Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Small is Beautiful: The Garden Path to Development

One of the delights of Bangalore city is the campus of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Occupying a full 440 acres of the city the Institute had the sense to plant a good number of trees on its campus early on so that it is today a research centre set in a garden. Attending a seminar at the Institute a few weeks ago, we were invited to check our email at the office of one of the organizers. “My office is just across the street from this auditorium” our kind host announced. In a flash it occurred to me when using the word street, he was comparing IISc to a city and invoking a certain kind of urban ideal. The idea of a city located in a green garden space. A city where one can walk to work from one’s residence. A genteel and refined space of gardens, singing birds, minimal automobiles and a citizenry committed to the pursuit of their individuals tasks.

This is an urban ideal shared by a good number of people across the globe, given that the beautiful picture that this ideal evokes is in fact an ecologically sustainable model for the most part. Privileging bipedal access to workspaces as well as other facilities of urban life, the model drastically reduces the consumption of petrol in commuting around different parts of the city. With it are reduced the ceaseless traffic and attendant smog that today constitutes a nightmare of most urban dwellers.

Unfortunately however this vision of the urban life is overwhelmingly privileged in favour of a more Corbusier-ian approach to the city. Where the city is divided up into single use spaces, either, residential, industrial, work, leisure or otherwise, and access to which is primarily through the petro-powered vehicle. The logic of this eminently disastrous model (take a look at the failure of Corbusier’s baby Chandigarh) can be seen also in the current move to set up IT Parks and SEZ in the State.

The problem with this logic is that in addition to building a civilization on a rapidly depleting and polluting resource like petrol, it leads to an isolation of development away from society. To illustrate this point, let me take you back to statement that inspired this column. If one’s work place were in fact across the street, what we would have in an IT company sitting quietly within a residential locality. The first benefit of this would be to ensure that valuable infrastructure follows this company and feeds into the entire neighbourhood. With the commercial activity happening within the neighbourhood, one has a larger number of people on the streets contributing to greater neighbourhood safety. Finally with similar such commercial and research initiatives sprouting up within neighbourhoods, it provides a direct incentive for local persons to be absorbed by the employment opportunity next door. What this mixed-use neighbourhood is producing therefore is a dynamic economy, producing networks of commerce and knowledge and necessarily in balance with the environment.

Entry into, and exit from, the IT Park or SEZ is restricted. It is powered by an exclusive logic, so that the infrastructure and resources flow toward these islands, rather than toward society at large. Similarly in this controlled environment the enterprise is not relating to society and can hardly be expected to cater to local youth. As such the flight of local youth outside the State will continue apace. Some local youth will no doubt get jobs, but the enterprise is- by its location within the island- not looking at persons from the local context but from a much wider context.

Being young myself, forced into exile from Goa and witness to the frustrations of my peer group similarly exiled for the lack of job opportunities in Goa, I am constantly on the look out for appropriate models of development. Models of development that build on our existing strengths and that cater to the local. Does the IT Park or SEZ model provide this opportunity? Sadly it doesn’t. Enterprise that willfully isolates itself from the community does not cater to the community. What we need is enterprise, of any sort, that by virtue of its location is in communion with the community, shaping and being shaped by its economy. What we require are cottage industrial enterprises, tiny but economically significant entities operating from within the quiet of our villages and towns, providing income to local youth. And these already exist in Goa. There are fashion designers, Info-tech companies, set design enterprises and the like operating outside of the industrial estates and in our villages with global clients. These are economies sensitive to the local economy and capable of negotiating their own terms with both the national and global economy. How are we and the State supporting these ventures? How are we making local and frustrated youth aware of these global possibilities literally in their backyard? If you insist that the Park-SEZ model is important, go ahead by all means, but can we evolve the networks and State support for this eminently desirable alternative?
(Published in the Gomantak Times 21st March 2007)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Dogs point the way to Nirvana

The media and the powers that be are all up in arms regarding the recent cases of children being bitten or mauled, in some cases to death, by the stray dogs that roam the streets of Bangalore city. The solution offered and accepted has been to cull, or kill, the stray dogs that populate the city. This way it is reasoned, we would finally rid ourselves of the nuisance that has continued to- pardon the pun- dog our urban environments for some time now. The decision in Bangalore is crucial since the past few years has seen public policy spread like wild fire across the country, based on similar such one-off incidents and knee-jerk responses. The ban on night life past 11 in the evening is a classic example of this case. It is because of these knee jerk responses becoming policy that we need to question whether killing these dogs addresses the issue at the root, or is merely dealing with the symptoms alone. I would like to forward the argument that it is the symptoms we are dealing with, without resolving the root from which these attacks emerge.

One objection to this decision has been to point out that the killing of dogs within the existing metropolis serves no purpose since the places left empty are only filled by the canine populations that are included by the rapidly expanding metropolis. The answer therefore does not lie in the immediate culling of dogs, since such a strategy should eventually require us to cull all dogs from all peri-urban areas as well. This strategy poses not just a logistical challenge, but a definitional one as well. The stray can exist only in the presence of a pet. Rural and peri-urban areas however do not share the distinctly bourgeoise understanding of pet. As such strays, in the sense we understand them do not exist. Dogs in these circumstances are merely domesticated animals that perform valuable functions of companionship, savenging and cleaing and guarding. To extend the distinctly located understanding of pet to these areas would in fact be to kill domesticated animals. That would prove to be a pickle!

But I do not wish to debate this issue around the impacts on animals or their rights. What I wish to draw attention to, is what I perceive to be the real problem, which is not being addressed at all, that of the nature of the urban environment we are creating.

To make flippant use of a popular phrase, ‘it’s a dog eat dog world’ captures exactly what is going on in Bangalore. With some notable exceptions, most of the victims in these cases have been the children of slum dwellers living in low-income (poverty-striken?) areas. The living conditions of these labourers as they build the fantasy worlds that generates Bangalore’s boom time are in fact not much better than the conditions animals live in. For all practical purposes, they are animals. Is it any wonder then that it is their children that are being attacked by dogs? Bangalore’s real estate market is spiralling out of control, even as we fail to provide decent lodgings for the labour force that actually builds and powers the city.

But it is not the law of the jungle in operation in the city. On the contrary, what we have is the generation of viciousness that is the result of the urban environment we have actively created. Even to this day the installation of the mast lights that turn vast areas of the urban night time into day time are heralded as progress. Unfortunately it is to this ‘progress’ that we can pehaps trace the violent behaviour of urban canines. Since the 80’s evidence has been building up of the existence and harmful impacts of a ‘light pollution’. Light pollution refers to the harmful impacts of over-illumination which distrupts natural biological cycles with some chilling side-effects. A range of studies suggest that excess light may induce loss in visual acuity, increased incidence of stress related disorders, the decrease in sexual capacities and greater possibilities of contracting cancers. Sleep deprivation resulting from this over-illumination is another serious impact of light pollution. If these are the impacts from the mere shining of street lights into our homes, imagine its impact on the animals living outside. Animals have often been credited with heralding the onset of natural disasters like earthquakes, even the recent tsunami. It would be wise to read the current viciousness of the dogs in Bangalore as symptoms of stress building up within urban inhabitants. A stress that needs to be addressed urgently.

While there are a number of ways in which one can reduce over-illumination in cities, it does not appear that there will be much movement on this front. Public illumination and the dispelling of natural darkness have unfortunately come to be associated too closely with progress. A progress toward a goal we will never achieve and yet nevertheless serves to beef up our negative national self-impression. But less esoterically, public illumination also provides a very real sense of security. Security from the criminals who lurk in the darkness and can be countered only through these campaigns of public illumination. However once again the question needs to be asked, is not the increase in this fear linked to the perceived increase in crime? Is this crime resultant from the wide gaps in income and expenditure within our society? While some indulge in orgiastic consumption within homes and malls, others starve outside while observing these orgies that democracy promises ought also to be theirs. Crime at one point was very simple, you gave up your goods and you kept your life. Today even that is not assured, as the pettiest of theft is accompanied by unnecessary aggression. Can we link it to the stresses building up within our society, induced by light or by increased deprivation?

Either ways there is something deeply wrong with the urban environment our new found wealth is generating. The ‘vicious’ dogs in Bangalore are only providing a warning we ought to heed. Will we?
(published in the Gomantak Times, 7th March 2007)

The Carnaval of Goa

A friend remarked a few days following her religious marriage ceremony, that the legal registration of the marriage notwithstanding, were it not for the rituals of the ceremony, she would not have felt married. In making that innocent remark about her wedding, she made a profound point on the importance of ceremonies, rites of passage and festivals in our lives. These rituals are not just meaningless remnants from the past. On the contrary by participating in them, they form us into different beings, give us different personas, sometimes temporarily, in the course of a festival- like the Carnaval; at times permanently, like the wedding ceremony of my friend.

The Carnaval is a great example of the power of the symbolic to transform us. The Carnaval having both pagan and Christian roots performed a vital societal function year after year. It allowed for a period when the normal was suspended and inverted. For five whole days the rules of the everyday were (and are suspended) to allow a general free-for-all normally unthinkable. In allowing for this possibility, not only does it allow for society to blow off steam, but at the same time underlines a single fact. These five days of Carnaval are the exception, not the norm, and it is because of the exception, that the norm is possible. In other words, the justices and injustices of every day life are made possible, primarily because of the existence of Carnaval when the normal is abandoned. It is the exception that proves the rule.

What happens then when the exception is transformed into the norm? Goa offers an excellent example, where the Carnaval that operated as an exception has been made the norm. Year after blessed year the theme of a Carnaval Goa was repeated at the Republic Day parade to the extent that when the definitely serious Film festival was brought to Goa, a second Carnaval was produced to lend an ‘authentic’ ‘Goan’ flavour to the event. The result? Goa is now seen as the land of the eternal Carnaval, where every day of the 365 is a holiday. This may have a certain immediate economic impact in terms of creating Goa as an instant holiday destination, but contemplate the more serious long term economic implications.

Almost a year ago, when I began this column I suggested that the Goa would never be able to develop a serious IT or other industry because of the seriously cultivated image for Goa as a holiday paradise. Imagine my horror when I lived through the following episode. A friend recently retired as CEO of a substantial financial company was offered by one of the larger American animation companies, the option of taking charge of the 20 odd acres of land they held in Goa to set up their Indian base of operations. Their logic was that they would be able to use the Goan environment and lifestyle to attract persons from across India and the globe in setting up their India base of operations. This idea was quickly shot down by this former CEO who pointed out that people go to Goa to relax and unwind. They did not and would not come to work. Two, the Goan is an entirely unreliable individual, given to merrymaking, s/he did not work either. Thus was shot down a very real chance of Goa hosting a serious technology industry thanks to its party image. An image that I am trying to indicate was mistakenly pulled out from being an exception to being the norm. He made another point though that those supporting the IT Parks in Goa should bear in mind. “You could” he told the company “have a centre where you have refresher courses for your employees”. In other words use Goa for what it is best used for, a chill out zone.

Carnaval played another crucial role it created the space and environment for the mob. A mob given to merry-making and not random acts of violence no doubt, but a mob nevertheless. In doing so, it also created the space for civil society, the opposite of the mob, the space for the conscious citizen where matters are discussed and debated.

Contemplate once more the environment created by the Film Festival as crowds and mobs are created through the street fair that is timed with the Film festival. What is the reason for a street carnaval timed at the exact moment of a serious film festival? First it befuddles the mind of the individual into thinking that they are participating in the film festival, when in fact they are doing nothing of the sort. What is being done to them is to dumb them down. The street party offered during the time of the Film festival is better suited to Carnaval time, which is the appropriate moment for the mob. Extending this Carnaval atmosphere to a time that should be devoted to the refinement of one’s aesthetics only serves to disprivilege this entire pursuit through which one broadens ones imagination to participate in public life more effectively.

But perhaps this is the intention of the State. A State that is more inclined to cultivate a mob that it can then unleash when it so requires. An electorate that has been conditioned to see State action as the effective and continuous provision of Carnaval. This could explain the sorry state of Goan politics. Finally the creation of a mob justifies greater State control and intrusion in our lives. With every passing year as the street fair outside grows louder and larger, the security within the Festival goes stricter and stricter. This is not a coincidence. The two exist only because of each other.

There is a time and place for everything we were advised when we were children. One is never too old to reflect on the wisdom of that idiom and perhaps it is not as yet too late to put Carnaval back into its true space and context and in doing so set things right again. Viva Carnaval!
(published in the Gomantak Times, 21 Feb 2007)