Category Archives: opinion

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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Bombay’s Blame Game: On the Recent Floods

Originally published as an editorial in DNA (Daily News and Analysis), Mumbai, 5 August 2005.

Who is really to blame for the floods and chaos in Mumbai this week? The monsoon downpour last week was not strictly a natural disaster. It was a man-made crisis, and the public have spent the past week searching for explanations and solutions to this human disaster. The answers provided have ranged from the opportunistic to misinformed, and almost all are lacking in a longer term perspective on institutions, particularly those concerned with urban infrastructure in Mumbai.

The latest assertion, by environmentalists and activists opposed to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, is that the overflowing of the polluted Mithi River can be solely blamed on reclamations for the Sea Link and the Bandra-Kurla Complex. While this is plausible, the claim is being made without any scientific or ecological evidence to substantiate their arguments about the effects of reclamation. But then where are the real experts? In a city which boasts some of the nation’s finest institutes of technology — insular enclaves of global expertise which rarely interact with the city’s public problems — very few academics or qualified engineers are to be found raising their voices.

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Should Mumbai be a City State?

Originally published contra the case made by J.B. D’Souza on Should Mumbai be a City State? in TimeOut Mumbai, 10 April 2005.

There are several arguments routinely invoked about making Mumbai into a City State. They go something like this — for most of its modern history, Bombay was an island off the coast of India, a cosmopolitan port city with enterprising migrants and bustling industry and commerce — symbolic of India’s engagement with the world, rather than with its rural countryside.

This pre-Independence Bombay is now viewed with sepia-tinted nostalgia by heritage enthusiasts and the media as an innocent age of civic order, a beautiful city which existed before the filth and chaos of democratic politics. Bombay became the victim of narrow linguistic politics when Maharashtra was formed in 1960. Since then, the story goes, public culture has been parochialised by Marathi chauvinism and mismanaged by vote-bank-seeking politicians. The beautiful city is now a horrible mess, and this situation must be reversed through bold action, to make it a world-class metropolis again.

The economic rationale for creating a new City State is the counterpart to this narrative — that Mumbai is denied an equal share of the revenue it generates (which the Centre invests elsewhere in the country), that the city’s resources are otherwise plundered by rural politicians and illegal migrants who don’t care for the city, that new industries are locating elsewhere, and we cannot keep up either with Singapore or Shanghai, or even with Bangalore or Hyderabad. Something must be done to avert what the media have recently termed the “death of the city”, and statehood for Mumbai seems like a bold solution to a host of very real problems affecting the quality of life and governance in India’s biggest city.

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Mills as Public Spaces: Mumbai’s Industrial Heritage

This essay on  industrial heritage conservation was written when the first public interest litigation challenging the sale of mill lands in Central Mumbai was in the Bombay High Court in 2005, and published in Art India Magazine, ‘Heritage Issues’, Vol. X, Issue 2 (Mumbai), April 2005.

In Mumbai, public awareness of urban arts and heritage has experienced a significant revival in the past ten years in the same historical moment when manufacturing industries have closed and factories emptied throughout Greater Mumbai. Heritage discourse and conservation practice have only implicitly acknowledged this economic context. Since the Bombay Textile Strike of 1982-3, entire working-class communities across the city have been retrenched and dispersed in the Mill and Dock Lands of central Mumbai, the chemical and engineering factories and industrial estates in suburban Mumbai, and across the Metropolitan Region.

With job losses going into tens of lakhs, and uncertain growth prospects for Mumbai, several years ago the media and civic elite began speaking of the “death of the city” they once knew, whereas planners and academics eagerly awaited the birth of a new “global city”. However one described this restructuring of the city’s economy, it is clear that manufacturing has declined in value compared to the new service industries, not just in Mumbai but in big cities throughout the world. The post-industrial landscapes of London’s Docklands and New York’s Lower Manhattan are oft-cited symbols of this change monstrous, gleaming high-rise districts dominated by banking, finance, and white-collar services. In today’s urban economy, the making and marketing of immaterial signs has replaced the production of durable goods as the primary circuit of wealth creation.

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Mumbai Vision 2010: Reporting the Future

Originally published as Mumbai Vision 2010: Reporting the Future in TimeOut Mumbai, 19 November to 2 December 2004.

If you look left while crossing Haji Ali into Worli, the brightly-lit ground floor showroom of a well-known auto major is emblazoned with the words “Improving the Quality of Life”. You can’t miss it, because this is a congested junction, with cars queueing up at the next signal to ascend the Worli Fly-Over. Stuck in the gridlock, you’re forced to ponder the shiny cars and hopeful slogan, and try and forget the honking horns, choking exhaust fumes, and street kids trying to sell you fashion magazines, before the signal changes.

Surely the guys at McKinsey and Bombay First, who must also get stuck in traffic jams, would appreciate the irony. Their recent report on making the city “world-class” and yes, improving its “quality of life” has just joined the long queue of studies, reports, and consultancies on the city’s ascent to becoming a global city. Recent changes at the state and centre have shown the government is increasingly keen to step in and clear the traffic on the road to Mumbai 2010. Plans and strategies that piled up for decades are beginning to move, and the authorities are trying to play traffic cop between contending visions of the city’s future.

While McKinsey is a recent entrant into the global game of urban brand-building, city architects and planners are its most usual suspects. For the past several years, the media and corporate world in Mumbai have been arguing over the “death of the city”. There seems to be neither enough money nor political will to tackle the monstrous problems of housing, transport, infrastructure, and the city’s slipping position in the global economy. Visions of Mumbai have been stuck between the apathy of our elected representatives — the politicians — and the elitism of our un-elected representatives — the NGOs.

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Mill on the Loss

Originally published as “Mill on the Loss” in the Indian Express Mumbai Newsline, 5 April 2000.

The history of Mumbai is a narrative of the struggle over space. The fate of the mill lands of central Mumbai, and its industries and workers, is the latest chapter in this story.

The life of any city is not simply tied to its flows of goods, services and capital, but also to its patterns of work, leisure and movement — all of which revolve on the use of space. Throughout Mumbai’s history, claims on land and space have been the narrative thread of the most celebrated and most notorious chapters in our urban history. These range from the legendary reclamations that linked up several marshy outposts and settlements to compose the island city in the eighteenth century, to the disastrous Back Bay Reclamation Scheme in the 1920s. This scheme to fill in the Back Bay earned the name “Lloyd’s Folly”, after the bungling of the then Governor, whose plan ended in failure and infamy because of engineering mistakes, corruption, and the crash in land values during the Great Depression.

The story of the Mumbai Mill Lands is a fin-de-siecle echo of this familiar urban theme. The historic textile mills of the city are industrial dinosaurs dotted around the city landscape, whose textile production has been eclipsed in efficiency and profitability by the sweatshop labour employed in powerlooms towns like Bhiwandi. The millowners realised long ago that the lands of the city mill compounds are more valuable than the textiles they produce, and the workers whose livelihoods they have sustained for several generations.

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The Metaphor of Middle-Class Scorn

Originally published in Satyam Online, 1 March 2000.

 

In his first few years occupying the Chief Minister’s chair in Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav was found of recalling that, in his father’s village, the local upper-caste leaders would sit in similar thrones, and his father could not dare to come near the Brahmins and sit on a chair like them. That would have signified equality. His father and other backward and lower castes had to approach their caste superiors as humble supplicants, their faces averted and backs hunched, and sit at the feet of the lordly Brahmins.

Laloo’s claim to power, he seemed to be saying, was not just based on the boring details of parliamentary procedure such as the number of votes he or his allies polled. Rather, he incarnated the inversion of the brutal caste and feudal hierarchies of agrarian society, the awakening of the wretched of the earth. His rustic idiom of political expression, the discourse of the masses, was the only language he knew how to speak, and one that he took to the heights of the state, whose all-important symbol was the gaddi of power.

The Symbols and Substance of Power

What he did with this power is another story, one that we all are familiar with. As with the recent Assembly election, the middle-class is always ready to write off Laloo as more symbolism than substance. Our media never tires of representing him and his followers as corrupt and glowering peasants drunk on a power they for some reason seem not to deserve, considering Bihar’s present ills — the massive scandals, caste and class warfare, criminalisation and administrative collapse that have become synonymous with Yadav raj. When several years ago Laloo was hauled off to jail on corruption charges, his wife became an object of similar scorn. She was condescendingly portrayed as a hoodwinked pativratta, running the state from her kitchen, with too many children than is considered decent.

Why this particular hatred and fascination with Laloo, when there are thousands of other equally loud-mouthed and corrupt politicians who are deserving of similar derision? Laloo first came to power standing defiantly alongside his former colleagues in the Janata Dal, all of whom had risen simultaneously with the new politics of lower caste and lower class empowerment, in the legacy of Jayaprakash Narayan’s social justice movement and V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission reservations. While early in his reign, Laloo provided housing to the masses and made other pro-poor overtures, most importantly through his example showed them that the could control their own destinies.

Democracy and Insubordination

His irreverance is legendary — planting vegetables and grazing cattle in the prim gardens of the Chief  Minister’s official residence, or chomping a huge paan and regally spitting while conducting interviews with posh journalists from Delhi. A new type of politician of the television age, Laloo craved such opportunities, the chance to caricature himself for the camera, as the unreconstructed Other of the mannered and educated classes, the veritable metaphor of Underdevelopment — the oily and uneducated peasant whose spittle just stained your finely starched kurta.

While the middle-class elites would turn away in disgust and fear of this jungli, it is mistaken to see these performances as signs of a villager who could not forget his backward ways — it was a clear message to the poor that their way of life was as powerful and meaningful as that of the elites.

Laloo always knew that he was both the object of fascination of the better-off — because the Other always conceals the repressed desires and anxieties of the Self — as well as their worst nightmare, because his antics reminded the middle-classes of their irrelevance in a democracy where only numbers count, and even the media can’t hide that depressing fact. If Bihar is, according to the recent NDA slogans, a jungle raj, then Laloo styled himself the jungle ka sher.

Jab tak samose mein aloo rahega, tab tak Bihar mein Laloo rahega

It remains to be seen whether Laloo’s brand of insubordination will ever bring a real change to the lives of the poor. It seems not. But last week, Laloo’s staying power was again roundly underestimated by every political formation in the country.

While unlike the aloo in our samosa, one day Laloo might himself go, he and his ilk have had a permanent effect on our democracy, a change that it would be foolish to ignore. Political and social institutions are never neutral. For the powerless, the state is synonymous with the dominance of certain castes and classes whose hegemony are made to seem permanent. When the hierarchies on which this control of institutions are themselves swept away through the logic of popular democracy, their institutions might similarly be shattered. In regions like East UP and Bihar the social order, based on the brutalities of poverty, casteism and landlordism, is being overturned with an equal amount of ferocity and violence, and not a little showmanship

American Grand Strategy

This was an extended two-part series on the relationship of India and the United States, on the eve of the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton to India in mid-March 2000, published in the erstwhile Satyam Online news service.

The rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was the central geopolitical anatagonism of the half-century that followed the conclusion of World War II, fifty years which also parallel the experience of India’s Independence. And with the collapse of the Soviet and state socialist regimes in the early nineties, India and the world have entered a new geopolitical era, an age whose contours are only becoming clear now.

The Policy of Containment

The guiding strategy of American foreign policy-makers and defence experts throughout the Cold War had been the policy of “containment”, premised on a turn-of-the-century geopolitical theory which had in fact been essayed not in America, but in England, by the strategist Halford Mackinder. Adapted to the Cold War, Mackinder’s famous theory of heartland and rimland states was the essential ingredient in American geopolitical thinking.

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The Historical Past and Political Present

Originally published in Satyam Online, 24 February 2000.

Constructing contingent memories as authoritative, and transforming the many threads of the past into a coherent narrative, the discipline of history is one of the most important fields of modern social thought. As an endeavour of the present, with its ongoing debates and revisions, history is inevitably concerned with claims to present-day power and representation. The controversies which have recently dogged the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in the past several years are thus not simply an academic issue, but a fight for control of our collective memory and identity.

Let us not misunderstand this dispute, as many have, as one between the “Western” and “Indian” versions of history. Nor is it really a fight over saffron or secular historiography. While no one can deny that the intensified assault on administration, education and public life by the Hindu Right in the past few months is a terrifying phenomenon, this issue goes beyond simple ideological postures and academic methods.

Sarkari or Sarvajanik History?

Last week, two volumes of the ICHR-sponsored Towards Freedom series of books on the freedom struggle, edited by the noted social historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar, were withdrawn from publication by the Oxford University Press under official pressure from the nodal ministry for education, Human Resources Development (HRD). Continue reading The Historical Past and Political Present

To Privatise or Saffronise?

Originally published in Satyam Online, 12 February 2000.

 

In the past several months since the NDA coalition has eased itself into the saddle of governance, our media has waxed eloquent about a newfound stability of the ruling alliance. The easy passage of the bundle of reform bills in the Winter Session of the Lok Sabha was advertised to the public and to the world as a prelude to a new round of liberalisation.

The showcase of the much-awaited “second generation” of economic reforms will be the upcoming Budget Session, to open at the end of February. Compared to the messy coalitions of years past, it seems now that the BJP confidently straddles the centre of the Indian political fulcrum. However, amidst the booming bourses and the hype around the visit of US President Bill Clinton, we should not be misled. The events of the past several weeks, notably the protests over Deepa Mehta’s film Water, and the announcement of the privatisation of Modern Foods and Indian Airlines, all give clues to the real fragility within the ruling party. The connection between these two events is not just incidental — Arun Jaitley holds both the Information & Broadcasting portfolio as well as that of Disinvestment.

Sanskriti or Swadeshi?

Last week, on the banks of the Ganga, one never heard a whisper of that other inflammatory slogan of the Sangh, opposing foreign economic domination and calling for swadeshi. This would have been truly radical, and dangerous for the new regime. We can rest assured, through Vajpayee’s “liberal” stewardship, that the strident slogans of culture and Hinduism will increase, and the politics of class will be silenced as the next wave of reforms approaches.

Earlier this month, political pundits were surprised to see the Prime Minister hitting out at Pakistan on several counts — for trying to disrupt the economy by flooding the country with counterfeit currency, by claiming that India was ready to match any nuclear threat in kind, and demanding the return of Occupied Kashmir. To this was added Vajpayee’s blessing of the RSS as a cultural and not a political organisation, to which the Governments of HP, UP and Gujarat responded by lifting the ban of their employees participating in the RSS.

Vajpayee’s tilt to the Right had less to do with these issues, than with an internal tussle in the BJP ranks, between the hardline saffron faction controlled by L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi and the so-called moderates, represented by Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley and others. Central to the Prime Minister’s calculations now is keeping this unwieldy ship together, to navigate it through the unrest that will be generated by the next wave of reforms.

Sabre-rattling against Pakistan, and the free hand given to the extremist wing of the Sangh Parivar as seen last week in Banaras, has placated the hardline saffron faction. And most importantly, it has wedded them to the agenda of privatisation favoured by the so-called BJP liberals.

Privatisation and Saffronisation

The showpiece of the new economic policies will be the privatisation of the public sector, foreshadowed by the two test cases floated earlier this month by Jaitley, and the further retreat of the state from its basic responsibilities towards the poor — subsidies to basic commodities which are now being cancelled; the WTO-dictated removal of import duties on basic food products which will have disastrous consequences for farmers throughout the country; and the withdrawal of responsibility for primary services like health and education, which the BJP Vice President J. Krishnamurthy has claimed the state has no business in providing.

If, according to Arun Jaitley, the state has no business providing bread for the people, and Krishnamurthy claims that the state should free itself from ensuring their literacy and health, one might ask whose Government is this then?

On the eve of the new Budget, the RSS and VHP could have mobilised its ranks on these issues, which redound most centrally on the livelihood of the masses. Instead they chose a soft target like Deepa Mehta.

This has saved the BJP from a major schism on the eve of one of the most important Budgets to be tabled in several years, one that will crucially determine India’s terms of engagement with the global economy. But one wonders what makes a bigger difference to the beleagured people of Banaras. Is it the rise in the prices of basic commodities, the further erosion of social services, the attack on organised labour — all of which will be floated in the new Budget — or the cultural sensitivity of an English film that will probably never be screened outside of some major Western and Indian cities?