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)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Symbols, Temples and the Goan Connection

This column is written from the in-the-middle-of-nowhere Bihari village of Maksudpur where the wedding of a dear friend is about to take place. Maksudpur may today be an insignificant dot on the map, but the buildings in this village testify to a possibly significant past as a centre of military might and revenue collection. The brief for this column has often been that it be focused on Goa, contributing to issues local. For this reason one may wonder what distant and Bihari Maksudpur has to do with Goa. Some Goans enamoured of their mythic (and) Aryan past would like to see an argument develop that stresses the Bihari (Gaud desh) and Goan (Gaud Saraswat) connection. Unfortunately for them though, this is not the argument that will develop. The argument I seek to develop though is nevertheless one that haunts the Goan and their relation to Indian authenticity.

Maksudpur that was once presumably focused on its fort -destroyed in the earthquake of 1934 - is now firmly focused on the Kali temple that is the family deity of its Raja. And this is not the only temple though, but one of a few dozen temples clustered around this central temple. What is interesting about this Kali temple though is that the goddess resides in a mansion that comes straight out of colonial British-Indian tradition, completely neo-classsical in style. And this is not the only example of an important deity residing in a European neo-classical temple, such an example being present once again in the Bihar town (and former zamindari) of Darbhanga. There is similarly an interesting temple in Bangalore that looks more like a Greco-Roman temple than a Hindu temple. To return to Maksudpur, parts of the interiors of the temple sport Indo-Sarcenic pillars and arches, employing the Mughal idiom that the British Raj used to legitimize its rule in India. No matter how weak the Mughal emperors following Aurangzeb, the recognition of the Emperor was central to the legitimacy of local powers continuously vying for power in the subcontinent. Which explains why even the Marathas (supposedly sworn Hindu enemies of the Muslim emperor) when in control of Delhi never contemplated dethroning him, but rather controlling him. The British recognizing the value of the Emperor and Mughal custom attempted to harness these symbols of legitimacy. Mughal custom defined power and legitimacy to such an extent that temples too adopted many of these symbols of power, as one sees in the architecture of the Maksudpur temples and temples across the country, in the jewelry of the deities and their other symbols of power. The Mughal court of course likewise borrowed from temple vocabulary in their attempt to indicate just who was boss.

What all of this indicates to us is a much more complex relationship between local culture and power than we normally recognise. As symbols of sovereignty temples borrowed from the royal courts and similarly royal courts used the imagery of temples to shore up their legitimacy. This understanding smashes to smithereens the idea of an authentic and pure Hindu culture that stands discreetly apart from the Persian influences in this country. Members of British-Indian Hindu elite will recount stories of their ancestors with Persian names and trained in Persian and Urdu and not in Sanskrit- options made out of choice and not force. The recognition of this mixing is not unique and rather routine, even though conceptually the tendency is to often go back to discrete Hindu and Muslim categories. We need to recognize that reality has never really had space for these discrete and authentic categories, but on the contrary recognizing and pressing forward the mixed as the favoured child.

In Goa much is made of our temples which look like secular, Portuguese-influenced mansions. Oftentimes this fact operates as a matter of shame- indicating our lack of Indian authenticity, our apparent cultural corruption. What we should realize is that this is not a unique phenomenon and that the secular- both European and Persian- has influenced temples across the land to create various local Indian idioms. In Goa where political power vested in the Portuguese it was only natural and normal to mimic the styles of the ruler. Recognition of this would help us appreciate the context of Goan temples, and arrest the multiple attempts to ‘purify’ them. If however the changes continue, no matter, cultures must necessarily move on if they are to remain alive. However if we recognize this principle of the exchange between secular and religious, it would help us see more clearly what political ideology influences us and just how we are attempting to remake ourselves, since the temple while the residence of the deity is also a testament of our cultural selves.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 21st November 2007)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On How To Stand With The People: Lessons for the Regional Plan

Subsequent to the announcement of Mr. Sardinha’s election as the MP for South Goa, the Chief Minister saw it fit to declare that “On SEZs I am with the people. Whatever decision has to be taken will be in the interest of Goa.” Where else would he be though, if not with the people? And how will he gauge what the people want? The media and the Congress also agreed that the election victory was a vote in favour of their government. It never ceases to amaze me how the national media is able to state with conviction what the results of our frequently held elections mean. With conviction they are able to affirm that yes indeed, X or Y is what the election result means. Their pronouncement is upheld as truth, the final answer to what the people think and want. Political parties and leaders have for long been claiming the same, but it is perhaps only with the explosion of the private media that these claims have now come to be treated as gospel truths.

As much as these pronouncements may be treated as sacred truths though, the fact remains that these are only possible interpretations. There is a need to emphasize this tentative nature of these pronouncements for a variety of reasons. The first is the practical, there is no possible way that one can state with certainty that this particular election result was a vote in favour of the Congress. This is true especially in the Goan scenario where there is really no choice between who is going to rob you senseless and sell out your interests, and where one might as well play tic-tac-toe and determine who you will vote for. The second is the more crucial in that these interpretations of election results are used in fact to deprive the people of a say in decision-making that will have a crucial impact on their future. Thus for example, Sardinha’s victory could be taken to be the approval of the people in favour of SEZs and the opposition to it the voice of a minority. The mere fact of an election, and a pronouncement by the - invariably status-quoist – media ensures to deprive the operation of the State of democratic content. If these interpretations cannot be considered the voice of the people, how then are we to determine this voice?

The answer lies partially in reevaluating CM Kamat’s statement, “Whatever decision has to be taken will be in the interest of Goa”. Who and what is this Goa? Does Goa reside at some abstract central (pun entirely intended) level or at the local level at which even the slightest changes – impoverishment as a result of a grandiose developmental schemes for example- are more dramatically felt and are best responded to? Very clearly if we are sincere about the “interest of Goa” then we need to identify this interest at the point it is most vulnerable at; the village and the city ward.

Unfortunately despite a Constitutional mandate to continuously consult the local, vested political interests in most parts of India have ensured that this truly democratic vision is not realized. Take for example the classic case of the Regional Plan where the Goan articulated her interest but is now being frustrated from realizing it. They wished their voice to be heard in the planning process and this is being ‘considered’ under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act. And this is where the fraud lies. The Town and Country Planning Act (TCP) is quite clearly unconstitutional given that it flies in the face of the democratic requirements of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution. The TCP has no provision for a positive role for the citizen participation the way it stands now. It conceptualizes the citizen in vague terms such as “the public”. Furthermore, this “public” can only bring objections to the plan, thus casting the citizen as essentially a negative player in the process that can be effectively realized only through ‘experts’. Further, the Act places no burden on these experts to go and understand the local scenarios that crucially impact on plans by talking with the citizen and learning from them. On the contrary, the citizen is expected to trek to a governmental office to examine a Plan that is written in a language understood only by experts. Where then is the capacity to hear the voice of the people when it is not allowed an opportunity to coherently articulate itself?

If this Government is serious about being with the people then its first act, following this election, would be to halt the deeply flawed and duplicitous process of framing the new Regional Plan. It needs to scrap the existing TCP and formulate a planning Act that takes into consideration Constitutional mandates and allows for the voice of the people to be coherently articulated, not merely interpreted by unaccountable minions of the status quo.
(Published in the Gomantak Times, 15 November 2007)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pointing Fingers at Fascists

A fortnight ago I had occasion to visit and write about an exhibition at the Kala Academy that, in my opinion, amounted to trying to create a genocidal, Gujarat-like situation in Goa. Subsequent to its publication the essay was ‘commented’ on by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti- the organizers of the exhibition, and a few others. The more substantial of the criticisms against the column accused me of being Fascist and preventing a peaceful organization from exercising their right to speech. This particular criticism is an interesting one to respond to since it is this single argument that often underlies a number of contentious issues.

Thanks to the Constitution of India, the right to the freedom of speech and expression is the fundamental right of every Indian. And yet, this right is not an absolute right allowing us to say and express everything that we think and feel. The same Article that guarantees us this fundamental right also places restrictions on this right. We may not exercise this right to speech and expression if it threatens to, among other things, impinge on public order or act as incitement to an offence. It was my opinion that the exhibition in exhorting Hindus (and Hindus alone) to hate Muslims and view every single one of them as a potential terrorist was clearly exceeding the rights under the Constitution and entering into the realm of hate-speech. There can be no fundamental right to hate-speech. To allow for hate-speech under the Right to Speech and Expression is to make a fetish of this Right to the point of its loosing its meaning. In fact it would be a fascist tendency that would argue that it has a right to hate-speech, allowing me to turn around and ask my accusers if they and not I are more worthy of the label they award me.

The criticisms also accused me of being a Hindu-hater for asking that their exhibition be banned. Nothing could be further from the truth; on the contrary most of my best friends are Hindu! The exhibition purported a concern for the situation for the Hindus in Kashmir, and truly there is reason to be concerned for the daily violence and bloodshed in Kashmir. It is true that a number of Hindu families have been forced to leave the valley and this is not just tragic but condemnable. But this is not a Hindu tragedy alone since it is also Muslim families and those of other religions that have been forced to leave the valley thanks to the frenzy of violence that engulfs Kashmir. To ignore this dimension of the problem is not to solve the problem, but to only compound it. Any solution to Kashmir must necessarily ensure that all these affected groups are returned in peace to their homeland. The violence in Kashmir is one that should concern any individual not just Hindus. It is the appeal to Hindus alone, thereby excluding others from even expressing concern, or denying their possibility for concern- as indeed is what my critics are doing to me- is what is disturbing about the exhibition and its organizers. What is disturbing about the appeal to a ‘Hindu’ consciousness is that it is based on the denial of all other identities- gender, caste, region, syncretic- and the recollection of historical wrongs that are sought to be redressed in the present. Thus, it wasn’t surprising that responses to the column dragged up the issue of the Inquisition and the destruction of temples in Goa. In doing so, once more the issue was constructed as only a Hindu issue. What these critics forget is that the primary target of the Inquisition was those persons who became Catholic and whose lives subjected to greater stricture than those who managed to retain, through negotiation with the Portuguese state, their religion. This historical recollection of wrongs then, is only a partial recollection, and it is this partiality that we must question to realize that there is something deeply problematic with the construction of a ‘Hindu’ consciousness.

The problem of ‘Hindu’ consciousness is not a unique problem though; it shares more in common with fundamentalist and radical Islam and Christianity that it realizes. Which is why, when we are called to contest Islamic radicalism and the manner in which these radicals begin to define Islam, we are similarly called on to contest Hindutva proponents who seek to tells us that they know Hinduism better than us, and Christian fundamentalists who pervert the religion in their bid for State power. Hindu-Muslim-Sikh- Isai, Sab hain bhai-bhai, went a now forgotten nationalist slogan. It appears that the moment to forge the Brotherhood anew is upon us as the fight with these dark fascist forces looms large on our horizon.
(Published in the Gomantak Times as 'Right to free speech is not Absolute' on 19th October 2007)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Accused of defamation and false propaganda

Following the publication of the earlier essay in the Gomantak Times, the Hindu rightwingers seem to have gotten very upset, accusing me of Defamation and false propaganda. The link to their response to my essay lies below, my public response will follow soon!


Monday, October 1, 2007

An Invitation to Hate and Genocide

This weekend I had the misfortune of visiting the most obnoxious exhibition. Set up by the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti, the object of the exhibition was to ‘educate’ the average Hindu about the violence by Muslims on the Hindus of Kashmir and Bangladesh. I say ‘educate’ the Hindu, since every display of violence was followed by a caption addressed to the viewer indicating that if they were Hindu, then these visuals should make their blood boil, and tomorrow this violence could possibly be visited on them. If they were not moved, they were not fit to be - and hence not - Hindu. The theme of the exhibition purported to be the violence occurring in Kashmir, and yet, addressing the plight of the Kashmiri whether Hindu or Muslim was not its concern. On the contrary, the attempt through the exhibition was to ensure that local Hindus see the local Muslim as the natural and necessary enemy. What this exhibition is, therefore, is a very clear and deliberate attempt to create communal divisions in Goa.

Now I am not surprised by this display of anti-Muslim hatred, since one has gotten used to seeing this daily violence perpetuated for not being a certain kind of Hindu. For the Hindu right wing, it is not enough to hate only the minorities. Not being brahmanised upper-caste and minority hating is just as bad in their book. What is surprising is that this very blatant organizing of Hindus against Muslims (and by logical conclusion against the Catholics in Goa) is that it is taking place in the premises of the Kala Academy. Why the premier cultural institution of a secular state is allowing violent activities on its premises is a question that the authorities of the Kala Academy must immediately answer. The authorities can reprieve themselves of this abuse of authority only by withdrawing permission for this exhibition immediately. Worse, this is not just an exhibition; there was also a screening of inflammatory documentaries, followed by similar discussion sessions which were nothing short of unnerving.

Walking through the exhibition, the organizing women clamoring quite literally for the blood of local Muslims, was extremely unnerving. I fancy myself as a reasonably rational individual not given to acts of passion. And yet in this environment, I was strangely drawn toward pulling down the posters, destroying the projector and disrupting the meeting that was being conducted, knocking a few heads while I was at it. It was when placed in this environment that I finally realized what it must be like to be a persecuted minority, and especially a Muslim in this country. Every apparently innocuous saffron flag is in fact a threat, telling you that your time is coming and you had better be careful. If then I, as an individual who is not being directly threatened here, who has an escape route out of the country in terms of livelihood options, should respond irrationally and violently to such stimuli, how would a Muslim, already on the economic fringes of society, and subject to no less that 60 years of harassment respond to this threat? The object of the exhibition then, is twofold. It is first to tell the individual that you are Hindu (or not Hindu) first, and that every Muslim is your presumed enemy and you should ‘get’ them before they get you. The objective: The creation of a communal divide, and an invitation to violence. It exceeds this-one sided mobilization however, and also operates as a provocation to local Muslim groups. Of course, once the Muslims have been hounded enough to retaliate, all of society will turn around, refuse to see the provocation and shrug, saying “It is true, these Muslims are violent by nature.” A minimum of 60 years of such violence has produced nervous and insecure Muslim groups in India. 60 and more years of Hindutva aggression has created the communal bloodbaths of this country, and the current exhibition is a fantastic example of who and what is responsible for it.

This particular exhibition has been touring Goa for some months now and it is a sign of the power and arrogance of these groups that they dare to take over the Kala Academy, the space of the secular and sophisticated in our capital. This is nothing less than a final flexing of muscle before they act out their fiendish agenda. While we must guard ourselves from this venom, they must first be cast out from the Kala Academy and the Academy asked to explain how they got there in the first place.
(Published in the Gomantak Times, 2 October 2007)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Wall as Antithesis of Goan Architecture

An architect friend once expressed his frustration with dialogue with a heritage enthusiast, “Ask them what they want in terms of building design and they say, ‘Indo-Portuguese architecture’, push a little more and what do you have? Nothing! There exists nothing beyond a vague idea”. This is perhaps true, for think about it, the famed Goan villa, is not an entity lifted directly out of Indian and Lusitanian style books, but one that incorporates, whimsically, a wide variety of styles, ranging from the classical to the Art Deco seemingly effortlessly. The problem with building codes, as it is with codified law, is that all too often, it is unable to communicate the core of the idea we seek to emulate, its essence. This essence is outside of the grasp of code, it lies in practice. And yet, as this judge faced with determining obscenity said many years ago “I know it when I see it”.

One has only to have a look at the home of the artists Rudolf Kammermier and Yolanda D’Souza to know that in their home has captured an essence of what it is for a building to be authentically Goan. It rises from the same red mud on which it is built on, its multiple roofs like the ant-hills that for generations of Goans represented the Mother Goddess. The force that sustained life in the region. The building conforms to no standard understanding of what the ‘traditional’ Goan home looks like, and yet, for having engaged with essences that they believe mark the lifestyle, the home emerges as instantly authentic.

This essay is not a paean in favour of the Kammermier-D’Souza home though; to another and more detailed essay much that honour be reserved. This essay seeks to deal with the anti-thesis of Goan architecture, one that can be identified as The Wall. Truly the boundary wall has to be the newest arrival into the Goan architectural tradition. While the great mansions of Goa are marked by boundary walls, they performed the aesthetic function of providing definition to the mansion and the utilitarian one of keeping animals out. They did not operate as we see the boundary wall operating today, the marker of various attitudes. Driving past the home of one of Goa’s rich, and former Town and Country Planning Minister, the multiple meanings of the boundary wall emerged as truth to a savant as the mind drew comparisons with the gigantic walls of the Red Fort. Those walls fulfilled a purpose, and these walls perform a similar function. They indicate the attitude toward power, absolute control, and non-transparent; and the manner in which this sort of wealth may be generated, through the constant grabbing of more and more land. But leave his sins be, what do these walls mark for more humble denizens such as ourselves? For this we may once more return to the city of the Red Fort. The experience of Delhi, especially its more upper middle class neighbourhoods, is of a city walled in on itself. Not only is every home walled away from the other, but each neighbourhood is walled off from other neighbourhoods and thus from the city. Rather than born from the lack of security in the city, these walls are in fact the reason for the lack of security in the city, marking the lack of concern for what goes on outside ones walls. Security primarily for me. These walls then, produce and are indicative of the unconcerned and anti-social individual. Not that they do not have a society, but their society is determined on who they allow in, or rather, who they keep out.

Walking through Machado’s Cove, one of Goa’s ‘prime’ localities one comes across this more or less commonplace home, but one distinguished by walls as high as the roof of the ground floor, and a gate just as large boarded up with plastic sheets to prevent one from looking inside. Strikingly odd, an inquiry as to the identity of the owner followed. The guard on duty indicated that, and this is no lie, the owner lived in Delhi. This wall then, was the anti-thesis of Goan architecture. The balcaos, the wide open windows of Goan homes, the lack of boundary walls meant primarily to block animals you will realize were features of our architecture. A society built on the sharing of experience, resources and property. Despite the factional infighting, and the land grabs by the privileged (yes even under the communidades) this was a society primarily founded on sharing, allowing for the urbane and urban environment of this state. The environment creates the individual and while you cannot prevent people from building higher boundary walls, you can be sure as to the kind of society it will produce. Follow the logic into policy and now lay the norm for Goan architecture.

(This essay is dedicated to the charming Lisel Britto, whose observation on Dona Paula made these thoughts see light of day)
(Published in the Gomantak Times, 17 Sept 2007)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Say A Little Prayer For Me: Panjim’s Parks And The Fate Of Urban Design

Sitting through the release of the memoirs titled From Goa to Patagonia, we were informed that the Panjim Municipal Garden had been lavished with particular attention by Dr. Froilano de Mello while he was Mayor of Panjim city. The man, it appears was responsible for the large number of bandstands that one sees in many parts of Panjim city. Bless his soul, for surely it must now be in need of your prayers given the sad state of urban works he initiated. If you are familiar with Panjim then you know that the bandstand exists no more in the Panjim Municipal Garden, it lies broken and ruined, as does the rest of the park. Lets not get into the blame game however, fact is that it is now only a whisper of its former self.

And despite all of this, I don’t know whether we should rejoice or just sink even further into despair with news that the garden is to be- hold your breath-rejuvenated. There are a great many problems with urban design as we see it evolving around us today. As should be obvious from the concrete monstrosity that is the New Panjim booming all around us, there is in Panjim, no urban design. The lone attempts at urban design seem to be the greening of the circles and road dividers in random locations in the city. These attempts are not only isolated, they are also superficial, attempting to invoke the idea of the tranquility of a garden in an urban space that is fast going cuckoo.

The manner in which the gardens are designed too leaves much to be desired. Rather than recognize that we live in a tropical climate and public spaces would be best served with shade, with plants that require minimal care and water, the designers go in for lawns that demand open spaces and guzzle huge amounts of water. Rather than rely on the garden traditions of this continent that range from the Sanskritic to the Persian pleasure gardens, we attempt to mimic the gardens of the northern climes that flourish with plenty of rain and shade. The result ofcourse is one that pays homage to the stylistic tastes of the great Indian middle class- kitsch.
The Panjim Municipal Garden before it invited the attention of the British-Indian (read independent India) babus who ruined it, ran on a simple plan. A central axis hosting the walk, a monumental column and a bandstand. Benches lay along this axis and the rest of the garden unfolded almost symmetrically around it, echoing the Moorish influence in Iberia. It appears at some point that the garden was marked out for the tree-planting quotas of the Forest Department, beautification programs by the aforementioned British-Indian babus and finally an attempt to make it more Lusitanian than it already was. The rest as they say is history.

The more serious challenge to this garden though is in the proposed plan to build a multi-level car park in the garden. The Goa Heritage Action Group has for sometime now been pointing to the heritage value of the garden. Be sure then that the car park will take that value away, for its heritage value lies not in the fact that it is a garden, but in the design of the garden, but in the relationship of this garden square to the buildings around it. The two constitute a single unit and to divorce the relationship of these built structures from the natural space located at its centre would challenge the whole heritage effort.

And yet heritage and aesthetics is not the most serious issue that challenges the location of a multi-level car park in the garden. This car park is obviously intended to address the lack of parking space within Panjim. Question is however, will it? One can with certainty argue that it will not, since what we will be addressing is the manifestation of the problem and not the problem itself. The problem lies in our equation of development with consumption, and the logic that a higher consumption of cars will lead to greater development. This logic left to run wild will result in an ever higher number of vehicles on the streets of our cities and villages, until we literally drown in a sea of these vehicles and their fumes. While on the issue of fumes, be it known that enclosed parking spaces have been shown to have dangerously high levels of vehicular emissions, allowing us to conclude that the same would apply to this proposed car park.

No sir, the solution to the parking problem in Panjim lies in reducing the number of vehicles moving within the city. And this project is best served by improving the public transport system within the city and the villages that surround it, so that one is not forced to rely on a private vehicle. Public expenditure on an improved transport system would work in fact work to reduce the household budget’s need for a private vehicle, putting that money toward other needs for personal development, which eventually is what development seeks to achieve. As we hammer out a new Master Plan it would be worthwhile if we rethought some of our approaches to development, allowing us in Goa to conceptualize a more organic and holistic model of development that builds on our unique strengths, rather than simply going the British-Indian way.
(published in the Gomantak Times, 3 September 2007)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Let them Eat Cake: The case of the Indian consuming class

Walking through the Alte National Gallery in Berlin, one comes across Wilhelm Trübner’s painting “On the Sofa”. There is perhaps no reason that this little painting should attract your attention except maybe for the audio guide that draws your attention to it. But thank goodness for that good machine and the curators who thought it fit that this little work should merit our attention. It dawned on me slowly that this work from 1872 has much to offer us. The painting features a respectably attired if plain looking lady sitting on a sofa. The painting seems to have interrupted the moment when she was moving the piece of cake in her hand toward her mouth. Indeed there is almost an air of obesity in her face. As if to highlight her priorities, a book, print facing down lies cast aside on the same sofa. What marks this painting though is the equal amount of detail that Trübner has put into the setting that this lady occupies. He depicts the carpet that the sofa and the table sit before, the wall-paper, the table cloth. What stands out in the depiction of these is the repeating motif of the bouquet of flowers. A real bouquet sitting on the table, the motif repeated on the wall-paper and a similar motif on the sofa cover.

Standing before this work of art I couldn’t help but get mildly annoyed. There was a vacuity in the gaze of this woman, as she stared stupidly into time and space, the cake forever frozen in her hand. There was no mark in her face or eyes that would interest us even mildly should she come alive. If this was not bad enough, one realizes that the motif of the bouquet that one’s eyes are drawn to is repeated in a most annoying manner. More than a century after its completion, what Trübner intended through this work is perhaps less relevant than what it suggests to us today. Given the strength of the emotions it awakens in us however, one could hazard a guess that what we experience was in fact part of Trübner’s hidden agenda.

Gazing at his work I realized that this art work captured perfectly the condition of India’s exploding middle classes. Like the woman with the vapid and vacuous gaze our middle class is more interested in becoming the undiscerning consumer that the market is encouraging them to become. Intellectual pursuits, as signified by the book, are indeed to be cast aside as irrelevant and pointless. Our sole reason for existence is to consume and indulge our senses to the maximum. “Eat cake” a French queen remarked many centuries ago, creating the background for a revolution. Contrarily today “eat cake” serves to delay the revolution as the games provided by the establishment serve to divert our attention from more serious issues. There is a concerted effort by the media and other forces of the market at dumbing us down. Take for example the requirement among radio stations that the Jockey speak only 4 times an hour for a max of 90 seconds each. While we are possibly better served by limiting the junk dished out by these intellectual innocents in the first place, what is concerning is that issues that matter are deemed to be boring and not appealing to the masses it serves. What this results in is the active cultivation of the idea that to be “smart” and intellectually engaged is uncool. Not the best condition for an active civil society.

But this intellectual lack is not the only thing that jumps out at you. The bouquet motif allows us another insight into the middle class condition. Trübner is clearly trying to evoke the luxury of the setting in the scene he paints and yet the repetition amply demonstrates a lack of imagination, rendering the effort wholly kitschy. The cultivation of kitsch per se, or the creation of a style that I personally find lacking in taste is really not the issue. What is the issue is the attempt to imitate a high style, and then the ignorant reveling in the tawdry image one has managed to create. Look all around our cities and the horrifying attempts to capture Euro hi-styles, or the uneducated attempts at capturing the Goan home in concrete. I rest my case.

A common middle class reaction is to cringe from admitting to being middle-class. And yet one should celebrate the achievement of this status. It indicates the achievement of a model that we have been striving toward for generations. At the same time however, we must recognize that the model we were striving toward, was not merely an economic state, but in fact also an intellectual state. One rooted in the appreciation of the intellectual achievements of the greats and the cultivation of the same in ourselves. As India hurtles towards developed country status, this is clearly not being achieved as we get caught in the market’s plan for us and instead of becoming bourgeois turn merely into non-discriminating consumers. There is much more that could be said, but space limits us alas!
(published on the 15th of August 2007, Gomantak Times)

Friday, July 20, 2007

Open Sesame: Acknowledging Caste in the Public Sphere

One of the speakers at the recently concluded Convention of the Goan Diaspora held in Lisbon chose to dwell on, among other matters in his address, on the pernicious evil of the caste system that continued to dwell in the midst of what was otherwise a relatively enlightened community. He was moved no doubt, by his observation of the social events that transpired prior to the commencement of the day-long deliberations of the Convention. To illustrate, almost every introduction at the Convention was quickly followed with the question, “and where in Goa are you from?” Now all of us Goans know that this is no innocent question. One asks this question primarily to assert the other’s caste, and then go on to place them in the appropriate social category. This placement may not necessarily be derogatory, but it will nevertheless factor caste into the decision. Who knows, but it is possible that this question is one that is possibly asked only by the upper-caste person, for surely, it is only when you have nothing to hide or be ashamed of that one really inquires into the caste of the other. But be this as it may, the fact is, that as a community, we were chided for still pandering to this pernicious and outdated evil.

This laudable concern was picked up by a member of the audience who then went on to argue, that indeed, we must ignore caste altogether, we must never acknowledge it. To acknowledge it is to continue this evil. It must be as if it never exists, quoth he. It is at this point that I began to get a little uncomfortable, and my discomfort was proved justified in the course of my conversation with this gentleman at the coffee-break that followed.

I don’t for a minute support discrimination based on caste, and yet I believe I am honest enough to acknowledge that it plays a part in the moulding of my predelictions, tastes and concerns. A member of the Catholic upper-castes, my very being is defined by the privileges that my caste-membership has ensured to me. And in the end, sophisticated and high-class markers are identified according to their proximity to upper-caste notions of appropriateness. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the Konkani our state supports. Which caste speaks this state version as if it were the Konkani spoken within the confines of their home? Yep, you got the answer. To get back to the point though, if one has acknowledged that one’s caste is significant in giving one the privilege that one enjoys, then to deny the existence of this privilege is to deceive the public. One is pretending to be equal, when in fact one is not. On the contrary, as compared to the individual who does not have that upper caste heritage, the upper-caste person has a decided advantage. Political correctness, and social justice concerns therefore, would demand a declaration in public debates of our caste background. This may sound ridiculous but if you give me a moment you will perhaps see my point. My argument is that when making claims in the public sphere, to elide the fact of caste would be to pretend that it does not exist, when in fact, it does. It operates even when we consciously seek to work against it. It is for this reason then, to encourage our audience to contemplate the role of caste and privilege in our claims and positions that I advocate the public acknowledgement of caste. Not a triumphal proclamation though, and not a mea culpa either, but definitely a statement of fact, to enable our accountability to the public.

To return to my gentleman friend though, it appears that his claim to ignore caste was motivated more by the anger that persons of lower caste were getting what he thought an unfair advantage in admissions to such institutions as the GMC. Given that the entire matter of reservations is too complex for the confines of this column I will leave this matter here. I will however use it to highlight once more the possibility that when we talk of erasing reference to caste, all too often what we are proposing is that we ignore the privilege it grants us and let it operate in secret.
(published in the Gomantak Times, 18th july 2007)

Monday, July 9, 2007

On why incorporating Karwar into Goa is not a good idea

I had written this piece for the Gomantak a number of months ago, indicating the problems with the apparently innocent claim for the inclusion of the Konkani speaking portions of Karwar. This demand has now received support from the Konkani Ekikaran Manch (Konkani Unification Front) of Goa, restating the same old arguments I had dealt with in that early piece. As such, I think I could restate my case against this inclusion.

“Imagine a situation where Goa has 13 talukas, hydroelectric and nuclear power projects, two major ports and an added coastline. This is not wishful thinking or an academic debate, but a social movement in operation for nearly 15 years.” This extract is from a report that appeared in the Herald a few days ago. A report informing us of the existence of a movement in Karnataka’s Karwar district which seeks to merge with Goa. The reasons they give are that they do not wish to exist as a part of Karnataka, since the Karnataka government has ignored the development of Karwar. Also, they argue that around 60% of the people of Karwar speak Konkani, and it is only natural that they should be part of a Konkani speaking State. Finally, there are religious links between the people of Karwar and Goa, with family deities on both sides of the current border.

The tenor of the report seemed to suggest that this movement was something that we should be glad for and welcome with open arms, since it would create a larger Goa with more economic opportunity and secondly it would buttress the claim of Konkani within Goa. However, I am not so sure that for these reasons we should automatically support this claim. On the contrary it is exactly this sort of a promise that we should be wary of since there is more than meets the eye in this case.

The mere support for Konkani does not translate into the support for what the Language Agitation and the struggle against merger with Maharashtra was all about. Both movements sought to protect a Goan identity and local concerns that were only superficially connected with the names we have given to these movements. What was the issue of merger with Maharashtra all about? On the one hand the Catholics very rightly did not want to get swamped in a Hindu Maharashtra, the Saraswats did not want to loose dominant status in a Maratha Maharashtra, and the Goan bahujan samaj wanted to escape Brahmin domination by creating an option in a Maratha Maharashtra. Similar the support for and against Konkani was on similar lines, the Catholics wished to secure their identity, and the pro-Marathi lobby by and large identified the Konkani movement with their greatest fear, Brahmin dominance in Goa.

Perhaps the Bahujan samaj in Goa were the most far-sighted of us all who saw in the pro-Konkani movement, the contours of a design to ensure Brahmanical and Hindutva dominance. The Catholics woke up a little late in the day and realized that in supporting Konkani without securing the protection of the script that guarantees their uniqueness, they laid the foundations for their own demise from cultural and political life.

To put things in context now, let us recollect that it was in Karwar, in 1939 that a decision was taken to recognize Devnagari as the natural – and hence only- script for Konkani. A reading of Indian history will point us toward the fact the recognition of Devanagari as the natural Indian script was the tool used by Hindu right wing groups to cast India as essentially Hindu. This recognition refuses to recognize the multiple strands that have played their part in constituting India, and delegitimizes them. Similar to the manner in which Romi, the only script that supports a living and vibrant Konkani, is currently being delegitimized. That the mention of family deities comes up when there is talk of incorporating Karwar into Goa should instantly alert us to the fact that the argument is also playing to a Hindutva lobby which would seek to create a Goa on the basis of religious markers.

We need to develop a politically savvy understanding of what exactly is afoot here. The mere reference to Konkani and a greater Goa does not work to the advantage of Goa, Konkani or the communities that speak Konkani or live in Goa. Let us once again refer to modern Indian history to understand that what appears to be progressive may in fact not be so. Rightist forces have always managed to secure their agenda by riding piggy back on overtly secular and progressive agendas. Until the 80’s the women’s movement protesting obscenity found support from the BJP, until the Fire episode when it realized that what the BJP was supporting was the suppression of female sexuality in the name of Indian values. Similarly the women’s movement did not realize that the BJP’s support for a Uniform Civil Code was not their pro-women stance, but an anti-Muslim stance.

Currently as the protagonists of the Romi script seek to secure allies, there seems to be opposition to recognize the claim of Marathi as an official language in Goa. We need to figure out where this demand for Marathi is coming from. It is the demand of a minority that fears domination. A fear similar to what the protagonists of Romi experience. They seek recognition of Marathi in its Goan form, and as a Goan language, as an alternative to the brahmanical hegemony that will persecute both Catholics and the Bahujan samaj. The threat of Maharashtra is now dead. A new threat has emerged now, the threat of a brahmanical Hindutva, and it seeks to use Konkani and the idea of a larger Goa to get its way. We need to realize this. The addition of Karwar to Goa is not in Goa or Konkani’s larger interests. On the contrary, acknowledging Marathi as a Goan language may do more to further the interests of Goans in Goa. But more about this some other time…

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

O Zé Faz Falta: Of Diaspora, Memories and Needs

Last weekend saw me in Lisbon at the Convention of the Goan Dispora organised by the Casa de Goa from the 14th to the 17th of June. It was for me, as with others present at the Convention, a wholly moving experience. The spirit of the days was perhaps best captured when at the party at the end of the Convention when the group broke into song creating the atmosphere of a family gathering. Not everyone knew all the songs that were being sung, some in Portuguese, some in English, some in Konkani, but it was nevertheless enjoyed by all. To me this was an indication of how the diaspora need not move toward a single, unbroken identity. There is no need for a single language, a common culture, a necessary history with a common geographical space. What a diaspora, and its meetings can be- and perhaps ought to be- is the opportunity for dialogue for people who share some connections and would like to build on them.

Indeed, this understanding of why a disapora meets could be the safest option for a diasporic community and gathering in the face of the problems it could possible raise. Despite the nature of the experience at the Convention, I still stand wary of the word diaspora and its politics. The word is too strongly associated with the formation of Israel and its racist and inhuman Zionist politics. One has only to realise that a large part of the growth in saffron right-wing politics in India is due to the interventions of the Indian diaspora in North America and the U.K. We should hate to see that in Goa. And yet the growth in the Goan diaspora’s interest in Goa has all the makings of this danger. Perhaps not yet saffron right-wing, but right leaning nevertheless. There is located in diaspora politics the same urges that motivated colonialism. “We, who live outside, know better and can show you the route”. And while there is no problem in learning, one has to contest the idea that it is the diaspora alone that can teach and have nothing to learn. We need to recognise that the ideas of the diaspora are often born in imagination and longing, and situations on the ground move to a different reality. One that is located in the daily lives of the people who live there.

The voice of the diaspora often pretends to be the voice of the authentic. “Just because we have left, it does not mean we are not Goan”. Indeed not. To argue so would be petty. However we have to recognise that while they may be Goan, they are not authentic. They represent a certain economic class and speak by-and- large for the interest of that class. It is not surprising that the Chief Secretary of the State highlighted the interest the Government was taking to protect the properties in Goa of the diaspora. What diaspora politics possibly represents therefore is the propertied gaining access to the ear of the Government. And while this is not necessarily undesirable, what is terrifying is that interests towards consolidation of property, away from the distributive ethic that ought to motivate our state, may be the only voice the State chooses to hear. It is this choice that the State exercises that perhaps it would do well for diaspora organisers to take cognizance of. For while the State is listening to those who would exercise a developmental role now, as it seeks to cultivate a new source of legitimacy, things may not always continue to be so hunky dory. We are aware of the power of the right, and the saffron right, to take over platforms created with good intentions. It would be a shame if a platform that seeks to redress problems in Goa goes to buttress rightist policies by a Government so inclined to listen.

It is to avoid these and other problems inherent in the nature of diaspora politics that it would be ideal to cultivate the idea of diasporic engagement as a dialogue. This idea was put best when it was suggested – recognising the continuing presence of caste and other markers in Goan communities abroad- that it is not necessary to have a single Goan organisation in an area, as long as these multiple groups can work together. There couldn’t be a better way to allow for diasporic engagement to allow for the flowering of multiple identities and diversity, an option that gets destroyed when we attempt to box ourselves according to the narrow identities of a political entity like the state of Goa.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

No Saudades in Portugal: Reflecting on Monumentalism

The time between this column and my last has seen me move continents so that I find myself writing this column from a location within the University of Coimbra. I could begin this recounting of experiences in this medieval capital of Portugal by commenting on the sudden feelings of déjà vu, as I look outside to see a familiar hill-side, building and what have you. I will however resist falling into the easy embrace of a seductive but superficial saudades and focus my energies elsewhere.

My preferred manner of experiencing a city is to use it, encounter it like a local, and yet at times one feels obliged to go looking for the notable sights in the town. Searching for the famed Sé Novo (New Cathedral) of the town I headed in the direction of the tall domed building I could see from my office window. I could see that it was surrounded by a high crenulated wall and suggested the location of an ancient religious structure within the medieval walls. I made my way in the afternoon sun, following the wall for an entry into the complex only to realise that the building was in fact the prison for the region of Coimbra. Now what do you think of that, A prison right in the heart of town! I can’t as yet figure out if it is some cruel and perverse humour that selected a site close to the happy voices and moments of the town, or a laudable attempt at social integration that locates a prison within the bounds of ‘normal’ society indicating that the inmates within are regular people who have only fallen temporarily from the graces of a whimsical society. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I am given to believe that the location of the prison within the town is a matter of much public debate, even while prisoners sometimes have conversations with those who live on the other side of the prison walls. I tell you no lies!

The prison building offers much food for thought though with its central tower that looks like copy of the dome of the Cathedral of Florence, the ecclesiastical suggestion of which made me amble my way toward it in the first place. More than an ecclesiastical suggestion however is the disciplinary one it makes as it rises above arms that project from it. The structure of the building conjures up the image of Bentham’s panoptican. Bentham the famed positivist jurist conceptualised the panoption as a ring-shaped building that housed at its centre an inspection tower. The periphery of the building consisted of cells, each of which was meant to hold an individual prisoner. The design of the building was such that the inspector could always view the prisoner, an option never open to the prisoner. This vision of total control over people, the French thinker Foucault would suggest many years later was instituted into modern society, where our every movement and idea is under surveillance.

Portugal has had its share of totalitarian control, a power it has done away with and just refuses to talk about. And yet as one lingers in the University square one senses the heavy weight of the past with the stern, square and muscular statues that adorn the sides of building built in the time of the Estado Novo, the regime inaugurated by Salazar. I jest you not when I recount that as I shivered involuntarily when I encountered those statues, as visions of banner carrying and goose stepping soldiers came to mind. While the fancy images can be traced to an overdose of Hollywood, the blatant monumentality of these buildings is a throw back to a time, when not only in Portugal, but all over Europe, and the mini-Europes around the world, edifices were raised to commemorate and instruct the people about the absolute power of the State.

Buildings and edifices are not simply structures with a purely utilitarian intentions, no matter what old father Bentham would have liked. They are clear indicators of the predilections of society at the point of time, the ambitions, egos and power of the commissioners of buildings. Buildings of imperial dimensions more often than not tell us stories of oppression if we are willing to look beyond the façade. The dams we choose to build, the statues we erect, even the circle marking the entry into Panjim from Old Goa inaugurated during Parrikar’s earlier regime, they all tell us something about the society we would like to see. Question is, are we reading the signs of the times, or merely taking these at face value?
(published in the Gomantak Times 7th June 2007)

Thinking About The Invalid Vote: Generating Electoral Options

Another assembly election, another round of lies, filth, hopes and furious sloganeering- both by political parties and well-meaning citizens urging for voting for change. The question is though is change possible through the assembly level elections? Can we really change the system through the simple act of casting our vote? I’m not so sure, but I wouldn’t want to play spoil sport either. A good Foucaldian and a one-time Gandhian I firmly believe in the possibility of the individual and the capacity of individual physical acts of resistance.

While a student at the National Law School, the annual convocation at the university brought the former President of India, R. Venkataraman to deliver a lecture to the guests assembled at the Convocation. Hot and tired, I nevertheless perked up when he uttered the magic words “Invalid vote”. Unable to locate the text of his address, I will not attribute what I am about to suggest as electoral strategy to the late President but definitely credit him as inspiration. What I believe he suggested was that the invalid vote could be an important instrument to indicate to the political establishment in our states and country that we disapprove of the candidates standing for election and see no valid choice being offered to us. Contemplating what I heard that morning many years ago, I believe that Goa is a perfect location to try it out as electoral strategy. We have no real choice in Goa, the corrupt and the communal being located in every single candidate that is standing for election.

The option for the invalid vote is not one however that we can exercise at an individual level alone. I believe that this option while exercised individually must necessarily accompany a mass movement, such that the political establishment faced with a growing count of invalid votes must take heed that they face an electorate that is determined to literally throw a spanner in the works, and blackmail radical change into place. Allow me to illustrate the power of the invalid vote with another anecdote from the history of the National Law School. Refused direct elections by the founder-Director of the Law school and Faculty, after years of petitioning, matters eventually came to a head. The student body called for a General Body Meeting indicating to the members of the Electoral College (one composed of students selected by faculty to administrative committees) that if they were in fact representing the will of the students in this indirect election of President, then they would not vote that particular year. Later that evening the university made history and jammed the system when the student representatives refused to vote for a President. The Law school remained without a President for a year, but at the end of it, they had a new Constitution that provided for direct elections of a President from among the student body.

A state is not the small institution that the National Law School is, but I believe that the option of the invalid vote exercised by a vocal population allows for us to send a similar message and frustrate the operation of a corrupt and unresponsive political establishment. A growing and substantial population that chooses the invalid vote would similarly disrupt the operation of the political system in a state at most and increasingly refuse legitimacy at least. I see this as a possible option for Goa primarily because we are a small state facing by and large a similar crisis, whether it is in the coastal districts being bought up for leisure consumption, or the internal districts being mined out without respect for local livelihoods. Further a move to popularize the invalid vote necessarily requires a larger civil society movement, one that is not restricted to movements that emerge in moments of crisis and dissipate subsequently. In the eventual event that we should succeed in such a movement, what we would have is a growing focus on the village panchayat, an official space whose powers, at least on paper are growing. The Panchayat allows us an ideal forum where our voices are heard, and our frustrations necessarily dealt with by the elected officials – they don’t enjoy X, Y, Z security you see? Eventually I believe that if the political establishment is to change, it is through change where greater powers are effectively realized at the village level, allowing for a dialogical state, rather than the unresponsive behemoth we are forced to tango with.

We cannot however be blind to the fact that our exercise of the invalid vote would allow a goon to step into power. My response to this argument would be to point out that as of now we don’t really have a real option. There is no difference between the corrupt, the criminal and the communal. In the indirect democracy characterized by a dishonest and unresponsive leadership, I believe that the movement of the invalid vote is a genuine possibility, and one we need to actively explore and employ. Takers anyone? The revolution really begins with the power of ONE.

(published in the Gomantak Times 31 May 2007)

Friday, May 4, 2007

Random Musings- Rethinking Nationalism

Attaining adulthood within the confines of an institution with a strong and vocal liberal arts community, I learned my lessons well. Nationalism was not a good word but a problematic one. It was problematic because its act of creating a national patriotic community, necessarily required the creation of an alien and enemy. To be Indian, you had to have a Pakistani to validate your existence and give a meaning to your identity. The national project does not limit itself to creating external outsiders though. The national project invariably in the hands of a dominant group within society identifies a definite agenda and then commits the rest of the population, with or without their consent to this project. Opposition to this project, even if it be on valid grounds of the destruction of your bases for leading a basic human existence brands you anti-national. And so we have the dam building and other developmental projects in India and the branding of groups that oppose them. Further the national project also needs to create a national community, and similarly identifies the cultural markers of the national citizen. It does not matter if the identified culture is something you don’t identify with, or following it would destroy your own culture. Comply with it you must, or face the wrath of the angered nation-state. And therefore you have the suffocation of Urdu, of Romi Konkani, the murdering of Muslims and the persecution of tribals.

For those of us committed to a utopian ideal, of fraternity, equity and equality therefore, recourse to any rhetoric that even vaguely invokes nationalist sentiments is a strict no-no. For we know, from such places as India, Pakistan, the Balkans and other parts of Europe, the violence and bloodshed that necessarily accompanies the appeal to nationalistic sentiments.

It is for this reason that I faced a moral dilemma when contemplating the calls of the Goa Bachao Abhiyan. The Save Goa Movement was validly concerned with the destruction of the Goan environment and the livelihoods connected with this environment. This was a worthy and an important cause to support. And yet, all too often the call to ‘Save Goa’ was heavily couched in the resentment of and toward the ‘outsiders’. And this was not a lone phenomena but one that recurs frequently in a variety of places- be it the call to open up the GMC for public use, the protection of khazans, the building over of fields. As valid as the environmental cause may be, how can one support the nationalist project implicit in it? And how does one deal with this unholy twining of liberatory and exclusionary ideologies?

It was in this context that the words of Aijaz Ahmad proved useful. For the population of the “backward zones of capital” he argues “all relationships with imperialism pass through their own nation states, and there is simply no way of breaking out of that imperial dominance without struggling for different kinds of national projects and for a revolutionary restructuring of one’s own nation-state”. Ahmad then suggests to earnest students like me who have learned their lessons well, that nationalism while a deeply problematic ideology is the reality within which we live our lives. But this is not necessarily an argument to remain with the nation-state. On the contrary Ahmad’s formulation shows us a possible way out of the dilemma. The way out requires our recognition of our location as a ‘backward zone of capital’. A zone that by and large is constituted not by the owners of capital, but a zone that is one of speculation for persons not ordinarily resident in this zone or emotionally invested in it - in other words the wielders of imperial power. It may be difficult for now to think of ourselves as ‘beyond the nation’, but this does not preclude us from identifying the problem as one of the operation of capital within a space (the nation-state) that ostensibly portrays itself as for the protector of the people. My problem with politics in Goa, is that while it constantly identifies a host of appropriate issues to battle, there is by and large a failure to locate its existence in the operation of capital. This holds true for the heritage movement, the language(s) movement, the environmental movement or the cultural movement. To understand the operation of capital within the backward zone of capital that is Goa is not difficult and often recognized conversationally. And yet we fail to raise this intuition (most of the time deliberately I suspect) to a central place in our agendas for change allowing for nationalist rhetoric to gain a firm foothold within our state

Given that our immediate goal is to restructure the nation-state in favour of those people who thanks to their control of capital currently maneuver the state outside of the legitimate democratic space, it seems unlikely that our reliance on nationalist rhetoric will miraculously subside. However, the conscious articulation of relations of capital within this state in the public sphere would without doubt reformulate agendas, moving it away from the current Goenkarponn obsessions that in fact serve only to further divide us and separate us from the humanity we are in fact fighting for.
(Published in the Gomantak Times, 2nd May 2007)

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…

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)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Dogs point the way to Nirvana

The media and the powers that be are all up in arms regarding the recent cases of children being bitten or mauled, in some cases to death, by the stray dogs that roam the streets of Bangalore city. The solution offered and accepted has been to cull, or kill, the stray dogs that populate the city. This way it is reasoned, we would finally rid ourselves of the nuisance that has continued to- pardon the pun- dog our urban environments for some time now. The decision in Bangalore is crucial since the past few years has seen public policy spread like wild fire across the country, based on similar such one-off incidents and knee-jerk responses. The ban on night life past 11 in the evening is a classic example of this case. It is because of these knee jerk responses becoming policy that we need to question whether killing these dogs addresses the issue at the root, or is merely dealing with the symptoms alone. I would like to forward the argument that it is the symptoms we are dealing with, without resolving the root from which these attacks emerge.

One objection to this decision has been to point out that the killing of dogs within the existing metropolis serves no purpose since the places left empty are only filled by the canine populations that are included by the rapidly expanding metropolis. The answer therefore does not lie in the immediate culling of dogs, since such a strategy should eventually require us to cull all dogs from all peri-urban areas as well. This strategy poses not just a logistical challenge, but a definitional one as well. The stray can exist only in the presence of a pet. Rural and peri-urban areas however do not share the distinctly bourgeoise understanding of pet. As such strays, in the sense we understand them do not exist. Dogs in these circumstances are merely domesticated animals that perform valuable functions of companionship, savenging and cleaing and guarding. To extend the distinctly located understanding of pet to these areas would in fact be to kill domesticated animals. That would prove to be a pickle!

But I do not wish to debate this issue around the impacts on animals or their rights. What I wish to draw attention to, is what I perceive to be the real problem, which is not being addressed at all, that of the nature of the urban environment we are creating.

To make flippant use of a popular phrase, ‘it’s a dog eat dog world’ captures exactly what is going on in Bangalore. With some notable exceptions, most of the victims in these cases have been the children of slum dwellers living in low-income (poverty-striken?) areas. The living conditions of these labourers as they build the fantasy worlds that generates Bangalore’s boom time are in fact not much better than the conditions animals live in. For all practical purposes, they are animals. Is it any wonder then that it is their children that are being attacked by dogs? Bangalore’s real estate market is spiralling out of control, even as we fail to provide decent lodgings for the labour force that actually builds and powers the city.

But it is not the law of the jungle in operation in the city. On the contrary, what we have is the generation of viciousness that is the result of the urban environment we have actively created. Even to this day the installation of the mast lights that turn vast areas of the urban night time into day time are heralded as progress. Unfortunately it is to this ‘progress’ that we can pehaps trace the violent behaviour of urban canines. Since the 80’s evidence has been building up of the existence and harmful impacts of a ‘light pollution’. Light pollution refers to the harmful impacts of over-illumination which distrupts natural biological cycles with some chilling side-effects. A range of studies suggest that excess light may induce loss in visual acuity, increased incidence of stress related disorders, the decrease in sexual capacities and greater possibilities of contracting cancers. Sleep deprivation resulting from this over-illumination is another serious impact of light pollution. If these are the impacts from the mere shining of street lights into our homes, imagine its impact on the animals living outside. Animals have often been credited with heralding the onset of natural disasters like earthquakes, even the recent tsunami. It would be wise to read the current viciousness of the dogs in Bangalore as symptoms of stress building up within urban inhabitants. A stress that needs to be addressed urgently.

While there are a number of ways in which one can reduce over-illumination in cities, it does not appear that there will be much movement on this front. Public illumination and the dispelling of natural darkness have unfortunately come to be associated too closely with progress. A progress toward a goal we will never achieve and yet nevertheless serves to beef up our negative national self-impression. But less esoterically, public illumination also provides a very real sense of security. Security from the criminals who lurk in the darkness and can be countered only through these campaigns of public illumination. However once again the question needs to be asked, is not the increase in this fear linked to the perceived increase in crime? Is this crime resultant from the wide gaps in income and expenditure within our society? While some indulge in orgiastic consumption within homes and malls, others starve outside while observing these orgies that democracy promises ought also to be theirs. Crime at one point was very simple, you gave up your goods and you kept your life. Today even that is not assured, as the pettiest of theft is accompanied by unnecessary aggression. Can we link it to the stresses building up within our society, induced by light or by increased deprivation?

Either ways there is something deeply wrong with the urban environment our new found wealth is generating. The ‘vicious’ dogs in Bangalore are only providing a warning we ought to heed. Will we?
(published in the Gomantak Times, 7th March 2007)

The Carnaval of Goa

A friend remarked a few days following her religious marriage ceremony, that the legal registration of the marriage notwithstanding, were it not for the rituals of the ceremony, she would not have felt married. In making that innocent remark about her wedding, she made a profound point on the importance of ceremonies, rites of passage and festivals in our lives. These rituals are not just meaningless remnants from the past. On the contrary by participating in them, they form us into different beings, give us different personas, sometimes temporarily, in the course of a festival- like the Carnaval; at times permanently, like the wedding ceremony of my friend.

The Carnaval is a great example of the power of the symbolic to transform us. The Carnaval having both pagan and Christian roots performed a vital societal function year after year. It allowed for a period when the normal was suspended and inverted. For five whole days the rules of the everyday were (and are suspended) to allow a general free-for-all normally unthinkable. In allowing for this possibility, not only does it allow for society to blow off steam, but at the same time underlines a single fact. These five days of Carnaval are the exception, not the norm, and it is because of the exception, that the norm is possible. In other words, the justices and injustices of every day life are made possible, primarily because of the existence of Carnaval when the normal is abandoned. It is the exception that proves the rule.

What happens then when the exception is transformed into the norm? Goa offers an excellent example, where the Carnaval that operated as an exception has been made the norm. Year after blessed year the theme of a Carnaval Goa was repeated at the Republic Day parade to the extent that when the definitely serious Film festival was brought to Goa, a second Carnaval was produced to lend an ‘authentic’ ‘Goan’ flavour to the event. The result? Goa is now seen as the land of the eternal Carnaval, where every day of the 365 is a holiday. This may have a certain immediate economic impact in terms of creating Goa as an instant holiday destination, but contemplate the more serious long term economic implications.

Almost a year ago, when I began this column I suggested that the Goa would never be able to develop a serious IT or other industry because of the seriously cultivated image for Goa as a holiday paradise. Imagine my horror when I lived through the following episode. A friend recently retired as CEO of a substantial financial company was offered by one of the larger American animation companies, the option of taking charge of the 20 odd acres of land they held in Goa to set up their Indian base of operations. Their logic was that they would be able to use the Goan environment and lifestyle to attract persons from across India and the globe in setting up their India base of operations. This idea was quickly shot down by this former CEO who pointed out that people go to Goa to relax and unwind. They did not and would not come to work. Two, the Goan is an entirely unreliable individual, given to merrymaking, s/he did not work either. Thus was shot down a very real chance of Goa hosting a serious technology industry thanks to its party image. An image that I am trying to indicate was mistakenly pulled out from being an exception to being the norm. He made another point though that those supporting the IT Parks in Goa should bear in mind. “You could” he told the company “have a centre where you have refresher courses for your employees”. In other words use Goa for what it is best used for, a chill out zone.

Carnaval played another crucial role it created the space and environment for the mob. A mob given to merry-making and not random acts of violence no doubt, but a mob nevertheless. In doing so, it also created the space for civil society, the opposite of the mob, the space for the conscious citizen where matters are discussed and debated.

Contemplate once more the environment created by the Film Festival as crowds and mobs are created through the street fair that is timed with the Film festival. What is the reason for a street carnaval timed at the exact moment of a serious film festival? First it befuddles the mind of the individual into thinking that they are participating in the film festival, when in fact they are doing nothing of the sort. What is being done to them is to dumb them down. The street party offered during the time of the Film festival is better suited to Carnaval time, which is the appropriate moment for the mob. Extending this Carnaval atmosphere to a time that should be devoted to the refinement of one’s aesthetics only serves to disprivilege this entire pursuit through which one broadens ones imagination to participate in public life more effectively.

But perhaps this is the intention of the State. A State that is more inclined to cultivate a mob that it can then unleash when it so requires. An electorate that has been conditioned to see State action as the effective and continuous provision of Carnaval. This could explain the sorry state of Goan politics. Finally the creation of a mob justifies greater State control and intrusion in our lives. With every passing year as the street fair outside grows louder and larger, the security within the Festival goes stricter and stricter. This is not a coincidence. The two exist only because of each other.

There is a time and place for everything we were advised when we were children. One is never too old to reflect on the wisdom of that idiom and perhaps it is not as yet too late to put Carnaval back into its true space and context and in doing so set things right again. Viva Carnaval!
(published in the Gomantak Times, 21 Feb 2007)