Friday, August 14, 2009


Climate Change is an issue of accountability. It starkly has brought out the nature of development so far – as-long-as-i-am-fine-i-don’t-care-about-anything-else attitude. What is happening to the world surpasses the consequences of Nazi holocaust and the Nuclear bomb or the silent but inexorable wiping out of the indigenous communities. It cannot be passed off as collateral damage of Development.

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

“Modern high-tech warfare is designed to remove physical contact:
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

The current state of World affairs


Friday, August 7, 2009

A new Urbanism

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

Terrorism is here to stay

Terrorism is a syndrome. By its very existence it implicates the society. And terrorism is nothing new. It has been strategically used since centuries to intimidate, rebel, bring to notice an issue or a cause, strike against an enemy etc. Poverty, oppression, etc. is not THE root cause of terrorism. Apparently “terrorism is never simply the response to socio-economic conditions of marginality. It is always the product of a political project.”

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 Rwanda? In Bosnia? In Peru? In Cambodia? In Spain? In Ireland? In Iran? In Palestine? In Afghanistan? Whose cause would I support? Anti-abortion? Anti-Gay? Green terrorists? Environmental activists? Women’s liberation? If terrorism is a crime as it causes death and destruction and thus needs to be “crushed”, how we deal with other crimes of similar magnitude but not so dramatic or visible?

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.