Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sand-dunes, Monserrate and You: The story of an aesthetic hijack of our sensibilities

The decision by the CCP to ‘clean’ the sand dunes on the Miramar beach has thankfully been objected to. And it is not as if these objections are merely for the sake of objecting. More than one individual, who clearly know what they are saying, have pointed out that removing the vegetation from the sand dunes will result in their destabilisation, allowing for the sand to be blown away, as has already happened in other parts of Miramar beach.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Atanasio Monserrate has once more been linked with the controversy, resurrecting the possibility of our looking at the issue through the lens of ‘the embodiment of evil’. The ‘embodiment of evil’ however is not a particularly useful lens, since it obscures the larger societal processes at work through the individual who is marked out as evil. What this lens does, is only to create a scapegoat so as to absolve society of the guilt and responsibility of its error. While the sand dune issue may be the result of Mr. Monserrate’s larger urban design project in the Miramar-Caranzalem-Dona Paula stretch, we need to excavate the larger aesthetic reasons for which the CCP and Mr. Monserrate thought of going about the ‘cleaning’ project in the first place. I stress this, because even though Mr. Monserrate is a largely reviled figure, many of his actions, find support and aesthetic approval, not just among the Taleigao under-class, but among the middle classes as well. Understanding the source from which Mr. Monserrate draws his plans, will allow us to understand how much as we may revile Mr. Monserrate, his plans are but the logical result of our collective desires.

The whole idea of the ‘cleaning’ of the dunes is possible only when we look at the natural environment as a garden that can be scaped by human activity. Such a view is not new; people have looked at the natural environment as a garden that they can mould for as long as humankind have been able to use tools. Indeed, scholars tell us that there is in fact nothing ‘natural’ about most of our ‘natural’ environment. Large parts of ‘nature’ are the result of human intervention and their interaction with nature. Not all of this has been necessarily intentional however, a good amount of these impacts being unwitting and unplanned. The problems begin to emerge in the event of two factors being realised. Humankind’s increasing ability to radically change the face of the environment, and secondly when the models for this landscaping are at radical odds with the existing environment.

Making a quick detour let us have a quick look at the urban design Monserrate is systematically laying out on the Miramar beach-face. The whole project is designed to face the ‘natural’ theatre of the mouth of the Mandovi river framed by the Cabo Raj Nivas and the Aguada Fort and the Miramar beach. This ‘picture’ is to be viewed in different ways. From the windows of four-wheeler vehicles zipping along what is effectively a highway; from the pedestrian paths and benches that have been placed on the side of this road; and from the exclusive villas and apartments that have been given permission to rise alongside the road. There can be no doubt that this whole project attempts to articulate an urban design that is appealing to most ‘cultured’ people. No matter how idealistic this project maybe however, there is a problem with it. The problem is that it is entirely the product of an imagination fed by the images from Hollywood, American TV dramas and notions of the West.

These televisual worlds are not ‘real’ worlds, in the sense that they exist nowhere. They are the product of careful editing, so that any object that would disrupt the lyrical beauty of the image is clipped out. Thus in these televisual worlds, we have gardens with lush green lawns, carefully trimmed hedges, white picket fences, sandy dunes, interspersed with a few dry wisps of grass leading to the sea, people who work in immaculate clothes, and people who never really sweat. The impact of continuous viewing is that we assume them to be real, and then try to scape the world around us accordingly.

To emphasise my point that it is not only Monserrate who is the victim of this imagination, let us look at most of the traffic islands and attempts at road beautification in the State or across the country. In a climate where we need shade, and ought to plant trees, we systematically plant either lawns or other water-guzzling flowering plants. We only have to look at cases where governments have tried to beautify a location, and we see evidence of how the televisual notion of the Western domestic garden has colonised our consciousness. It is because the televisual notion of the Western domestic garden is inside our heads, that we constantly see Panchayat and Muncipality workers constantly engaged in ‘weeding’ large expanses of public property. Around my home, every year after the monsoon, the Panchayat systematically cuts down a ‘boram’ tree that has struggled to grow the previous year. Obsessed with ‘weeding’, the Panchayat does not seem to realise that ‘boram’ trees are nature’s way to revive degraded lands. In this case the barren terrain of the Taleigão plateau, destroyed by two decades of real estate development. What is clear from the reasons that CCP has provided about the ‘cleaning’ of the dunes, is that what they are attempting is a weeding of the dunes; replacing bad vegetation, with ‘good’ vegetation. Whether they originally intended this replacement or not is immaterial. What is important is that they were able to provide this reason for their action, indicating the popular legitimacy that the ‘Western garden’ model has for public landscaping.

While there are definitely problems with Monserrate’s vision therefore, we have to give him full marks for trying, and recognise also that what he is attempting to do is within a popular notion of what a civilised and cultured location ought to be. The problem then is not Monserrate’s alone; the problem is a social one, almost universally shared by all of us.

If there is to be a more sustainable saving of Miramar’s sand dunes, or of our landscape, then what we need to engage in is a weeding-out of the notion of the televisual environment, and with it the primacy as a model that the Western domestic garden has achieved. We have to realise that nothing actually lives on TV, the televisual life is a mirage, aspired for but never attained. As for the Western domestic garden, it was the product of a definite class, in a definite time and a definite environment. Riding on the tails of Western imperialism, it has now been transplanted across locations, with great success but often at great cost to the local environment. What we need is to educate ourselves in being able to see (beauty) differently.

As the lyrics of that popular track go, ‘Free your mind, and the rest will follow!’

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 30 Sept 2009)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Faith, Conversion and Practice: On how to convert and not annoy your neighbour

Some time earlier this month, on the 10th of this month to be precise, a rather small news item appeared, that has subsequently not got the attention that it perhaps ought to have. Extracting the news item from The Hindu from where I obtained this report, ‘Churches across Karnataka have come together to form the Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights with the objective of promoting unity among churches, protecting human rights and promoting peace in the community.’ The churches that seem to have become a part of this Forum include a rather venerable list of established churches, and (forgive the expression) strange bed-fellows. The list of member churches extends from ‘The Roman Catholic Church, The CSI Church, The Methodist Church, The Mar Thoma Church, The Jacobite Church, The Believers Church, The Karnataka Baptist Church, The Assemblies of God, The Federation of Christian Churches Organisation, and small historical churches like Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Salvation Army and others’.

The formation of the Forum is one that is very clearly responding to the vicious attacks mounted by Hindutva forces. However the churches have also realized that perhaps not all of the attacks have been without some sort of aggravation. Some inkling of this is provided from the report when it indicates that the ‘the CME resolves not to condemn or denigrate gods and deities of other religions, or elements of tradition held sacred by other communities, both in preaching and publications. “The beauty of our faith is tarnished and not enhanced when we denigrate someone else’s faith,” it said, and added that churches should respect their beliefs and practices, and work together for the common cause of salvation and integrity of human community.’

It is true that among some of the churches, especially the evangelical Christian groups, there is a tendency to denigrate the practice and belief of other faiths, especially in the Indian context, that of Hinduism. Having lived in Bangalore city myself, I can vouch for the kind of embarrassment that ensues when one hears the operation of these Christian groups, denigrating, both in English and Tamil/Kannada, Hindu faith practices. It is true that from time to time this kind of denigration happens within the fold of the Catholic Church as well, but this sort of preaching is however more often than not the exception rather than the norm.

Among the Christian family in India however it must definitely be admitted that the evangelical churches do display a militancy in their quest to harvest souls, that borders on the intolerant and the obscene. The kind of militancy that they show seems to echo that of the Christian fanatics in Islamicate Spain. Needless and annoying, as the Forum has reportedly stated, “our faith is tarnished not enhanced when we denigrate someone else’s faith”.

Regardless of what doctrine may teach us about the singularity of the teachings of the Church, it is not impossible to reconcile our actions towards propagation of the faith with a respect for the faith and faith practices of non-Christians. Reading the works of an Indian social-scientist, who is also Christian, made me realise that the kind of emphasis that the evangelical groups seem to place on conversion is in fact a continuation of a Western-style colonial practice. For those convinced of the uniqueness of Christianity, it would perhaps be worthwhile the exercise to demonstrate through daily practice this uniqueness, rather than denigrate the operation of the faiths of this (or any other) country. To be sure, the presence of other faiths and their practices, inform our mystical encounters with the divine, and to that extent only enhance the practice of our own spiritual traditions.

The central issue that remains however is that of the right to convert. I do not believe that a self-restriction on the manner in which one propagates one’s faith, or even converts people hampers the exercise of one’s right to convert. The question is whether right-leaning Hindu groups and individuals are willing to concede to other religions the right to proselytize at all? Regardless of internal Christian debate on how to exercise one’s right to convert, one often gets the impression that what a number of individuals and groups in India want, is a total freeze on conversion from Hinduism (such as it is) to other denominations. Indeed, it must also be said, that no matter what the statements by these Christian groups, they do not under any circumstances provide an excuse for the kind of violent behaviour that we in the country have been at the receiving end of in the past months.

In Goa the situation with regard to conversions and boisterous Christian groups seems to be rather different. Here, it is the Catholic Church that seems to bear the brunt of pilferage as members of her flock are being picked up, left, right and centre (forgive the apparent political pun, it is entirely unintended!). This sort of pilferage seems to have allowed for individual parish priests to stand mute spectator to the harassment of some of these Christian groups. In addition, it also appears that some of these Christian groups same the same plight as the Muslims of Salcette, who are being denied a right to a burial ground.

Regardless of how odious the operation, practices and beliefs of these Christian groups might be it would make sense for the Catholic hierarchy in the State to come out with an official statement as regards the ideal response at the parish level vis-à-vis these Christian groups. It would make sense not only because one expects a higher standard of right-practice from the Catholic Church but also because it would build a solid foundation for rights practice within the State. In the case where the Catholic Church in Goa is still dominant, it would be shameful to maintain a silence in the face of the many goings-on in the State.

In the Goan situation, it appears that in the face of the Chrisitian in-fighting, a forum like that in Bangalore is not soon going to appear on the horizon and indeed there may, God-willing, no need for such a formal organization. And yet it would be wonderful if the spirit of this group animated all religious groups in their interactions with each other and among themselves.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 23 Sept 2009)

Of Casinos and Tourism: And the poverty of the State, systems and imagination

Living across the waters these days, the rumbles within Goa are heard only as faint whispers and mumbles that nevertheless lead to a strange disquiet within one’s constitution. The recent protests of the casino employees and the re-emergence of the casino question in Goa being one such disquiet inducing whisper.

My first contribution to the casino debate would be to indicate in no uncertain terms that one cannot make the argument that while open to others, Goans (youth or otherwise) should not be allowed into casinos, since this will ruin the values, morals of Goans, as well as destroy the families for reason of the money lost to gambling. To make the distinction that both, some of the anti-casino protestors, as well as the government is making, is to make a paternalist argument. It suggests that the State be put in a position to act as a parent to citizens who are seen as akin to clueless children. This sort of demand from the State is dangerous since this is exactly the kind of demand that allows for a State to pile one such demand upon another, and eventually turn into an authoritarian State. Such a demand sets a dangerous precedent, for once you have given the State to decide what is good and bad, regardless of your personal opinion, what stops the State from subsequently colluding with extremist groups and clamping down on other freedoms of choice? In fact such actions seem to be the hallmark of the Kamat government, who has consistently used the argument of bowing to public pressure, to then clamp down on the exercise of other fundamental rights of expression.

This argument should not be construed as an argument in favour of casino tourism however. It is merely a plea that we realise that if we are serious about living in a democracy respectful of the rights of individuals, we be consistent in our demands both of ourselves, and of the State.

The casino issue allows us to have a look into the entire issue of the development of Goa. While doing so, I’d prefer to understand development in the manner in which Amartya Sen does. The wise old man refers to development as freedom in the sense that development must be seen as the creation of possibilities for the individual to realize oneself. Development is more than projects and employment opportunities, these being only means to a larger end of human fulfillment.

Tourism has been pushed as a major tool for development in Goa. And to an extent, it has helped in the project of emancipation of some segments of Goan society. Until the advent of the tourism industry, large portions of the coastal population were caught in abject poverty and servitude. The tourist boom changed that, to the distaste of most of the upper class persons of the coastal belt. For a first step this was good enough, but how has the tourism industry proceeded beyond that?

By and large any innovation that seems to be happening within the industry seems to be the result of the work of a few talented ‘outsiders’. From the Goan end of the spectrum, there is only the meaningless repetition of a formula that is increasingly pleasing nobody. We have wonderful towns (including in the hinterland, having recently visited Quepem and come away a convert!) and yet what are the cultural events on offer in these locations? Practically nothing! The attempt by the State in this regard seems practically zero. It never fails to amuse me that the depth of our Chief Minister’s suggestions for culture, invariably involves nationalism and patriotism (no doubt his RSS background talking!). On the other hand, culture has come to mean the same old boring commercialization of existing traditions.

What the State has been doing however is to milk the existing natural infrastructure for every drop it has left. Nothing goes back into replenishing the system. Take for example the palm-lined trees that are perhaps Goa’s tourist calling card. With every passing year, and the demise of the communidades, these trees grow, old, wither and die, and there is no effort to replant these trees. One would imagine that safeguarding the aesthetic appeal of the State would be one of the Dept. of Tourism’s priorities. On the other hand investment has meant giving away common property for development to corporate houses, under the pretext of moving to high-quality tourism. High-quality tourism will come however from an input of higher culture into tourism, and none of this is happening.

None of this is surprising because forging new directions falls outside of the majoritarian principles of contemporary politics.

But what does any of this have to do with the fix that the employees in the casinos are facing. My argument is that an investment of the State into the development as freedom would have prevented the employees from having only casinos and the filth that passes off as Goan tourism as an employment option. Cultural revival that would regenerate tourism would come primarily from an investment in larger processes and institutions of dialogue. A system of vibrant public reading rooms for example, offering every kind of media – print, audio and audio-visual - linked to the information highway that is the internet, would have allowed Goans even in the most rural village to gain access to valuable cultural capital. This would have allowed Goan youth to transcend being merely IT coolies, or busboys, into in fact contemplating innovation. This system in place, they wouldn’t be screaming their lungs out that the casinos are the only option they have. Having such an infrastructure, blowing up family cash in the consumption bubbles on the beach belt (why restrict our shock only to casinos?) would not be the attraction that they currently are. There would be different ways to be cool.

In conclusion, what I would like to say is that, we are at this pass, because for a number of years now, rather than build systems, we have been dismantling them to make our pickings easier. Along with all the other systems, the intellectual has also been effectively dismantled to create the lumpen proletariat that will do the bidding of the masters (do you honestly think that the casino employees protested on their own volition?) Why else is the entire debate about casinos revolving around this bizarre notion of Goan-ness? We don’t want Goan values to be corrupted, so don’t let Goans into casinos. We want Goans to be employed so we will ensure that there are casinos. How do we seek to resolve this pickle? “The CM’s main concern has been restricting Goan youth from entering casinos and we have suggested that a mechanism be worked wherein Goan youth may be restricted from entering casinos based on an income criteria.”

Truly this state seems to be turning into the Mad Hatter’s Tea party. I’ll have my tea cold, black and bitter please.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 16 Sept 2009)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dignity and Waste Management: Shifting perspective to accommodate the dignity of the human person

The perspective from which you view your problem substantially changes the solution to the problem. Every point of view, understands the problem differently, and presents a different solution to the problem. Take the case of garbage for example. Like most children from the Gulfie middle-class, my first encounter with what is now called waste-management began with the little symbols on the cover of Wrigley’s Chewing Gum. ‘Keep the countryside clean’ it read, with a stick figure throwing a paper wrapper into a large dust-bin. The appearance of cleanliness, or aesthetics was the perspective from which the issue of garbage or waste was then understood. Keep the countryside looking pretty, and we would be just fine, we were assured.

Clearly however the aesthetic approach to garbage did not resolve the issue. Such a perspective led to the issue of garbage being seen as one of waste-collection. The solution via this perspective on the problem was to put in place a centralized collection system. Once you ensure that everyone puts their waste into the bin, make sure it is collected from the various points in the city. Dumping our waste in dust-bins however, presented us with the formidable dilemma of land-fills. Landfills, as communities across Goa will assure you, create huge heaps of stinking refuse, that often combust spontaneously to fill the air with acrid cancerous smoke. In addition, the effluent generated leaches into the ground water, poisoning it and compromising sustainable access to potable water for generations. And because waste in landfills does not degrade, the amount of land required for landfills is limitless. One of the responses to the problem of landfills was to reduce the waste going into the dump. Realizing that one person’s waste is another’s resource, moves were made to segregate the bio-degradable food wastes, from the synthetic wastes like plastics, glass and metal. Such a resolution of the issue however presents its own issues. The sorting or segregation of waste is not necessarily done by the producer of this waste, since it is often argued that it can be achieved at the land-fill site itself, using chemical procedures to degrade the biological wastes.

What all of these resolutions have in common however, is the ubiquitous garbage collection truck, marked by the stink that comes with collecting mixed and rotten waste from households and commercial establishments.

The perceptive will have realized by now that an otherwise central figure is entirely absent from the descriptions of the garbage issue. That figure would be the figure of the human person. This absence is not surprising however, given that the problem has been framed in terms of ‘waste-management’, the human has been almost eliminated from the scene. They have no role in the equation except as producers of the waste. As such, they must only be educated to follow the appropriate procedure of either dumping waste in a bin (and not all over the countryside), or segregating the waste in appropriate bins. These actions end their role in the process. This is not a particularly comfortable location for the human being though, since this process in fact dehumanizes them, making them only cogs in a larger mechanical process.

Introducing the human element into the process of dealing with waste would radically alter the manner in which we view the problem of waste. It would also ensure a more effective way of dealing with the waste we generate. As suggested earlier, introducing the human element is not merely indicating the role that human beings have to play in the process. Introducing the human element would involve placing the dignity of the human being at the centre of our perspective and our resolution of an issue.

In the case of dealing with the waste we produce, a recognition of the dignity of the human person would involve a recognition that our actions of not segregating wastes, or providing rotting wastes to the sanitation worker is an affront to their dignity. In most of our municipalities, being forced behind the garbage truck is a nightmare. If forced behind it, we pull out our kerchiefs or hold our breath. Imagine now the condition of the person spending a good amount of his life within the truck, often time without gloves, or boots, or a mask to prevent him gagging on the smells? Invoking the dignity of the human person involves recognizing their right to a dignified working environment. This move takes us beyond the arguments for and against segregating waste at source. It is now no longer a matter of convenience or organizational success, it is a matter of our bounden obligation to another human being.

Invoking dignity ensures however that we move beyond uni-directional ‘giving’ of dignity, toward placing ourselves in a dialogical relationship with the object of our giving. Thus not only do we segregate waste at source, we also accept a situation where the sanitation worker instructs us in the ideal participation in the system. Such an experiment was conducted in some wards of Bangalore city some years ago, where municipality workers went from door to door of the ward, explained the workings of the system, and after a trial run, would refuse to clear garbage that wasn’t segregated. To the credit of Clinton Vaz and those involved in the waste segregation initiative, a similar principle was adopted in the Panjim Municipality. However, such initiatives also require the backing of the law. Where a citizen refuses to cooperate with the sanitation worker, not only must their waste not be cleared, but a suitable penalty imposed on them, one that can be levied through the municipality worker in that ward.

Invariably though we shirk from enforcing such systems. They stand to upset the existing social (and moral) order which is built on a failure to recognize the dignity of the individual. Placing the power to fine in a supervisor or a higher power, allows for interventions to protect the sensitivities of well-placed folk. Perhaps this is another reason why, despite loud cries for its implementation, the decentralization of governmental power to the panchayats and in particular the gram sabhas, has not been realized in our State and in others. The empowerment of the sanitation worker and the empowerment of the gram sabhas operate on similar principles of decentralization. The recognition of the principle of decentralization of power, must necessarily be accompanied by the social recognition of the principle of the dignity of the individual. The failure to do so would, in the words of a friend turn, our gram sabhas into garam sabhas!

To return to the issue of waste and our relationship to it; intervening from a position that recognizes the dignity of the individual promises to radically renew our waste management initiatives. It would highlight our moral burden to not push a member of our community (sanitation workers, rag pickers) into an undignified work environment, allow for a greater articulation of equality within our society, and allow for dialogical resolution of many more issues than merely the issue of waste.

In the end, perspectives and the words we use to understand an issue make all the difference!

(Published in the Gomantak Times 9 Sept 2009)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Closing the Doors to Democracy, Opening them to Tyranny: Responding to the Thomas-Faleiro Arguments – Part 2

In the initial part of this phased response, I had suggested that the Thomas-Faleiro argument represented both an opening up and a closure. The argument operates to prise open domains, currently under the traditional leadership of the Catholic communities, to the State. In this concluding portion of the response, I would like to suggest that the opening up is especially dangerous for the simultaneous closures that such a move would result in.

Allowing us to see this closure as a movement akin to suffocation, we should not forget that the suggestion for a State law regulating Church properties first emerged in the distinctly hostile (towards religious minorities) State of Madhya Pradesh, and Kerala where the Church has a major clout through its moral power in political history.

The initial attempts in these states now seem to have led to a nation-wide attempt to regulate the management of Church assets. This move is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it repeats the primary mistake of the Indian polity, which is to see people as comprising essentially of monolithic religious groups, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth, since these communities are fractured by class, caste, language and many other factors. In the case of the Catholics, for sure there is no such thing as a uniform Indian Catholic. In Goa, despite our best beliefs, the Church is in reality fractured along lines of caste, class and language. While the erasure of these differences is necessary if a State is to create a monolithic ‘community’ over which it will legislate a uniform law, this action not only lays the ground for the communalism that this country suffers from, but also for the suppression of marginal and subaltern voices within these ‘communities’. The creation of the monolithic identity, leads to a closing of spaces for internal dissent and reform within these ‘communities’, empowering conservative tendencies within them. Take a look at the Muslims in the country, where progressively over time, the space for internal dissent and reform has been quashed given that conservative clerical groups are recognized as leaders of the community. Within the Catholic faith, it would in fact be the Clerical hierarchy that would see eye-to-eye with the Indian State (and its minions) on the matter of consolidating the community (even as it would oppose any control over its functioning). The former are congenitally blinded to this complex social reality, since they are committed to the spiritual fiction of being one united (and Catholic) Church. And yet this is not social reality, which is marked by numerous dissensions and divisions.

There is without doubt a need for greater transparency and accountability in the management of Church properties. I also agree that this management must be in conformance with Constitutional principles. The issue on which I differ however is that of the means of implementing this agenda. It is precisely because of its colonial heritage that Goa has a social and cultural infrastructure that allows for the radical realization of democracy through decentralization. The Portuguese structured colonial power in Goa through the recognition of the powers of villages to regulate village economies. The Church followed a similar pattern, leading to each village contributing its properties to erect and maintain the village church, establishing a trust, the Fabrica, to control these properties. Like the Communidades however, these Fabricas too were by and large controlled by the gãocars, village elites, often from the dominant families and castes of the village. When one speaks of Church property today therefore, one refers to not just property of the Bishop (as representative head of the Diocese) but properties of a plethora of individual churches who hold these properties as autonomous owners.

Religion is not merely a disciplining of the soul, but a disciplining of material practices as well. The Bishop exerts therefore a disciplining control over these Fabricas and their material transactions. To manage these affairs, the Catholic diocese in Goa has already got in place a management system that allows for decentralized control. This management system is regulated by a written (and published) Code. This Code refers to the provisions of Canon Law and shares in spirit and procedures the form of State Law. We should remember that Canon Law and State Law both have common roots in Roman law and are siblings in many aspects. The bases on which they depart, are the sources of power that ensure their continuity. The power for one is the power of the State, the other that of the Tradition and moral weight of the Catholic Church. A significant feature of the current code that governs the Fabricas is to liberate these bodies from the control that dominant castes in the villages had in the days of the Portuguese. The properties of village churches is now returned to the spirit of early times, and held by the community of the faithful together, represented by the local Parish Council. Nothing could be closer to the spirit of the Constitutional values of equality, accountability and transparency.

As should be obvious by now, a realization of the Thomas-Faleiro formula would ensure a closure at all of the levels above, laying the foundation for greater communalism, encourage conservative leadership, and smooth over the nuances of local history and in this process close the plural legal spaces that exist at the Catholic grass-roots, allowing for vesting of absolute power in the State. Absolute power as we know, corrupts absolutely.

Rather than this route therefore, what we require now is, in the presence of the Code, located within a venerable body of Canon law; the engineering of a grass-roots constitutionalism that will allow members of the parish to demand and realise greater accountability. Grass-roots constitutionalism being the fomenting and realization of Constitutional values within grassroots institutions. In short, while we need a reform of the management of Church properties, we should be clear that it is one that strengthens the laity, not the hierarchy and the State at the expense of laity. To pose again the question asked at the presentation of the Thomas-Faleiro argument, whose property are we saving, and from whom?

There are many of us in Goa who have pledged our strength to the movement for greater decentralization and democratization of power in the State. This battle with the State is necessarily part of one within Society as well. It cannot be therefore, that we argue for greater decentralization on the one hand (an opening up), and argue for centralization (a closure) on the other. Such an argument is logically fallacious, socially disastrous and opens the doors to tyranny of the State.

Thomas and Faleiro would do better to engineer their movement toward a strengthening of, rather than the closure of proto-democratic decentralized spaces that they are attempting. Their actions are in fact the result of out-dated legal understandings of society, designed further the imperial interests of the Indian State (and its beneficiary class) at the risk of doing great damage to the health of the Constitutional experiment that is our Republic. No, the Thomas-Faleiro proposals as they stand are not in the best interest of the average lay Catholic and should be opposed by any sensible mind, Catholic or otherwise.

(Published in the Herald, Opinionated, 4 Sept 2009)

Splitting open the Goose that lays the Golden Eggs: Responding to the Thomas-Faleiro Arguments - I

Some weeks ago, Eduardo Faleiro roped in the former Justice K. T. Thomas to create the context for a demand for State law to supervise management of Church properties. This two part response to what I call the Thomas-Faleiro argument seeks to complicate the uni-dimensional vision of Justice Thomas, suggest the real reasons for their arguments and argue, invoking the idea of legal pluralism, that what we need is not more institutions and law, but an effective spread of grass-roots constitutionalism.

As with any mechanism, there are at least two ways to engage with the law. One is the method of the mechanic. She will be able to repair a machine, but may possibly be hard-pressed to introduce innovations, or contribute to a further evolution of the mechanism. The engineer on the other hand, is able to resolve this latter lack, intervening in the operation of the mechanism to introduce innovations and also predict the kind of impacts that such innovations would possibly have. In the case of the law, this distinction between the mechanic and the engineer is represented through the distinction between the lawyer and the sociologically-sensitive jurist. The argument of the former Justice K. T. Thomas on the need for a law regulating the assets of Christian Churches in India, represents that of the mechanic. It is the view of a mechanic of the law because it looks merely at the dry letter of the law, ill-illumined by an understanding of juristic notions of ‘Law’ as well as socio-legal realities. It is with this recognition that I would like to delve into a response to the Honourable Justice’s thoughts as well as those of the leader of the enterprise, Eduardo Faleiro. (And let us dispense with the fiction that this initiative was led by the AICU)

The thoughts of Justice K. T. Thomas as expressed in the text of his lecture represent both an opening and a closure. The opening that he presents is that for the Indian State. What Thomas and Faleiro seek to do is to extend the power, and the control of the Indian state over properties of the Church. This opening, I will argue, is potentially tyrannical, since it would lead to a closing of democratic spaces of dissent and control, as well as lead to an impoverishment of our notion of what Law, legality and legal spaces mean. In this sense, the closing that the Faleiro-Thomas maneuver represents is the closing of the multiple legal spaces that exist outside of the legal structures of the State, a closing of the democratic option.

Thanks to being educated largely by Statist theories, most of us are under the firm impression that law can be the product only of the State, and that the spaces of law are only those of the judiciary and the legislature. The fact is however, that our social condition is marked not by a legal monism, but by a legal pluralism. Law and legality abound in various social locations, and State law is just one among these legalities. The modern State has however, since its very inception, attempted to snuff out the life of these legal spaces and the legalities that they produce. Justice Thomas is not unaware of this when in discussing the case of the Church, he cites the Canon law that regulates the operation of the Church. There may be problems with this law, in that it tends to be hierarchical and outside of the realm of the common person, but this is not Justice Thomas’ main concern. This is not his concern since State law shares both these features. His intentions as already expressed above, are to get the operation of this law, and the Church, firmly placed under the law and sovereignty of the State.

To justify this extension of the powers of the State, Thomas suggests that no person or institution can be, or should be outside of the jurisdiction of the Constitution of the State. This is a valid point; constitutional values are the values that provide the bed-rock for governing public morality. Social values may choose to conflict with these constitutional values, but in the course of contestation, they must bow to constitutional values. And yet, Thomas, typically for a lawyer, fails to grasp a crucial distinction; that it is Constitutional values that must proliferate through the Republic of India, not necessarily the legal structures of the State. Such a (State) institution heavy approach, in fact subverts the Constitutional project, rather than enhances it.

Entrenched in his belief in State law Thomas suggests that judicial review is the best and only appropriate form of regulation of the use of Church property. This is, to be sure, a rather naïve suggestion, since it is common knowledge, both to social scientists who study the operation of the Indian judicial system, and the lay person, that the Indian judicial system is the in fact the forum of last resort for any party seeking to genuinely resolve a dispute. The Indian judicial system is in fact a forum utilized primarily by the ‘men with long pockets’; to maintain the status quo, to harass one’s opponent, and delay the eventual resolution of the dispute. In addition, we should recognize that disputes within the Church’s bodies, can already be taken up in a Court of law.

In support of his argument, Thomas refers to the Waqf Act where Muslim charitable properties are monitored by a Government appointed committee. A comparative anecdote in this regards would help us understand the situation a little more clearly. Some time last year, the Goan Muslim community was approached with the suggestion that they too adopt the Waqf (Islamic trust) model for properties held by their religious institutions. The suggestion was stiffly contested, and not only because the managers of these properties wanted to appropriate funds for themselves. On the contrary, there was once more the similar fear expressed of what would giving control to the Government mean for both the community and the institutions? This fear was, in my opinion, well placed. If the Government appoints persons to monitor the operation of Church or Waqf properties, what sort of people would it appoint? Experience suggests that they would appoint those members of the community who are willing to play ball with the political elites that control the Government. What these institutions do therefore, is to extend the power of political elites (like Faleiro and Thomas) over a ‘community’ and their properties. In the case of Goa, the implications of such a capture of power are more than obvious. Real-estate development has already become the primary economic resource for political elites in Goa. Where Church properties are being misappropriated today, the misappropriation in most cases is more diffused. Centralising control, as suggested by Thomas-Faleiro would allow for larger players to benefit, and cut out the small players who currently benefit, if at all. Are Thomas-Faleiro proposing a case of jumping ‘from the frying pan into the fire’?

More crucially though, to return to the idea with which I began this response, and to conclude this portion of the response, the suggestion to place Church properties under Governmental control represents not merely an opening up, but a prising open.. The Thomas-Faleiro argument is no well-intentioned selfless argument for the good of all concerned. It is the attempt of ‘secular’ elites firmly entwined with the State, attempting to break the control and power of the traditional elite within the Catholic Church and bring the Catholic community firmly under the imperial umbrella of the Indian State. Internal sovereignty has no other meaning other than this, the destruction of pluralism, in favour of the total control by the State. Further, it is not insignificant fact that both Faleiro and Thomas belong to this imperial national elite. In the following portion of this response, I will argue in what manner this prising-open for the State in fact represents an anti-democratic, totalitarian tendency, leading to the closure of pluralism in State and society.

(Published in the Herald, Opinionated, 3 Sep 2009)

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Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Life and the Road: Celebrating the life-affirming principles of India’s streets

Speak with the expatriate white folk living in India, an NRI, or similar people, and you will invariably hear an unending litany of complaints about the state of our roads and the manner in which people drive. The situation is described as uncivilized; chaotic, annoying, life-threatening and deadly. And indeed, from time to time it may be. India does have a rather high level of deaths from road accidents. Figures suggest that almost one Goan dies every day on Goan roads, no insignificant figure. I would however, like to present an alternate view of our roads and notions of transport by contrasting two perspectives. The first is one that sees roads and transportation from what I would call a life-affirming perspective, the other the death perspective.

The thoughts expressed in this column occurred to me as I drove through Panjim city, an unwilling occupant of a Tata Safari. Hulking above all of the other traffic in the city, the driver sitting next to me was impatient to unleash the power of the vehicle on the road. Unfortunately, the rest of the universe seemed to conspire against him. People crossed the road, cycles meandered from one lane to another, other vehicles wove in and out of lanes. Life in all its manifestations was spilling out onto the streets interrupting the realization of his dream of smooth and speedy traffic. Slowly negotiating through the crowds was not an option, a speedy movement away was the goal.

What we have here is exactly the conflict between the life affirming perspective and that of death. One perspective seeks the roads as the space to make connections; commercial, social, even amorous. It stresses connectivity, and asserts that time is not of essence. On the contrary, a surfeit of time works to cement these connections. In this happy street scenario, the driver too is invited to participate; smiling, squabbling even, encouraging an obstruction out of his way. Moving, but always engaging as he does so.

The dominant logic regarding roads however sees roads as potential highways. In doing so, it unfortunately asserts a logic of disconnection. Roll up your glasses, block out the external environment, (don’t forget to turn on the AC!) and move speedily from one point to another. The road is the space to indicate your power, and the vehicle and its speed the manner to indicate it. To be sure, if the driver of the Safari bought the death perspective, it was not the driver to blame, but the situation that he found himself while sitting behind that driver’s wheel. The machine is constructed to push life aside and head resolutely towards its destination. We are encouraged through so many mechanisms – advertisements being one major force – to understand all roads as highways. Vehicles and transport are to be understood primarily in this manner. It is little wonder then, that we have so many deaths on our roads. The roads have been constructed to kill, not just physically, but socially, culturally and economically as well.

We should remember the international origins of the modern highway lie in the history of the German autobahn. Wide and smooth, they were built to facilitate automobile travel and to exclude older forms of travel. Though embraced by the Nazi administration, the dream of the autobahn seduced all of the industrial world, since it promised the realization of the industrial dream. In this dream everything (including humans) were seen as machines, worthy of existence only if they could produce to feed the economy. Habitations were seen as production centres where humans worked as machines, or tended machines that produced. Roads connected one production centre to another, and the landscape, no matter how challenging, was to be domesticated to aid this larger project of production (and consumption). The fervour with which the industrial world embraced the idea of the highway suggests to us that the fascist dictatorships of Europe were only the more pernicious forms of industrial society. There is something terribly wrong with the industrial model itself that demands the death of social relations, and shoves aside the slow and the weak. This internal logic is made manifest for us to read through the design of highways and the manner we are urged to consider all roads, highways.

For those familiar with the grand highways of Europe and the US, you will know that there is no life around these highways. Indeed the life that dares enter these zones winds up dead, as roadkill. The commerce on the highway is in the form of the anonymous hospitality of corporate chains, serving uniform, unhealthy food. There is a pattern here we must not miss.

In India on the other hand, as so many of these Europeans tell us, we don’t have highways. We don’t have highways since life in all its glory explodes onto these zones and domesticates these potentially cold, anonymous, dignity-denying spaces. The accidents that we see on Indian roads are the result of the inevitable conflict between these two perspectives. It is a conflict between those that affirm life, and those that have decided to run over it. The accidents are also the logical result of the death perspective, that is built on a negation of human values and of human unpredictability. When human error does manifest itself on these highways, or even roads polluted by the autobahn logic, the number of deaths are catastrophic. These deaths are the most evident cost of the industrial common sense that insists on a machine existence.

From within the death affirming principle of industrialism, surely our roads are a huge mess and a death trap. However, if we embrace the life-affirming perspective it is possible that we would begin to see roads, vehicles and travel from an entirely different point of view! Civilization at the end of the day needs to be geared toward the recognition of life, not its negation.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 2nd Sept 2009)