Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Feast of the Three Wise Men: A Frustrated Discourse on Participation

Since the past fortnight three events have occurred that beg us to contemplate the space of participation in our democracy. The first to be honest is almost a joke. Manohar Parrikar has been attempting to rile up the citizenry over the old GMC buildings conversion into a mall, claiming that this decision was reached without people’s participation. Now this is truly the case of the pot calling the kettle black! This entire scheme of turning the building into a mall was first floated in Parrikar’s time. And we know for a fact that neither participation nor consultation was the trademark of that administration. Why his own colleagues would grumble about the how entirely redundant they felt! Mr. Parrikar obviously believes that the Goan public is a bunch of performing monkeys. He has only to pull the right phrase out of his bag, and they’ll start dancing to the appropriate tune.

But this is not a new trick our man pulls out of his hat, the Indian public has been confronted with this duplicity for years now. Only this time round we can dare to hope that years of experience have translated into a certain kind of political maturity. Which is why in previous agitations in the course of the current Government’s term, public activists have firmly maintained that they would not like their movement to be co-opted publicly by any political party. They may have not got it right, but the attempt is on, and it is a worthwhile effort. And yet, it does not guarantee us that we will not be pawns in a political game to get power, in this case howl down the Rane Government to let Parrikar take over.

What would guarantee us our role as independent actors in the political game is when calls such as that of participation in governance and associated decision making turn from calls to established procedures. Procedures enshrined in legislation and those from which there is no getting around.

I doubt this is what he had in mind, but it’d be cute if these were in fact the thoughts in Chief Secretary Singh’s mind when he spake the other day at Annual Day of the Goa chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry. Chief Secretary Singh believes that we in Goa suffer from is- if you’re standing up you need to sit down now - overparticipation! This over-participation, our Chief Jeremiah somberly predicted could prove to be a handicap to Goa’s development. Fact is though there isn’t enough participation in decision-making in Goa. If the constant ruckus in Goa is anything to go by it is an illustration of the consistent failure to consult the people and following this consultation to respect the verdict of the people. Sunita Narain writing in the Down To Earth Magazine on the 10th of April indicates the manner in which despite people’s clear rejection of continued and increased mining, the Union Ministry continues to clear increased mining in Goa. So much for participation.

Mr. Singh would like to see an end to the constant deliberations that occur in Goa, and frankly Mr. Singh, so would we. However, we would like to see these deliberations end when the rules of the game are followed. We would like to see a host of public decision making enshrined in legislation for all levels of governance, and we would like to see it respected. What Goa suffers from is not over-participation, but a people seething in anger from not being invited to participate meaningfully.

And finally we have the third event that got me thinking on the value of participation. This was the editorial response of the Navhind Times to Mr. Singh’s concern. In what smacks strongly of an apologia for authoritarianism, the editorial used Mr. Singh’s address to the Confederation of Indian industry to deride the work being done by a host of NGOs in Goa. The NGO’s are blamed for not charting out a program for sustainable development in Goa, for not walking to airports, for using airports in the first place! The editorial betrays not a reasoned concern for the condition of the NGO sector in India but uses the space created by the Chief Secretary to devalue the very act of opposition. One is not always impressed by conservationists’ arguments, but what we have to recognize is the value in that opposition which allows us to refine public policies and decisions. There seems none of it in this editorial which seems to privilege only charity as a valid form of NGO activity.

It would be fair to say that participation in Goa occurs in opposition to Governmental policy since all too often this participation is prevented and seen as the interference of those who do not know. True there is a need for an end to deliberation in a deliberative democracy, but the million dollar question would then be who puts an end to it? A Government constantly acting in favour of private capital, or a Government acting in favour of public interest?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Reclaiming Public Space and Building a Contemporary Culture

I had presumed that it was like most of the rumours floating in the air; this story that the old Medical College building was going to be converted to a mall. Unfortunately like most of those other bizarre rumours floating around in Goa, this too turned out to be horrifically true. The building is going to be converted into a mall! Horror of horrors!

“Ofcourse” commented a friend, who would have liked to see the building remain a public space, “our politicians know only malls”. True and yet not true. Our politicians are merely reading the signs of the times, succumbing to a trend that is sweeping all of society, and not only in newly consumerist India. Worldwide we are witness to a change in the nature of public spaces as they get interiorized and privatized. Thus while the earlier era was about the public parks, promenades and buildings open to all, we today see a trend to create ‘public spaces’ within malls and private club-houses, locking out the undesirables and open only to the paying public. In such a situation it is not strange that our politicians seek to create a mall in the building of the Escola Medica, or convert vast open areas into an IT Park rather than a natural park for a growing and choking city. While it is not strange, it is sad however that they have once again created a private asset committed to perpetuating differences, rather than the public assets and wealth they are expected to commit themselves to.

And while this conversion of a public building into a mall may correspond to a negative global trend, there is also at play a local dynamic. We in Goa seem entirely bereft when it comes to knowing what to do with our public buildings. We either convert them to hotels or convert them to museums. On both fronts we think not of ourselves, but of how groups other than ourselves can use these buildings (and our resources and selves consequently). One could argue that the museum serves to educate the local as well as the visitor, but take a look around you at the many museums we have. You visit them once and you can safely never visit it again, since there is going to be no substantial addition to the collection. With culture being identified only with the past, there is no investment in the museum as a space where the local can constantly engage with the cultural world and the creations emanating from it. In that sense then, the State did the most appropriate thing in converting the building of the Escola Medica into a mall. It couldn’t be converted into a hotel, that would be too crude, and if turned into a museum what would we do with the old Secretariat? So we seek the middle ground and convert it into a mall, by leasing it for three years! We haven’t thought of converting it into a public space, since we are never thinking of the local individual and how they and the city could benefit from an innovative use of the building!

What would such an innovative use of the Escola Medica be? One such use will be on display from the 10th of this month onwards for a period of two weeks. A collection of art works by different art works by Goan artists, curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the work seeks to highlight the continued creativity of Goan artists and the evolving nature of local culture. But this is not all it seeks to do, it also seeks to use this montage of art and culture as the backdrop for performances of various kind; theatre, academic reflection, song, which will continue to highlight this fact of continued cultural evolution. In making use of this grand space, what they are effectively doing is to transform it into a Palace of the People. But this momentary use is only one of the many uses it could be put to. Outside of the Kala Academy the city lacks a space where one can host the film clubs of the city and the continuing film festivals that Panjim is currently hosting. There is no reason why one of the halls of the old GMC cannot be outfitted to play this crucial role. A society that nurtures so many musicians offers no public space where they can practice- rooms that can be hired at ridiculously nominal prices for a budding band to practice. If the film festival is to continue in Panjim, whether as the dramatic IFFI or a locally hosted international film festival, it needs a permanent office. All said and done the city, as well as the State, needs space where culture is pushed toward the cutting edge and local talent nurtured and displayed, a Palace where the people hold court. However…