Category Archives: opinion

Happy Birthday, Mr Commissioner

Published in Mumbai Mirror as “Happy Birthday, Mr MC” on 2 July 2015.

It is a year of missed anniversaries in Mumbai. The downpour which shut down the city on 19 June 2015 not only forced the Shiv Sena to cancel its Golden Jubilee celebrations, but to answer for more than two decades running a municipality larger than many state governments. While the ruling party must indeed be held to account, another, much older, anniversary that passed unnoticed should help explain why India’s oldest and wealthiest civic body remains such a mess. In 150 years there has been hardly any structural change in the institutions of municipal government in Mumbai.

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हॅपी बर्थडे, मिस्टर कमिशनर! | शेखर कृष्णन

Marathi translation by Avadhoot of “Happy Birthday, Mr MC” originally published in Mumbai Mirror on 2 July 2015. 

मुंबईसाठी हे वर्ष वर्धापनदिन, जयंती वगैरेंसारखे अनेक दिवस चुकवणारं ठरलं. १९ जून २०१५ रोजी झालेल्या पावसाने शहर बंद पाडलं आणि शिवसेनेला आपला सुवर्ण महोत्सवी समारंभ रद्द करावा लागला. कित्येक राज्य सरकारांपेक्षाही मोठ्या असलेल्या इथल्या महानगरपालिकेवर गेली दोन दशकं शिवसेनेचीच सत्ता होती, त्यामुळे पावसाने शहर बंद पडल्यावर पक्षाला अनेक प्रश्नांनाही सामोरं जावं लागलं. भारतातील ही सर्वांत जुनी महानगरपालिका एवढ्या अनागोंदीमध्ये का आहे, याचं एक उत्तर सत्ताधारी पक्षाच्या अकार्यक्षमतेमध्ये आहेच, पण त्याहूनही तपशीलवार उत्तर हवं असल्यास विस्मरणात गेलेल्या एका जयंती दिवसाची दखल घ्यावी लागेल. मुंबईच्या महानगरपालिका प्रशासनातील विभागांमध्ये गेल्या दीडशे वर्षांत क्वचित रचनात्मक बदल झालेले आहेत.

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Seize the DP, Don’t Scrap It

Published in Mumbai Mirror as “Don’t Scrap the DP, Seize It” on 22 April 2015.

The first draft of the 2014-2034 Development Rules and Plan for Greater Mumbai were published online and in print by the BMC three months ago. Since then, an apparent profusion of errors has proved its undoing – many of which were themselves mis-reported. At first the media exposed some genuine but minor bloopers, which the BMC quickly corrected. But soon news came daily, and in the rush to outdo each other, editors failed to verify the alleged mis-marking of roads proposed through building societies, vanished heritage buildings, and commercial and residential zoning. Reporters did not seem to know that the BMC has limited planning authority in areas under the Collector, MMRDA or MbPT. Headlines were based on misunderstandings of terms like “permissible use”, “public purpose”, and the difference between “R-C” and “C-R”.

While technocratic lingo is not easily decoded, the BMC should have intervened more in the media, especially after journalists abandoned their responsibility to check the DP before reporting “errors”. They could have pointed out that many of these roads were already proposed in DP 1991 but never built, that Banganga and GPO were never shown as hospitals, and that Azad Maidan Police Station is indeed inside the Esplanade Court. Instead they issued a gag order to their planners. In the meantime, some Corporators proudly claimed that they opposed the draft DP from the moment it was published by their own agency, the BMC. Our elected representatives should have instead taken part in its preparation from the time they were elected in 2012, when land-use mapping for DP 2034 began.

The media and political uproar was welcome in some ways. Until recently, hardly anyone who was not an architect or engineer knew what the DP was. Most citizens will still have not seen their local sheet of DP 1991, by which we may remain governed for years to come. What is sad is that while the urban planning process has now been irreversibly democratised, nobody now wants to own the next DP. NGOs who had organised public consultations with the BMC in 2013-4 to demystify the planning process and input on the draft have since opposed it. When last week the BMC claimed that the few thousand complaints received until then were not enough to justify “dumping” the DP, a few shifted to attack mode, engulfing the BMC with objections to force the CM’s hand.

The DP’s “scrapping” is being hailed across the ideological spectrum from political parties to heritage activists, builders to environmentalists. Their political victory is an economic disaster for the city. Until a new DP is drafted, accepted and framed, Greater Mumbai remains governed by DP 1991, a tattered patchwork of rules and policies first conceived more than thirty years ago. It is this policy framework that sustains the city’s famous builder-politician nexus. With no new DP, housing redevelopment across Mumbai – in the lurch for years – will remain stalled, while projects such as the coastal road, Metro 2 and 3 (including the symbolic car shed at Aarey) and opening up NDZs will now be implemented without reference to any wider design and planning considerations. This is a policy vacuum which even the most ardent free-marketeer would abhor, and is no reason to celebrate.

Why You Should Download the Mumbai Development Plan Today

Mumbai's New Development Plan? Cartoon by Raj Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), February-March 2015
Mumbai’s New Development Plan? Cartoon by Raj Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), February-March 2015

The publication of the proposed Greater Mumbai Development Plan for 2034 over the past month has seen a rare coalition emerge to condemn it, from NGOs and political parties, to celebrities and artistes, and in the past week even the BMC’s own Heritage Conservation Committee. Aggrieved residents and alert activists are seeing dark conspiraces in the details of road alignments, land use reservations, and hikes in FSI (Floor Space Index) across the city. While high FSI has become central to the debate on DP 2034, what matters most for Mumbaikars is how policies like FSI, TDR (Transferable Development Rights) and other Development Control Rules (DCR) can be harnessed to create greater public goods and a better urban environment in the next twenty years.

Portrayed from Left to Right as a sell-out to the construction industry, DP 2034 is in fact a paper template, referred to when permissions are sought for development or redevelopment. Together with the DCR, they define the guidelines and recipe book of policies by which land use, building, zoning, amenities and infrastructure are regulated. DP 2034 will only be the third for Greater Mumbai. The first DP was proposed in 1964 and sanctioned in 1967 for a decade until 1977. It was a broad land use plan, a response by engineers and planners who were horrified by the Island City’s runaway population growth and industrial concentration, even after the annexation of the suburbs to Greater Bombay in the fifties, and the statehood of Maharashtra in the sixties.

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Friends (Almost) Lost

The attacks on Mumbai have stirred memories of friends lost, and almost lost, to terrorism in South Asia. I will never forget the morning in 2002 that I strolled down to my paper-wala’s newstand in Dadar and saw the horrific photo of Danny Pearl in a track suit with a gun to his head, on the front page of Mid-Day. I had just met Danny at a party a few days before he left for Karachi, where he was later kidnapped and killed. He and his wife Marianne were a beautiful couple and the toast of Mumbai’s journo scene — and the Wall Street Journal bureau in Mumbai remains the best foreign press outlet in the city. Marianne, a film-maker by training, worked with students at Wilson College produce a film on Bombay’s historical Irani cafes called Aur Iraani Chai in 2001-2002 in the Neighbourhood Project. You can see the short film made with her inspiration and guidance on YouTube. Their apartment in Malabar Hill was the scene of many wonderful evenings where Danny would play his violin and Marianne would dance into the night with journalists, writers and hangers-on of Bombay’s dotcom boom years.

Several years later, I was in Mumbai on 11 July 2006 — exactly one year before I got married — when a series of bombs went off at rush hour in the packed trains of the Western Railway. I was, in fact, waiting for a train at Dadar Station, travelling in the other direction, to Victoria Terminus (site of the recent attacks by gunmen). I learned weeks later that A.G. Bapat, engineer and manager of the National Textile Corporation in Mumbai, was killed on one of the bombed trains travelling to his home in the suburb of Kandivali. Mr Bapat was a friendly public sector official in the bankrupt NTC, the government company formed by the takeover of half of Mumbai’s failing inner-city textile mills in the seventies. NTC was one of the city’s biggest land-holders, and behind their mammoth compound walls and factory gates lie the crumbling treasures of Mumbai’s 19th century industrial architecture. I spent a year from 2002-2003 photographing several of these mills with the help of Mr Bapat, who was eager to support a proposal we developed for an Industrial Museum in one of the closed mills. This never materialized, and many of Mumbai’s grandest Victorian mills have been torn down in the past three years. See the photo albums in the collection Mills of Mumbai and the individual albums for Tata Mills, India United Mills no.1, Kohinoor Mills no.1-2, and the most remarkable, Elphinstone Mills, which was sold and demolished two years ago. Thanks again, Bapat Saheb, for all your help.

Another friend and colleague whom I surely thought lost in a 2005 attack in Bangalore was the brilliant scientist and entrepreneur Dr Vijay Chandru. Chandru, as he is known to everyone, was one of the inventors of the Simputer, a visionary open source hand-held computer for agrarian and rural uses in India. He now manages Strand Genomics. His wife Uma and I worked together at the Srishti School in Bangalore, where I was a part-time consultant. Chandru was sprayed with automatic gunfire at close range in a daylight attack on the auditorium where he was attending a conference, across the street from the leafy canteen at the Indian Institute of Science, where I had lunch as I stayed nearby. Much like my beloved Cafe Leopold, the Iraani cafe in Mumbai which was attacked by gunmen last week, the canteen and auditorium was open to the street. Chandru’s arms and torso were hit hard by an AK-47 shot from this street. I was not in Bangalore then, but learned on the news he had somehow survived the attack. Miraculously, less than a year later, I sat across the table from him in the Stata Center here at MIT, where he spent an hour describing his surgery and recovery at Mass General Hospital, where he has come to be treated by a renowned surgeon, Jesse Jupiter. He had already regained control of his arms and was walking, and was working at MIT LIDS.

Bombay is Still Burning

The attacks on Mumbai are unbelievably gruesome and at this point hard to comprehend. I am not there right now, and am writing from faraway. I was quickly able to (recursively) account for all my friends and family with a single message “are you safe?” sent to all my loved ones in Mumbai. Everyone is. Thank you, all, for asking.

The nature of this attack is globally unprecedented. This is not even like 9/11 — it has lasted three days,11/26-11/28, and is still not over. The first news I heard on Wednesday afternoon, was of gunmen opening fire with automatic weapons and throwing grenades in Victoria Terminus at rush hour. This immediately reminded me The last time something like this happened was July 11 2006, or 7/11, when I was on the railway platform in rush hour at Dadar, and the overhead electric lines suddenly popped and the station went dark. After learning of bomb blasts up the line at Matunga Road, I walked home amidsty an enormous jam of vehicles, as all the train commuters emerged onto the streets. It was only when I came home that I learned what had happened. Bombs had gone off all over the line, killing and injuring hundreds of train commuters.

The signature of 7/11 and terrorism in Mumbai were their attacks on the city’s vital arteries, its train and bus network, where most Mumbaikars spend hours everyday together.The nature of the targets is very different from previous terrorism such as 7/11 or the bus bombs, or at least the news coverage here would have us believe. While its sister station in India, Channel 7-IBN, is leading in their coverage in Mumbai, CNN here has focussed largely on the shootout and hostage situations Taj and Oberoi hotels. The dramatic photos of the Taj Hotel dome draped in smoke and flames on today’s New York Times front page has already become the signature image of the Mumbai attacks.

There are other ways in which these attacks are remarkable, and different. The attackers apparently arrived by sea, landing in the very heart of the Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command in Colaba, in the Sassoon Docks, where a busy traffic of fishing boats, country craft, and small vessels land everyday from Bombay Harbour. There’s been a lot of news recently about piracy in the Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, where the Indian Navy allegedly sunk a pirate “mother ship” last week. In signs of the hyperbolic tendencies of Indian journalists, there were reports yesterday of a terrorist “mother ship” detained off Gujarat, a Pakistani merchant vessel.

While images of mother ships in the high seas of the western Indian Ocean might be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that strategically, an arc of coastal states from Aden to Muscat, Dubai and Karachi are key nodes in a region where Bombay has been the largest coastal city. The Taj and Oberoi hotels are perched at the very southern tip of Mumbai’s Island City. And while these hotels — and Nariman House — are located in one of Mumbai’s most posh central business districts, at their feet and edges cling crowded colonies of fisherfolk and slum-dwellers who regularly venture out to the seas. These attacks were a brazen assault on some of the key symbols of the financial, military and commercial architecture of Mumbai, and its role as a regional and global capital. But anyone who has walked the streets of Colaba or Cuffe Parade can tell you that this regional command and control centre has feet of clay

Here in the US, the attack has coincided with the Thanksgiving holidays, when many families are at home glued to their many plasmas, tubes, and flat screens. The coverage here is banal at best, parachute correspondents or terrorism experts who know little about India, using the famous backdrop of the Taj Mahal hotel — now exploding, now on fire, now duck they’re shooting. For once I wish I could watch Rajdeep Sardesai shouting his way through the crowds, or even my buddy Sreenivasan Jain on NDTV. While I am not in Mumbai today, all Mumbaikars are part of a real-time news space that is following events as they unfold. Some of the more amazing moments so far have been the top cops shot as they let down their guard outside Metro Cinema, NSG commandos landing by chopper at Nariman House and storming their way in. Stay safe friends, and pray it is all over very soon.

EndNote sues Zotero

The most dramatic thing I almost missed due to my back problem at the start of this semester was EndNote suing Zotero. Well, actually, it was Thomson Scientific suing George Mason University (GMU), home of the Center for History and New Media — for whom I worked as an evangelist and project associate from 2007-2008 with Zotero. It’s been more than two months now since the assembled forces of darkness attacked Zotero, a free add-on for Mozilla Firefox to capture and manage citations, produce bibliographies, and navigate the research web.

While the web has dramatically transformed our access, the primary currency of academic knowledge production remains citations to other works. Prolific footnotes and generous bibliographies are the bread crumbs through which we can account for our own thoughts as researchers. In many ways, the web betrays its academic origins through the same logic of citation, which was buit into the basic structure of the web through its logic of links between pages and sites. Unlike EndNote, a fat desktop application, Zotero works inside the browser as an aid for storing, mixing and sharing citations to books, journals, web pages and media for reference, much like index cards, comments scrawled in margins, and lists and notes worked for an earlier generation researchers (and plenty of people today).

Thomson’s main complaint that Zotero “reverse-engineered” EndNote’s proprietary .ens format in a beta version, and are therefore in breach of their site license for EndNote. They are claiming damages of ten million dollars for the allegedly unauthorized distribution of this bit of EndNote inside Zotero. The Citizen Media Law Project run by Sam at the Berkman has the best single page on the EndNote Zotero suit, from their legal threats database, with a round-up of the key news items and blog posts on the lawsuit. See in particular Thomson Reuter’s original complaint filed in the Virginia State Court, the response by George Mason University in defense of interoperability.

This blog post summarizes and satirizes the legal claims, and this one analyzes the license violation in light of earlier state rulings. They are seeking damages from Zotero on the basis of a violation of GMU’s user license, and not on the basis of copyright, and the claim is peculiar. Those familiar with sharing citation styles knows that there is not much that needs reverse-engineering. Until very recently, we lacked even a basic markup language for sharing bibliographic data on the web. Then there was CSL, a creation of geographer and frustrated EndNote user Bruce D’Arcus whose simple scheme rapidly proliferated hundreds of citation styles in a matter of a few months, and which became Zotero’s native format for expressing citation styles. This was not reverse engineering, but rather open source development, where one person’s scratch can relieve thousands of itches.

GMU is a public institution supported by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and EndNote’s vendor, Thomson Scientific, is owned by Reuters. With such big names about to go to court the stakes are quite high for all casual and professional users of the web for any kind of systematic research. As an alumni of the Zotero team and doctoral student at MIT, it was gratifying to have friends in the free software community respond to the lawsuit. Mako was an early supporter (see the talk on Zotero he gave in my place at Wikimania). MacKenzie Smith at MIT Libraries summarizes the issues and gives an endorsement of Zotero in her blog post and her podcast. Also see legal expert Danny Weitzner‘s blog post, where he describes the suit as a legal strategy by a large software firm to restrict data interoperability on the web.

With a little help from these friends, as well as Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center now representing GMU pro-bono in the state court, the outcome will be interesting. Free software and open standards are quickly kicking the stools out from underneath the mess of clunky and expensive proprietary tools which made up the researcher’s basic software stack, though we have a long way to go. With integrated tools like Zotero, Firefox, and OpenOffice, the circle has already been completed between the research web and the writer’s desktop.

Obama’s Desi Geek

The Obama transition team this week announced that Sonal Shah has been selected to work on technology policy for the new administration (CNet News). Shah, an investment banker and public policy professional, is prominent within the Indian-American community not only for her work in Goldman-Sachs and the Google Foundation, but as a fund-raiser and community organizer for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, a well-known Hindu Right hate group in India which propagates violent pogroms and genocide against minority communities in India.

See these pieces raising alarm bells in the past few weeks in the Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Hindu.

As an Indian-American who has worked with social movements “back home” and against the organised disinformation of the Hindu Right within the diaspora, this is highly alarming, and another huge goof for Obama, whom I voted for as I bought the line that he was a fellow desi. Homeboy, this ain’t right. For a deep exploration of Shah’s many faces in her role as Obama’s Indian, read Vijay Prashad’s piece in Counterpunch. You may also want to see and sign this petition by Progressive Women of Color to give Sonal Shah’s job to someone with stronger democratic and humanitarian commitments back in the old country.

Kala Ghoda’s True Heritage

One of the worst examples of the neglect of the city’s history is the Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai. This sounds like a contradiction – in recent years Kala Ghoda has become synonymous with the heritage movement, with its museums and galleries, arts festivals and concerts, and recently restored colonial architecture. But if the conservationists had bothered to look behind their charming building facades and fancy street furniture, they would note that one of India’s most venerable and best-stocked repositories of historical documents occupies the back of the Elphinstone College building, in the Maharashtra State Archives (MSA).

The MSA is a treasure-trove of government records, correspondence, maps, and all manner of big and small publications stretching back nearly four hundred years, from the Marathas, Portugese, British and postcolonial Indian governments. The staff of the MSA are the real keepers of the city’s heritage, the Common Man who cannot afford the glossy coffee table books or steep entrance fees to the festivals and concerts celebrating Mumbai’s heritage. Continue reading Kala Ghoda’s True Heritage

Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters

This essay was written the day after the catastrophic floods in Mumbai on 26 July 2005 and was published as Some Reasons to be Optimistic, or, Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters in TimeOut Mumbai Vol.1, Issue 26, 26 August to 8 September 2005.

 

Whether you consider the recent floods in Mumbai to be either a natural disaster, or a man-made crisis — or  a bit of both — most will agree that we have just been through the biggest social crisis to face the city since the communal riots and bomb blasts in 1992-1993. It is not often in history that an urban disaster prompts wide-ranging public reflection and institutional changes. There are many contemporary lessons to be drawn in Mumbai from the global history of urban disasters, from floods and famines to terrorism and riots. Crises such as these prompt immediate action, but often the most sweeping and epochal changes they inspire happen once the original impulses to act are forgotten. These impulses are buried away in subsequent events and history, obscuring their effect in prompting wider, often revolutionary changes.

The catastrophic earthquake which destroyed most of the Portugese capital Lisbon in 1755 and wiped out most of its population — and the philosopher Voltaire’s satirical reflections on its causes and consequences in his novel Candide, or Optimism inaugurated the Enlightenment in Europe, the tradition of thinking which questioned the divine right of kings and priests to rule.

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