India’s urban transition is unprecedented in scale and complexity. Within it lie both the opportunities of increased economic growth and employment as well as the challenges of persistent inequality, extreme deprivation and environmental degradation.
The IIHS Urban Fellows Programme is a nine-month, full-time, inter-disciplinary programme based at the IIHS City Campus in Bangalore. It seeks to combine classroom-based teaching, site-based applied learning, work in live projects, and external internships to introduce learners to diverse forms of urban practice. It is open to recent graduates and young professionals from varied educational backgrounds or practice domains. The first batch of 30 Fellows started in August 2016 and graduated in May 2017.
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Eight years ago, fresh out of engineering school, Ajai made a promise to his father. It was a promise that changed his life and gave him a career. He promised him that he will do science through journalism. That he would not just write about the truth – but show it, prove it. That he would bring the math and engineering he had learned into the world of words that he wanted to inhabit. It got him into journalism school and allowed him to pursue a dream. Talks of “becoming a writer” were far too revolutionary in his family. Like most Indian parents, his parents thought he’d end up as a doctor, engineer or a failure. And writing meant failure coupled with poverty. Number crunching and investigative grunt work was his savior. It was the only thing that sounded respectable to his family. They believed that he will write books on research methodologies one day.
During the initial three years he worked as an urban reporter for The Hindu in Chennai, he often thought about the promise he made to his father. He regularly used the power of numbers in his reporting to go beyond the rigid (but sometimes necessary) constraints of objectivity. He thought of his father when he won the McCormick Fellowship to report on national security issues out of Washington DC. Seven years, more than 600 news stories and a 9,000 mile trip to graduate school later, he thinks his father regrets the fact that he once placed conditions when Ajai asked him if he could follow his heart. But he did show faith. He believed in his choices. And him. The least Ajai could do in return is to do journalism that will make his father proud.
Ajai’s deep and abiding passion for investigative journalism and issues related to governance, thus, stems from the dreams of his father. And a promise that he has tried to keep. His experience documenting stories in both rural and urban India has taught him that India’s failings are primarily issues of governance, or the absence of it. In contrast to the encouragement of Panchayati Raj institutions at the rural level, urban India has no effective local governance mechanisms. He strongly feels that the current process of urbanisation in India cannot be equitable without strengthening participatory governance. He hopes that the skills and knowledge gained from the UFP will enable him to effectively intervene and advocate on behalf of those whose voices are not heard.