Thursday, October 28, 2010

Urban Longings

No son of a peasant ever wants to be a peasant. This is an old truth going back to when the first city appeared on the earth 10,000 years ago. A farmer yearns to live in a city and be called a ‘citizen’. From the word ‘city’ also comes ‘civic’ and ‘civilized’. A civilized person is supposed to show concern for his fellow citizens; and from this act of civic kindness is born ‘civilisation’. The city loosens the barriers of prejudice—of caste, religion, and feudal status--and this is why every peasant wants to part of the urban proletariat.

The city emerged in history when a farmer first discovered that he could exchange his surplus grain with something that his neighbours possessed. He stood at a trading post. Soon a bania came along. He bought the grain, opened a shop, and a bazaar was born. With surplus food, everyone did not have to toil for food—they could buy it. Thus arrived brahmins, barbers, charioteers, poets, and prostitutes--all the grand occupations and services that could be exchanged for food. So, the city came into being from banias and bazaars.

It is fantastic to the point of madness that the same city today is an urban agglomeration of 20 million inhabitants, the size of Mumbai and Delhi. Mumbai is larger than the population of 150 countries and 17 states in India and India has 25 of the world's 100-fastest growing urban areas. Half the world’s population, 3.3 billion, already lives in cities, and this will only go up. With our average farm size down to 1.4 hectares—so tiny, it is difficult to make a living—urbanization is inevitable. Already crowded, noisy, polluted and violent, the city overwhelms us with its alienating ugliness. If the Indian city is a dictionary of filth, fear, and loathing, as our newspapers remind us daily, why do so many of us choose to live in it? I shall attempt to answer this question in this essay.

Ever since its birth, the city has exercised a mesmerizing hold on the human imagination. It exists not only as brick and mortar, but also in the mind. The city is a woman who beckons but does not yield her secrets easily. It offers the promise of hope, a place to realize one’s talents and capabilities, to experience the cosmopolitan without the need of a passport. Filled with desire, fantasy and pleasure, especially in the way it catches the imaginative lives of women, their stories, their dreams and loves, the city is the ‘sinuous gait of a beautiful woman’ as Baudelaire once expressed with delight.

The city, however, also exploits and oppresses human beings, and Charles Dickens captured this so well in 19th century England. Dickens resonates with us in India today because his novels deal with an urban reality that is ours—crime, beggars, crowds, pollution, and poverty, all this existing side by side with great wealth. Yet to a new migrant from Bihar, Mumbai is an ‘amazing place’, as David Copperfield said of London when he saw it for the first time. Urban India today is at the same stage of capitalist development as Dickens’ London.

Ugly concrete blocks, decked out in tinted glass and neon-bright colours, are slowly taking the place of old tiled village houses. Commercial streets are noisy and suffer from unregulated construction. Our urban ills are the result of outdated building codes, poorly defined lines of municipal authority. It is the same sordid tale of bad, unreformed laws, corrupt bureaucrats and builders, and a government that is ‘far too big for the little things and too small for the big things’. Add to this the general pressures of development and urbanization in a rapidly growing country. These are formidable obstacles.

Because of the harsh, ugly reality of urban squalor, we try to escape in pastoral dreams of the countryside. Mahatma Gandhi, a man of the city, had such a romantic view before B.R. Ambedkar, corrected him: ‘What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?’ Those of us who cannot escape to the country, dream of shady parks and tree-lined boulevards, kindly public squares, and understated commercial development. Some of it is a reaction to the rational modernism of Le Corbusier, who said notoriously that a house is a ‘machine to live in’. He designed only one city, Chandigarh, but he had great influence on urban planning in the years after World War II. His alienating urban towers for the poor are now discredited. They became the new slums after years of poor upkeep. The nadir was reached in the dynamiting of the failed Pruitt-Igoe high rise housing in St Louis in 1972.

In India too there is a reaction. Cities like Chandigrah and Gandhinagar are considered a mistake. Sensible urban planners humanely place the urban poor and our informal economy at the centre of their thinking. Walkability is their first thought when designing a road. Ranjit Sabhiki celebrates the 116 urban villages of Delhi, which have acted like a safety valve, where migrants have a found a room of their own and created businesses with an indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. These villages have prevented Delhi from creating slums like Mumbai. Yet the movie, Slumdog Millionaire, teaches us about a certain humanity in the slum. Mumbai is more humane than Delhi because it had its origins in commerce--buying and selling teach you interdependence and civility. But Mumbai’s superior public culture is also due to its better transport system. Now with the Metro, Delhi has a chance to change its public culture. Rubbing shoulders with fellow citizens in the Metro could build empathy and respect and bring about a civic revolution in an unkind city.

Our other great hope is the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, which has already begun to affect positive changes in some of our cities. It is making important choices in favour of public transport, sustainability, walkability and urban governance. Let us not delude ourselves. Urbanization is inevitable and no country achieved prosperity without it. Cities concentrate poverty but are they also offer the hope for escaping from it. For me, the city is irresistible. It is the turmoil of human freedom as I watch the river of life flow past in full majesty in a crowded bazaar. My hero is the statesman, Pericles, who gave the best reason why he fell in love with the city of Athens: it was because its democratic freedom awakened in its citizens’ hearts the sentiment of man’s humanity to man.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Next Battleground

Book review for The Wall Street Journal, Saturday Oct 16, 2010
by Gurcharan Das

Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Hardcover, price $28, 384 pages, Random House, 2010

We have come to accept that the 500-year domination of Asia by the West is coming to an end and that the balance of power in the 21st century will rest on the fortunes of China, India and the United States. In “Monsoon,” Robert D. Kaplan goes further, suggesting that it is in the Indian Ocean where history will be made and where the global struggle for democracy, energy, religion and security will be waged.

Mr. Kaplan, whose books include “Balkan Ghosts” and “Warrior Politics,” has a gift for geopolitical imagination. Maps do matter, he feels, and the right map can stimulate thinking about the future of the world. To understand the 20th century, it was important to understand the map of Europe. When it comes to the 21st century, however, Americans are at a disadvantage because of an inherent bias in their mapping convention: Since the 16th century, when Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator developed a method of showing the globe as a flattened surface, Mercator projections have tended to place the Western Hemisphere in the middle of the map, splitting the Indian Ocean at its far edges. Yet the Indian Ocean encompasses a quarter of the world’s surface and is home to half of the world’s shipping-container traffic.

From the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean stretches past the tense arc of Islam—with its tinderboxes of Somalia, Yemen, Iran and Pakistan—past the Indian subcontinent all the way to the Indonesian archipelago. The Indian Ocean will be the vital geography, says Mr. Kaplan, where the rivalry between China and India will play out, and where America’s future as a great power depends on its ability to command a place on this new center stage of history.

Hovering over the book is a familiar question: Will the 21st century be defined by wars of identity, in particular the clash of fundamentalist Islam with others, or will it be a story of a largely peaceful, economic rise of India, China and other nations in Asia and Africa? Mr. Kaplan believes in the more optimistic scenario. The message of “Monsoon” is that the economic impulse is likely to prevail and in the long run even the more extreme Islamic nations will turn middle class. Al-Jazeera, the Middle Eastern television network, is symbolic of this bourgeois Islam.

The best thing that the U.S. can do, Mr. Kaplan says, is to continue to protect the vital trade routes of the Indian Ocean for the benefit of all, in alliance with the navies of the new powers of the Indian Ocean world. But America will have to shift its obsession with al Qaeda in order to be perceived as “legitimate” by the new, insecure middle classes of Asia, and learn to project its soft power.

To this end, according to Mr. Kaplan, the U.S. can learn something from India, whose soft power is admired around the world. The country is perceived by many as a pluralistic, democratic, nonviolent land of the ideals of Buddha, Gandhi and Tagore, ruled by the righteous principles of dharma during the best periods of its history—of the emperor Akbar in the 16th century, for example, and Ashoka in the third century B.C. This perception may explain why India’s rise does not stir uneasiness in the same way that China’s does. America too is a land of ideals, of course, but the world tends to forget that and needs to be reminded.

“Monsoon” rests on the premise that the Indian Ocean is “more than just a geographic feature, it is also an idea.” I am not persuaded. Just as I am not persuaded that Asia is an “idea” in the sense that the West is. I have trouble imagining what people mean when they say that the 21st century will be an era of Asian dominance. It makes sense to talk about the rise of India and China, but Asia is too diverse with too many cultures, nations and religions—and it is too disunited. Yes, there have been rich, historical connections between Asian countries based on trade, diplomacy and Buddhism, but that is insufficient to support Asia as an “idea.” This is a landmass, after all, that stretches from the Near East to the Far, across seven time zones and half the world’s latitudes.

For the 21st century to be a peaceful era, Mr. Kaplan suggests, China, India and America should look to history for inspiration. The Indian Ocean was a trading cosmopolis before the Portuguese arrived in the late 15th century, an oceangoing marketplace where Indian, Chinese, Arab and Persian traders were brought close by the monsoon winds to create a grand network of communal ties. Such comity will be hard to duplicate as India and China grow more powerful and their interest in dominating the Indian Ocean increases accordingly. It should be noted that the navies of China and India will soon rank second and third in the world, trailing only the U.S.

India fears encirclement by China, and India’s other neighbors are increasingly uneasy about Beijing’s swelling power and assertiveness. Amid these worries, many Asian countries still look to America as the only credible guarantor of security in the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Kaplan offers plenty of striking insights in “Monsoon,” and his analysis generally makes sense—but I nonetheless have trouble believing that the future of the 21st century will hinge on naval power. Military ships these days seemed designed more for intimidation and transport than for all-out naval warfare—they’re sitting ducks for sophisticated rocketry.

When it comes to the contest between India and China, I do not believe it will be decided either by arms or economic strength. Both countries will soon become prosperous and middle class. The race will be won by India if it fixes its governance before China fixes its politics; or by China if it finds a way to give its people liberty before India reforms its institutions of the state--bureaucracy, police, and judiciary.

Mr. Das is the author of “The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma.” (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Good politics is about prudence, not moral perfection

Two weeks have gone by since the Allahabad High Court pronounced a historic verdict on a property dispute that seems to go back at least five hundred years. The verdict says less about the law and more about our country which is remarkable for the extraordinary continuity of its traditions rather than their antiquity. We live at the same time in the first, the eleventh and the twenty-first centuries, and the court’s judgment has upheld this continuity and simultaneity of our historical lives. The verdict has ensured communal harmony but do we have reasons to worry that it might encourage demolition of other mosques on sites where there were pre-existing temples?

Nothing is quite perfect in the world and certainly not human beings. Well-meaning legal and secular fundamentalists, who have criticised this judgment, seek moral perfection in a pragmatic nation. Both Hindus and Muslims worshipped inside the 2.77 acre compound of the Babri Masjid--at least since the 19th century. This peaceful practice was disrupted in 1949 when someone placed idols of Ram inside the mosque as a political act. The judgment of the High Court has restored the plural situation which existed before this political act. Court verdicts are inevitably political but the best ones have kept us united and democratic. This verdict is a good example of prudence, the chief virtue of rulers according to Edmund Burke, because prudence eschews perfection.

Whether Ram was born in a particular spot is of little significance to me and given a choice I would have built a park on this disputed property. However, I respect the deep meaning it holds for others. The High Court judges have also shown consideration for this ideal of public dharma, which in fact gave birth to the Indian republic. India’s founding fathers came to this ideal from different inspirations--Gandhi from the Gita; Nehru from the deeds of Emperor Asoka, and Ambedkar from the Buddha. Such was the importance of this ideal that they placed it at the centre of the Indian flag as dharmachakra, the wheel of dharma. India cannot be understood without dharma, just as France cannot be comprehended without “√©galit√©” nor America without “liberty”.

The good Vidura says in the Mahabharata that in judging a ruler’s actions he looks to the results. If it benefits the people, it is an act of dharma; if it harms them then it is adharma. This is also the spirit behind the pragmatic verdict of the High Court. Unlike Yudhishthira, Vidura would agree to ‘sacrifice an individual for the sake of a village and a village for the sake of a nation’. Vidura is half brother and royal counsellor to the king of Hastinapur and he speaks from the experience of managing a state. In agreeing to sacrifice a person in order to save many, he has drawn a distinction between public and private dharma. The English thinker, Jeremy Bentham, went on to make this criterion famous in the 19th century via his Utilitarian slogan—‘the greatest good of the greatest number’.

Conquerors have come and gone in all countries. Each conqueror razed old monuments to build new ones. Christian shrines came up on pagan temples of Rome and Greece. Muslim conquerors built mosques on Hindu temples just as Hindus and Buddhist fought over their sacred spaces. It is the way of the world. We not unique and we should be relaxed about our history. Since some people are not, this historic judgment has prudently revisited history in order to close it without opening new wounds. It acknowledges the birthplace of Ram without holding anyone responsible for the destruction of a temple or a mosque.

The reaction of people has been mature, which is not surprising at a time of galloping economic growth and rapid change in our society. Indians have moved on--we are not less religious, but we care about other things now and have less appetite for the politics of religion. We are more self-confident and optimistic. For these reasons this verdict will not encourage demolition of other mosques, as some believe. The young, especially, have moved away from the politics of Ayodhya, which is a cautionary warning to the BJP about Hindutva’s relevance. It too should move on to more relevant concerns such as governance. There are more votes in promising judicial, administrative, and police reforms.

This is an important judgment for modern India and the people have responded in a mature and wise manner. By appealing to the subtle, pragmatic, and ancient art of dharma, it is a very Indian verdict. Those who have criticised it seek rational solutions when the vast majority of Indians are driven by belief. The High Court has wisely reclaimed the ancient ideal of public dharma, which is happily the proud foundation stone of our Republic.