Thursday, November 26, 2009
The last time i visited, I was very affected. I had a major bawling session after the 5-day visit to the horror of Suneet (with whom I travelled). The living conditions of "Musaharis" probably a major trigger to my bawling. Some of their houses were being 'reconstructed'. 6'x8' cells with 7' high ceilings. "replica" of their "old" houses built in wattle and mud. Concrete boxes, concrete cells. What goes on in the minds of people of rebuild? Surely they come with 'altruism', with a desire to set things right? Then how do we end-up with such outcomes? What rules do we follow inside our heads?
The floods themselves were of an unimaginable scale. Somehow it felt these peoples would never recover. Miles of land covered in sand. Fertile, productive land completely laid waste. Sources of the only livelihood totally destroyed. What will these people do? Lakhs of them. Homes - gone. Land - gone. Cattle - gone. Food stock - gone. Options - nil. So what happens to them? The men were slowly trickling aways to nearby towns and cities, in search for work. The women left fending for the young, old and themselves. Unbelievable burdens to carry. Silently. Maybe with no options, just starving away.
In some of the villages I saw many women carrying small babies. I had gone in November and the floods happened in August. And these villages were water-bound for more than a month. It meant many of these women must have delivered their babies during the floods. On rooftops, raining heavens, with the rest of the world looking on. Winter was next and they were out in the open. And the custom was to keep the mother and newborn, "outside" the house on a raised platform, open to the elements, with an imminent northern winter.
One can only imagine, what happens during a disaster.
The bureaucracy seemed as stunned as the people. Their records washed away. Disaster or avenues for more corruption? The local bureaucrat showed us water marks. Window-sill deep. All their furnitures had floated away. Along with the files. Somehow it seemed very symbolic. That the records of the fates of the people had floated away. They seemed as frustrated, confused and at wits-end as to what to do. 2 months of relief camps for lakhs and lakhs had drained their resources. People had nowhere to be and the relief camps were the only relief. It began to seem rather permanent. In panic the government began to dismantle the relief camps, forcing people to go back to their villages. The govt. pulled out, trying to figure out how rehabilitation could be done. The scale was daunting. This was no tsunami. This was no coastal India. This was the densely populated granary of India. With no land records and no landmarks, land distribution was going to be a nightmare. The mafia was moving in. The goons would begin to decide about the land, the bricks, the cement, the equipment. The contractors would become unofficial kings. Yes, it was beginning to look more and more difficult. The State's whine to the Centre was going unheard. Promises to houses like the Jayalalita-houses in TN were being demanded. Three and half lakhs houses of 2 and half lakhs each ? It seemed like a contractor's wet-dream. The cream was looking thicker and thicker. People would rather settle for the standard bamboo and mud houses. They needed shelter. Not mansions.
The coming months would see the impact of these floods. Scarcity of foodgrains, dals, vegetables, oilseeds .... will raise the prices sky high. Until people will only have the rise in prices of essential commodities to discuss and worry about. And while people are worrying in the rest of the country, what happens to the Biharis? Calcutta, Delhi are already over-run with them. The Marathi backlash at the in-pouring exodus was one way. But the cities will expand, groaning at the bursting-at-the-seams.
And a year later, I am going there again. The flood waters would have receded, though the river would still continue to flow the new course. Many of the immediate issues would have been dealt with. It is winter again. The fogs in Bihar would be rising as usual, blinding us to every path, every road, every pitfall.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
This action of Mont Blanc brings to mind a few characteristics that permeate our culture today. Riding on someone's else's greatness/ popularity. A 'Brand' culture that somehow makes it alright for an ordinary product to take on disproportionate value. A culture that can sell anything!
What was the logic in creating such a product, I wonder. A first-world luxury product to symbolize a man wore a dhoti and traveled third-class? A 'phoren' product for a man who thought, believed and lived 'Swadeshi'? A price tag that might be the entire lifetime earnings and spending capacity of the country's lower middle class, leave alone the close-to-the-Mahatma's-heart poor!?
One wonders whether the designers of the pen even pondered over the values or lifestyle of Gandhi when they designed it. I am sure it is not easy for a designer to create an 'exclusive' product that can suitably synthesize the two extremes - a more-than-elite Mont Blanc and a live-simply, egalitarian Gandhi - to commemorate Gandhi symbolizing his actions and virtues (never mind the vices. We can keep those aside for the moment). Didn't the marketing department of Mont Blanc warn it of the risk of fooling around with such a 'symbol'?
It might have been far better if Mont Blanc had distributed 'ordinary' pens in hundreds of schools to millions of children in the name of Gandhi, catering symbolically to the education needs of the poor. They could have then glorified THIS act into a fancy pen with maybe a concert or two thrown in to raise a few millions that could be distributed to grassroots initiatives. This could have catered to the demands of the 'Brand' needs as well as catered to the desire of Mont Blanc to pay tribute to Gandhi without compromising his principles.
At the moment, Mont Blanc's Mahatma pen does nothing except risk being a laughing-stock at the least and an 'Indian' backlash at the worst.
And in the meanwhile we can wait for the next products - interwoven gold-and-silk dhotis? ivory dandas inlaid with gems? diamond studded, round-framed spectacles? Suggestions, anyone?
Friday, October 2, 2009
Gandhi’s proposal and the recognition of the Law of Love above all was one of his most profound; which can be understood when we have sufficiently explored within ourselves, and accepted for ourselves the contradiction of frailty and strength of our human nature. He said, “Whether humanity will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work just as the law of gravitation works, whether we accept it or not…”. And it is this Law of Love that has maintained Life amidst destruction, demonstrating the working of much greater and higher power which is not visible to us....
read the whole article at Desicritics.org....
Monday, September 7, 2009
I believe in this maxim, now more than ever. I believe that a collective of something makes a much, much larger whole. That a little action can change the course of things. Of course it does.
These last 2 days I was a in a forum where there were discussions on ethics in science and technology (s&t) ... so there were these scientists, experts and there were a few of us trying to make sense of it all. These were scientists from various streams - from Life Sciences, Social Sciences, Biologists, Physicists, Information Technology etc.etc. And one got a faint glimpse into a world that otherwise one never gets to look into. One also got another glimpse. A glimpse into the relationships between S&T, Profit and Government. A glimpse of an animal that is Profit+Power that is served by Knowledge (of S&T). It felt odd to see the great being that is Knowledge (Science&Technology), as a dog chained and used by the P+P.
A few months ago, I had had an opportunity to get a glimpse into the world of our powers-that-be - the world of the decision makers, the bureaucrats. I was horrified at the helplessness that was expressed in that forum. At that time I couldn't digest the helplessness in the selling out of our powers-that-be to something which we are not able to clearly see.
It felt like society was addicted to, hooked on the P+P. Like a Cocaine fix, even knowing that it is eating up our insides, we (as a society) serve the addiction, in little and big ways. Somewhere we have lost control and our (society's) addictions (plus its helplessness) have taken over.
I think we really, really, really don't understand the nature of the addiction, the nature of this animal, Profit+Power<-served-by-Knowledge-and-governments. I don't think we really understand how deep the rot is or how rotten the rot that permeates our worlds. Believe me, I have NOTHING against profit. Honest gains from honest efforts. 10%, 20%, 30%... all acceptable. How about 500%? or 1000% or 5000%? And we wouldn't want to know what goes behind making that 1000%.
If we want change, we have to commit to it, with all our strength, with all our will. Because the animal that is Profit+Power<-served-by-Knowledge-and-governments is putting out 100% effort into feeding itself. And once we make this commitment, we can WILL change.
And induce The Butterfly Effect.
And the change is happening. Another World is happening. It is happening because more and more people are discussing issues of equity, justice, plurality, sustainability, choices, rights ... ordinary people, teachers, doctors, scientists, law-makers, bureaucrats, youth groups, women and so on ... more and more people are committing to change, deciding to change.
If change is seen in the span of decades, it is disheartening ... but seen in a span of centuries, one sees a very certain and positive movement towards respect for all. We have come a long, long way from when women were burnt at the husband's pyre, or slaves were whipped in cotton fields, or education was only for a privileged few. We have come a long way from where the only answer came from the gun, where the poor or women could not vote, or religion controlled society, or people could be touched or included based on their caste.
These monsters are still there. These animals still breathe and feed themselves. But slowly, inexorably they are being curtailed. And this happens only because change is demanded - again and again - by people who want change, who are committed to change. Because issues like Ethics in Science & Technology get discussed. Because Right to Information, Shelter, Livelihood and Life become norms.
I believe that this Era will see a different quality in its revolution. Like the industrial revolution or the IT revolution, that came about by initiatives peppered across the world which finally cohesed into a visible pattern.
Socio-Political Change, this time round will happen due to a negation, a rejection of current, unacceptable trends. Sometimes when the boulder is too huge to move or blast, the only way or the best way might be to go around it.
Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas ?
said, Philip Merilees. The above phrase refers to the Butterfly Effect – a phenomenon whereby a very insignificant change in a complex system can significantly alter an anticipated course of events. It refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in a certain location. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events.
The reverse also holds true. For if we are to reverse or slow down the current trends of Profit+Power, it can only happen through tens of thousands of small and large initiatives the world over. It would require the flapping of a million butterfly wings to stop the juggernaut that we are facing.
It may be visible in that more and more parents opt out for a non-aggressive education system for their children, that doesn't churn out Einsteins, but engages the child in blossoming to his/her own potential. We see more and more people opting out for alternative medicinal systems moving away from the invasive, non-supporting systems. We see more and more people taking care of themselves, their families, their extended families, their young, old and disabled. Eating better food. Wearing more natural clothes. We see more and more open systems, free exchanges taking place, sharing information, being more open and transparent about feelings and thoughts. More and more movies are not so much about conquering as they are about resolving things. More and more people opt for a different, healthier government. More and more people are opting for jobs that satisfy than jobs that just pay. People are finding commonalities in unexpected forums, the commonality being a non-acceptance of the present conditions.
This tide that seems to be turning is happening for one reason alone ... people have decided to change. People have started making different personal choices. People have decided to want something else.
The beauty of this change is in its innocuousness. In its very non-aggression. In its very simplicity. Every era had its mode of change and this era promises a non-violent one. The only way to deal with the enormity of the situation which is difficult to perceive or see.
The section on "Butterflies" precisely honors such change-making initiatives, people and ideas.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Suddenly, powerful countries, that until now wielded the say in all negotiations (they still do), find themselves uncomfortably pulled up. One sees them squirming (a little arrogantly) at the consequence of the orgy of their consumption. Not that consequences haven’t happened before. Small countries, colonized communities have paid for their greed down the centuries. But now the consequence directly affects them, directly affects all, and the fingers so clearly point to you-did-it. I do realize there is a certain glee within me, when I write this, but I have decided to indulge the glee rather than shamefully cover it up.
One thing must be said about the western, more specifically European communities. Their sense of fairness provides a certain means for little guys to appeal unlike the American community which shows an absence of such chivalry and thus eliminates any possible space for reversals.
And in all this, in all the international negotiations, there is still the how-can-i-get-out-of-the-situation-with-least-amount-of-payment bickering. Admitted in so many words, the responsibility of the State of World is fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the developed community. However, this is spoilt by the now-you-will-continue-to-fuck-up-the-world finger pointing at India and China, and by the fast and furious hustling with CDMs.
One wonders whether Climate Change has taught us anything at all.
Still, if one chooses to focus on the good things, at least accountability has become not-to-be-ignored issue. Accountability which was absent in politics, international politics, is at least being acknowledged.
Accountability. It’s a good thing. It allows us to stand back and take a look at our actions, its consequences on the rest of the world, and gives us an opportunity to correct our course.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
dropping bombs from 50,000 feet ensures that one does not “feel”
what one does. Modern economic management is similar:..from one’s
luxury hotel, one can callously impose policies about which one
would think twice if one knew the people whose lives one was
- Joseph E. Stiglitz (2002),
Globalization and its Discontents,
Norton, New York
Friday, August 7, 2009
The Tamil Nadu post-tsunami reconstruction had many lessons to teach. The lessons were primarily about what should not be done in the next disaster.
A new urbanism has come about in the rural, coastal regions of Tamil Nadu. The landscape has changed dramatically. Where earlier it was dotted with small hamlets, made up of mud and thatch houses, with little clumps of greenery around, clinging to the beach and its environs, it now sees a wave of concrete boxes. Rows upon rows of cheerfully coloured concrete boxes seemingly marching to nowhere. The coastal, rural villages have been transformed into semi-urban ‘townships’. The populace has been precipitated into a new “urbanism” and now adjusts to its implications.
"New urbanism supports regional planning for open space, context-appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. ……", or so Wikipedia informs me.
But the new “urbanism” that came about in the wake of post-tsunami reconstruction scenario, has a different form, a different substance. The transition from rural to urban/semi-urban has meant severe adaptations for the community – environmentally, economically, psychologically, socially. The villages have had to suddenly face all the issues of dense, urban slums. The disaster did not end with the disaster.
Markedly different from what is “normal” or “traditional” in the area, the design, material and structural response has wholly concentrated on “safety”. An extreme response, no doubt, from a panicky government, to allay the fears of a population that was recovering from a never-seen-before and probably once-in-a-lifetime disaster.
The entire resettlement and reconstruction process was controlled by the Tamil Nadu government in a way that rendered NGOs into mere contractors, and the community into ‘beneficiaries’. The contract was between the government and the NGO and the construction and process was monitored by the local bureaucracy. The designs had to be submitted to the local technical bureaucrats for approval. The government, thus, became the ‘super client’ with all interventions responding to the priorities expressed by this entity.
Added to this, was the fact that in most cases, the beneficiaries did not know which house was theirs, so even if so desired by an implementing NGO, the design, could not respond or be adapted to the lifestyle, occupational needs, community relationships, size of family, special needs etc. of the beneficiary.
The architect/ designer/ planner too, helpless in the face of a political and bureaucratic ‘whip, was forced to adhere to prescribed building codes, to RCC-column-beam-structures and had very little scope to negotiate a better design response.
The uniformity, while trying to eliminate inequity, also eliminated creativity and sensitivity.
The design response very visibly comes from an urban, educated, and a ‘western’, mind, which perceives a compartmentalized lifestyle to be an ideal. Where rural, communal interactions happened seamlessly in a variety of ways – at the well, at the borewell, under the tree, at the tea centre, at the bus stop, at the market, these are now expected to happen in specified, marked-out areas – parks, ‘open spaces’, community centres, and sometimes nowhere. Where the rural home flowed into the street in a single fabric of private and public life, they are now on demarcated ‘plots’, that encourage territorial fencing, insulating the family in a way which is new to the community. The earlier clustered, meandering layouts of the villages have given way to albeit efficient but unfamiliar and rigid grid formats. Where one fostered interaction and connection, the other has transformed communities to nuclear families.
Ramnad, TamilNadu ... an organic layout
Except for a few exceptions, the site planning response has been a disaster in itself. Where earlier the acquired sites were undulating, covered by shrubs and trees, and dotted with small water bodies, they now are ‘prepared’ and ‘treated’ - cleared, leveled, or filled. The sites lost their character, their ambience and their soul. The sites are bare, featureless, and the few remaining water bodies only threaten to become potential waste pits. The environmental costs of such hasty action will be borne by the communities for generations to come.
People took what they got, knowing that eventually they will modify their environs to suit their needs and lifestyle. The real architecture, design and reconstruction will begin, once the designers, the contractors, and the donors have gone.
There is a learning here.
If we are going to be faced with climatic extremes – cyclones, earthquakes, drought, heavy precipitation etc., as foreseen by Climate Change, we will be responding almost continually with reconstruction. Will this be our continuing response?
Reconstruction response itself needs to undergo a revitalization. It needs to become a subject to be deeply reflected upon. With solutions and responses to be theorized in the hallowed halls of education, so that eventually it will not remain a knee-jerk ‘response’ but will transform itself into a well-thought out, considered ‘approach’, a method, where sustainability and humaneness become embedded in it.
So that the disaster can end in the disaster, and does not spillover into reconstruction.
(this article was first published in the Indian Architect & Builder; January 2009).
Saturday, August 1, 2009
It has been strategically used in almost every part of the world by a variety of groups - in Western Europe the historic separatisms of Irish republicanism in Northern Ireland and Basque nationalism in Spain, in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe Bosnia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia, Chechen separatism, in African Rwanda it has been seen on a genocidal scale, the Middle Eastern conflicts of Israel, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya, in Latin-America Peru, Venezuela, the Jihadis and Tamils in South Asia, …. the list seems endless. Terrorism has been on a variety of topics ranging from the extreme Left to extreme Right, has been political, economical, issue-based, sponsored by state, and corporations, …. the list is endless.
How does one deal with terrorism and the terrorist? It might be too simplistic to just punish the perpetrator with death. Whose “side” would we take? In
Terrorism is here to stay. The faster we accept that, the better we may be able to deal with it. Because it is not a disease it cannot be “eradicated”. It is syndrome, a pattern of symptoms that characterize or indicate a particular socio-political condition. It is society’s face in the mirror. And the only way the reflection can be changed is to change the face.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
What would it mean to live with war and conflict all your life ? To be born into a War and grow up with violence around you ? War would seem like a natural activity. The violent, gory blood-shed would become part of the psyche ? What kind of values would one develop ? Of right and wrong ?
Afghanistan, a fierce-spirited country, proud and self-respecting nation, would be an example of such a psycho-social fabric. There are of course other places too like Palestine etc.
Kabul has a special place in my heart. Bombed out of its mind and heart, the empty shells of many a building that stare out blindly at the world, Kabul stands testimony to Afghanistan's gory history of three decades of war and turmoil.
The narrow by-lanes, the mud/ adobe houses, ingrained with old timber, its bustling and jostling market, the all-pervasive smell of the kababs, and the pictures of Hindi film heroes and heroines along with blaring hindi songs at every corner, made a unique mix of charm. Combined with the warmth of smiles of the people, the city could win anyone's heart.
The contradictions in the human psyche manifest externally and violently in Kabul. Children playing among the ruins and pock-marked walls was an anomaly one could not adjust to. So was it difficult to relate with the strong American accents of these kids. So was seeing tanks, soldiers with guns, being frisked and checked at various points, difficult to handle.
One takes one's freedom for granted - freedom to speak, to write, to travel around, to live life the way one wants, to believe in one's beliefs ... everyday normal stuff. Until one encounters a Kabul. Until one listens to the everyday stories of people. Until one witnesses the results of human need for power and control over another.
What kind of futures would the young ones have? What will they grow up to be? What happens to the wounds that the hearts and spirits carry - of witnessing whole families wiped out, of the treatment which mothers, sisters and aunts received. What would be their God? What right does another human have to walk into your homes and lay it in ruins?
One feels deep compassion and a deep sympathy for a people of such a nation. An admiration for the endurance of the human spirit, the ability to adapt and adjust and find happiness in whatever one can, fly kites and hear songs, fiercely grasping at the little that comes their way ....
Kabul is a testimony to the human spirit !
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Andhra Pradesh proposes a fee ceiling for private schools.
My daughter’s current school Timpany, is supposedly one of the better schools in Visakhapatnam. When she started school there was much debate about which school she should go to. And I remember poring over lists, speaking to various parents, friends and researching other sources. At the end of it, we decided that our daughter should go to another school, Visakha Valley School.
What decided our choice was an excellent argument from one of our friends. She said every school has its good teachers and bad teachers. And your child will be concerned about the teachers. The management of the school makes for a good school or a bad school and the child never comes in contact with the management. Hence no matter which school you choose, the quality of teaching will not be much different. I found that excellent advice. We chose a school which had much better ambience, larger, free and open spaces, and with smaller class strengths. And we never regretted our decision.
Timpany, however, seems to be part of her fate. She went to Timpany for her 11th and 12th class as this school offered the combination of subjects which we wanted. And that’s where we got embroiled in the management problems. Timpany has a history of management problems. With stories of the director embezzling funds to now this insane fee-hike.
Timpany, this year, arbitrarily increased its fees by 80%. Without prior information to parents. Suddenly. When we opened the fee book in June we saw that the fees have been almost doubled. The management had played clever and dirty. They waited until June. They did not inform anyone. We could not pull our kids out of the school and take them elsewhere. We were stuck. The problem was the method adopted. The slyness and underhand way of going about the monumental increase in fees. Parents with 2 or 3 kids in school would feel a major crunch.
The parent’s association has raised a hue and cry. They have been fighting the management, have brought orders from the District Department of Education. But to no avail. The management is adamant, inspite of ‘dharnas’ in front of the school.
In this context and atmosphere, the AP government’s proposal for a fee ceiling is welcome. Private schools have become places of rip-offs. They charge incredibly high fees, but the quality of teachers is less than mediocre. For eg. the teachers of the two most difficult subjects for my daughter – maths and accounts, are much less than mediocre. The children do not understand a word of what is being taught. And we spend tons on tuitions. Classroom and toilet conditions, simple comfort levels, attention to non-academic and creative activities etc. are much less than adequate.
Education, has become like politics. A dirty place. A quick, fast way of making huge money, and a no-options situation for the public. A mint for the owner. With so much push and awareness about education, every parent now, whatever economic situation, vies for the best education for the child. But do we get it ? Education has remained mediocre. Teaching methodologies, management policies, classroom and school conditions have not shown the escalation that the fees have shown.
I am not even going into education and its impact on the child – that is another can of worms.
Under these conditions, what is the common (wo)man supposed to do ?
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
The current issue being fought over is the size of the Centre’s rehab package – 1,010 crores as against the 14,000 + crores which was asked. The figures are mind-boggling.
The post-Kosi floods situation was heart-rending. Millions of people – children, old, disabled, women and men were marooned for over a month. In December, when we visited, the water was still flowing and hadn’t entirely subsided. That picture itself was frightening. And the hard winter was still not upon the people, who lived in make-shift, non-existent homes.
What was immediately evident was that Bihar had a major, major problem on its hands. The problem was a double-edged sword – there were no homes to shelter and no land to cultivate, which translated into no food and no money to rebuild. With no other alternative livelihood options around (the area is almost entirely dependent on agriculture), the people were just starving. Their only option was State-assistance. The State government valiantly put up relief shelters. But seeing no way opening up, closed down the shelter within a couple of months. The people were sent back to their villages – villages which were still under water, quite often inaccessible, and with no option of earning a day’s food.
There was silent panic all around.
One would expect that the State would galvanize itself and provide the basic assistance that the people needed. Being very much rural, majority of the homes are built with bamboo, thatch and other natural materials. People needed quick, simple homes (that cost not more than Rs.10,000) and quick options for making a livelihood.
But the Bihar government was negotiating with the Centre for a BIG package. The figures being bandied around were for 2.5 to 3 lakhs per home with additional funds for land reclamation and infrastructure building. The argument being if Tamil Nadu could do it, so can Bihar. What was forgotten was the scale – 50,000 against 3,00,000 homes.
The issue was that the State had yet to utilize its funds lying unused under the Indira Awas Yojana. With an additional package from the Centre, the State could get back on its feet. NGOs and people were pushing for solutions that were workable.
It is July 2009 now. The hard winter is past. The monsoon is now upon the people. And the State and the Centre are still embroiled in a battle of what it should get and give. While the people have emptied the villages and have moved and migrated in search of a life. For whom will the State rebuild? Who will get the rehabilitation package?
At the moment we are fragmented, because the ‘pay-off’ or the profit is defined to be ‘personal’. One’s personal power comes from personal growth. The reigning need of an individual, organization or community then is ‘personal’ and hence all activities and energies go into that which will ‘personalize’ and ‘individualize’. However if the ‘pay-off’ is (re)defined to be communal, and profit is contextualized and situated in the communal, the tendency would be to communitize and communalize.
We, as a society, are still in an young stage. As the young child’s world is defined by its personal needs, the society is defined by personal needs. We are still in the me-and-mine stage. We are growing, no doubt about it. It is evident across the centuries, across the various civilizations. Each have ‘grown’ over the other. We still have a way to go before we can truly become ‘communal’ or ‘social’. Way to go, before we can socio-psychologically feel confident enough to define the world beyond ourselves.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
Does the money it promises really go to the cause promised? That is one basic question. But beyond this is what this kind of initiatives have done to us - it has turned millions into armchair philanthrophists. We click and believe we have contributed to a cause. And we forget it. We don't even bother to check what really happens to it. There are no updates about what is happening to the so-called cause. Whether it earned what it promised. There is no place that shows the list of people who have clicked-and-contributed. Nothing. Except probably collecting profile data for some marketing gimmick.
It has done what it promises to us - somewhere it has satisfied our need to be relevant. We believe we have done our best. We haven't had to deal with the realities that causes otherwise have. We also get to announce to the world how much we care.
Another symptom of a Facebook Society.
Monday, June 29, 2009
It is strange this culture of the BRAND. It is a fight for individuality. A struggle to be identified for its difference. A cry against the cloning culture of society ... ! At the same time, it perpetuates the principles of the cloning society ... the Brand is the same wherever you go, whichever part of the world. Its odd, this. A struggle for individuality and attention subscribing to the principles of universality and standardization culture.
McDonald is a good example. Wherever you go in the world, the Mac is the same - the same look, the same toys, the same look-alike people. Yet, the Brand is distinctive because it has perpetuated a sameness everywhere.
I sometimes wonder why products, their feel and look cannot be subsumed within a cultural context. Can the Mac look and feel Arab-like in arabian countries? Or chinese in china? Or Indian in India? Instead of looking American wherever it is? Will it destroy its self-respect? Will it take away from its sense of identity?
Its not only McDonald. Its everywhere. Clothes, food, magazines, cars, water-bottles (!) .... A struggle for identity perpetuating a sameness.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
When the scientific community conceives and creates an idea, are there any Ethics to it? Is it that every idea finds exploration and expression? Or is there a determining factor that allows some ideas to flower more than the others ? - the classic example being that there is more research and findings for hair-colouring than alternative energy?
Science itself is neutral, or so we would like to think. It is the application of Science and its findings that become instrumentalized to fulfill a hidden agenda which most of the society is not aware of. Or so we would like to think.
But is science neutral? Can it be said that the creation of the atom bomb is innocent? It does not look ethical from any angle. But then this is an example most of us would agree with. But if we start measuring the ethics in the creation of every idea itself, what would we arrive at? What are the ethics in hysterectomy? Or abortion? What about pesticides? ...
I was trying to understand something which my mind was trying to point to. Madhulika, one of the participants in the meeting, finally put the words to it - there are power-relations, not only in the application of S&T, but in the very genesis of the idea, the funding for it, the process of allowing it come to the forefront and become a usable product.
Science & technology do not seem innocent. They seem to be political. In the way the very birth of the idea, it development, application and promotion.
To be explored further ....
Ritzer highlights four components: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control and all of society has been a recipient / victim of the McDonaldization process.
As an NGO, I have been writing proposals for our programmes in the last decade. Time and again I have been confronted with the straitjacket of this method - McDonaldization. Every donor asked for the same - quantifiable indicators, verifiable objectives, defined timelines and schedules, supportable expenses. It was getting more and more difficult to "fit in" with this. How could one calculate the growth of a village's 'awareness levels'? How do we define and verify the power-relations between the local, bureacratic, mafia and the communities? How do we predict how these relations would turn?
McDonaldization forced us more and more into taking up McDonald-like-projects. I found myself mouthing the same standard terms - participatory, gender-sensitive, sustainable, environment-friendly .... I couldn't break away from the prescribed format, even if the situation warranted it.
And as predicted by Ritzer's concept, with these four processes, a strategy which was rational within a narrow scope led to outcomes that are harmful or irrational.
I search for ways by which we can 'de-Mcdonaldize' ourselves.
The airport has a "global" quality - undistinctive, uniform, like-anywhere-else airport. I often feel disoriented in such buildings. When standing inside any of these buildings, sometimes just for a moment, I try to remember where I am, which city? It was the same sense of déjà vu at the Hyderabad airport. As we entered it felt like the Turin airport and the inside reminded of the Paris departure area.
It is difficult to understand why Hyderabad airport should not look Hyderabadi. Why it should look like an European airport. The materials, the glass, even the so called ‘artistry’ of encasing the innards of the mechanical equipment in glass...
The motto of standardization is seen in airports, hotels, ATMs, malls, super-markets, metros, metro-stations, expressways, flyovers, traffic-lights, facades, billboards.... Even the models in the advertisements seem to look alike. We are now firmly entrenched in a look-alike, be-alike society. Our movies. Our soap-operas and reality shows. Our buildings. Our lifestyle. Our thinking, too, I am afraid.
I wonder whether we draw a sense of community and safety from within these symbols and motifs of the look-alike culture. We feel less alien. We are with the familiar, the understood. We are part of a larger machinery.
I guess with the fall of the many beliefs and systems, the current society is in a vacuum, in a limbo. Nothing has worked – the American dream, the maoist liberation, the communist revolution. The promise of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ending of the Cold War has proven to be hollow. The liberation brought about by Globalization only tinsel in nature. Do we feel somewhere deep inside that this is not what we wanted? But are afraid to say it, face it? Or is it the bigger, deeper fear of knowing that we do not know what we want?
I would like to think that this not-working out is an indication that something completely different needs to happen. That this is not the path. I would like to think this might be the calm before the storm, the stillness of the turning tide, the pause before the wheel turns. The space where the idea is taking birth.
That the Substance is in the process of being formed, being defined.
Friday, June 26, 2009
There is no better symbolization of the prevalent culture than Architecture of the day and age. Being the one element that reaches deep into the psyche of society to manifest the reality of that day and age, it is actually a visual 3-d representation of the existence of that time. Every structure thus becomes a snapshot.
We currently live in a networked society. Fast-moving, cross-cultural, cross-ethnic, pre-fabricated, primarily services oriented as opposed to production oriented, outsourced, virtual, instant-messaging, instant-gratification, monetarily-valued economy and reality.
In a globalised world, we have global citizens, global professionals, global craftsmen, global education, global methods, and a global ethics and morality. We also have global design, global architecture.
What would be the snapshot today? What does the architecture of the millennium symbolizes and how does it manifest the psycho-social-politico-economic culture of today in the building materials, the design, the process of building, the relationships, the symbols and motifs.
In a fast moving culture that cannot wait for an end-result, concrete very much is the material of the day. An ultra-malleable material for but a short time, it requires fast intervention before it loses this quality. In a use-and-throw society, that wants something new before it has got bored of the old, it stands good as it degrades within half a century.
In a society where visibility is rated high, glass dominates. An insular society that needs a notion of freedom, that needs an expanse of vision from the armchair without a desire to interact with the outside, glass insulates from the natural elements creating an inside reality far removed from that one outside.
In a global world with a multi-ethnic culture, the most common aspects become the least common denominator that proliferate. Universalization of design thus happens. This is best seen in the commonality between any of the structures and cities of the world. Be it soaring skyscrapers or the flyovers and express-ways.
The way the society treats its people is best symbolized in the cubicalized, pigeon-hole apartments and high rises. Nuclear units for nuclear families. Seperatists. Individualized. Faceless innumerable windows, that look into one another eliciting a withdrawal into the self for privacy. Space a premium – socially and economically.
The social structure of today is best symbolized by the gated communities that barricade a section of people inside while excluding the rest of the world. The difference from the olden-day forts being that it is now also for the public and not only the rulers. It symbolizes the paranoia, fear, loneliness, violence and divisiveness that permeates our consciousness today.
The interactive streets have given way to the rushing, blurring expressways symbolizing the way we relate. We interact by choice, at our behest. Facebook-like, we have stop-overs for replenishment. We connect when we want to. Public spaces are marked out areas where people go to. Its no longer the fabric of everyday life. Community has to be invited.
The square and the flat are now the universal shapes. Easily assembleable. Quick to integrate. A quick-fix, easy-to-learn, networkable solution. Prefabrication makes it easy to Outsource and customize.
I guess I could go on ....
In this sense architecture cannot be sanctimonous and rigid as it is made out to be. It cannot be stuck in the rut of form and facade ... it needs to "see" its dynamism, the process, the evolution which is what actually happens when an architect designs.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
And herein lies the loss.
Why does heritage promotion fail ? I think it is because of this nature of the concept. Because it ignores or neglects the living heritage among people - still alive, still being adapted and adopted. It ignores heritage in motion. It ignores evolving heritage. The 'glamour' is 'frozen' in the palatial hotels and structures. Traditional practices, skills and crafts are 'showcased' in the aesthetics of boutique hotels. Heritage becomes elitist. Access to it is restricted. Its aliveness in everyday lives of ordinary people is eroded and lost.
Heritage dies and becomes a candidate for conservation.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
"Looking in a hacker's mind, you have to be open to the social aspects behind the way they think. Often portrayed as loners, hackers can be socially involved and fit into what is considered 'normal' everyday lives.There appears to be a commonality of 'power' for hackers. The solving of 'puzzles' and the 'see what I can do' attitude is most apparent. By talking to 'wannabees' and individuals who have hacked, the 'power' of finding exploits and 'showing' the 'bigger' entity how they are not secure is the most outstanding trait we will find in these people.
There doesn't appear to be a criminological theory or 'true' understanding 'why' they hack. The motivation of hackers will always be a mystery. Hackers usually use social engineering to gain most of theirknowledge. Social Engineering is the act of getting someone to tell you about sensitive information through trust. This unadulterated trust becomes a weakness for most." This what I read on the net ....
I was in the IT circuit once upon a time ... A hacker in those days was different from now. S/he was a person who hacked for an ideology - it was defiance, it was a sheer enjoyment of knowledge and skills and seeing how far it goes, it was a lot of unadulterated mischief, a lot of times curiosity ... but no matter what the reason, one thing was common - a hacker was king (or queen), a whiz, a magician. It was also like being a 'underground' movement, a counterculture, an alternative to mainstream ... it was not mindlessly destructive.
But today the hacker is an Outcast, a Criminal.
I am not sure what moves this generation. Definitely, it has to do with power and control. Other than the obvious reasons of greed and money (when it is a crime), it sometimes could imply a wanting to have the power to "move" something. I do find that the current generation's ethics are very different from mine. There seems to be a more 'so what?!' and the boundaries between right and wrong seem to be very fuzzy and more easily permeable.
Monday, March 2, 2009
Architects seem rather lonely. Especially to me, with a NGO background where every little thing gets discussed to death, not having adequate fora to discuss one’s relevance and place in society seems as though something important is missing. Architects seem trapped in their ivory towers, thinking they hold the answers to all problems. In fact, it might just be probably true. They do have solutions – to micro as well as the macro; to the social, political as well as technical. If only they could come out of their very own version of Stockholm Syndrome (The Conflict Inside; Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava; Indian Architect & Builder, january 2009) where they are in love their client and their dictates. Ranjit Hoskote’s sketch of the aspiring architect quite hit the nail on the head: “Many young people go to architecture school with a self-image of the architect drawn from the deplorable writings of Ayn Rand. In this version, the architect is seen as Epic Hero, a Romantic genius, a lonely Howard Roarkian challenger of history who is equally indifferent to the needs of others and to the currents of the time ”.
Is this what has happened? That the architectural education institutions have churned out symbolic, technical responses and clones of a historic and past glory rather than a thinking, reflecting community which can construct new societal responses? A tired, blasé, frustrated, incestuous community that satisfies itself with glories bygone? If we take off our eyes off the Parthenons and Pantheons, we might just be able to see the modern-day colossal mistakes, that neither integrate into the backgrounds nor reflect the common man’s lifestyles and needs. Is it easier to keep our eyes and attention and debates and discourses on the technical, design details than current and future socio-political realities, especially as it is impossible to really design in isolation and be removed from these realities? Does this kind of myopia imply a deep insecurity, a well understood inadequacy to respond as a community to socio-political trends? To innovate and bring fresh thinking not only in “structures” but also social structures? The problem is that even in technical responses, the innovations seem so few and far between.
What the architecture community (and also many other sectors) needs is to learn from the IT (information technology) community. It requires a movement within, a deep down explosion that can set off an internal revolution, that can set in motion processes that will result in spawning ideas and interventions that can become workable, can reach millions (and thus make millions too), and become user-friendly. Remember the computers of the 1980s? The cost, size and difficulties in using them? In just two decades, there has been a revolution and today we see gadgets that can fit into a palm of every Tom, Dick and Harry … including the local grocer and the business tycoons – and each fitting the socio-economic profile of the user. What was the magic formula that made it happen? The IT community is as exclusive and impenetrable as the architect community. So how did this professional sector re-invent itself and made itself an indispensable product in so short a time?
Agreed that architecture is art – but the difference is that the output of this art form is not ensconced in hallowed halls of the super-buyers or museums, but directly interacts with the rest of the society in everyday terms, even if it is built for only one client. The outputs of this art form bring about large scale change in the environment, influences social psychology, can engender long term communal responses while influencing the aesthetics and management of small and large scale spaces. Thus, it not only owes the rest of humankind, but more importantly, owes itself a relook at its role in the making of the world in the coming century, even if it is only as citizens of this world.
What this community requires is to relook at itself within the present context, check out its relevance, identify the gaps, enlarge its response canvas and create a way forward that will be responsive to next century. No one else can do it for them. Neither the client, nor the politico-legal paraphernalia that underlie the industry, nor the ‘aam janata’. It has to come from within. A dynamic re-defined, a language modernized, a system revitalized, a response ‘real’-ised by the thinkers of the industry.
It needs a Vox Populi of its own, that can bring to focus its own understandings, perceptions, and perspectives and propose solutions on current realities. A means that will break the self-imposed isolation and help it to mingle, co-operate and collaborate with the rest; that will not only bring much-needed, fresh solutions but also will help it to gain from the mutual support. It can choose to become a force that can influence change, dialogue as a sector with the powers-that-be, and bring forth its own vision of society rather than leave it to mundane and petty bureaucrats and contractors.
It might be difficult to make the old horses drink. However, it might be useful to introduce an ongoing self-reflection process which allows the more adventurous, the more curious and the more reflective to have an opportunity to do so. A self-reflection process that frequently evaluates itself in the context of micro to macro, allowing for re-positioning and an automatic rearrangement to the relevance required. A process that will enable this community to be where it ought to be, where it has been in the past – at the helm of making of new societies, envisioning and designing new landscapes, and being true Architects.
It is not as if alternative practice models have not emerged. Sure, there have many successful attempts by brilliant pathbreakers who have relocated themselves within the broader social processes of change, have put themselves directly in touch with not only the sites and their histories but also with the users and the workforce. They have made for themselves indispensable niches of being participants in the cultural processes of their times and have become agents of social, political and economic change. However, these have remained more as personal crusades, fulfilling personal destinies. Young professionals do look upto them and model themselves upon them. But what is more urgently required is to create avenues for changes in process designs which will help the future generations to examine and realign themselves to changing times and become change agents in their own right.
I am driven to write this, because in the last few years, I have interacted with some very interesting people - architects. I have heard them speak from their hearts, share their agonies, listened to their dreams; I have read what they have been in the past, and their slow but sure degeneration over the last few centuries. It pains to see a people who are meant to be protagonists in the drama of designing and generating societies, slowly sideline themselves to mere technicians, project managers, and sometimes contractors.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
The ‘gated communities’ response is such a direct antithesis to current trends and efforts to create inclusive societies, that one wonders at the response. It seems to me very much akin to the ‘flyover response’ – flyovers that fly over problems rather than solve them. Gated communities shut themselves inside, believing that the world begins and ends there, and wonder why social degeneration is happening and urban security risk is increasing.
We need to understand the genesis of Gated Communities. It has been a response of the ‘aggressors’ against the ‘natives’ – in Brazil, in South Africa, in Europe, in Israel, in parts of India, - evident is that the ‘encroacher’ needed to feel ‘safe’. The response has a certain mindset behind it, with an inbuilt streak of guilt of an occupier and fear of the resulting backlash from the ‘victims’.
Can such design responses in a historically critical context become a mainstream design response? The basis of many of the current problems have been precisely that – a mainstreaming of short-term, very contextual responses – whether be it Gated Communities or Urban slums. Can a response that might have seemed relevant to a South African white man in an Apartheid situation where he should well been afraid of a black repurcussion, possibly be a relevant design response in Urban India in its Mumbais and Delhis? Yet that is what we see. And while walls around cities, world over are coming down, we are happily putting walls around communities.
Over time what will happen to us in India, will be what has happened to the West. We will keep out the ‘social trash’ – the doodhwalas, the maid servants, the vegetable vendors, the newspaperwalas, the service and maintenance guys – make it so difficult for them to exist within accessible environs, that in the long run, these poorer communities will find employment elsewhere and will eventually leave these Gated Communities to their devices. And like in the West, we will slowly find ourselves having to wash our own dishes and clothes, sweep our homes, repair our plumbing, etc.etc.etc. We might also begin feeling a false sense of security. False, because Gated Communities, isolated and not networked, will be much more vulnerable to people who might want to take potshots at them. It is much easier after all to target a fortress than a neighbourhood. And it has been shown time and again that any security that can be put in place can also be equally undone.
And then when the discrimination, alienation and separation is complete, and social outrages and rages build up, we shall cry out in panic at the backlashes we face and we will wonder why our designs are not working.
Who can be held responsible for mainstreaming these kinds of anomalies? What kind of reflection process does the designer go through before proposing a design? What kind of help, support and alternative viewpoints are considered to understand various dimensions especially in construction of societies? How are the ecological, economics, politics, social impacts, psychological long term repercussions of what is proposed evaluated? What kind of consultations happen or opinions taken before we take up what will eventually lead to social engineering?
Can the architect throw up his/ her hands and believe that s/he is not responsible for cities – that they after all only build buildings and not cities. And they are not just buildings after all – they are collections of buildings that become neighbourhoods, collection of neighbourhoods that eventually become cities.
Does the architect has no control over his/her decisions? Are they becoming blasé and giving up and withdrawing into individual shells for the next fantastic project. What stops them from becoming a pro-active community that is able to put its imagination and head together and influence change? They do have solutions – and saying that 99% of the structures are anyway built without architects is just a cop out. If they influenced 99% of what they DO build, it might be the vehicle of change that is needed.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
With urban areas becoming more and more vulnerable, migration will not be a long-term solution. In fact, it might become a bigger problem. People will be forced to come back to the rural areas. In this scenario of urban crisis, a self-sufficient rural economy will be the best solution in the long run. The rural economy has already undergone a drastic change – from a nomadic, barter system it has changed to a cash-driven, settled lifestyle bringing with it all the socio-politico-economic ramifications. The rural economy of the future will have to adapt to this changed reality, yet be rooted in the older, more sustaining strategies and forms of running itself.
Shifts in education also will have to be made. One of key factors in loss of traditional crafts and skills and thus local self-sufficiency has been education. An educated youth prefers a job in the city to practicing crafts. But over time education can bring about the required change to the rural economy. Instead of driving youth away from traditional skills, it could empower them to dynamize and modernize the local skills and set up local industries based on these skills.
True, it might not be possible or even practical to go back to a barter economy. But local economics will have to change. A system which is locally rooted, and which relies on local practices rather than control it, can help bring control back in people’s hands.It will be very important in the long-run, if we are to make the rural economy self-sustainable, for it to depend on local markets. An economy that generates and caters to local demand thus fostering local market will bring local growth and will be the answer. Instead of further creating large, unsustainable, urban centres with large ecological footprints, it might be useful to promote smaller, local, centres with urban advantages but with small ecological footprints.
Similarly social and communal identities and religions will have to undergo change. Communities are important to provide the basic framework to which an individual can relate with and identify with. However the definition of communities themselves will have change. It might be important to define ourselves not just by religion, region, language – we will have to integrate core values, forms of lifestyle, and means of making a living and growth also parts of the communal identity. (The ‘untouchables’, then will be the ‘exploitative’ means of growth, while a sustainable lifestyle can ensure one to become a ‘Brahmin’ - the original caste system which defined one by the work one did and laid out the rules and ethics within that frame).
Climate change promises to bring in new ways of thinking. It will not be enough to just ‘improve’ or ‘better’ old/ current systems by adding ingredients of ecological sensitivity, or low-carbon economy. It will have to be rooted in new politics, new economics, and new socio-cultural interactions and most importantly new values. The new-ness will have to based on the ‘movement’ that already taken place (we cannot go back to the past), but have its learnings from the old, traditional systems and values. It will have to intelligently combine social equity and justice with the personal need and ambition for growth. The newness might have to come from re-defining ownership, power, richness. It might be necessary to label exploitative and unsustainable forms of lifestyle as ‘poverty’ and a socially sustainable format as ‘power’, ‘security’, etc.
It is not enough to look at or change current policies, though it will have to begin here, of course. But if we are to survive, in the long run, formats of governance will have to undergo change. It might be necessary to shift from the dream of ‘global power’ to ‘local power’. Or at the least, the meanings of these phrases might have to be understood differently. Global politics, global power that are here to stay will have a role to play – but it will have to be more to moderate and ensure a level playing grounds, while the actual control, systems and formats of governance and growth will have to be left to local level.
It will need not just a socio-politico-economic change but also a deeply psychological change. (I would like to call it a psycho-spiritual change)