When a system is forced to run at four to six times its capacity for years on end, it doesn’t break – it was always broken. Elphinstone Road is the story of almost all urban infrastructure in our cities. It’s a template. It’s a warning. It’s our history, our everyday, and our future. It’s horrifying. It’s utterly banal.
When only death can make you think of repair, maintenance, upkeep, and expansion, then the everydayness of our infrastructure is a state of violence. When that death will still not make you change the way you manage that infrastructure, that violence is a siege, and we have Stockholm Syndrome. Not resilience, but a hostage situation.
The real challenge to us – all of us, in all our locations – is to realise the deep insufficiency of our anger if it is anger just at death. Anger is needed as much at the way we live, not just the ways in which we shouldn’t die.
Continue reading To Elphinstone Road
“Universal” is a tricky word. It has an enormous appeal, an unquestioned romance of taking every one along. Universal human rights, universal access to basic services, housing for all. It is the barometer of inclusion done right. The dark side of the romance is that it’s one of the hardest things to actually achieve. Often the “universal” is a vanishing horizon and, like all horizons, the mirage is what makes you lose sight of the very real trade-off’s and constraints in your way.
This week the Delhi Jal Board announced a new horizon towards the idea of universal access to a basic urban service and human need: water. The “Jal Adhikar Connection” (a Right to Water Connection) promises to let households within slums in Delhi apply for legal, metered water connections “irrespective of the status of their residence.” This move – following the Government of Delhi’s already given pledge to extend water and sanitation services to unauthorized colonies – implies that legal, public and metered water could (like electricity) actually cover the city as it exists rather than as it is imagined in plans and laws.
Continue reading Reaching for the Universe
A petition from an organization called Change India invaded my Facebook wall today right before – rather ironically, it turns out— my morning auto ride. The petition is filed under a category on the site called “petitions for economic justice.” When you open it, the image pasted below opens. A sharp fanged, dark skinned “auto-rakshasa” demands one-and-a-half fare. The commuter is “harassed.” The petition that accompanies this image urges the ACP of police to create “an efficient system” so that complaints made to report auto-drivers who overcharge or refuse to ply can be tracked. How, it asks, can “concerned Bangalorean citizens” expect “justice” if their complaints are not tracked? We all must, it urges, “join the fight.”
Let me first say quite clearly that I do not mean to undermine the intentions and frustrations of those who launched this campaign and, yes, when the meter goes on without asking, it eases a morning commute significantly. The question is: if this does not happen at times (and indeed it doesn’t) then why is this so and what does one do about it? There is a lot to be said about the economics of the issue itself and I welcome others reading who know more to write about it more extensively. But this piece is not about that. It is about the campaign itself and how we articulate political questions in our cities. It is fundamentally about the easy, unremarked way in which a working urban resident and citizen – who is also, after all, a “fellow Bangalorean” and concerned with “economic justice”– can be termed and portrayed a “rakshasa” as if it were a banal utterance.
Continue reading The (Auto)Rakshasa and the Citizen
From the Indian Express this morning.
Independent India was built, imagined and judged by its villages; by gram swaraj. The nation was rarely, if ever, imagined by its founders to be led (Chandigarh aside) by its cities. Cities were spaces of the other — of colonial empires and cantonments, of a modernity that had come first in the garb of colonialism — separate from the “inner” nation, which, authentic and unsullied, lived on in the villages. As Nehru once famously said: “we want to urbanise India’s villages; not take away the people from villages to towns.”
This ambiguity over the city and the reductive stereotypes it inhabits has had a long innings; and yet has begun to change. The urban has begun to rise not just demographically but politically, electorally, socially, culturally and economically to become the defining problem space of the ‘new India.’ Cities, for better and worse, have caught our imagination.
In a tangential continuation of my last rant, a news report in the Hindu today caught my eye, because it made clear what we all know: the poor pay much much more for essential services than the rich do and therefore price of living indices as they are currently defined/calculated do not capture in any way the everyday realities of millions of Indians.
Continue reading Water…
[This post is a response both to Aarti Sethi’s post on the BRT, as well as to Aman Sethi’s posts recently and this one earlier and as well as to some of the comments it generated.]
In 1970, Henri Lefebvre wrote: “the invasion of the automobile and the pressure of the automobile lobby have turned the car into a key object, parking into an obsession, traffic into a priority, harmful to urban and social life. The day is approaching when we will be forced to limit the rights and powers of the automobile. Naturally, this won’t be easy, and the fallout will be considerable” (The Urban Revolution, 19).
Talking about the BRT corridor in Delhi, its worth remembering many other urban clashes – Hausmann’s broad and open ways that opened up Paris in the mid 19th century, Robert Moses in New York, and Corbu’s (failed but still so real) plans for just about everywhere outside Europe. Hausmann’s boulevards were about a new kind of street for a new kind of urban formation: the boulevard was part of the birth of the industrial, capitalist city, the city of Baudelaire’s Paris and the “Eyes of the Poor” – the city of the current version of the modern that still shapes/haunts us today. Continue reading Cities, Cars and Buses: The Modern, the Ideological and the Urban
[Being a sequel to ‘Singur, Mediotics and an NGO Called Indian Express‘]
“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment…to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.” Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
These prophetic words were written in 1920 1940, when modernity’s arrogant faith in Progress was still pretty much intact. The rubble-heap of Progress has since piled up like never before. The world is now engaged in battling the effects of modernity that threaten humanity’s very existence. We know, for instance, that global warming or climate change threatens to destroy human civilization itself. Who knows, perhaps, millions of years later, some future civilization might discover its remains submerged under the sea and wonder at the heights of the ‘Progress’ it had achieved. Little might it occur to them that it was Progress itself that took this civilization to the sea.
Continue reading Mediotics, Industrialization and the Angel of History