the deepest and remotest of African jungles to highly classified infectious disease labs in America and Russia – And that is his conclusion. And it’s not only his conclusion, it’s the conclusion of scientists around the world. We quoted Sonia Shah, journalist and author of the book ‘Pandemic: Tracking contagion from Cholera to Ebola and beyond’ from an interview and she says pretty much the same thing.

Reading by Deepika: “We’ve lost the bigger picture, the connections between social and political health and environmental health. So what we’re seeing right now is an intense amount of reductionism. Moving forward, what we have to see is that pandemics, climate disasters, all of these are related to our huge footprint on the planet. We’ve been using up a lot of natural resources and now the bill is coming due. We’re going to lurch from disaster to disaster to disaster until we start to really change the fundamental relationship between us and nature.”

Arpita: And that’s something that we’re hearing from all the biggies now – all the large scientific organisations are putting their weight behind the urgent need for re-thinking how we as a species engage with our environment. You know bodies associated with the UN have always been careful about how they represent difficult issues, trying their best not to sound too cataclysmic, more open to conversation and keeping it neutral toned – but in the last few years we are seeing a huge difference in that language. We are hearing them outrightly say that we need to challenge ‘business as usual’ and begin to work on ‘transformative change’. This urgency is significant because it tells us something about the crossing over of tipping points.

Deepika: So in some ways this is the final really big circle within which we are all nested. You know it’s reminding me strangely of this Carl Sagan quote: “Cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the universe. It is, in a way, the opposite of Chaos. It implies the deep interconnectedness of all things. It conveys awe for the intricate and subtle way in which the universe is put together.”

Arpita: That is beautiful – and yes, this deep interconnectedness of all things is what seems to be the strong underlining message of the multiple crises of our times. And really it seems a fair extension to the idea of an ecological systems approach to human well-being to also acknowledge and include the most basic context we all exist within – our natural environments.

Deepika: A lot of research has been coming out in support of this reiteration of our ties with the natural world. I mean even if we enter it from the mental and physical health perspective – we’ve shared in our campaigns and our multiple episodes, the startling amount of research that is piling up in the favour of how improving our relationship with nature, leads to improvements in our overall well-being.

Arpita: So where does all this bring us you think?

Deepika: Well I think it’s useful to summarise and so tell me if this covers it: So for one, we need to rethink the industrial world idea that saw humans pitted against nature, overwhelming amounts of research are showcasing that human well-being is not separate and at odds with planetary well-being. So that is one of the big questions of our times, how do we reconstruct our relationship with the natural world.

And two – i think there is the core nature of well-being itself that we need to acknowledge – That our individual well-being is tied to that of our communities and of our larger social and environmental contexts; That apart from being multi-layered and multi-dimensional, well-being is also cross-disciplinary. And by that I mean simply that we cannot speak of the issue of human health and not connect it to for example the health of our eco-systems. As we’ve seen – air pollution, poor sanitation and waste management – all of these are intrinsically linked to our health – which is why one of the new novel approaches has been the ‘one health’ movement which recognizes the growing connection between the health of animals, people and the environment. And of course at the heart of all of this is the core idea of interconnectedness. Does that cover it you think?

Arpita: Yes, that sounds about right and you know strangely it reminds me of our conversation with Chitra Vishwanath, the architect – who basically disliked the idea of all designations and titles but ultimately when compelled chose to call herself an architect of an eco-system?

Deepika: I can see why you might be reminded of it, cause really i think even in the conversation she was implying that all of us are in some ways tasked with this, that we are all in our actions – grand and small – architects within eco-systems, based on the kinds of choices we are making about who we want to be, the values we represent.

Arpita: And also I think what came out powerfully in the conversation with Chitra was the idea of monetary valuation or economic value being a very limited if not harmful way of understanding the world around us.

There’s a very nice Robert Kennedy quote that we’ve put even on our website that says this very eloquently, and here hes speaking in context of the limitations of GNP: “(…) the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Deepika: Yes, and I think even though this is still far from a popular idea, for the last decade or two we have actually been seeing countries challenge the idea of the GDP representing how well a country and its citizens are doing holistically. And it’s so interesting really to consider it, but the person who first came up with the idea of GDP, Simon Kuznets, also stated quite clearly that “Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long term.” that “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income”.

Arpita: Yeah we lost that somewhere but i think the time is here for us to reclaim the idea of well-being being larger than GDP. So many countries are already showing us the way – our tiny neighbour Bhutan was a pioneer in this conversation with their happiness index and framework, and in more recent times we are seeing countries like New Zealand, Scotland and Iceland take the lead.

Deepika: You know when we began this conversation I was a little afraid that we were getting a bit gloom and doom – but look at us – we’ve come to a good place haven’t we? I think it really helps to know that we’re not stagnantly standing in old ideas, that change, even if it’s small, is taking place.

Arpita: Totally agree! In these times when we are in our little individual bubbles, our homes, one can’t help but wonder – does it matter if I do this little thing of not consuming too much or of composting my waste? Am I making a difference? Am I not too small?

I think in those times of doubt, it’s always been useful for me to look at the full ecological system of well-being and to find solace. Because within this large spread of layered systems, there might not be people immediately in my micro environment who think or act like me, -but there are people and institutions and spaces which are functioning across various parts of the web which do share the values I embody.

Deepika: True, that idea of interconnectedness is also powerful because in its knowledge rests the idea that we don’t have to do things alone, that by nurturing connection we build resilience and possibility. Maybe it’s apt that we close this episode with the words of one of our favorite writers Wendell Berry: “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health. And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is. We lose our health—and create profitable diseases and dependences—by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving.”

Outro: Dear listener, thank you for being on this journey with us. We are a tiny NGO and your attention and love have been deeply meaningful to each of us. We hope you will continue to share this journey of exploring well-being and transformative change and action in Indian cities with us by joining our newsletter and being a part of our social media spaces. 

In our last episode for the season, we’ll look at the wisdom we’ve gleaned on the concept of ‘transformative change and action’ from Season 1 of the TCC Podcast! We would absolutely love to hear from you on what you’ve thought, felt and explored as you’ve heard our episodes, you can write to us at team@thecuriocitycollective.org You can also explore the other episodes of the season at www.thecuriocitycollective.org

Credits: This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and is produced by the Bangalore Recording Company.