Rant of an Urban Researcher

One of the most pathetic examples of the neglect of the city’s history is the Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai. This sounds like a contradiction – in recent years Kala Ghoda has become synonymous with the heritage movement, with its museums and galleries, arts festivals and concerts, and recently restored colonial architecture. But if the conservationists had bothered to look behind their charming building facades and fancy street furniture, they would note that one of India’s most venerable and best-stocked repositories of historical documents occupies the back of the Elphinstone College building, in the Maharashtra State Archives (MSA). The MSA is a treasure-trove of government records, correspondence, maps, and all manner of big and small publications stretching back nearly four hundred years, from the Marathas, Portugese, British and postcolonial Indian governments.

The staff of the MSA are the real keepers of the city’s heritage, the Common Man who cannot afford the glossy coffee table books or steep entrance fees to the festivals and concerts celebrating Mumbai’s heritage. More knowledgeable than their better-paid counterparts in such places as London’s British Library or Delhi’s National Archives, these clerks and peons eagerly serve up the papers and files which are the historian’s raw material for narrating stories about the still mostly untold history of the city and its region. Everything from sewerage reports from Victorian Bombay, to the diaries and letters of Maratha ministers and chiefs, to early town planning schemes and maps for Bandra and Juhu may be found in the MSA. The tragedy is that once in your hands, many of these records crumble to pieces before they can be read, or have already been eroded over time by the elements.

In spite of the flourishing interest in researching and understanding the history, culture and politics of Bombay/Mumbai amongst various groups of academics and urban professionals – from anthropologists and activists to film-makers and architects – the career of the urban researcher in Mumbai is a precarious adventure.

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

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

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

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

Filed under: journalism — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 5 July 2007 12.00 pm

Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters

Whether you consider the recent floods in Mumbai to be either a natural disaster, or a man-made crisis — or a bit of both — most will agree that we have just been through the biggest social crisis to face the city since the communal riots and bomb blasts in 1992–1993. It is not often in history that an urban disaster prompts wide-ranging public reflection and institutional changes. There are many contemporary lessons to be drawn in Mumbai from the global history of urban disasters, from floods and famines to terrorism and riots. Crises such as these prompt immediate action, but often the most sweeping and epochal changes they inspire happen once the original impulses to act are forgotten. These impulses are buried away in subsequent events and history, obscuring their effect in prompting wider, often revolutionary changes. The catastrophic earthquake which destroyed most of the Portugese capital Lisbon in 1755 and wiped out most of its population — and the philosopher Voltaire’s satirical reflections on its causes and consequences in his novel Candide, or Optimism — inaugurated the Enlightenment in Europe, the tradition of thinking which questioned the divine right of kings and priests to rule. While continental monarchs were overthrown by the post-disaster polemic of Voltaire, three centuries later, disaster relief has become a golden opportunity for modern elected leaders to shore up their reputations, playing politics while appearing above it. Consider Rudy Giuliani’s live calls to the media from the New York Mayor’s Office hours after 9/11, and his constant and reassuring presence on live television in the days and weeks afterwards, constantly answering calls and questions from shocked and angry citizens. While George W. Bush seized this moment of crisis to repackage the his presidency as a permanent war on terrorism, Giuliani will probably now make a bid to succeed Bush in the White House in 2008, with the image of him in the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks still vivid in the public memory of 9/11.

Compare the response of our leaders and officials in Mumbai in the days and weeks since the flood disaster. Unlike in New York, the common man’s desire for symbols to assuage their grief, and faces to address their complaints, were conspicuously absent. On 26/7, the BMC shut its offices early, and its engineers and officers waded home, while politicians didn’t emerge into the limelight until days after the calamity. By then they were too late to do a Giuliani. For lack of braver faces, that weekend the newspapers ended up featuring two men on their front pages, both tottering on inflatable boats in the water-logged lanes of Kalina, on very different rescue missions. While Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray was evacuating himself and his family, Police Commissioner A.N. Roy was helping stranded families and overseeing relief operations. It is a strange paradox of our democracy that our institutions remain faceless at the times when we most need them to respond with a human touch. In contrast, our leaders reach out the most when we least need them, staring down at us with their vote-bank agendas, while our institutions continue crumbling under their populist promises. Why do our institutions respond in this way?

During a visit to India last week, economist Amartya Sen argued that democratic institutions such as regular elections and a watchful media have banished the endemic threat of famine, a spectre which had plagued the Indian countryside since colonial times. By focussing pressure on politicians to act early to prevent such disasters, popular franchise and a free press have effectively regulated the performance of public institutions. However, Sen argues, while democracy has banished famines from postcolonial India, the state has been singularly ineffective in dealing with chronic undernourishment and malnutrition (in which India lags behind sub-Saharan Africa). Real development, according to Sen, means changing everyday conditions such as basic health, environment, and livelihood. The analogy with our own situation in Mumbai is instructive. For the public of the city, the monsoon flooding has provided an impetus to action, which could result in much wider changes. But while we can force action in the wake of crises like famines and floods, transforming our everyday life and infrastructure requires a much longer term effort at changing institutions.

The plague epidemic in Bombay in the 1896, which prompted an exodus of half the city’s population, and the demolition of most of the inner city north of the Fort and Native Town, gave birth to the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) in 1898. In the thirty years of its existence — before being absorbed into the BMC in 1933 — the BIT doubled the number of roads in the city, acquired and reclaimed vast lands for development, and laid the foundations for land and housing markets on which Mumbai still operates. Many of our best-known roads — Hughes, Turner, and Cadell — still bear the names of former BIT Chairmen and Trustees who had them built. The origin of such wide-ranging reforms, and the political will to develop modern Mumbai, was not in some lofty vision plan, or in the public spirit of prominent citizens. The BIT was borne of the paranoid fear of the city’s elites of disease spreading to their bungalows from overcrowded slums in the inner city. The plague was an airborne disease, and the cure prescribed was to allow the sea breezes into the inner city, through new arterial roads and well-spaced building and plots. After ruthless demolitions of tenements and seizure of lands in the name of public health and open spaces, the BIT planned and developed most of what we still recognise as the Island City from Chowpatty and Lamington Road to Shivaji Park and Five Gardens. Crisis gave birth to change, and transformed the city in the decades that followed.

There is reason to hope that the recent floods in Mumbai, like the nineteenth century plague, could result in similarly wide-ranging reforms, in a city which has been lately preoccupied in debating its future as a global metropolis. There has been much attention given the public interest litigation (PIL) recently filed by prominent film makers and socialites on the failure of the state’s disaster management plan. What has not been pointed out is that three additional PILs, filed earlier this year on much longer-term urban development issues, are about to be given their final hearings by the Bombay High Court and Supreme Court — on land planning for the Mill Lands, on the protection of coastal mangroves and wetlands, and on redevelopment of cessed buildings as high-rises. The recent infrastructural crisis will give a much greater relevance to these judgements, which impact policies meant at regulating the abuses of private builders, land speculators, and corrupt local authorities. Also on the cards is the National Urban Renewal Mission, a central Government programme for local urban bodies to reform through better implementation of laws already on the books, of which most citizens remain unaware. Most important among these laws are the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments on decentralisation of local decision-making to non-party ward committees, which municipal corporators and political parties have actively prevented from forming in the past five years in Mumbai. Ward committees would have been a much more effective mechanism for immediate relief during the floods, and a persistent watchdog on the local elected representatives and ward officers before and after the disaster.

Long-term changes such as these are often improvised in the wake of disasters, unaware of the historical script they may be following, or their origins in immediate crises. But there are real reasons to be optimistic. It was his horror at the 1943 Bengal famine, and the flood of refugees sheltering in his childhood home in Calcutta, that prompted Amartya Sen’s lifelong academic work on hunger. This won him the Nobel Prize more than fifty years later, when he is one of the most influential voices in policy debates on social development. The plague panic in colonial Bombay set in motion the formation of the modern city, through the agency of the BIT. Today, while everyone is raising their voices, we have yet to find our Sen, or even our Giuliani. We can, however, take hope from Voltaire’s post-disaster philosophy of Enlightenment. His own literary response to the destruction of the medieval city of Lisbon in earthquake and fires scripted the next two hundred years of political change in Europe, and the birth of modern democracy. The protagonist of Candide stubbornly refuses to accept the explanations of the ruling priests and aristocracy that the disaster was ordained by either or God or Nature, mocking them with the repeated question — “is this the best of all possible worlds?” It is our own answers to this age-old question that will determine the future of our shared institutions and everyday lives in the city.

(Published as Some Reasons to be Optimistic, or, Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters in TimeOut Mumbai Vol.1, Issue 26, 26 August to 8 September 2005)

Filed under: journalism,main — Tags: , , — Shekhar @ 16 August 2005 12.00 pm

Bombay’s Blame Game: On the Recent Floods

Who is really to blame for the floods and chaos in Mumbai this week? The monsoon downpour last week was not strictly a natural disaster. It was a man-made crisis, and the public have spent the past week searching for explanations and solutions to this human disaster. The answers provided have ranged from the opportunistic to misinformed, and almost all are lacking in a longer term perspective on institutions, particularly those concerned with urban infrastructure in Mumbai.

The latest assertion, by environmentalists and activists opposed to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, is that the overflowing of the polluted Mithi River can be solely blamed on reclamations for the Sea Link and the Bandra-Kurla Complex. While this is plausible, the claim is being made without any scientific or ecological evidence to substantiate their arguments about the effects of reclamation. But then where are the real experts? In a city which boasts some of the nation’s finest institutes of technology — insular enclaves of global expertise which rarely interact with the city’s public problems — very few academics or qualified engineers are to be found raising their voices.

What of politicians and bureaucrats? Disaster relief is a golden opportunity for political leaders to shore up their reputations, to play politics while appearing above it. Consider Rudy Giuliani’s live calls to the media from the New York Mayor’s Office hours after 9/11, and his constant and reassuring presence on television in the days and weeks afterwards, constantly answering questions and providing information. However in Mumbai, the average person’s desire for symbols and faces to assuage their grief and address their complaints were conspicuously absent. On Torrential Tuesday, the BMC shut its offices early, and its engineers and officers swam home, while politicians didn’t emerge into the limelight until days after the calamity. So for lack of faces, the papers featured two very different men on their front pages, both tottering on inflatable boats amidst the waterlogged lanes of Kalina — Police Commissioner A.N. Roy and Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray — one on evacuation, the other on a rescue mission.

With officials absent and information scant, the media let loose many wild myths in place of hard facts, such as that the city’s drainage system was built by the British a hundred years ago and has not been upgraded since. This claim, repeated over and over on a national news channel last week, is baseless. The most serious flooding happened in the suburbs — which were either sparsely populated hinterlands or unreclaimed swamps and scrub in colonial times. Since suburbanisation began in the late sixties, storm water drains and infrastructure have indeed been developed north of Bandra and Sion — however clogged, encroached, and dysfunctional they are today (and to the credit of Victorian engineering, the post-colonial Island City, with its large underground pipes, drained more efficiently than the suburbs). Unable to source information under the pressures of covering the crisis, the media often resorted to commonplace myths about the city rather than getting the story straight. For instance, not a single newspaper or channel has yet covered in detail the Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drainage Project (BRIMSTOWAD), a major infrastructure investment which has been stalled for more than a decade because of the state’s inability to satisfy World Bank loan conditions.

For the public of the city, the monsoon flooding has provided an impetus to action, which could result in much wider changes in governance and our everyday life. It is not often in history that a natural or human disaster prompts wide-ranging institutional reforms. But often the most sweeping changes happen almost by accident. The plague epidemic in Bombay in the 1890s, which prompted an exodus of half the city’s population and the demolition of most of the inner city, gave birth to the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) at the turn of the century. The BIT acquired lands, built roads, parcelled out plots, and laid the foundations for land and housing markets on which the modern city operates. The origin of such wide-ranging reforms, and the political will to achieve them, was not in some lofty vision plan, or in the public spirit of Bombay’s prominent citizens. The BIT originated in the paranoid fear of the city’s elites of pestilence and disease spreading to their bungalows from poorly ventilated and overcrowded slums in the inner city. After ruthless demolitions of tenements and seizure of lands in the name of public health, the BIT planned and developed most of what we still recognise as the Island City. Crisis gave birth to change, and transformed the city in the decades that followed.

Long-term responses to disasters are often improvised, unaware of the historical script they may be following. In addition to the colonial legacy of roads, pipes and sewers laid down by the British, we have also inherited and are replaying a century-old drama of authoritarian responses to urban crises initiated by the BIT. The political responses also follow a familiar script. Earlier this week, Fali Nariman made an eloquent plea in the Rajya Sabha for a constitutional amendment to make Mumbai into a Union Territory. This predictably stirred the pot of urban-rural, rich-poor, and English-Marathi divisions in the house, quickly seized on by Pramod Mahajan. Both of these positions belong in history’s dustbin. Centralising authority in a new Union Territory Government, which would presumably replace the present administration by the BMC and Maharashtra Government, will not bring about any serious changes.

Better implementation of existing laws already on the books, of which most people remain unaware, is a more practical and effective solution. The Development Control Rules (DCR) which monitor and steer local planning and development are routinely violated and overriden by builders and politicians, through dereserving plots earmarked for open space or infrastructure. The abstract numbers game of floor space indices (FSI) and transferable development rights (TDR) which regulate construction across the city are calculated without regard to local infrastructure, environment, and densities.

The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments on local self-governance and decentralisation have not been implemented in Mumbai or most cities, and municipal corporators and political parties have actively prevented the formation of non-party ward committees in the past five years in Mumbai. Ward committees would have been a much more effective mechanism for immediate relief during the floods, and a persistent watchdog on the local corporators and ward officers before and after the disaster. The media does not usually cover such longer-term issues of laws and institutions that govern our everday lives. Rather than pleading with government to take more control of our lives through creating a new City State or Union Territory bureaucracy, there are many more small but sweeping changes which we must ask for at the local level. Otherwise we are all sunk.

Originally published as an editorial in DNA (Daily News and Analysis) Mumbai, 5 August 2005

Filed under: journalism — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 29 July 2005 12.00 pm

The Hidden History of Hutatma Chowk

(unpublished, originally written to accompany the essay Should Mumbai be a City State?)

Heritage architects have complained for years that the Soviet-style concrete statue next to the Flora Fountain ruins the visual sweep of the Fort’s colonial facades and streetscape. But did you ever wonder what this monument is supposed to commemorate? Fifty years ago this year, the struggle for Samyukta Maharashtra spilled onto the streets of the city formerly known as Bombay. This socialist realist sculpture was later erected as a martyrs’ memorial to Marathi nationalism — the Hutatma Chowk — marking the 105 people who died in protests against Nehru’s plan to make Bombay into a City State after Independence. Like with the Shivaji statue opposite the Gateway of India, the statue at Hutatma Chowk was intentionally placed to ruin a view of a famous colonial landmark, and reorient the symbolic geography of the city.

The battle for Mumbai heated up when the States Reorganisation Committee report, published in 1955, recommended statehood for Telugus in Andhra Pradesh, in the old princely state of the Nizam of Hyderabad. But the same report proposed the erstwhile Bombay State either be a bi-lingual Marathi-Gujarati unit with Bombay as its capital, or that Bombay be made an Union Territory, separate from the linguistic states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. These proposals stirred a popular outcry against the denial of a Marathi state without Bombay, and a coalition of anti-Congress activists and political parties united in the demand for Mumbai to be the capital of a united Maharashtra — from Socialists, Communists and trade unions to the Marathi press, literati and workers across the city. After popular unrest and street violence, the Centre capitulated, and made Mumbai into the capital of the new state of Maharashtra on 1 May 1960.

It is no coincidence that Maharashtra Diwas is also May Day, the annual holiday when working-class solidarity is celebrated throughout the world. Samyukta Maharashtra was important because the demand for linguistic statehood was in Mumbai combined with a popular movement against rigid class hierarchies in an industrial city dominated by big business interests. In the years before and after Independence, city politics was a conducted in back-room deals between the Congress Party cronies and fat-cat industrialists — the Parsi, Gujarati and Marwari sheths and sahebs of the popular imagination. It was this corrupt party machinery, identified with S.K. Patil and the party bosses, that was targeted by the Samyukta Maharashtra movement as unrepresentative, and not in keeping with the new order of things in independent India, where common people should participate in governance.

While today we identify the official changing of the name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai with the Shiv Sena in 1995, it was a generation earlier, during Samyuka Maharashtra, that “Mumbai” was first extensively used in the public sphere to signify a city different from “Bombay”. For Acharya Atre, S.A. Dange, and Prabodhakar Thackeray (father of Balasaheb) — the leaders of Samyukta Maharashtra — Mumbai was to be a working-class city with better employment opportunities and social justice for all — not just a city that spoke Marathi, favoured sons of the soil, and suspected outsiders of stealing their jobs. Class justice was as important as linguistic unity in the socialist vision of the Samyukta Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena was founded in 1966, more than ten years after the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, when the city’s economy stagnated and shrunk, and popular dissatisfaction with the hopes of statehood led to the emergence of more parochial forms of linguistic politics.

Filed under: journalism — Tags: — Shekhar @ 15 April 2005 12.00 pm

Should Mumbai be a City State?

There are several arguments routinely invoked about making Mumbai into a City State. They go something like this — for most of its modern history, Bombay was an island off the coast of India, a cosmopolitan port city with enterprising migrants and bustling industry and commerce — symbolic of India’s engagement with the world, rather than with its rural countryside. This pre-Independence Bombay is now viewed with sepia-tinted nostalgia by heritage enthusiasts and the media as an innocent age of civic order, a beautiful city which existed before the filth and chaos of democratic politics. Bombay became the victim of narrow linguistic politics when Maharashtra was formed in 1960. Since then, the story goes, public culture has been parochialised by Marathi chauvinism and mismanaged by vote-bank-seeking politicians. The beautiful city is now a horrible mess, and this situation must be reversed through bold action, to make it a world-class metropolis again.

The economic rationale for creating a new City State is the counterpart to this narrative — that Mumbai is denied an equal share of the revenue it generates (which the Centre invests elsewhere in the country), that the city’s resources are otherwise plundered by rural politicians and illegal migrants who don’t care for the city, that new industries are locating elsewhere, and we cannot keep up either with Singapore or Shanghai, or even with Bangalore or Hyderabad. Something must be done to avert what the media have recently termed the “death of the city”, and statehood for Mumbai seems like a bold solution to a host of very real problems affecting the quality of life and governance in India’s biggest city.

Let’s take apart these arguments. Will statehood mean anything in terms of the everyday life of the metropolis and the issues that matter to most of us — housing, environment, infrastructure and the jobs? The advocates of statehood for Mumbai have a point when they claim that many of the city’s greatest problems remained unsolved because of Delhi raj. Much of the revenues generated and collected in Mumbai are skimmed off by the Centre for redistribution in poorer states and backward areas. But the city takes as much from rest of India as it gives back to it. Mumbai’s insatiable hunger for natural resources, energy, and human labour makes it a predatory force on its hinterland. The surplus the city extracts from the rest of the country must be invested back into the states, in the city’s own interest. This is not an argument for rural subsidies or charity. Boosting consumption and spending in the countryside is key to the city’s long-term survival and prosperity. Mumbai will grow into a world-class city by finding domestic markets for its good and services in rural and small town India, not simply by chasing back office services outsourced from America and Europe.

In this view, a Mumbai City State will make little difference to our economic well-being — healthy growth is as much about the distribution as about creation of wealth, and while cities are engines of growth, the fuel for this engine must be constantly supplied by labour and capital from outside the metropolis. Our taxes are paying for the fuel to which keeps the city humming smoothly. Let the Centre prime the pump by investing in states and rural areas where private investors don’t dare to tread — market forces will take care of Mumbai, which should contribute its fair share to the Centre, and should raise money for the rest of its needs in global financial markets. We need inspired leadership, not statehood, to achieve this goal. If we go by the example of Maharashtra’s finances, statehood for Mumbai will encourage profligacy and wasteful expenditures — whereas competing for investment in the world economy will impose fiscal discipline on the city. We should not keep begging for government handouts like a whining stepchild of the license raj.

Delhi raj in Mumbai is more onerous when it comes to other issues, such as land-use planning and the housing market. There is a widespread myth that the city doesn’t have enough space for everyone — particularly migrants and the urban poor. This is because of land monopoly, not land scarcity. The city’s three largest land-owners are Central Government bodies not accountable to anyone in Mumbai — the Central and Western Railways, the National Textile Corporation, and the Bombay Port Trust. Between them they have enough open space — at least two thousand acres in the Island City itself — to build new public transport, rehabilitate all slums, provide huge public parks and gardens, and create entire new business districts in Mumbai. But statehood for the city will make little difference here. Like the present Maharashtra Government, a new Mumbai City State would not necessarily have greater control over the Railways, Textile and Shipping Ministries and their land and infrastructure in the city. And we already have a well-funded agency for land use and planning, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), whose authority needs be extended beyond building roads and rehabilitating slums for the World Bank.

What about the local bodies that provide the infrastructure of our daily lives? Would a City State make a difference to these public institutions, currently run by the BMC? Municipal hospitals like KEM and Sion are some of the country’s finest, and their alumni staff the emergency wards and operating theatres of hospitals all over India and the world. Similarly, the BEST is perhaps the only civic agency to have successfully managed the city’s growth by its steady expansion of services throughout Greater Mumbai in the past thirty years. Because of the BEST, we are the only city in India which can really enjoy the basic freedoms of modern city life — affordable public transport and constant electricity. Delhi, which has been run both as a Union Territory and now a City State, still doesn’t come close. But a Chief Minister of Mumbai would probably seek to privatise these crown jewels, which have served us well for almost a century.

Will a Mumbai City State decentralise governance and give us greater say in our daily lives in the city, or is it just another move to centralise control over the city in another unaccountable and unrepresentative body like those which govern us now? McKinsey and other private lobbyists like Bombay First have recently advocated appointing a “chief executive” for Mumbai, who will run the city like a private corporation and coordinate between the patchwork of bodies which govern the city now — MHADA, MMRDA, SRA, MSRDC, and other agencies run by the invisible hand of bureaucrats, engineers and their political masters. What these and other proposals such as city statehood share in common is the desire to centralise control over the city’s resources, rather than to decentralise governance, giving us a greater stake in our lives in the city.

There are already a host of measures to change civic life which have been legally enacted, but which will take a serious fight to see implemented at the local level, and are more worthy of consideration than a new Chief Executive or Chief Minister for Mumbai. Foremost among these is representation at the local level by non-party ward committees and community organisations, which is guaranteed by the 74th Amendment but is barely implemented in Mumbai. Another long-standing proposal is to trifurcate the overburdened BMC into separate municipal corporations for the Island City, Eastern and Western Suburbs, to make it more responsive and efficient, and for the BMC to have an elected Mayor rather than a state-appointed Municipal Commissioner. Yet another important law is the Right to Information Act, currently being used by activists to argue that the Mumbai Mill Lands should not be gifted to mill owners who have lately become real estate speculators. It is these various local initiatives which need to be supported to make world-class changes in our everyday life in the city, not the unrealistic fantasy of a Mumbai City State.

Originally published contra the case made by J.B. D’Souza on Should Mumbai be a City State? in TimeOut Mumbai, 10 April 2005

Filed under: journalism — Tags: , , — Shekhar @ 10 April 2005 12.00 pm

Mill’s as Public Spaces: Mumbai’s Industrial Heritage

In Mumbai, public awareness of urban arts and heritage has experienced a significant revival in the past ten years — in the same historical moment when manufacturing industries have closed and factories emptied throughout Greater Mumbai. Heritage discourse and conservation practice have only implicitly acknowledged this economic context. Since the Bombay Textile Strike of 1982–3, entire working-class communities across the city have been retrenched and dispersed — in the Mill and Dock Lands of central Mumbai, the chemical and engineering factories and industrial estates in suburban Mumbai, and across the Metropolitan Region. With job losses going into tens of lakhs, and uncertain growth prospects for Mumbai, several years ago the media and civic elite began speaking of the “death of the city” they once knew, whereas planners and academics eagerly awaited the birth of a new “global city”. However one described this restructuring of the city’s economy, it is clear that manufacturing has declined in value compared to the new service industries, not just in Mumbai but in big cities throughout the world. The post-industrial landscapes of London’s Docklands and New York’s Lower Manhattan are oft-cited symbols of this change — monstrous, gleaming high-rise districts dominated by banking, finance, and white-collar services. In today’s urban economy, the making and marketing of immaterial signs has replaced the production of durable goods as the primary circuit of wealth creation.

The concepts and practices of cultural heritage, architectural conservation, and public arts, (whether they realise it or not) are enmeshed in this new economy of image production. While buildings are still very much made of brick and mortar (or steel and RCC), the production of images of the urban built environment is one of the intangible, high-value commodities of the global city. Whether in the space-age absurdity of Hafeez Contractor’s garden city in Powai, or the sepia-tinted romanticism of the South Bombay heritage enthusiasts, the value of a building has less to do with its physical qualities than its iconic presence as an object of consumption. So it is not difficult to explain the phenomenal growth of concepts and practices of heritage conservation in Mumbai. The scarcity of fresh land and exhaustion of new sites to build in Mumbai has forced many architects to refashion their practice around conservation of existing buildings, rather than construction of new ones. Today the city skyline is commanded by towering skyscrapers, not by smoking chimneys — the closure of factories in the eighties and nineties was paralleled by the rise of the construction industry, and allied sectors in finance, banking, real estate and retail. Builders, and not mill-owners or industrialists, are the kingpins of today’s global city — and architecture, arts, and cultural practice must reflect this new order. Heritage is, quite plainly, a smart way of boosting real estate values for high-end consumption, and of turning downmarket areas into upmarket ones.

Cultural practices such as the arts and architecture should seek to illuminate social and historical change, rather than mystify it, providing an imagery and language for us to discuss and reflect on our fast-changing society. But as heritage has increased in public consciousness and visibility — through legislation and protection of listed buildings, the organisation of new city arts festivals, and an outpouring of romantic cultural representations from coffee table books to films and other media — workers and manufacturing have been obscured from public view and memory. Until now, urban heritage has been almost exclusively about the colonial city — protecting its built fabric and rendering visible its monumental signs — reinvigorating civic pride through historical nostalgia. Heritage has primarily been addressed to the colonial city, and not about the industrial city. We now need to chart a shift in the focus of urban conservationists, arts and heritage enthusiasts, and the public, from the monuments and signs of the colonial period to illuminating this hidden Other of the picture postcards and coffee-table representations — the people, machines and places that produced the twentieth-century industrial metropolis of Mumbai. The task of historically informed conservation practice is in rendering visible the history of the industrial city which has been extinguished by factory closures and the flight of manufacturing, as well as the new “global city” which is developing around economies of services, information and culture.

Over the past ten years, different groups of architects, historians, activists and media practitioners have been documenting the city’s post-industrial landscapes in the Mill Lands of Central Mumbai. Public debates on the Mill Lands have for many years been polarised between the trade unions and workers’ groups raising issues of livelihood and workers’ rights to employment and housing on the one hand — and architects, urban designers and civic activists raising issues of public space and city planning policy on the other hand. Recently these groups have aligned themselves to pursue a public interest litigation on land use in the Mill Lands, in which the primary objective is to create more “public spaces” in the more than 600 acres of derelict and idle land in the inner-city textile mill compounds.

But the mills and other industrial spaces have never been “public spaces” in the sense that any citizen could enter them — they were entirely closed to anyone but workers or staff, both while they were operational and even after the strikes and closures. It is difficult to imagine the post-industrial landscapes of Mumbai except as crumbling factories and idle chimneys, because most people have never been inside of the mills, and the working-class communities that sustained them have lost their jobs and housing. When Girangaon (“the village of the mills”, as it was locally known) was still the throbbing heart of the city’s economy, each textile mill was a miniature city of several thousand people working in three to four shifts, day and night. A complex network of chawls, markets, maidans, and social institutions spread out from the mill gates, integrating the neighbourhood outside with the factory inside. Mid-century Marathi literature, poetry, and oral traditions contains rich reflections on the life of the mills and chawls, but there is today little public imagery and imagination of these spaces. The social fabric of Girangaon has collapsed, and the physical artefacts and lands of the industrial city are being dismantled as we speak.

It is almost impossible to visualise what is at stake for the city in the conversion of the mills from factories producing yarns and cloth to campuses producing information and services — one form of private accumulation giving way to another. Making these mills into public spaces and “giving them back to the city” is more than just a abstract dilemma of land-use or planning policy. Creating new public spaces from the city’s industrial heritage means also creating a public imagination for the city which recovers the active presence of work and technology in our everyday lives, and challenges the commonly-accepted vision of manufacturing inevitably giving way to services. We need to seek out new cultural forms by which to narrate these histories, and invite the urban public to tell its own stories of work, aspiration and movement that produced the Mumbai we know today.

Originally published as Mills as Public Spaces: Mumbai’s Industrial Heritagein Art India, April 2005

Filed under: journalism — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 20 March 2005 12.00 pm

Mumbai Vision 2010: Reporting the Future

If you look left while crossing Haji Ali into Worli, the brightly lit ground floor showroom of a well-known auto major is emblazoned with the words “improving the quality of life”. You can’t miss it, because this is a congested junction, with cars queueing up at the next signal to ascend the Worli Fly-Over. Stuck in the gridlock, you’re forced to ponder the shiny cars and hopeful slogan, and try and forget the honking horns, choking exhaust fumes, and street kids trying to sell you fashion magazines, before the signal changes.

Surely the guys at McKinsey and Bombay First, who must also get stuck in traffic jams, would appreciate the irony. Their recent report on making the city “world-class” — and yes, improving its “quality of life” — has just joined the long queue of studies, reports, and consultancies on the city’s ascent to becoming a global city. Recent changes at the state and centre have shown the government is increasingly keen to step in and clear the traffic on the road to Mumbai 2010. Plans and strategies that piled up for decades are beginning to move, and the authorities are trying to play traffic cop between contending visions of the city’s future.

While McKinsey is a recent entrant into the global game of urban brand-building, city architects and planners are its most usual suspects. For the past several years, the media and corporate world in Mumbai have been arguing over the “death of the city”. There seems to be neither enough money nor political will to tackle the monstrous problems of housing, transport, infrastructure, and the city’s slipping position in the global economy. Visions of Mumbai have been stuck between the apathy of our elected representatives — the politicians — and the elitism of our un-elected representatives — the NGOs. While there’s no sign that state politicians have stopped milking the city’s wealth, or self-proclaimed “citizens groups” have ceased approaching the courts to solve the problems in their backyards, the past few years have seen hopeful changes. During this time, a handful of professional architects have stood between bickering politicians and anxious residents, crafting their visions of urban renewal through shifting alliances with diverse clientele — from social movements and NGOs to the cocktail circuit and the corporate world (or as Hafeez Contractor puts it, “everyone from god-men to con-men”).

Architects are a unique breed of image makers and public intellectuals. Today styling themselves as “urban designers”, they market visions of turning Mumbai into Shanghai, London, or Gotham City with a few broad strokes. Often treating the city as a blank canvas, their visions frequently resemble science fiction fantasy or picture postcard nostalgia, and are a genre of story-telling which goes back several generations. The late Mulk Raj Anand founded the magazine Marg with a bold vision of a twin city across the harbour — likening urban planning to dreaming, and intoning that “in dreams lie responsibility”. Forty years later, with the city still mostly growing northwards into Gujarat, rather than eastwards into Maharashtra, architects are still dreaming more than planning.

Two of the largest land-holders in the city — the central government-owned Port Trust and National Textile Corporation — regard the recent initiatives by architects to redevelop their Dock Lands and Mill Lands as a lot of wishful thinking. Similarly, heritage enthusiasts have consistently failed to devise realistic financial strategies for building conservation, but are the first to protest when a picturesque bungalow faces demolition. To be fair, this is not the fault of the architects — the functioning of the city’s land, housing and employment markets reveals the limits of their vision-making. Beautifully designed buildings and public spaces are good for real estate values, but the same property market excludes the majority of the city’s population from access to affordable housing and secure tenure.

A higher quality of life requires more than just beautification of parks and monuments, and a smooth drive to the international airport — what McKinsey calls “quick wins”. Serious plans for improving the supply of credit, generating employment, and reforming local institutions are relegated to the footnotes of their Vision Mumbai, and most other vision statements. The roots of our civic malaise lies not in the inevitable decline and death of the city, but in our inability to understand and manage its relentless expansion. While planners and architects have a role to play in the ongoing debate on the city’s growth, a more comprehensive and accountable public vision is required to clear the traffic jam towards Mumbai 2010. You cannot cut the queue to the departure lounge.

Originally published as Mumbai Vision 2010: Reporting the Future in TimeOut Mumbai, 19 November to 2 December 2004

Filed under: journalism — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 1 November 2004 12.00 pm

Mumbai Vision 2010: Get Up, Stand Up

Bombay is the birthplace of civic sensibility in India. So here are some sensible suggestions for really improving the quality of life of those who don’t fly business class:


The tallest tale about Mumbai is that the city is overcongested and space in short supply. This myth of land scarcity is used to justify everything from demolishing stalls and hutments to dereserving forests and mangrove areas. An oft-cited statistic claims that the ratio of open space to population should be four acres per 1000 persons in Mumbai, whereas there is actually only .03 acres per 1000. Don’t believe the hype — this figure doesn’t take into account the concentration of vacant lands with a handful of large owners in the city and suburbs. If the protectors of public space looked beyond their gated communities, they would see that more than two thousand acres of land is lying idle or vacant in the Dock and Mill Lands, or is tied up with private trusts, state corporations, and defunct industries in the suburbs. Enterprising encroachers and man-eating leopards are not to blame for your lack of breathing room. They are the victims of Mumbai’s monstrous spatial inequalities. Another popular statistic points out that 60% of the population occupies only about 6% of the city’s total land.

There is enough surface area in the city to give ample open spaces to everyone, rich and poor. The real problem is one of distributing this recyclable resource more equitably. But we so far have only seen narrow solutions to this city-wide problem. The challenge for planners and citizens is to come up with creative design solutions to high densities. Increasing awareness of the city’s geography and land-use patterns shows that public space is not just a local problem to be solved by creating landscaped islands surrounded by fences and private security guards.


Do you know how much FSI or TDR obtains on your plot? Chances are that some local builder does, and is about to descend on your society to make you an offer you can’t refuse. The city’s construction industry makes super-profits from speculating in development rights, manipulating building permissions, using shoddy materials and employing bonded labour.

When in 2002 the Congress-NCP Government appointed S.S. Tinaikar to inquire into the functioning of state housing schemes, his report was subseqently suppressed, as it decried the Slum Rehabilitation Authority as “of the builders, by the builders, and for the builders”. Yet strangely, everyone from McKinsey and Bombay First, to city politicians, NGOs and architects, have embraced the SRA. This ostensibly pro-people mechanism rewards builders who undertake slum redevelopment with enhanced market value in an already overpriced housing market. The result is plain to see. Spaceship-like towers have sprouted in congested inner-city neighbourhoods, sucking dry local water supplies and gobbling up parking spaces. Former slum areas are becoming upmarket destinations, driving up local prices, and pushing out their former residents. Don’t expect the city visionaries to do much about this — social workers and housing rights activists in Mumbai have even set up their own construction firms to exploit the surplus development rights granted to slum housing projects. While there are no easy solutions to the housing crisis, enhancing access to credit and ensuring security of tenure, decentralising the building process, and introducing greater regulation and transparency into the construction industry are a few ways to tackle the nightmare of Slumbai.

Builders lord over the city in the same way that Bill Gates dominates your computer desktop — restricting your choices through monopoly and muscle power. And slum dwellers relate to the city like the hackers to the Internet — through decentralised networks based on common resources and mutual survival. We have a lot to learn from their visions of Mumbai. So go open source, and take back your development rights — form a society, hire an architect and engineer, get bank finance, and pocket the riches that the builders are skimming from our skyline.

TRANSPORT: The Real Speed Breakers

When left-leaning Ken Livingstone was elected as London’s Mayor a few years ago, he beefed up the city bus fleet by 35%, and introduced a steep “congestion tax” on private vehicles entering the central city at stipulated hours, reducing traffic dramatically and forcing people to use public transport. Cameras in the city trace the offending vehicles, and the tax is automatically charged to car owners through a smart card system, which you periodically top up, like prepaid mobile phone cards. Ironically, this entire technology was devised by software and hardware developers in Mumbai — but our own authorities seem to have outsourced their responsibilities for traffic management to bridge builders and car companies. In the late nineties, the Sena-BJP Government went on a spree of fly-over construction, lining our highways (and their pockets) with signs of largesse, and leaving 85% of the city’s commuters, who take the trains, untouched by their Shivshahi.

Plans for investment and upgradation of the city’s suburban railway system have languished for decades, turning rush hour into crush hour. Help is now on the way. The MUTP II (Mumbai Urban Transport Project) — jointly financed by the World Bank with the central and state governments — was finally sanctioned by the Vajpayee last year, after more than a decade of foot-dragging on various loan conditions, such as resettlment of slum-dwellers evicted from the railway lands, and creation of a new agency for unified management of the city’s railways, the MRVC (Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation). Under MUTP, new lines are augmenting the busiest railway corridors, frequency and capacity of trains is being increased, and signalling systems are being streamlined. Not to be outdone, the state government has introduced the parallel MUIP (Mumbai Urban Infrastructure Project), again for constructing more roads, though this time focussing on essential east-west links, widening and concretising of existing arterial roads and, thankfully, construction of pedestrian facilities like footpaths, subways, and over-bridges. These two packages together promise significant improvements in your everyday life on the move in Mumbai, but are not enough. The citizens’ movement needs to get on a suburban train and demand better treatment for the majority of commuters and pedestrians, who are easy prey for the biggest predators in our urban jungle — noisy, polluting, and wasteful private vehicles.

Originally published as Mumbai Vision 2010: Get Up, Stand Up in TimeOut Mumbai, 19 November to 2 December 2004

Filed under: journalism — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 12.00 pm

Radio Beyond Broadcasts

On 8 August 2003, JACIC (Jindal Arts Creative Interaction Centre) organised a panel discussion on “Radio Beyond Broadcasts”. This panel, held at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, explored the uses of low-power radio as an inexpensive medium for creative expression in theatre, concert music, heritage walks, street performances, sound installations, and other forms of non-polluting public audio broadcasting. The panel was initiated by Shekhar Krishnan, social scientist and media activist, and Vickram Crishna, CEO of Radiophony India Pvt Ltd, a consultancy dealing in low-cost wireless and radio solutions for mass communications in India. The other panelists were conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah and artists Sharmila Samant and Tushaar Joag of the Open Circle Arts Trust, Mumbai. Following a presentation and talk by Crishna on the potential uses of low-power radio beyond its conventional and legally sanctioned broadcast uses, the three panelists offered their responses and questions, and initiated discussion with the audience on issues concerning urban arts, heritage, tourism, and citizenship. The panel discussion was chaired by Shekhar Krishnan.

Crishna emphasised that despite being one of the cheapest and most accessible technologies for mass communications in the world, and with airwaves not being a limited or expendible resource, radio is generally not seen as something individuals and communities can do by and for themselves. The government’s monopoly over the spectrum has created a situation of artificial scarcity of an otherwise abundant resource in the airwaves, which are rationed out at steep entrance fees through the broadcast license regime. Despite recent liberalisation of this regime — such as through the new FM radio stations broadcasting in many Indian cities for the past year — the airwaves remain mostly under state control, a resource denied to all but a few broadcasters from the corporate entertainment industry, state corporations like All-India Radio, and a handful of elite colleges with campus radio programmes. In contrast to this situation of a small number of commercial stations with fairly homogeneous content, the FM spectrum in India could actually support up to 1.5 million radio stations, ranging in their content, form and scale to suit their communities of listeners and broadcasters, and fostering a much greater diversity of cultural exchange, and creative and political expression.

As part of the panel’s focus on new forms of communication, Tushaar Joag and Sharmila Samant of the Open Circle Arts Trust briefly introduced their group’s recent initiatives in spreading new forms of activism by visual artists, against the rising tide of intolerance and communal violence. Reclaim Our Freedom Week, organised in August 2002, filled railway stations, public spaces and art galleries in South Mumbai with screenings, talks, exhibitions and performances in protest against religious violence, in the wake of the Gujarat riots. The India Sabka Festival, co-organised with Majlis in December 2002, marked the tenth anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition with students competitions and a cultural festival which employed billboard and architectural designs, video and art installations, performances, and fiction writing on the theme of secularism and cultural pluralism. Open Circle has been active in taking art out of the gallery circuit and into public spaces, posing important questions about how public art can promote tolerance and multiculturalism. In this context, Samant described several projects in which radio technology is being used by artists to create new experiences of space through innovative sound installations.

Abha Narain Lambah, conservation architect, discussed several scenarios in which low-power radio could be used to promote tourism, as well as increased awareness of heritage and local history in urban neighbourhoods and culturally significant regions outside cities. Whereas heritage conservation in India has remained an elitist pursuit — concerning itself mostly with the tangible and physical dimensions of buildings and urban precincts — the more intangible qualities of cultural identity, memory, and community have been ignored in debates on heritage. The connection between buildings and landmarks, and their cultural and historical references in the memory and traditions of local communities could be bridged through radio walks and tours in urban villages like Khotachiwadi, or Pali Hill in Bandra — whose neighbourhoods mark the lives of important directors, musicians, and other personalities of the Bombay film industry. As each building or street has a story to tell, low-power radio broadcasting combined with cheap headphone receivers provides heritage enthusiasts and cultural activists with the media beyond the picture postcards and coffee-table books that we associate with heritage. Low-power radio could also be used by communities to share and promote intangible heritage, such as local musical and story-telling traditions, as well as assist communities in organising around civic and infrastructural concerns and improving their environments. Like physical space and the built environment, the airwaves are a space in which cultural values can be shared and made meaningful for the community.

Recent debates in the mainstream media in India have focussed only on the failures of the present license regime to encourage competition and profits in newly liberalised FM markets. While the Central Government is revising its licensing policies to increase its own revenues, and further commodify the radio spectrum, Radiophony India views the airwaves as a commons and public space, in which the battle for communications rights and media democracy must be waged by organised communities and activists, artists and creative and media practitioners, and concerned citizens. Crucial to this battle is control over the means of broadcasting by communities themselves. Radio walks in heritage precincts could quickly become another kind of elitism, if it is only understood as a tourist technology — which turns living communities into art objects, like in a gallery or museum, subject to the voyeuristic gaze of the radio-enabled consumer. However, if communities themselves control the programming and content of the broadcast, and access is not restricted either to the state or a few large commercial players, the potential for new creative uses of radio beyond broadcasts are as vast as our imagination — and the airwaves — permit them to be.

For more information, visit Radiophony India and Open Circle Arts Trust, or e-mail Vickram Crishna, Abha Narain Lambah, and Open Circle Arts Trust.

Originally published in Art India, 14 August 2003

Filed under: journalism — Tags: — Shekhar @ 10 August 2003 12.00 pm

PUKAR Monsoon Doc-Shop

It is a well-known cliché that today, all of us deal with information in much greater abundance and intensity than ever before. The Internet, the sign of this new economy, is a huge repository of information, with signs, images and stories flowing through its ever expanding networks. Any creative and critical engagement today also means learning to deal with such enormous archives and flows of information, and understanding how they are created. While on the one hand the world around us is increasingly mediated by new technologies and media forms that shape our perceptions acutely, on the other hand most of us do not have access to these technologies, nor are we encouraged to shape the mediated reality around us.

Any critical pedagogy today must address these questions, raised by the advent of new media practices, and the increasing importance of information and communication technologies to our everyday lives, especially in cities in India. The response of mainstream educational institutions has been primarily defensive, to shore up their role against a weakening state and an aggressive market — with the introduction of new diploma courses and degree programmes catered for lucrative careers in the corporate media, such as the Bachelors of Mass Media (BMM) courses in Mumbai. The responses from individual teachers and scholars, media producers and activists, and other groups and organisations is still being debated.

The technical complexities of computing and media production — or simple aversion to machines — have often negated the enhanced role and importance of the imagination in a time of mass mediation and increasing connectivity. With regard to education, this paradox is reinforced by a generational divide which is both social and technical. Many school and college students today have been socialised into the use, abuse and appropriation of sophisticated technologies and media from a very young age — unlike their teachers, parents, and mentors, who often find the learning curve much steeper. We underestimate the enhanced cultural and social literacy of a generation of kids raised on cable television, e-mail and chat rooms, and cheap mobile communications.

What we must recognise is that this conjuncture — of technophobia on the one hand, and of generational difference on the other hand — represents a significant reversal of standard pedagogic approaches. Vocationalisation has been one response to this dilemma, reflective of the weak institutional conditions prevailing in many colleges. Narrow technical instruction, by simply satisying the desires of the job market, cannot substitute for the work of the imagination — which makes technical skills and tools useful and exciting outside both the clasroom and the workplace, in the public sphere of citizenship and civic action. The decline of the traditional arts and humanities courses, and their replacement by career-centric education, while a complex phenomenon, also presents new opportunities for pedagogic experiments outside the space of the curriculum and classroom. In the next two sections, I describe one such extra-curricular experiment, the PUKAR Monsoon DOC-SHOP, which attempted to recognise and build on some of the paradoxes and insights outlined above.

PUKAR Monsoon 2003: “On Cities, On Water”

PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & Research), a cross-sectoral collective of researchers and professionals based in Mumbai, has been deeply concerned with various concepts and practices of documenting urban spaces and environments since its inception two years ago. PUKAR views documentation not simply as a passive act of recording reality, but an active, imaginative process that allows us to participate in the construction of the reality around us. Similarly, our view of the city is not one of static forms or stable structures, but of a constantly changing urban processes in which the city is better understood as a nodal point in mobile flows of people, money, images, and resources.

We annually organise the PUKAR Monsoon —  a series of occassional lectures, workshops, presentations and activities from May to August every year, in which undergraduate college students in Mumbai address a specific urban theme through a variety of approaches. The theme chosen for this year’s PUKAR Monsoon was “On Cities, On Water”. Water as substance and as medium has been central to the urban experience throughout human history, particularly in coastal and port cities like Mumbai. In the context of globalisation, other dimensions of water, and of the relationship between cities and water are becoming increasingly visible and contested in the public arena — notably through the privatisation of water resources and infrastructure.

Our aim in the PUKAR Monsoon has been to enable young people to develop a critical understanding of these and other relationships between cities and water, and the cultural and political implications of these connections. The theme of water becomes a useful pedagogic device to explore new understandings of cities and urban life in the context of globalisation. Traditional approaches to understanding cities have often treated the urban environment as an static object of inquiry, with fixed boundaries and a coherent set of technical and social indicators related to infrastructure, population, and employment. The flip side of this technocratic understanding of the city has been sentimental imagery of the heritage conservationists, of beautiful colonial buildings and monuments, which objectifies the contemporary city as an irretrievable picture postcard.

As opposed to these geographies and imageries, which are based on fixed and static conceptions, a more mobile and process-oriented pedagogy recognises that neither cities nor water ever stand still, and are characterised by constant motion and flows. The attempt at documenting these flows of water — which spill out and extend across regions beyond the city and even the nation — reminds us that the formation of contemporary mega-cities like Mumbai is as much a local as a global process, linking the city in complex and unequal relationships with its local, regional and global environments.


The PUKAR Monsoon 2003, timed at the beginning of the college year in Mumbai, thus provided us the context to explore some of our related concerns with new forms of pedagogy, documentation, and understandings of cities, in relation to the theme of water. The first event in the PUKAR Monsoon 2003 was the DOC-SHOP, in which we attempted to connect these concerns with new media technologies and practices to create new knowledge about the city.

DOC-SHOP — shorthand for “documentation workshop” — was a week-long series of intensive sessions that fostered a critical and intellectual engagement with the terms and practices of documentation through reading, discussion, and lectures, while also encouraging hands-on learning of technical skills in digital and print media. Twenty  six undergraduate students from arts, science, mass media, and architecture courses participated, almost all of them from Mumbai.

The DOC-SHOP was conducted by the PUKAR Associates, along with resource persons ranging from video editors, sound recordists, and new media artists to engineers, anthropologists and community activists. The structure of the DOC-SHOP was to combine a morning of lectures and interactions with practitioners, followed by an afternoon of shooting, recording, photography or other documentation of water in the city, and evenings spent in editing or reviewing the documentaries produced by the students. Five separate days were devoted to distinct media forms — video, photography, text, sound, and the web — followed by four days of production work on small multi-media documentary projects.

DOC-SHOP activities ranged from scripting of short films, writing poetry and short expressive essays, recording sounds of water captured from city streets and markets, to photographing the city’s waterfronts and public fountains, and developing web-based presentations to link different elements of video, text, sound and images about water and the city. The discussions in the DOC-SHOP included reflections on the digitalisation of still and moving images and the changing role of video and photo documentation, the history of state and market control of the FM airwaves and the idea of low-cost community radio, and understanding the changing nature of the archive and artistic and expressive practices in the age of the Internet. The emphasis throughout the DOC-SHOP was on combining practices of documentation in various media forms — through the use of digital cameras, recording devices, and computers — with a creative approach to the urban environment, using the city’s constantly changing and mobile landscapes as a medium for a new kind of engaged pedagogy outside the classroom.

The eight days of DOC-SHOP activities culminated in the DOC-SHOP Review on 27 May 2003, a public exhibition of short videos, photo essays, edited sound recordings, web art, and other small documentary projects produced by the students (a web archive of these projects, designed and built by one of the DOC-SHOP students, can be seen at http://www.pukar.org.in/doc-shop/). The DOC-SHOP Review concluded with a two-hour public discussion featuring film encyclopaedist and cultural studies scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha of the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS), Bangalore, oral historian and feminist scholar C.S. Lakshmi, of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women), Mumbai, and documentary film-maker Madhushree Datta of Majlis, Mumbai.

A New Pedagogy?

Pedagogic interventions are important to a new generation of urban youth, whose critical understanding of society is mainly formed in the space of colleges, and through the world of the mass media. The PUKAR Monsoon — now in its second year — was conceived in a spirit of engagement with younger voices, which are often neglected as sources of serious reflection on our city and society.

While we are used to according to young people the role of creative social agents, and address both their imaginations and aspirations as future citizens, we are still unused to regarding them either as technical experts, or real producers of knowledge. How often have we heard the lament that post-liberalisation generation have shorter attention spans and are more apathetic than ever before? Everything from lack of political awareness, to mindless consumerism, to disinterest in reading long books, has been blamed on the alienation of today’s youth.

What these comments reflect is our inability to recognise the potential of new media practices to unleash new ways of learning from our information and media-saturated environments, particularly in cities. This technological shift necessarily disrupts the institutional moorings of mainstream education, creating new spaces outside the classroom for innovative pedagogic practice. Vocationalisation — and other forms of “dumbing down” in the media and public culture — are only one, rather weak, response to this new conjuncture. As opposed to vocationalisation, recently many pedagogic initiatives have intervened directly through the curriculum — taking advantage of the weak institutional conditions prevailing in many universities to introduce new courses and means of certification. While this has largely resulted in the proliferation of degree courses which narrow the scope of undergraduate education, it has also opened a space of opportunity for bold curricular initiatives such as those at the Centre for Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore (which now offers certificate and distance education courses, as well as PhD certification, in cultural studies).

The PUKAR Monsoon, while only in its second year, has based itself on a different kind of extra-curricular practice which uses the city as a pedagogic device for the creation of new knowledge. Through the DOC-SHOP, we realised that digital technologies are lowering the barriers of access to the means of producing new social imaginations, and more than ever before young people have the tools to build new and imaginative forms of creative reflection and civic engagement. What is left is to articulate a new pedagogy — and institutional forms appropriate to this practice — which gives young people the space and the equipment to create these new worlds and act on them, not just as good students or workers, but as confident citizens.

This essay draws on text prepared by Rahul Srivastava and Vyjayanthi Rao for the PUKAR Monsoon, and its argument is inspired by the work of Arjun Appadurai.

The PUKAR Monsoon DOC-SHOP was made possible through the participation of Rahul Srivastava (PUKAR), Paromita Vohra (PUKAR), Gauri Patwardhan (film editor), Neeraj Voralia (film editor), Rajesh Vora (photographer), Abhay Sardesai (PUKAR), Sadaf Siddique (film editor), Vickram Crishna (Radiophony India Pvt Ltd), Beatrice Gibson (new media artist and researcher), Indu Agarwal (SPARC), Hansa Thapliyal (Majlis), Qusai Kathawala (Transmit Audio Lab), Mukul Deora (Transmit Audio Lab), Ashish Rajadhyaksha (Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore), C.S. Lakshmi (SPARROW), Madhushree Datta (Majlis), Shahid Khan (Apple Computer), Girish Menon (PUKAR) and Shonali Sarda (PUKAR).

Originally published in Humanscape Magazine special issue on Learning Beyond Teaching, edited by Shilpa Phadke, August 2003.

Filed under: journalism — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 13 July 2003 12.00 pm
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