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)

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