Category Archives: journalism

Experiments with Post-Truth

Last week, in time for Gandhi Jayanti, the Supreme Court admitted a public interest litigation seeking to re-open the question of who assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi at Birla House, New Delhi on 30 January 1948. This follows an online signature campaign launched on Gandhi’s birth anniversary this month as well as an earlier PIL dismissed by the Bombay High Court in mid-2016 filed by Dr Pankaj Phadnis.

Founding trustee of a Mumbai-based NGO Abhinav Bharat started in 2001, Phadnis is a self-described devotee of Hindu nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, convicted but acquited as a co-conspirator in the conspiracy to murder Gandhi, for which Nathuram Godse and Vinayak Apte were convicted and hanged on 15 November 1949.

Phadnis’ petitions to the courts and online since 2016 have been based on an entirely unsubstantiated theory of a “fourth bullet” and probable “second assassin” allegedly reported by U.S. vice-consul in New Delhi, Herbert T. Reiner. Phadnis claims Reiner sent three diplomatic telegrams to the American government on the murder at Birla House that day, of which one, allegedly still classified, may contain heretofore unrevealed evidence of a conspiracy beyond those of the convicted assassin Nathuram Godse and his eight co-conspirators.

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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.

Arthur Travers Crawford, first Municipal Commissioner of Bombay (1865-71)
Arthur Travers Crawford, first Municipal Commissioner of Bombay (1865-71)

On 1 July 1865, the first “Municipal Commissioner for the Town and Island of Bombay”, Arthur Trawers Crawford, was appointed by the Government of Bombay, along with the predecessor to today’s municipal Corporators – a body of “Justices of the Peace”. The city until then was a swampy archipelago focussed on trading, where government was minimal and ad-hoc. JPs had scant powers over policing and conservancy, to collect taxes, or keep the streets drained and swept. Funds were vested in three commissioners answering directly to government, a “triumvirate” which often worked at cross-purposes.

While moving the new Act of 1865 for a single “Chief Executive” for Mumbai along with Sir Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy in the Governor’s Council, its co-sponsor Walter Cassels commented that “the town does not want municipal officers with the pen of a ready writer, but with brooms that sweep clean”. Crawford set about his task with zeal – laying out streets and markets, improving sanitation and water supply. The JPs soon complained they had no power over his purse strings. Much like today’s appointees, Crawford was then transferred, the “man at the top” whose “head must roll”.

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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.

Netaji’s Bombay Veterans

Published as “Not Just Bose, Bombay Too” in Mumbai Mirror, Cover Story, Sunday 19 April 2015.

Nehru and Patel’s Government not only authorised snooping on the extended family of Subhash Chandra Bose well after Independence, but also many other ex-Indian National Army (INA) veterans, including prominent Mumbaikars who served as Union and State ministers.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Gen Jagannath Rao Bhosale, (Bombay Chronicle, May 1946)
Jawaharlal Nehru and Gen Jagannath Rao Bhosale, ex-Chief of Staff of Bose’s Indian National Army and later Union Minister for Rehabilitation (Bombay Chronicle, May 1946)

Jagannath Rao K. Bhosale and S.A. Ayer together led the Bombay branch of the Indian National Army (INA) Relief & Enquiry (R&E) Committee established in 1946 at Congress House with Sardar Vallabhai Patel as its chair and patron. Remembered for his work with displaced Partition refugees and returning WWII veterans – and the road named for him in the sixties at Mantralaya – Bhosale was Netaji’s Chief of Staff in the INA, and served as Deputy Union Minister for Rehabilitation in Nehru’s cabinet from 1952.

Ayer was the Director of Information of the Government of Bombay from September 1946 until 1951, when he joined the Censor Board. A Bombay journalist since 1918, and the first Indian to head Reuters and Associated Press India, Ayer was a correspondent in Bangkok at the outbreak of WWII. He soon became a close associate of Bose and in October 1943 was appointed as both Propaganda Minister and member of the War Council of Netaji’s Azad Hind Sarkar.

S.A. Ayer, Propaganda Minister of Bose's Provisional Govt of Free India, and later Publicity Minister of the Govt of Bombay
S.A. Ayer, Propaganda Minister of Bose’s Provisional Govt of Free India, and later Publicity Minister of the Govt of Bombay

After the fall of British Singapore in 1942, almost 50,000 Indians became prisoners of war (POW), and of these around 25,000 had joined the INA – soldiers who served the Azad Hind Fauj or civilians in Azad Hind Sarkar based in the Andamans. By the end of WWII in August 1945, the drop of atomic bombs, Japan’s immediate surrender, and the mysterious death of Subhash Chandra Bose a few days later, his myth had reached its peak just as the Allies (and ex-colonisers) deployed the tired and near-mutinous Indian Army to re-occupy the arc of territory under Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command (SEAC), derisively known as “Save England’s Asian Colonies”.

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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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Future Sense

Published in shorter form in TimeOut Mumbai, 25 April 2013.

Daniel Brook, A History of Future Cities
London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013)

History-of-Future-Cities-678x1024This new book by American journalist and writer Daniel Brook is an essential addition to the bookshelves of anyone interested in how cities like Mumbai both aspire and attempt to fulfill ambitions of becoming global and modern metropoles. An adventurous narrative of St Petersburg/Leningrad, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai and Dubai, embracing more than three hundred years of modern history, Future Cities is a refreshing comparitive account of global cities outside of their nation-states.

Brook romps through the take-off periods of St Petersburg in the 1700-1800s, Shanghai and Mumbai in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and Dubai in the late 20th century, comparing the growth of these custom-built “gateway cities” in Russia, China, India and the Middle East.

These “windows to the world” were purposely created to expose and reform their backward peasant and colonial populations to modernity and globalisation. By contrast with their inland bureaucratic capitals – Moscow, Delhi, and Beijing – these novelties contrived by reforming emperors, merchants, and imperialists created new settlements and lifestyles by importing and imitating the latest “Western” forms of architecture, industry and public life.

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Skyscrapers and Sweatshops

A shorter version of this review  was published in Mint Lounge on 28 May 2011.

Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).

The past two decades have seen large cities in North America and Europe decisively rebound from a painful postwar history of technological change and spatial restructuring. Since the 1980s, urban centres throughout the developed world have been built new business districts and gentrified into consumer zones, as educated workers and families returned to cities hollowed out by decades of de-industrialisation, suburban flight, and social upheaval. Urban manufacturing hubs and ports whose fabric was shaped by the production and shipment of goods and commodities were left behind by finance, information and business services in a new global economy centered in cities such as New York, Chicago, London and Paris.

This post-industrial city has since become the archetype for mega-cities across the world, and Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City is a tribute to the endurance of the age-old metropolis and the capacities of its citizens to rebuild spaces and reinvent economies. Weaving historical comparisons with policy discussions and the passion of a committed urbanist, the book is a foray by a respected academic economist into mass market non-fiction. Like Thomas Friedman’s writings on globalisation or Samuel Huntington’s on the clash between the West and Islam, Glaeser’s styles his theories into simple universals. Globalisation works hand-in-hand with urbanisation, therefore the world is “paved, not flat”. Civilisations don’t simply clash, but also exchange goods and transfer ideas through via cities which are “gateways between markets and cultures”.

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Taking the Dogs out of the Slum

Slumdog Millionaire has been running since September at the cinema across the street from my apartment in Cambridge. I enjoyed the film when I finally saw it in December, despite the cliched invocation of Bollywood in the concluding song and Danny Boyle’s populism — the last scene of Trainspotting, where Renton “chooses life” by robbing his heroin addict mates from Glasgow, was more my style. But melodrama has its uses. Watching Jamal and Latika dance on the platforms of Victoria Terminus in the film’s finale reminded me of the protective grandeur of India’s greatest railway station, in which a few weeks before 56 people had been shot by gunmen in the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

While its cast was mostly local, Slumdog Millionaire only opened in India in late January, many months after it had become a sleeper hit in the U.S. It is a measure of the globalisation of urban India that even before the film was released, there were already protests over the apparently disparaging name of the film, and its popularity prompted Amitabh Bacchan to complain of the Western fetish for cinematic realism, while more recently, Salman Rushdie has claimed the film is not realistic or magical plausible enough.

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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.

More knowledgeable than their better-paid counterparts in such places as London’s British Library or Delhi’s National Archives, these clerks and peons eagerly serve up the papers and files which are the historian’s raw material for narrating stories about the still mostly untold history of the city and its region. Everything from sewerage reports from Victorian Bombay, to the diaries and letters of Maratha ministers and chiefs, to early town planning schemes and maps for Bandra and Juhu may be found in the MSA. The tragedy is that once in your hands, many of these records crumble to pieces before they can be read, or have already been eroded over time by the elements.

In spite of the flourishing interest in researching and understanding the history, culture and politics of Bombay/Mumbai amongst various groups of academics and urban professionals – from anthropologists and activists to film-makers and architects – the career of the urban researcher in Mumbai is a precarious adventure. The existing institutions charged with this task are, for the urban researcher, a veritable black hole, nowhere more so than the sprawling campus of the University of Mumbai.

While Bombay University was in many ways the birthplace of the social science research in India – the old Bombay School of Economics and Sociology counted amongst its graduates the venerable G.S. Ghurye and M.N. Srinivas – it is nowhere on the map of the new urban research being conducted by NGOs setup in recent years to study and report on urban culture, design, governance and planning. And these NGOs themselves often function in dubious ways, setup by foreign academics for offshore influence peddling, or by the city’s elites to entrench their agendas with the BMC and MMRDA.

The unfortunate result of this situation is that coffee table heritage has replaced serious historical and social research. For example, a well-known work about the “cities within” glorifies the progressive role of the colonial era Bombay Improvement Trust in urban development. To the historian, this is something akin to calling the land-grabbing and corruption of the present-day Slum Rehabilitation Authority an enlightened civic governance. With the vacuum left behind by the collapse of genuine research institutions, critical and independent research in and on Mumbai must play second-fiddle to the whims and agendas of local socialities, foreign academics, and the racketeering of consultants and bureaucrats, all seeking to turn Mumbai into a “global city” through patronage of “urban research”.

Unfortunately, most of the best recent research on Mumbai is done by writers and academics based in wealthy private universities in the U.S. and U.K. One consequence of this is that these scholars are neither responsible to local institutions such as the MSA, nor does their work circulate back to those for whom it is an essential element in discussions about the past and future of Mumbai.

(Published in TimeOut Mumbai special issue on Bombayology Vol.3, Issue 24, 27 June to 9 August 2007)

Urban Obduracy: Unbuilding Cities

Anique Hommels, Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Socio-Technical Change. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.

While sharing a common intellectual genealogy, the contemporary disciplines of science and technology studies (STS) and urban studies have followed divergent paths of development, and flourished in largely separated academic compartments. Anique Hommels’ Unbuilding the City argues for the complementarity of the approaches of STS and urban studies in explaining the phenomenon of urban “obduracy” and strategies for “unbuilding” the city. Linking together the concepts drawn from actor-network theory and constructivist studies of socio-technical change, the book contains three case studies of postwar urban development in the Dutch cities of Utrecht, Maastricht and Amsterdam.

How can we understand urban structures as more than simple technical or physical artifacts? How can we explain the history of cities and their power relations as socio-technical ensembles? Does the urban built environment embed the tacit knowledge of its original planners and builders, such that their norms and values continue to shape the relations of city-dwellers in subsequent generations? In a well-known essay on the question “do artifacts have politics?”, Langdon Winner has cited the example of the low-lying bridges designed by planner Robert Moses in New York, whose passages were too low to permit movement by public buses between the freeways and beaches of Long Island. Moses’ bridges prevented access to these elite white spaces of recreation by inner-city black populations, thus inscribing a permanent spatial discrimination into the design of seemingly apolitical technical artifact.

Urban structures are quite literally path-dependent, in that once they are built, they become a deep structure both underlying and directing the activities of subsequent generations. The built environment of cities both constrains and enables the activities and lives of its inhabitants and users, channeling and directing people into abstract patterns of residence, exchange and transport on the one hand, while the social spaces of the neighbourhood, market and transit hubs provide resources for social organisation and reproduction on the other hand.

However, the urban fabric is itself subject to negotiation and contestation through business-entrepreneurial projects of profit-making and asset-stripping through spatial restructuring, social movements of citizens to protect and expand the rights to collective consumption and social reproduction, and state initiatives aimed at environmental protection and social engineering through the planning and design of public spaces and infrastructure. It is in this context that the urban built environment as socio-technical ensemble exercises its peculiar structuring effects on technological development, politics and everyday life in the city. Artifacts become instruments of power while power relations are materialised in artifacts (Winner; cf. Bijker, 4).

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