All posts by Zainab Bawa

I am lost in life. I am running to lose myself and to lose all the handles that I have been holding on to.

When Openness is Unfreedom (alternatively, when data is unfreedom) – Part II

This is the second post in the series that I began in October. I want to thank Rasagy Sharma for prompting me to put down the second post in this series.

This evening, Rasagy raised a question on twitter about whether the effort of a developer to make the database of the Indian railways downloadable is ‘official’ or not? As Rasagy later explained, the downloadable database is a list of trains, stations and the railway timetable. This list has has been made available in various downloadable formats (such as .csv, .pdf, etc) to encourage developers/interested persons to make web/mobile based applications. Rasagy’s question was more in the nature of checking the legality of  the act of putting this information/database on another website when it is explicitly copyright of the Indian Railways (as declared on their website). He argued that cities such as New York and some countries across the world have made this information ‘open’, meaning available to the ‘public’. Hence, it is unreasonable for this government entity i.e., the Indian railways, to be ‘closed’ about reuse of this information by private entities and individuals.

Continue reading When Openness is Unfreedom (alternatively, when data is unfreedom) – Part II

When Openness is Unfreedom (alternatively, when data is unfreedom) – Part I

“I think we need to remember that a point of view brought under public scrutiny and discussion in an isolated manner may sometimes present a distorted or incomplete picture of what really happened in the process of making the final decisions.”

Dr. Manmohan Singh, talking in the context of RTI and decision-making

Lately, one of the things that has been bothering me about news reportage in the media is its propensity to react to any and every quote from a politician on issues of corruption, freedom of information, transparency and the likes. Beginning from April this year, newspapers such as the Times of India have latched on to every quote they have felt to be controversial, without even so as much reflecting on the veracity, validity or the thinking that has gone behind the statement.

Continue reading When Openness is Unfreedom (alternatively, when data is unfreedom) – Part I

The Sublime Object of Anti-Corruption: Sumandro

 Guest post by SUMANDRO

Recent discussion around the issue of corruption in Kafila has generated several references to and logical possibilities of understanding anti-corruption as an ideology, however, without finally drawing that conclusion. In this post I argue that the specific ideological functioning of this idea of anti-corruption is central for understanding the nature of the movement.

Partha Chatterjee writes: “The word [‘corruption’] creates an illusion – a fundamentally false image – of equivalence between two very different practices.” But for Chatterjee, this illusory character of ‘corruption’ is not comparable to the kind of illusion involved in the ‘mystical character of commodities.’ He argues: “But it is this illusion of equivalence that has been achieved, for the moment at least, by the rhetorical and performative adroitness of the Anna campaign and the spectacular bungling of the Congress leadership.” The multivalent illusion of ‘corruption,’ for Chatterjee, is shaped by the skilful performance from the activists’ side and lack of the same from that of the government. I would later argue that on the contrary, the skilful performance by the activists and the lack of the same from not only the government’s side but also that of different left positions are actually made possible by the essentially multivalent nature of the ideology of anti-corruption.

Continue reading The Sublime Object of Anti-Corruption: Sumandro

Letter from Ladakh

13th August 2011

Dear Chintan,

Some days ago, I was at Pangong Tso. Pangong is a lake, a large saltwater lake. I heard some days ago that the lake is not very deep. The waters were blue, green and clear at different spots, reminding me of my first visit to Robben Islands in Cape Town in 1999 where I was awed at the different colours that the sea assumed in the course of its course. There is no fish in Pangong lake, as I was also told some days later. We only saw a mother duck swimming with her babies and a few insect-like fish. Also, there is no boating permitted on the lake. This is because Pangong Tso is a border area where India border with China and for security reasons, no activity is permitted on the lake.  Continue reading Letter from Ladakh

Cities and Infrastructure – The Road Widening Saga in Bangalore

This evening, I was sitting in a coffee shop and writing about the sociology of information, how information is mired in relationships and how trust, suspicion and social relations develop in the course of circulation and exchange of information. As I was beginning to disentangle the complex web of legitimacy and regulations surrounding information, a friend called to inform that some activists and citizens had been arrested for protesting against the tree felling and road widening at Sankey Road in the northern part of Bangalore. In the last few days, the conflict regarding road widening and tree felling at Sankey Road got strong coverage in the media because citizens began gathering around the trees and the roads to prevent authorities from felling the trees. Despite this, the authorities went about felling the trees for widening the roads. The activists and protestors were clearly becoming a nuisance for the government officials and institutions who have not been able to execute the works. Hence, today, at some point, some of our activist friends were arrested on the false charges that they had assaulted public officials in their conduct of ‘government’ duty. The charges were filed under section 343 or 353 CrPC which also implied that the arrest was non-bailable. Over the course of the evening, news went about on FaceBook and Twitter about these arrests, and people from in and around Sankey Road were called to silently protest at the Aiyyappa Temple where the trees were being felled for enabling the road widening. The arrested activists and citizens were released from jail and all the charges against them were ‘dropped’ at about 6 PM. The court also granted a stay order on the tree felling around the same time, with further hearings and orders to arrive on Monday. Continue reading Cities and Infrastructure – The Road Widening Saga in Bangalore

Mediation, Middle Grounds and Meddling – The Medley of Middlemen

[Dedicated to Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay on account of “receiving ends”]

Couple of weeks ago, I was attempting to rent out the apartment that my mother and I own in an urban sprawl in South Bangalore. Among others, a broker – referring to himself as a ‘property consultant’ – approached me with a client. I met the client and conducted some negotiations. Eventually, however, I rented the apartment to persons who had approached me before the broker and his client saw our place. I politely refused the broker’s client. The broker contacted me soon thereafter and began issuing threats for not renting the place to his client. He threatened that it would be dangerous for me to spoil my business with him. Initially, I was also nervous and upset because I was unsure if the broker had an office in the neighbourhood and whether he was powerful enough to spread false rumours about our property which could potentially devalue the property and/or spoil my relations with the new tenants who had just come in. He then came to the apartment complex where the flat is situated and created a small ruckus. Finally, failing on all counts, he threatened to lodge a false police complaint against me for allegedly taking a deposit from his client without issuing a receipt. The broker’s threats turned out to be empty and damp squib as him. He never showed up after that dramatic afternoon of back-and-forth(s). Continue reading Mediation, Middle Grounds and Meddling – The Medley of Middlemen

Of Fakes, Duplicates and Originals – the Tale of Ration Cards and the Trail of Transparency in Governance

On 2nd May 2011, the front page of the Times of India (TOI) beamed and screamed: “Don’t pay a bribe, file an RTI application – Equally Effective in Ensuring Service”. Two doctoral candidates at Yale University’s political science department had conducted field experiments in the bastis in Delhi in the year 2007 regarding poor people’s experiences in making applications for ration cards. The researchers – Leonid V Peisakhin and Paul Pinto – found that persons who paid bribes had their ration cards processed faster. However, those who filed an RTI request to know about the status of their ration card application, were “almost as successful”, the TOI report claimed. (The details of the study and the outcomes can be accessed through Peisakhin and Pinto’s paper “Is transparency an effective anti-corruption strategy? Evidence from a field experiment in India.” The paper was published in 2010 in Regulation and Governance Journal, volume 4, pp 261-280.) The researchers had also put people in two other control groups – one which neither paid a bribe nor followed-up and a second group which had filed their applications along with a letter of recommendation from the local NGO. Both these groups were not as successful as the former two groups in obtaining their ration cards. The researchers’ analyses veered towards two conclusions: first, that the RTI Act serves the poor who are usually denied/deprived of information. Secondly, reforms/laws which give more ‘voice’ to citizens and allow them to scrutinize the functioning of officials and elected representatives are more effective in ensuring transparency and gaining access to public services. Continue reading Of Fakes, Duplicates and Originals – the Tale of Ration Cards and the Trail of Transparency in Governance

Johannesburg – Notes from a Mother City

Mother City?!? What is a Mother City?

We arrived at the Tambo airport, waiting to be received by the taxi driver. The taxi driver, also the initiator of the taxi services company led us from the arrival hall into the parking lot. He was an old, white man, with a completely white beard. He looked a bit like Santa Claus. Upon reaching the car, he opened the door to the boot and started lifting our heavy bags, one by one, to load into the boot. I said I would lift my bag myself (because somewhere inside my conscience, it seemed incorrect for an elderly person, my grandfather’s age, to lift my bags and put into the boot). He looked up and said,

In this country, we are all slaves. Let me do this. Continue reading Johannesburg – Notes from a Mother City

Data, and its relationship with Accountability and Transparency

Cross-posted from

Notions of transparency and accountability have been evolving since late 1980s. It was advocated that people must be given information about budgets, especially details of heads where money was allocated and how it was spent. This would aid in enforcing transparency, accountability and participation. In the late 1990s, as cities developed, pressure on urban infrastructure increased and municipalities became unable to respond to people’s expectations owing to a variety of reasons. The prevalent view was that municipalities and local politicians are inefficient. Elected representatives were criticized for being corrupt and favouring their vote-banks by distributing city resources to them. It was also believed that use of discretionary powers perpetuates corruption. Contemporary accountability-transparency paradigm is aimed at making transparent to the public how and why discretion is exercised in different circumstances. This (presumably) will curb discretion as much as possible and tighten decision-making.

Publishing data in public domains as a way to enforce and enhance transparency and accountability has gained greater momentum in the current decade owing to the Right to Information (RTI) Act through which various kinds of information can be acquired. In this post, I am interested in exploring the concept of data to understand how accountability and transparency are reified by using data as a primary tool. With the help of examples, I will put forward the contention that what is presented as data is in fact produced through multiple histories and contexts. Organizing /interpreting data without an understanding of some of these histories can only enforce existing stereotypes and/or lead to oversight. Continue reading Data, and its relationship with Accountability and Transparency

Notes from a Metro (Pun Unintentionally Intentional)

Enter Delhi: The boy was about 13, perhaps less. He was riding a bike which was about three times his size. He swerved between the vehicles on the road at Karol Bagh, very much in the wrong in terms of which side of the road he ought to be on, and therefore also in terms of the traffic rules and regulations. But he could not care. I looked at him and wondered,

Dilli dilwalon ki hai – Delhi is a city of the large-hearted, of the daring, the bold and the courageous.

A few days later, one of the auto drivers remarked to me during a journey,

Kehte hai dilli dilwalon ki hoti hai. Lekin yeh jhoot hai. Sabhi log yahan paise ke peeche pade rehte hai aur har koi aapko lootne ki koshish karna chahta hai – It is a saying that Delhi is a city of the large-hearted. But this is false. Everyone here is behind money, and each person is out to loot/cheat you.

Continue reading Notes from a Metro (Pun Unintentionally Intentional)

Of Bhoomiputra and Housing

DSCN8740I was moving around Mumbai city on that weekend, mainly in the western suburbs. Several posters and banners were put up all over, announcing a call to a mass rally by Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. Thackeray’s clarion call for that meeting was: “Housing for the bhoomiputra“. Bhoomiputra literally means son of the land. On an overt reading of the poster and slogan, one could conclude that the Sena is back to its advocacy of the sons of the soil theory which originally raised it to prominence in the 1960s. But when I attended the rally and noticed the people who attended it, I asked myself, so who exactly is this son of the soil that the Sena is talking about? Is it the Marathi manoos, the local underdog who the Sena argues has no social and economic space in his/her own city? If it is truly the Marathi manoos, then how do I interpret the presence of North Indian women, Bohra muslim women, perhaps even Dalit women, and many other women who I tried to mark but could not classify as either Hindu or Christian or any other particular else.  Hmmm …. Continue reading Of Bhoomiputra and Housing

Home, house

I entered Yunus’s house. He was allotted 150 square meters of land to build his home. Parts of the house were done up with brick and cement. The roof was still kutcha, raw – in the process of construction. You could see the incompleteness of the roof from the opening around the right hand side from which rain likely comes into the house (as does sunshine). I asked Yunus,

Ghar mein barsaat ka pani aata hai kya? Baarish se pareshaani nahi hoti? Continue reading Home, house

Corporates as Representatives

A few weeks before the national elections, organized an open house where people could meet candidates contesting from various parliament assemblies in Bangalore and ask questions to them. Captain Gopinath was contesting from the prestigious Bangalore South constituency. He was one among the favourite candidates – honest, accountable and upright. Many questions were fielded to him during the open house ranging from what he would do about corruption to how he would improve the conditions in the city. One of the questions raised to him was how would he ensure that people’s opinions were reflected in the passage of important bills. To this, he replied that he would constitute a special committee comprising of people such as Mohandas Pai of Infosys and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, among others, who he would consult on bills and legislation before casting his vote. He seemed to suggest that these persons’ opinions reflected those of the masses and hence, consultation would them would automatically imply obtaining views from the public. This both concerned and surprised me – how and why are corporates considered to be representing my opinion? Continue reading Corporates as Representatives

Information Access and Transparency

In the recent national elections, we saw several initiatives that were implemented to provide more information to people about their elected representatives. The purpose of providing this information was to enable people to make more informed choices about who they cast their votes for. Some among these initiatives aim at achieving the larger goals of transparency, accountability and good governance i.e., their goal in providing information about elected representatives is not only to help people to vote more responsibly; it is also expected that citizens will use this information to monitor the performance of their elected representatives and hold them accountable after they have been voted in. Consequently, there is an attempt to collate information beyond that which is made available through candidate affidavits, i.e., about the state of development in parliamentary constituencies, election manifestoes and promises, news about elected representatives and constituencies, etc. These initiatives fulfill one aspect of the larger discourse about transparency i.e., providing access to information about “the state”. It is presumed that providing such information will encourage people to engage with the state and participate in monitoring its activities. My aim in this post is to dissect this logic somewhat further and to highlight some of the political dynamics which complicate any simple understandings of transparency and information access. I will conclude this post by making some tentative remarks on the possible ways in which information access can be configured in order to serve certain local needs. Continue reading Information Access and Transparency

Faith, religion, ritual, identity, dogma – how do I understand this?

I walked into Anjali’s  house. She lives in one of the Rehabilitation and Resettlement colonies in Bombay which were developed to provide housing for slum dwellers and railway slum dwellers affected by the creation of roads infrastructure in Mumbai. Her house is a one-room tenement. She has created a litte bedroom space by placing a large showcase unit which separates the living room and the bedroom. I sat down to talk with her when my eyes fell on the Mecca-Medina mosque photograph which was placed on the wall facing her kitchen, above her newly purchased washing machine. For a moment, I was not sure if I had seen correct. Then, while continuing the talking, I glanced carefully again. It was the Mecca-Medina mosque photograph which is usually found in the homes of Bohra Muslims, Shias, Iranis and Sunnis as some kind of a visible mark of religion or show of faith and practice (or perhaps something else, I am not sure). I was both intrigued and amused. Continue reading Faith, religion, ritual, identity, dogma – how do I understand this?

51% = legitimacy

With the elections around the corner, the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) election system used in India is being blamed for most of the ills in the Indian political system. This post is the outcome of some of the discussions and conversations that Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute and I have been having regarding the FPTP system.

Briefly, the FPTP system is based on the principle of  “winner-takes-it-all” i.e., the candidate who gets majority of the votes is declared victorious. One of the most common criticisms made against the FPTP system is that candidates win by very narrow margins.  It has been suggested that candidates must get at least 51% of the votes in order for their victory to be deemed as legitimate. It is interesting to note that so far in the history of elections in India, not a single candidate has been dismantled or at least challenged on the grounds that s/he won by 20% of the votes in  the constituency. Therefore, is the criticism misplaced?

Both Barun and I want to suggest that narrow victory margins are in fact the strength of the Indian electoral system. This is because:

Typically, only 50% of the population in the constituency votes in any election. If the victorious candidate has won by 20% of the votes, he has actually received 40% of the votes (given that only 50% of the people are voting).

  1. The narrow victory margins keep the threshold of entry naturally low. This encourages aspirants to enter the electoral fray. If candidates won by 51% of the total votes, it would mean that political parties would have to field heavyweights and stalwarts and it would also discourage novices and independents from contesting the elections.
  2. The narrow victory margins intensifies political competition and keeps candidates and parties on their toes. New aspirants can cut into the vote bases of popular candidates and parties. Moreover, the narrow margins makes it imperative for candidates and parties to attract voters from various backgrounds and widen their appeal instead of confining themselves to gathering votes on the basis of identity and particularistic appeals.

The Shame of A Name

This has never happened to me before. But then, there is always a first time for everything in life.

My name is Zainab Bawa.

“Are you Punjabi?”

“Are you Parsi?”

“What are you?” Arjun bhai, the hawker outside VT station had once asked me. “Muslim,” I had replied. And then, very bashfully, he said to me, “Just asking. Could not make out. You speak such good Marathi. And then, after all, we are all of the humanity kind – you cut my finger, the blood that oozes out will be the same as yours.” Continue reading The Shame of A Name

Right to the City? Rethinking Urbanization, Urban Restructuring, Change and How the City is Accessed Physically and Symbolically …

David Harvey published his piece Right to the City in the New Left Review Issue of September-October 2008. Briefly, he describes the capitalist process and how the city has been the space for investing surplus capital. Specifically, this is done through the constant construction boom, be it housing or infrastructure creation. Harvey is suggesting that the global crises which has affected cities across the world (also because these cities were deeply implicated in the conditions that produced the crisis) is now offering an opportunity for the marginalized “classes” of the world to come together and take control of the “surpluses” which are generated at the expense of the cities. He proposes that if the marginalized people across the world were to unite, they could probably demand a human right to the city which goes beyond merely accessing individual urban resources. The right to the city involves re-creating ourselves in the process of re-creating our cities, in consonance with the higher values of equality and social justice. Continue reading Right to the City? Rethinking Urbanization, Urban Restructuring, Change and How the City is Accessed Physically and Symbolically …

In the midst of blasts and fireworks across cities …

[While this post is also posted on my blog, I want to add a small qualification as to why I have put this up on Kafila as well. This post goes out on Kafila in the optimistic spirit of peace and wisdom in our hearts in the midst of the various blasts that have been taking place in different cities across India.]

(I write in the spirit of my words and in submission of myself to my vulnerabilities and to the present …)

One blast here,

One there,

One everywhere.

Today here,

Tomorrow there.

One blast here

And one blast there.

So that is what we, in various parts of the world, have been hearing about in the last two days. And yet, the indifference on my skin remains. It only thickens. But I remain sensitive to more mundane issues that concern me/bother me/sit on my mind/nag me. And what is sitting on my mind as of now, is that beautiful feeling of vulnerability and the thought of what it means to be vulnerable in the city. The feeling of vulnerability is beautiful as of now because I write in the solitude of music, my words and my difficult and vulnerable self, shut off from the noise of the blasts and of the noise of the crowds that existed in my space a while ago.

Continue reading In the midst of blasts and fireworks across cities …

The Idea and the Practice of a Slum

“Right there, right there!”
“Where? I can’t see the damn station. Where is it?”
“Right there, you walk past that little lane, you will hit the station.”
Grudgingly, I walked through the lane and lo and behold! I was at the platform of Govandi railway station. It just took me a little row of settlements and some open drains running by them to get to that wretched Govandi station (not to forget to mention, passing by some of the children playing around and that sole bhaiyya woman sitting idly).
Did I say wretched? Yes, wretched is the feeling I get when I am at Govandi station. Perhaps in my life, I must have been to Govandi station exactly six times. Of the four of those six times, I have traveled in the east of Govandi, towards the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). But the last two times, I have actually experienced the wretchedness of Govandi station, when I have had to get off platform number 1 and then go past all the squatter settlements, till I eventually get to the infamously famous Lallubhai Compound.

Continue reading The Idea and the Practice of a Slum