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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Urban Renewal Politics

When an old, dilapidated building collapsed in Bombay's Nagpada area, my mind floated back to the 1950s when I used to drive past it on my way to school. Even as I empathised with the unfortunate victims, I could also see that Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh only added to the chaos by rushing to the collapse spot like Batman would to a crime scene.
In the Nagpada tragedy, both the authorities and the people compounded the failure of the city’s civic regime.
Why was the chief minister out there? Perhaps he was stung by criticism that he waffled during the massive flood disruption a few weeks ago and so wanted to show that he cared about the city and its denizens. The fact they were mostly poor Muslims was an added political bonus.
As for the much-touted 'aam aadmi' (common man), he and she turned out to satisfy their morbid curiosity and, without the firm hand of civic authority to hold them in check, they got in the way of rescue efforts, adding to the tragedy.
South Bombay MP Milind Deora hit the nail on the head when he urged the chief minister to "let go." Deora articulated an opinion that is growing across the country. Urban renewal, which the Prime Minister has identified as a top priority in his policy agenda, is not just a matter of finance, technology and civic action by well-meaning citizens; it will succeed only when the political system permits cities to throw up their own political leadership.
Already in the last elections, we saw two highly regarded chief ministers, S M Krishna in Karnataka and Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh, swept out of power. They acted more like mayors of Bangalore and Hyderabad than as chief ministers.
Fortunately, there is a model that can be replicated. In Delhi, a strong civic leadership emerged and survived despite the fact the city has the powerful central government breathing down its neck. Sheila Dikshit managed to assert herself, even when the retrograde BJP was in power at the Centre. She pushed through many development initiatives including traffic management schemes such as flyovers and underpasses, mass transport projects like the Metro, pollution control programmes such as the introduction of unleaded fuel for private vehicles and compressed natural gas for public transport, and privatisation of the frayed power distribution network.
Most important, she challenged the widespread cynicism and imparted instead a hope for the future and pride in the city. Dikshit’s success in Delhi holds out an object lesson. She managed to throw up a popular and powerful political leadership despite the overbearing presence of the Central government and cynical Congress leaders with a one-point agenda: how to displace the chief minister.
So how did she beat back the cynics and power-grabbers? The story goes back to 1998 when the Congress came to power in the city after a long stay in the political wilderness. The party’s leadership decided that Delhi should set an example of governance. To accomplish that goal, it was important to deal with the bureaucracy and the elected leaders. A district commissioner or an MLA or an MP had no connection with specific neighbourhoods. They looked at the larger picture, not in terms of vision but for their own interests.
Neighbourhoods need civic leadership. In Delhi, the vacuum was filled by Resident Welfare Associations (RWA), voluntary bodies comprising concerned citizens who sought to ensure that their neighbourhoods had some amount of order in terms of basic civic needs such as security, garbage collection, water supply, sanitation and power supply.
The Delhi government, in a far reaching initiative, sought to empower these voluntary groups in a unique programme called Bhagidari (partnership). It has been spectacularly successful. In one fell swoop, Sheila Dikshit inducted civic-minded groups into her agenda of governance. Lots of good things have happened. But most important a dialogue has been established between the 'aam aadmi' and the government. Delhi has not become like London, Paris or New York. But the first steps have been taken as they were 150 years ago in these exemplary cities.
For Bombay, the message is clear. In the absence of enlightened civic leadership, the Shiv Sena will call the shots just as fascist political machines ruled the roost in 19th century western cities. The current Maharashtra government is an embattled coalition of opportunists and morons. The decay is there for everyone to see. The collapse is evident. It’s time for the Congress to extend its Bhagidari programme to Bombay while they still have a say in the state.

This column appeared in DNA, August 30, 2005

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My DNA columns, 2005-2008

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Scofflaw Conundrum

So I am driving down the broad, new Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road that is the capital city’s pride and joy. There’s this high-end Mercedes pointed the wrong way in my lane. It’s been stopped by a policeman and the driver is on his cell phone. I stop my car and tell the officer he should get the car off the road and issue a ticket for going the wrong way, northbound on a southbound carriageway. The policeman tells me: “I have stopped him but he is calling his boss to pull strings.”

He was doing what he can without much success. The phone call may have called him off. Given there is just one for policeman for nearly 800 citizens and three for every VIP, there’s not much the police can do. Their job is to smooth the way for VIPs in the chaos of Delhi. We have to lump it.

Meanwhile there is all kind of mayhem on the newly built road. Cars are zipping past, oblivious of the speed limit; others are making all manner of illegal lane changes and turns; as for the other vehicles including motorbikes and rickshaws, transit buses and the newly-introduced “Grameen Seva” shared taxis (they are rickety contraptions with engines not much larger than a lawn mower but with cramped accommodation for nearly 10 passengers), they drive on the road without any concern for safety or rules.

Actually where we live, on the capital’s outskirts, the landscape has changed dramatically in the past year, with the Metro making inroads. There are fancy stations (infested with street vendors), steel-and-glass bus stops (uglified by handbills) and high-tech street lights (which have never been lit because of a turf war between the National Highway Authority of India that built the road and the Public Works Department of Delhi that is in charge of lighting).

The entire modern infrastructure that was supposed to uplift our lives has done little to improve the civic experience. The spanking new and wide road is now a market with fruit sellers, chaat carts, illegally parked cars and lunatic drivers. Chaos rules and you feel you’ve landed in a battlefield of crazed individuals, ineffectual police and poor planning. It is as though modernity has been aborted by the pre-modern economy.

Above all, you get the feeling that putting modern amenities in the hands of neanderthal civic officials and junglee citizens is a bad idea that has metastasized into a life-threatening situation, never mind enhancing the quality of life.

The narrow road that leads from the iconic MG Road to my house is an example of the ineptitude and criminal neglect of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is probably the most corrupt organization on Earth. The only way to describe it is to resort to Hindu mythology: it combines the evil machinations of Ravana and the wicked insidiousness of the Kauravas. 

It is a road I have fought to better with some amount of luck because of the backing of the political leadership. There are superficial improvements but the road still becomes a morass of sewage water and gigantic potholes during the monsoon.

Despite all the new accouterments of modernity, commuting in Delhi is a nightmare. After all, no matter how slick you make the monkey cages in zoos, the inhabitants will still be all over it. In the end, through behavioral modification, primates can be taught to use their new facilities.

But how do you deal with humans, who have mutated into scofflaws over the sorry history of this much-conquered place?

Delhi’s scofflaw citizens are the archetype of a culture that is steeped in mythology, feudalism, ideology, elitism (think Lutyens Delhi) and rampant narcissism. Their gruff and scruffy ways are the despair of citizens whose lives are vandalized by their behavior.

I have lived in the capital for two decades. We live in a bubble suffused with the warmth of family and good friends. Our granddaughter was born here, the first ever in generations of my wife’s and my family.

Plus, the city has an enlightened political leadership under the aegis of a three-term chief minister, who battles constantly with civic agencies that are not really under her control. The only reason Delhi has not degenerated into a Hobbesian mess is because Sheila Dikshit has held fort against the barbarians.

In the interim, infrastructure has improved exponentially but civic life has taken a dive. The metro, the fancy buses, the bus stops, the new roads…all come to naught because of the behavior of scofflaws; 21st century civic amenities are wasted on them.

It hits civil people, and they may well be a majority, between the eyes: modern infrastructure, poorly implemented by the corrupt and inept civic agencies and abused and vandalized by scofflaw citizens.

Delhi’s ugly reality is the outcome of years of feudalism, colonialism, refugeeism, socialism and today’s ersatz culture that mixes mythology, superstition, mercantilism and amorality. Delhi has no modern urban roots; it has, for sure, a pre-modern urban idiom derived from the Mughals, which has been raped and pillaged by the refugee culture that took hold after Partition.

The capital city’s citizens are held hostage to scofflaws, who drive insanely, urinate in public, deface public property, molest women and create mayhem in public spaces.

Delhi is a city on the boil. Unless the capital can muster the political will and the police resources to fight this scourge, the scofflaws will turn it into a moffusil town. It’s already happening on the city’s edges.

This article appears on the Times of India website.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bombay Journal 3

Street of Dreams

On a recent swing through Bombay, I came face-to-face with my past. First, on the way to the St Xavier’s College campus to meet an old friend, I passed the Raj Mahal restaurant on Kalbadevi Road. My mother took me there one day in 1956, June 8, when I was admitted to the nearby and much coveted St Xavier’s High School. As we drove past it, I could almost taste the sense of accomplishment and the masala dosa and sweet lassi I had with my mother. Wind forward to 2012, as I drove past the restaurant; I was agog to see it:  It is still there, middle class and all, 56 years later!

On the way back north, the chauffeur took me past Victoria Terminus (now perforce called CST because of the thugs who run Bombay) onto the elevated road that takes you past Crawford Market (the thugs have renamed it Mahatma Phule Market) and Mohammed Ali Road, past the JJ Hospital and got off at Victoria Garden Road and into Byculla Bridge, a once-genteel neighborhood where I grew up in the shadow of Christ Church School.

We drove through Christ Church Lane, where I lived as a pre-teen and commuted on the weekend with friends to our family home in Juhu Beach to enjoy the Goa-like ambience. The Lane was an eye opener. Living there, I came to appreciate the sheer cultural diversity of India: living among Goans and Anglo-Indians, Bohras and Jews, Muslims and Parsis; I also learned how it felt to belong to a minority: Hindu, Gujarati, vegetarian.

Driving through Christ Church Lane, I saw that it is not as wide as I imagined.  With cars parked on both sides, it was a bit of a struggle driving through. The buildings of my childhood: Court Royal, Lobo Mansion, Blue Haven and what have you are still there; they look somewhat weatherworn. Around the corner on Victoria Garden Road, the storefront Linnet Tailor still stands after all these years. This was the establishment a little boy badgered for delivery of his clothes within 24 hours of being measured up.

It was like a riding in a time machine. This pre-teen boy was leading me through this street of dreams. I was a visitor from the future being led by the little boy through the clouds of a past that shaped my worldview: to nurture diversity, to embrace cosmopolitanism.

My pre-teen guide from the past reminded me that every evening, hormonal young teenagers strutted through the Lane; eyeing the gorgeous “dames” the Lane was famous for. There was a guy, spitting image of Elvis, who would strut and fret his hour upon the Lane, with girls swooning all over him. In my mind’s eye, I caught a glimpse of a little boy, in his bathroom, wetting his hair trying to swirl up the trademark Elvis pompadour.

The traveler from the future could envision also the same little boy, his companion on the journey through time: perched dreamily in his balcony, listening to the troubadour family that came to sing Friday nights. The song that touched him was Tony Brent’s “Little Serenade” and the green-eyed teenage daughter. “Just a little street down in Portofino,” they sang. An Anglo-Indian, Brent grew up and lived in an apartment house on the tree-shaded Spence Road, just south of the Lane. Though he left India for England a decade before I lived there, he was a legend and his songs were fiercely popular.

In Christ Church Lane those days, there was a sense of urbane sophistication and above all, a feeling there could be no better place than this Bombay. As a pre-teen, the little boy fantasized about cricket but also about football and athletics, Hollywood films, Goa and Gorai. He was, however, always on the margins; restricted in diet and Gujarati conservatism.

These memories surfaced as I drove through Christ Church Lane, the venue of my renaissance. It was as if the little boy from the 1950s took me by my hand and helped me relive a time when my mind opened up. The kid got me all emotional; he reminded me of its beautiful girls, its rock and roll, and its diversity.

In America, in the early 1970s, I used to identify with a monster-hit television show called “Happy Days.”  My friend David Swanson was always befuddled. “How does that work?” he asked me. “It depicts a typical American suburban experience.” It was difficult for me to explain. “Just believe it; for me, the show works because it reminds me of Christ Church Lane,” I would tell him. It wasn’t just the incipient rock-and-roll music of the time but also a shared middle class heritage of work and achievement, play and leisure.

The trouble with memories in India is that the present-day situation mostly always turns out to be grim, nothing like what you remember. In America, nostalgia is treasured and old things are not just preserved but made better. In 2008, citizens of Milwaukee gathered to applaud the unveiling of the bust of “Fonzie,” an unforgettable character in “Happy Days,” which was based in the city’s golden suburbs of the 1950s. Wouldn't it be wonderful if residents of Byculla Bridge did the same for Tony Brent?

And so I drove through the street of dreams with the little kid, who liked to sing in his tuneless monotone Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock,” pant after the gorgeous girls in the Lane and listen to “Binaca Geet Mala” with its Hindi film tunes in addition to the Binaca “Hit Parade.”  Those pre-Beatles-era songs still remain with me; I married a gorgeous Goan girl (who didn’t live in the Lane but hey, nobody’s perfect) and I troll the net to find the Binaca shows (no luck yet).

Soon we turned onto Clare Road (wonder what the thugs call it now?), west of the Lane. As the car got swallowed up in traffic headed north, the little kid disappeared into the haunting memories of Christ Church Lane and I returned to the dreary ordinariness of 21st century Bombay.

A version of this article appears on The Times of India website.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Bombay Journal 2

The Irresistible Charm of the Siren City

Delhi’s Terminal 3 reflects the city’s crude unease with modernity; Bombay’s airport has the casual ease of a city used to egalitarian urban life. When you land in Bombay, you feel part of the human driving force that creates jobs, provides entertainment, choices of lifestyles and the pulsating beat of urbanity. I may be biased but this is the city where I grew up, using public transport, walking the streets, comfortable in my middle class existence.

It was only when the division took place of the erstwhile Bombay state into Gujarat and Maharashtra and I was yanked from my predictable and inclusive middle class existence, I realized that that there are Gujarati and Marathi, Hindu and Muslim, Brahmin and others, rich and poor. I sort of knew that but that was when I understood that these diversities can be used for political gain.

Today, the entire political conversation is built on these divides. All of India is riven with differences. Bombay, however, still retains the streak of egalitarianism.  There is incredible wealth; abject poverty; but the beat goes on like it did when I was growing up here. The Siren City boasts a sophistication that is far removed from Delhi’s bastard culture of privilege and braggadocio. Yes, it is my city that the brigands of the various senas are bent on destroying. Bombay’s heritage of sophisticated cosmopolitanism is threatened.

Unlike Delhi, where citizens are thugs; in Bombay, thugs hold citizens to ransom. On a recent trip, I was stuck in heavy traffic on the Worli Causeway (soon to be renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Causeway by the thugs?) and we inched along. I was struck by the fact that no one tried to weave through traffic or honk.

I was on my way to meet my friend Father Lawrie Ferrao, one of my oldest friends. He is the director of the highly-regarded Xavier Institute of Communication. I first met Lawrie in 1958 in Hilda Pimenta’s fifth standard class at St Xavier’s High School in Dhobi Talao. I was a forgettable kid in the school that boasted many students who went on to make their mark in the world: the most prominent being Sunil Gavaskar. There were others not quite as publicly acclaimed but stars in their own right in various fields: space science, mathematics, anthropology, petroleum, journalism, law, business and what have you.

When I finished with the school in 1965, I lost touch with Lawrie and only re-established contact with him at a reunion of the class of 1965 in January 2008. Taken aback that he was a Jesuit priest and then the principal of St Stanislaus in Bandra, I spent a lot of time with him at the meet. In the event, he was the priest who conducted the service at my daughter’s wedding in St Elizabeth Church in Ucassaim, Goa, our other home. Thus, we re-established our friendship

We spent a few hours together, not just reliving the old times but discussing various issues including the state-of-the-art of communications education and urban governance and everything else over lunch at the highly-overrated Khyber Restaurant in Kala Ghoda.

The previous night I had dinner with my friends Almona and Sidharth Bhatia. She is the publisher of GQ in India and Sid has just written a fabulous book called Cinema Moderne: The Navketan Story. We talked late into the evening about many things but mainly about Dev Anand and how he represented modernity and hope in an India shackled by socialist dogma and Gandhian claptrap about village republics

Note: For my friends who, like me, hold Gandhi in high esteem. Gandhi was a post modern thinker; his ideas were seminal and far ahead of his time. However, the idea of a self sufficient village presumes full literacy and civic awareness.  He preached civil disobedience and said nary a word about free and compulsory primary education.

Coming back to my Bombay experience, it is now increasingly clear that the political battle is between those who endorse Bombay’s cosmopolitan character and the thugs, who would drag the city into moffusil obscurity. Call it Bombay versus Mumbai. The latter seem to be winning by sheer muscle.

And so Bombay is a conundrum: you see in it hope for India’s future and you despair that is held hostage by thugs. What happens in Bombay over the years will determine whether India will live up to its promise as player on the world stage; or will slide into the chaos of a fourth world country.

Finally, an explanation on why I call Bombay the “Siren City.”  It is an island; it is seductive in its decrepit charm; yet it draws people even though they may end up on the rocks. The people who have always lived there or consider it home have an Odyssean worldview:  “all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!”

Bombay being Bombay, I have to end this with a line written by Majrooh Sultanpuri and sung by Mohammed Rafi: “Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan.” Mumbai just doesn't work in that song. Never mind it was a rip-off of an American folk ballad called “My Darling Clementine.”