Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Development as Freedom: Notes on another Liberation Day

Given the Indian passion for ritual it would have been appropriate to reflect this day on the Liberation of Goa. This is what I had originally set out to do, though not exulting wildly about the fact since I am not nationalist and in any case believe that our society is better served through critical reflection rather than blind celebration or absolute rejection. It turns out however that the day will nevertheless be commemorated through a concern for the freedom that was promised to us, first on the 15th of August and then on the 19th of December and now seems so much further away today that we would ever have imagined.

You are obviously thinking in the direction of the opposition against the SEZ and the IT Park that has filled concerned public discourse, as well as my column, in recent times - no surprise there. Amartya Sen introduced us to the idea of Development as Freedom, a truly liberatory concept in the developmental world obsessed with abstract economic statistics and figures. Sen pointed out that our efforts should more properly be focused on enabling the individual to realize oneself, giving her opportunities to go in directions she chose, and fighting any social or economic impediment that stood in her way. The focus was then turned away from the anonymity of the economic superstructure to the intimacy of the individuals needs. This would enable development without any of the poverty created by this earlier focus on larger systems.

One would have thought that Goa with its admirable statistics would have been the perfect stage to play out this approach to development, creating a decentralized state that went out of its way to aid the individual. But no, it appears that every model of development that is fashionable in Delhi must be thrust down the Goan throat as well. And thus we have the SEZ and the SEZ-in-disguise, the IT Park. While much opposition to the SEZ is being generated, its camouflaged twin has not received much attention. The arguments I forward against the alleged IT Park would hold for the SEZ as well though.

To what end the idea of the centralized industrial Park? First, economic efficiency where scarce infrastructure can be mobilized to benefit industry clustering together; second to aid such activities like pollution control; and third to enable administrative efficiency, especially if you want to give industry financial benefits, or you want to create a synergistic environment. The entire idea however falls flat when one realizes that the era of physical centralization has long past. It is today possible, especially in the case of IT and ITES (ostensibly being set up in the IT Park) to operate from anywhere in the world, India servicing the US, Japan and Germany simultaneously, because of the centralization possible through networking. Efficiency has reached an entirely different scale and our Government is still fixated on colonial imaginations of control. But this realization allows us to figure out what exactly is going on. One realizes that the colonial logic of extraction for the benefit of a few still continues. What the SEZ and the IT Park represent is a form of island development where infrastructure is restricted to a few square metres and will never really filter out to the general public. The fortress-like boundary walls of the IT Park being clearest evidence of this intention. Sen’s idea of development would have sidestepped this idea of development to privilege a model of integrated development that would allow for the local to establish IT and ITES industry in their very backyard. All that they need is an upgradation of the already existing infrastructure of electricity and internet connectivity. The idea of the SEZ constantly displays its antagonism to a model of all-round development and yet it appears that the powers-that-be do not realize this. Small is not only beautiful, it is increasingly demanded if one is to march in step with the drum-beat of globalization. If mass provides quantum, the small provides quality. The current opposition to SEZ is not misplaced politicization and bickering but the voice of the people that they know the strengths and potential of their land and society. A sensitive administration would heed this, not only in its own interest, but in the larger interest of a more effectively developed Goa. If they persist though one wonders whether they share much more in common with the Estado Novo and the British Raj that they replaced?
(published in the Gomantak Times 19th December 2007)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Replacing the IT Park for Central Park

This column has consistently raged the establishment of the IT Park for months now, and yet I do not find myself reassured by Monserrate’s latest move to join forces with the opposition to the IT Park. In addition to the displacement of people from the land that was to host the IT Park, what was deeply troubling about the location of the IT Park was the vision of urban development that it carried along with it. In truth it seemed hardly any vision at all, since in addition to the pea-brained suggestions that the occupants of the park would generate their own water and electricity, the idea of urban development it envisaged was really that of continuous urban sprawl. Which is why it is important that if the IT Park is to be displaced it be replaced with an alternative that coherently articulates a sensible and sensitive urban plan.

Panjim is widely regarded as a charming city and much of its charm lies in the fact that it is bound together through a grid of roads and the fact that park land was amply distributed through the city to remove the monotony of continuous built space. Further, the Goan rural environment is prized as a viable retirement option for many around the world, primarily because it has a definite urban environment. What marks the Goan space as special then is the unique relationship between the open and the built, the concrete and the green. And yet it is this very relationship that is being ignored and undermined through such projects as the IT Park.

Central Park is New York is a fine example of what the now contested land allotted for the IT Park can become. Spread over 843 acres the park offers a vital recreational space to the residents of the city. One has only to delve into the history of Central Park to realize the similarities that between the contested land in Taleigao and New York. The Park caters to a highly mixed used, being used at one point of time to accommodate New York’s elite set as they went out to see and be seen, for livestock to graze, it’s a prized possession for athletes who use its open spaces and jogging tracks, allows new-age dabblers to go forage for wild food as well, and sustains a tourism as well! The land allotted for the IT Park has been contested even before the proposal for the IT Park, as residents of the villages around the plateau were being pushed out by the new residential developments cropping up in Dona Paula. Land that was being used for grazing, firewood and farming and other spiritual and religious uses was being reused by the emerging middle class without necessarily taking into account the prior uses of these earlier residents. The IT Park would have only compounded the socio-economic conflicts that were slowly beginning to emerge. Converting the contested land into a huge park that meets multiple uses would help in resolving the socio-economic tensions between the old and new users of this land, as well as stem the problems that would emerge from the kind of urban sprawl that is presently proceeding unchecked. A wooded parkland that hosts two working farms, cattle grazing grounds, a proper playground for the young to play in, paths for joggers and walkers to amble around in conjures up an urban idyll that many cities would kill for. Merely take cue from New York’s Central Park, Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens area, Bangalore’s Cubbon Park to realize that if the quality of life is a marker of development, then having a large urban park in your neighborhood improves your quality of life.

Perhaps what is required now, after Monserrate’s assertion, is for the varied types of residents and users of the contested site to come together and assert a plan for the land that would take into consideration their unique needs. Further they would need to articulate an organization, like the Central Park Conservancy, a not-for-profit organization that runs Central Park that would manage the park land, assuring that the same piece of land can cater to recreational uses, livelihood generation, as well as the spiritual needs of the communities in the area.
(Published in the Gomantak Times 5th December 2007)