Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Patna 2008 to Goa 2011: Drawing the links between Patna today and Goa tomorrow

Spending the latter half of last week in Patna drove home the truth of a saying prevalent in the city. “Hell is prohibited for those who spend ten whole years in Patna”. The flood of the Kosi may not have impacted Patna, but it does not need a flood to complicate daily life in this once proud city. It has to rain hard for just a half hour before the roads get flooded. Things are made worse by roads that have collapsed into the sewers below. In other places the man-holes seem to have floated away, in both cases providing invitation for the unsuspecting to fall into them. In many places there are no roads, only craters filled with dark slush, forcing the already chaotic traffic to find place on the roadway that remains. On the sides of the roads huge mounds of garbage and slush rise, flowing into the craters when the rains descend. Even more reason to avoid the potholes. That is not all though. Ever since the monsoons began, 12 people have been electrocuted to death thanks to live wires finding contact with pools of water. Over the weekend, my own colleague felt a surge of current as he sought to open a metal gate and let our car through. Truly this weekend, I passed through the gates of hell, and felt relief when finally reaching Goa.

And yet, the misery that inhabits the city has not prevented the seductive bounties of consumerism from establishing themselves prominently in the city. Old buildings are pulled down, and high-rise buildings reach into the sky and malls draw you into them with the false promise of decent public space. These buildings exist merely as islands in the sea of wretchedness that is the fate of most of the numbed citizens. Step outside your high-rise where you can create your own little private paradise, and you are back into the urban collapse of Patna 2008. Indeed, as the urban anthropologist Rahul Srivastava points out, such islands of precarious luxury are possible in India, only because of the poverty that is the norm in the rest of the city.

How did this city get this way? Patna’s urban woes can be said to have begun with the attachment of the estates of Bihar’s feudal elite. Left without the rental income from their agricultural properties, the one way they could make money was to sell off their urban properties, in many cases the land around their homes, and raise high-rise buildings. The result was the chewing up of Patna’s urban fabric. Goa’s rural-urban fabric is being torn up today for similar reasons. Goans are waking up to the fact that the State has not really invested in making Goa productive for its citizens. The result of this lack of investment is that the land they own, is the only resource that Goans possess, which must be sold if they are to make a transition into the global economy. If there was no creative solution to the crisis that the abolition of the zamindaris threw up, there is no serious response to this lack of investment by the Goan state. Captured as it is by politicians playing the role of middlemen, the sale of land and conversion into housing developments continues unabated. The result as many of us in Goa have rightly foreseen, is an urban disaster scenario not unlike the one that Patna is witness to today.

The high-rises and malls that emerge in Patna, are also based on another principle, one being assiduously followed in Goa. The right to profit of a real-estate developer is to be secured at all cost; regardless of the costs to the environment, or the general public. As such, if one has money, and sees a business opportunity, one could take an old house, or an orchard, and convert it into a high-rise building complex. It matters not whether the city (or the village) has the capacity to deal with the sewage and solid waste that this complex will generate. It matters little if this will result in a quantum leap in the amount of vehicles on the roads. It matters little what the impact will be on the electricity and water requirements of the people. Based on the land-use rules created by a blinkered bureaucracy the buildings come up, and (quite literally) pave the way for urban disaster. Clearly then, what emerges is the need for something that is being followed neither in Patna, nor in Goa; coherent socio-economic planning that is he basis for sustainable land-use planning.

The GCCI and various professional groups recently paid a visit to the Chief Minister protesting the setbacks to business in the state that the sustained public movement in Goa is allegedly creating. It’s a pity they didn’t make a case for rigorous socio-economic planning that would result in a hassle-free environment and a stage for sustainable development. But then, as in the atomized society that Patna plays host to, it appears that these groups are really after immediate personal profits rather than the sustained generation of profit for an entire society.

It is an atomized society that creates the peculiar environment that Patna is witness to. It creates enclaves of difference, in a sea of normality. Thus you have little islands of upper and middle class existence co-existing side-by-side with absolute and shocking poverty and degraded conditions of living. The lives lived inside the malls and the high-rises are not normal, they are an aberration. The normal condition is the condition that one finds spread out across the city, between islands of high-rise. In the course of my stay in Patna, I stayed in a compound located within a working-classs Muslim neighbourhood. The compound hosted around five high-rise buildings, all of which were populated by middle-class Muslims. In this situation too we have the playing out of difference and normality. What is being created, through the creation of an environment of fear in the city, are Muslim ghettos, where Muslims are forced to huddle together for security. The perverseness of the situation is such though, that even within their ghetto, society creates conditions where the oppressed cannot find solidarity amongst each other. And so it is, that within the larger ghetto, a smaller ghetto is created of middle-class Muslims, pitched against their working class brethren.

Xenophobic Goans love to project Goa as radically different from Bihar, blaming the (Bihari) migrant for our problems. The sad truth however is that we are not very different from Bihar. On the contrary, we are actively creating Patna-like situations in Goa. Give us a few years and we may not have to live in Patna for ten whole years to find ourselves a place in heaven. Hell will exist right in our own Goan backyard.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 10th September 2008)

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