If @greenpeaceIndia is anti-development, then what is this?

I have largely kept my mouth shut on the Intelligence Bureau (IB) vs. Greenpeace India showdown last month. I guess I’m — surprising even to myself — a little gun-shy.

The leaked report has been posted online; read for yourself. IB has uncovered a large network of NGOs that are attempting to “take down” India’s development.

In the interest of fairness, here’s Greenpeace’s response. You might also want to read some strong reaction here. Or just Google it for all the debate.

As I read it, the IB report (supported by “facts”) says that being concerned about the environment (often in solidarity with other people internationally) and opposing mega projects that sacrifice said environment for questionable, often inequitable, short-term economic gains makes you anti-development and anti-national. I guess that means that substantial numbers of people in our country who stand for inclusive development that doesn’t wreak havoc on people and planet are anti-development and anti-national.

The report makes a stark claim that such opposition knocks two to three percent off of India’s GDP growth. I imagine their calculations must be secret; they don’t cite any numbers but I am sure they exist. This is the IB we’re talking about, and they wouldn’t make such claims if they didn’t know what they were talking about. I certainly don’t believe this guy.

Now, I don’t know what to make of the World Bank report I remember reading a while back that said environmental degradation cuts 5.7 percent off of India’s annual GDP growth. The World Bank is foreign, so I guess it’s probably just anti-national and trying to “take down” India’s development, too.

As I think I understand the IB, having foreign friends or accepting foreign funds, even legally, is questionable. Having foreign ties makes you more likely to be anti national and interested in a “take down” of India’s development. Our current environment minister was the president of a firm that had ties to ClimateWorks, a big foreign NGO, but thank goodness he left that firm as soon as he made the cabinet.

But I’m still a little confused. The IB report makes very clear that big FDI projects like the Vendanta (UK subsidiary) bauxite mine or the POSCO (South Korean subsidiary) steel plant have been held up by all this anti-development and anti-national activity. But I thought the F in FDI stood for foreign. Maybe they’re acceptable sources of foreign money because they support neoliberal, Big Capitalist growth? But then the World Bank supports a lot of that, and I think I’m supposed to be skeptical of that one now.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m an OCI Indian. That means I’m half and half (though I live in India, have Indian family and consider myself Indian). What am I do to? I don’t think there’s an operation for me to cut ties with myself.

The IB report report names a bunch of NGOs other than Greenpeace, including some that sound mostly like poor villagers trying to stop “development” from taking their land or destroying their fishing grounds. I guess they could be threats to national security as well.

I do think this “debate” hasn’t gotten enough coverage. I suspect that our own civil society is scared now that the curtain has been pulled back on their anti-development, anti-national activities that were “people centric,” as the IB put it.

For more full disclosure, I actually do disagree with Greenpeace on some policies/strategies, but I’ve also done consulting work for the organization and I have been donating monthly, because I thought they were protecting trees and fish and the like for poor people who rely heavily on trees and fish and the like. Maybe should I think about putting my money into other investments, like energy projects for the tens upon tens of millions of Indian villagers who don’t have power.

Which brings me to my headline question: If Greenpeace India (or any other NGO interested in protecting the environment) is ant-development or anti-national or both, what should I think about its effort to electrify villages with renewable, distributed technology? IB is telling me to be wary of Greenpeace, but should I be wary of the #bijliforall campaign, which seems to support “development” among some of the poorest members of our nation?

Take Dharnai, Greenpeace’s test village, where residents themselves are buying into a distributed solar micro grid. When I hear their stories, I can’t figure out exactly who or what they are “anti.” Dharnai is a village in Bihar on the Patna-Gaya road. I’ve been to Bihar and seen city and village life. My wife and her family are from Bihar. Large parts of Bihar are very poor and still without electricity.

The general notion behind Greenpeace’s decentralized renewable energy (DRE) pilot is to prove that renewable tech (solar, wind, micro-hydel, biogas, etc.), which are continually decreasing in cost, can be implemented locally and sustainably. More details were unveiled this week, including a Q&A for media, which get into the logic behind DRE.

Thanks to the IB report, I know I should be skeptical; perhaps these villagers are just greedy and want power without paying for it from centralized, large-scale coal, nuclear and megadams. But it really does seem like there might be an opportunity for local solar and other tech to light up villages in Bihar without massive infrastructure, associated costs, subsidies, inequities and environmental destruction.

Maybe another IB report will clear up all of my confusion. Or maybe Prime Minister Narendra Modi could set me straight. He told Parliament last month that he wants to “empower the poor man so that he can fight poverty.”

Solar panels in rural villages do seem empowering. Quite literally, in fact.

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Working/conference paper: The value of schooling in traditional sectors, with special reference to Indian fisheries

Because I’m being slow in getting this in a better state for publication, I’m posting it here now. Trying to light a fire, as it were.

This paper was presented at the symposium Understanding and Eradicating Poverty in South Asia: Lessons and Options at the University of Rajasthan (Jaipur, India, Oct. 17, 2013). This remains in a draft format; please contact me before citing.

ABSTRACT: The international community has enshrined formal education as one of the key tools necessary to alleviate poverty, on par with ending hunger and fighting disease. In addition, education is often considered a key component of the “modern” geographic, demographic and economic transition off the land, out of the village and into wage jobs in cities. But what does education mean within the rural or traditional economy? What does education mean for the legions of villagers who remain poor farmers and fishers in developing countries such as India? This paper examines the relationship between education and poverty theoretically and empirically in traditional economic sectors. First, the paper sketches an outline of neoclassical economic growth theory, with specific attention to the basic Cobb-Douglas production function. Next, the paper reviews literature on the economic returns to education or human capital, with special attention to traditional sectors when possible. Finally, the paper conducts a quantitative analysis of marine fishery census data from India, testing the empirical relationship between poverty and education within a traditional sector.

The paper ultimately finds evidence to support the idea of returns to education even within India’s coastal fishery economies; in other words, education need not simply be a ticket out of the village. In line with much development literature, female education may have an inverse relationship to poverty stronger than male education. Furthermore, the effect of education can rival that of mechanized capital, often thought to be the key to improving poverty among fishers. However, the results may be attenuated both by the structure of the economy as well as socio-political institutions. Finally, the findings have a spatial quality to them. Some relationships shift when controlling for the fixed or unobserved effects of place, and the effects of education are not uniform across geographies. Taken together, these findings suggest the need for education that is locally tailored, decentralized and relevant specifically for traditional economies.

Click here to download.

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My parrot will not sit still


And now for something completely different.

Hamesha idhar udhar aise vaise kachar pachar.

Chalu bird.

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Sherlock Holmes and the nature of data(mining)

Holmes… thinking.

I spend many days sitting at my desk just thinking, reading, writing and then thinking some more about survey method, instruments, data and analysis. It’s all great fun, because while I’m comfortable with qualitative, I’m also quantitative.

But after a solid day of switching from one spreadsheet to another (fisher socioeconomics and mobility preferences of SE DC), my mind is drifting off and I’ve randomly recalled quotes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, on the subject of data, research and hypothesizing.

Holmes rather ingeniously contradicts at least some of our ideas of scientific method and hypothesis testing. This is hardly just Holmes being fanciful; he actually does a rather good job of showing us why we need to be careful about putting too much stock in our brilliant hypotheses.

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
A Scandal in Bohemia

Our scientific method generally tells us that we should do the opposite. We should theorize and then design experiments or collect data to analyze/test our hypothesis. My master’s thesis, for example, examined a macroeconomic theory — of productivity conditioned upon physical and human capital — using socioeconomic census data of coastal fishers in India.

My own hypothesis, based on political economy/ecology literature, was that the basic elements of the production function theory were inadequate to explain poverty. I tested data and largely confirmed my hypothesis. Holmes suggests we do the opposite, on multiple occasions.

It is a capital mistake to theorise in advance of the facts.
The Adventure of the Second Stain

It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.
A Study in Scarlet

It seems that Holmes would advocate the kind of research that is castigated by some scientists as “data mining” or “data dredging.” Described negatively, data dredging involves looking at a whole range of statistics and picking obscure ones to form a thin hypothesis about any observed patterns and relationships. I suspect that some folks who dismiss statistical analysis (“Anyone can say anything with statistics”) may be thinking of data mining. More generously described, however, data dredging is simply post-hoc analysis or looking at data after the fact for trends or patterns that were unknown or inconceivable prior to the experiment/data collection.

The critical view has some merit; the more one looks at the data, the more one finds connections that may have no logic or good theoretical basis; in short, one may find trends that just don’t make sense and may only be artifacts of the data rather than descriptions of reality.

However, hypothesis-experiment designs can also be as flawed. They rely on the researcher’s own judgment to get the conditions/variables of the experiment/observation right. One might incorrectly reject the null hypothesis (Type I error) if, for example, the variables or purported causal chain of the hypothesis don’t actually relate but instead happen to proxy a real-but-untested relationship; at the same time, one might incorrectly confirm the null hypothesis (Type II error) if the proper model isn’t specified in, say, a regression.

Example from my own work: I’m interested in power, social organization and political economy (of natural resources); along those lines I read literature often originating from political economists and political ecologists. My thesis attempted to show that a supposedly apolitical macroeconomic hypothesis simply didn’t fit the facts when one dug (dredged?) a little deeper into the data. I included sociopolitical variables that began to control away the effects of the neoclassical macroeconomic predictors.

I had some theory to back me up, but at the outset, I did not hypothesize the power that geography would have on my model as well. Only when I also controlled for fixed geographic effects or removed geographic outliers did I really begin to see the macroeconomic model break apart. Another variable I found to matter highly — the presence of a post office. This really starts to seem like data mining, but by looking deeper at the statistics, I could see that post offices proxy overall levels of development in a broader economy, so the variable actually made sense. That’s a bit of post-hoc analysis, but without the social, geographic and post office variables, my research would have actually supported the overarching macroeconomic theory.

What’s more: Even my best models didn’t explain even two-thirds of the variation in my dependent variable (poverty). A first-order question: What other variables might the theory (macroeconomic or other) be missing? One of the first steps toward answering that: Looking closer at the data for unexpected interrelationships.

Says Holmes:

“Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay.”
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Indeed, most of Holmes’ genius comes as Conan Doyle invents scenarios where the seemingly obvious hypothesis is wrong; only upon dredging up more data and observations does Holmes typically arrive at the correct conclusion.

And, in reality, most hypotheses are rarely designed in a purely a priori fashion. In practice, we look at some data, consider some experience, examine results of other research, design our hypothesis accordingly and go out and look at data. After a first pass analysis, we may alter our thinking on the fly, which perhaps approaches data dredging but gets us closer to describing a real relationship or explaining a real trend.

My own statistics professor, for whom I have great respect, told me that looking deeply at the data wasn’t wrong — I do tend to nerd out on my spreadsheets — as long as I had good theoretical, logical (sensible) reasons for seeing relationships.

And now, back to work and survey method/instrument design.

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India loves its fairness; now you can get “gore” white, down there, too…

Note: I’m not saying anything here that hasn’t been said by others. I know that.

I made it roughly two-thirds of the way through this video — laughing all the while — before realizing that it was actually a parody. That’s because many segments of India have a post-colonial fixation on “fairness,” as we call whiteness here. Even otherwise reasonable people consciously or subconsciously signal their belief that it is preferable to be light-skinned; so many people “prefer” fairness that I really would not have been surprised if this — whitening cream for your testicles — were a real product advertisement.

The faux Shahrukh Khan in the video is worth noting, as the real SRK has actually advertised “fair and handsome” creams for men even in the recent past. Shahrukh Khan, of course, makes for a big target but other Bollywood stars and cricketers have done likewise. We can be thankful that those who endorse such products are taking more flak for it these days and some are beginning to recant. Katrina Kaif, one of Bollywood’s latest leading ladies, has backtracked or double-spoke, saying she doesn’t support fairness creams even though she has endorsed them previously. Predictably, Aamir Khan, sitting next to her, comes out strongly against.

One might dismiss this as just the theater of the absurd, mass-marketing or ajeeb consumption and little else. And celebrities hawk everything in this country, so why should they make political causes out of every ad.

But the industry is big business. One estimate says that Indians spend more on fairness cream annually — hundreds of millions of dollars — than they do on Coca-Cola (not that Coke should necessarily be the barometer of reasonable consumption).

Meanwhile, the messages behind real advertisements help fuel conversations about skin color in homes across India. Parents tell their daughters to stay out of the sun lest they become “kali” or “black.” Marriage ads pronounce boys and girls as fair or actively seek a partner with a light complexion. And the obsession with fairness is not purely fashion; some overt ads actively promote the idea that you are simply less valuable with dark skin. Just take a gander at late night TV.

(I realize this is not an India-exclusive critique, but this is where I can comment from experience. And with 1.2 billion people in a nation that continues to struggle with class, caste and color, this discussion needs to take place again and again.)

Many people — myself included — have suggested this is a historical legacy of a time when skin color was a proxy for class; someone with darker skin was more likely to have a life of hard labor and drudgery in the sun. This is still a common experience much of the world, where the poor working class spends large portions of its days out of doors. But even in the upper economic strata, where skin color today is clearly not a proxy for wealth, fair skin remains prized.

Perhaps more charitably, we can think of this as an adaptation or coping mechanism for a society that is so clearly stratified on social and economic lines. In present day India, if you are poor or marginalized or discriminated against, you likely have many barriers to full social and economic participation in your community. If skin color is a barrier that can be partially surmounted with a cream available at any corner store (dubious claim but I’m sidestepping the efficacy question for such creams), wouldn’t it be tempting to purchase?

But the enduring power of “whiteness” MUST also be seen in the context of lingering post-colonial discourse and attitudes. Think that sounds like scholars making up stuff to talk about? Here’s some good reading on the subject. When we continue to buy into the idea that dark skin = less value, we also buy into a false colonial logic that reinforced the idea of a lighter=enlightened class of people dominating, subjugating and ruling the dark, black, teeming masses.

If Indians thought of fairness cream as a specifically colonial legacy, I bet fewer would be interested.

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A day in the life of a Bangalore autowallah. Well, sort of.

Hat tip to Michael Thompson on directing me to the video.

From Xaver Xylophon, a graphic designer/animator from Europe, a very cute video of an auto rickshaw driver’s day in Bangalore, where I now reside.

Fun to watch and it offers lots of interesting tidbits on this facet of the transport system in major India cities (and elsewhere in the world, from Kenya to Thailand).

The artist certainly goes beyond the one-off Mario Kart-esque caricature of the rickshaw. He includes a dispute over a meter-fare, a break-down fixed by jugaad, a nap, the menagerie of passengers and even some downtime.

Still, a few things are missing from the video that are part of the routine for many an autowallah. I’m not trying to be hypercritical, but it’s important to recognize reality, particularly as these three-wheelers play a large role in keeping urban transport from completely collapsing.

To start, the road traffic itself seems almost pleasant. I’m sure the artist knows how choked Bangalore roads are and I imagine the true picture would be difficult to animate. In reality, autos are becoming increasingly less visible amid the crush of cars that is overtaking most Indian cities.

We could have easily seen more of the exploitative, entitled passenger. A fare dispute is rarely resolved without some yelling. Of course, the reverse also often happens; in what is often an almost adversarial system here in Bangalore (and elsewhere), autowallahs do sometimes try to take passengers for as much as they can; many rarely go by meter so easily.

Other supporting characters deserve screen time: The police officer expecting a bribe; the upper-class, elitist bada sahib honking and shouting incessantly from behind the wheel; the chowkidar of the new building/complex scaring off the driver; the other autowallahs who are sometimes hostile to strangers who venture too far from their usual territory; even the firang cyclist (me) adding to the confusion of the rode.

Above all, we are missing the owner of the auto exacting a pound of flesh (exorbitant rent, inflated repair charges, etc.) from the driver. Though it’s true that some rickshaws are owner-operated (this varies by city) and some drivers are unionized or otherwise protected, in many instances, the vehicle is owned by an investor whose profit comes from exploiting the labor class.

Again, the video is really quite wonderful, but ultimately the daily path of the autowallah involves dodging (or coping) with plenty of class conflict and exploitation, in addition to potholes, streetdogs and breakdowns.

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India’s democracy needs an asterisk when it comes to development

A random bit of news filtered through PTI (government press and re-write bureau): An environmental impact assessment (EIA) of a hydropower project in northeast India is hopelessly flawed. The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has followed this process and continues to point out irregularities and poor performance in evaluating the effects the dam will have.

From the Business Standard:

A Delhi-based NGO has alleged that the environment impact assessment (EIA) study for 1200 mega watt Kalai II Hydroelectric Project (HEP) in Anjaw district is “incomplete, inadequate and shoddy”.

A recent document released by South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People (SANDRP) has revealed that the “EIA cannot clearly state whether Kalai II is a storage project or a run of the river project and it is also not clear about the height of the dam.”

It might be tempting to see this only as another case of anti-dam activism. SANDRP is likely to oppose most dams, with good reason, and India has a long history of troubling dam building. Sardar Sarovar became the flashpoint for an international movement against both megadams and the World Bank.

But I’m not actually concerned so much with the dam itself (though dams are problematic and we should be skeptical) as opposed to the process of evaluating development. This botched EIA is symptomatic of a much larger problem that is well-known in Indian environmental activist circles:

In terms of environmental protection, the essence India’s democratic credentials are questionable at best.

Let’s start, briefly, with what a democracy actually might be. It’s much more than what your average high school civics class might teach. Democracy is not a binary condition. It’s not a “yes-or-no” decision on whether a country is democratic or not. It’s inherently complex and multidimensional.

Consider that one widely accepted international index of democracy, Polity IV, scores states on six metrics: regulation of the chief executive “recruitment,” competitiveness of executive recruitment, openness of executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, regulation of participation in elections and competitiveness of participation in elections. In the composite index, states are ranked a continuum from completely autocratic (-10) to completely democratic (+10).

What’s more, we can see examples of democracy and autocracy actually coexisting. After all, the U.S. likes to consider itself a gold standard of democracy and yet this happened.

Of course, India’s sycophants like to point to the “hyper competitive” electoral atmosphere and call India the world’s largest or most vibrant democracy. And, to an extent, they’re backed by Polity IV, which scores India a 9 overall, placing it in roughly the same level of democracy as most of Latin America and parts of Europe. However, the latest Polity Global assessment also suggests that India suffers from “serious” state fragility considerably worse than many other countries with its level of democracy.

Yet we know that even the Polity calculation of democracy is far from comprehensive. Other scholars suggest that democracy requires much and more to function. Paul Collier, a relatively conservative development researcher who isn’t always right but has spent a considerable amount of time looking at democracy, strays far from the classic “free and fair elections” description in his popular development treatise (which has its problems), Bottom Billion. Essentially, Collier writes, elections are easy to put together. But, he says, democracy fundamentally requires elaborate checks and balances — what Douglass North or Acemoglu and Robinson might call “institutions.” Though the institutions might look different in different geographies, it’s clear: They are not overnight creations.

Collier goes further to suggest that often elections are all the ruling elite want; they’re easy to compromise and capture. Patronage and vote buying can easily win out (as it does in India). Affinity and class bias frequently overrule debate in the informed consent process (as it does in India and the U.S.). True checks and balances — from a free, fair and thoughtful media (India still doesn’t have free radio journalism despite its usefulness to a widespread village populace) to campaign finance controls — are often not in the interest of power, so they are particularly difficult items to institutionalize (Acemoglu and Robinson have similar conclusions about institutions).

Which brings me back to the check-and-balance system in environmental governance. One key combination for reining in both the de jure ruling political elite or the de facto ruling corporate elite are the joint institutions of public hearings and fair environmental impact assessment (EIA). However, if the latter is a sham, so is the former. And in India’s case, unbiased environmental impact assessment is largely fiction.

The process, boiled down, goes like this: Big developers (often working with/at the best of government) come up with big ideas. They commission and pay for EIAs. EIAs are submitted to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF). MOEF brings these to the Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC). EAC is to make recommendations on the projects and the politically appointed minister signs off.

Projects are generally cleared, though sometimes with stipulations. Of course, politicking makes it seem as though India’s development is constantly stalled because of clearance; when environment ministers occasionally are shuffled, the new boss has been known to clear a spate of projects to give the impression s/he is working.

Of course, since EIAs are bought by companies who want their developments approved, they generally skew the facts. And because the government desperately wants big construction and neoclassical capital development and FDI and such, officials face all kinds of political pressure to clear projects, despite serious environmental and social concerns (insert something about POSCO and human rights).

The regularly off-the-cuff Jairam Ramesh, when he was environment minister, called the EIA process a farce..

Environmental impact assessment report is a bit of joke. I admit it publicly. In our system, the person who is putting up the project will be preparing the assessment report. I have been very concerned about this. The Supreme Court has also expressed its concern.

And just last month, the Hindustan Times reported that the EIA process has been revised 100 times in about seven years, reflecting political whims, fancies and, sometimes, the desire to squeeze projects through.

Governments even know this but the pressure to approve “development” is great. Here’s a report commissioned by the state of Goa:

The EIAs, ECs and EMPs were found to be highly deficient in information pertaining to major environmental parameters such as land use pattern, water resources, biodiversity, demographic profile, dependency of people on agriculture, air quality and impact of air pollution on people’s health.

A few years ago, activists even found that parts of the EIA for a proposed bauxite mine in Maharashtra were literally cut and pasted from an EIA on a Russian mine. Site specific variables were the same.

I could go on and on. If you’re still interested, try reading here and here and here.

Or consider the facts the dam assessment in Arunachal Pradesh. The report doesn’t even declare the most basic specifics of the project — dam height or whether the dam will actually block the river flow. Perhaps the assessment isn’t sure whether the dam is a dam.

How then do we expect a legitimate public hearing? What happens to informed consent.

That these kind of basics can be left out of the process is laughable. Except that no one should be laughing.

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Time to pull the plug on Delhi’s colonial heart

Delhi's colonial planning (hexagonal street patterns, upper right) vs. reality (everywhere else)

Delhi’s colonial planning (hexagonal street patterns, upper left) vs. reality (everywhere else)

Word is circulating that 516 of the colonial-era bungalows (read: small palaces) in the planned center of New Delhi (Lutyen’s Delhi) may be renovated/rebuilt over a period of 20 years. The state-owned bungalows house India’s political elite — ministers, judges and other top officials — and are largely a perk of official power.

The price tag for updating the bungalows with so-called modern conveniences? Three thousand crore rupees, or about $482 million by today’s exchange rate.

Think on that. That’s not nearly half a billion dollars for public infrastructure (which is sorely needed around India). That’s not even half a billion dollars for an illogical mega dam, which Indian officials have also been fond of building.

No, that’s almost half a billion dollars to essentially redecorate the halls (bedrooms?) of power.

The bungalows essentially represent a faux suburban space — broad roads, leafy overhangs, large plots, individual manses — built in the middle of one of India’s densest cities. The Business-Standard has a fine editorial calling out this ridiculous plan.

But more than illogical urban development, the bungalow zone represents a classist geography that replicates and reinforces both social stratification and power, reserved as they are for officials and regulated by state rules. To live in Lutyen’s zone is a pipe dream for many; claiming an address there requires access and influence. Such is the attraction of this “neighborhood” that in 2012, when a private bungalow (there are a few) was for sale, it was priced at 600 crore rupees — about $96 million.

Meanwhile, most of rest of the city lives in ever densifying and increasingly over-crowded warrens. For a stark comparison, check the satellite imagery, courtesy of Google.

Lutyen's Delhi, marked by green streetscapes and dotted with bungalows

Lutyen’s Delhi, marked by green streetscapes and dotted with bungalows

Old Delhi, which was specifically rejected by the British planners

Old Delhi, which was specifically rejected by the British planners


Certainly, all cities contain prestigious addresses. But few are so overtly the result of statist development and control. Yes, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue or Gold Coast might indeed be the result of capitalist development (encouraged and aided by government) that benefits the already rich and richer. And, yes, such posh strips certainly represent stratification and gentrification.

Yet they do not approach the neo-colonial classism of Lutyen’s Delhi, which is explicitly intended to benefit a ruling political elite. It’s notable that such absurdity is a holdover from the British that independent India’s rulers have not so subtly clung to.

I quote at length from celebrated scholar James C. Scott’s wonderful treatise on state planning in development.

“Capital cities, as the seat of the state and of its rulers, as the symbolic center of (new) nations, and as the places where often powerful foreigners come, are most likely to receive close attention as veritable theme parks of high modernist development. Even in their contemporary secular guises, national capitals retain something of an older tradition of being sacred centers for a national cult. The symbolic power of high-modernist capitals depends not, as it once did, one how well they represent a sacred past but rather on how fully they symbolize the utopian aspirations that rulers hold for their nations. As ever, to be sure, the display is meant to exude power as well as the authority of the past or of the future.”

Scott is writing about the state development project and its faith in legiblility, clean lines, rigid planning, bureaucracy, rules, universalism and top-down design. The state, as often as not, has seen itself as the propagator and guarantor of such a high modern order.

And to be clear, Scott had New Delhi in mind when writing.

Colonial capitals were fashioned with these functions in mind. The imperial capital of New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens, was a stunning example of a capital intended to overawe its subjects (and perhaps its own officials) with its scale and its grandeur, with its processional axes for parades demonstrating military power and its triumphal arches. New Delhi was natural intended as a negation of what then became Old Delh. One central purpose of the new capital was captured nicely by the private secretary to George V in a note about the future residence of the British viceroy. It must, he wrote, be “conspicuous and commanding,” not dominated by the structures of past empires or by the features of the natural landscape. “We must now let [the Indian] see for the first time the power of Western science, art, and civilization.”

Standing at its center for a ceremonial occasion, one might forget for a moment that this tiny gem of imperial architecture was all but lost in a vast sea of Indian realities which either contradicted it or paid it no heed.

The organization and development — and continued maintenance — of the Lutyen’s area represents a lingering official faith in high modernism in urban planning. The “neighborhood” is guarded by police and development is highly restricted; order is, under Delhi development policy, practically required and enforced.

Aesthetically the bungalow zone certainly seems more organized and tidy that most of the rest of Delhi. This is in stark contrast to the more organic/functional if seemingly chaotic development elsewhere across the city. I’m not arguing that the riot of construction that is Delhi doesn’t have its own problems, nor am I arguing against urban planning in theory. Plans are needed to address Delhi’s mounting challenges with illegal land grabs, environmental cataclysm, corruption at all levels of development, the list goes ever on. But I am arguing — as Scott did — that Lutyen’s plan had little relevance to local conditions, needs, utility or desires.

What’s more, the mandated order and seemingly elegant functioning also remain ironically dependent on the very chaotic geography Lutyen’s Delhi rejected. Though haphazard to the planner’s eye, the slums and ramshackle development of other neighborhoods provide the service labor to the elite. (This is generally the case in India where elite neighborhoods are served and serviced by a servant class that lives in slum or almost-slum conditions.)

Of course, it would be nice to dismiss the bungalow zone and Lutyen’s Delhi as simple anachronism or architectural heritage. But they’re not just history (or even a nice perk for underpaid public servants). The bungalows by their existence are an example of the state replicating class division and reinforcing geographies of inequality.

As such, the Business-Standard rightly argues that the bungalows don’t need renovating/rebuilding.

They need razing.

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Delhi-wale, it’s smog, not fog

A foggy evening in a park in 2010

A foggy evening in a park in 2010

It seems that everyone in Delhi — as is common this time of year — is concerned about Delhi’s weather and the thick soupy mess that ruins lungs and visibility and generally delays everything. I remember once getting lost at night literally 100 yards from my own apartment because I couldn’t see. Delhi-wale understand that this is an annual occurrence, though apparently it’s worse than usual.

But our understanding of what is actually happening suffers from a few misperceptions, so we in the middle or upper classes remain unable (or choose not) to diagnose the situation properly. And for lack of a good diagnosis, we are unlikely to ever ameliorate the worst of it.

What do I mean? Let’s begin with an unscientific but poignant armchair test. I have Googled two sets of terms. Consider their hit counts.

Delhi fog: 1,380,000,000 hits

Delhi smog: 1,180,000 hits

Clearly, linguistically, we consider this to be fog. In our collective understanding, it’s not smog, which would more strongly imply pollution.

I can hear the Delhi-ite protesting that s/he is not an idiot and knows full-well that Delhi suffers from air pollution. I agree, but as a rejoinder, I ask, “When was the last time someone speaking Hindi said “smog-wog” instead of “fog-wog.” My point: The language we use to describe the phenomenon colors our perception.

Why do we think this way? Well, for starters, fog is historical in this season, so it’s common to react as though nature is just being nature. This is the climate of Delhi and the climate of Delhi suggests there will be fog at this time of year. So perhaps we’re already less inclined to consider this critically.

Our perception of the “fog” also suffers because baselines are always shifting — a concept that arose from fisheries analysis that suggests we collectively have trouble understanding what a system used to be like in the generation before us. This arises because the memories of a system early in my career or childhood form my baseline for assessing change and I have great difficulty then quantifying/understanding the experience of a generation before me. So we can expect that most people in Delhi will have trouble really discerning whether the “fog” was better or worse in previous periods because their baselines don’t include the generation prior. Broadly speaking, our inter-generational memory is crap.

In addition, I will argue that the massive socioeconomic changes that have occurred even intra-generation in India actually further hamper our ability to discern whether the “fog” is actually worse. This is because the yardsticks by which we might measure the severity today — for example, technical monitoring, the number of delayed flights, visibility while driving — are difficult to compare to, say, twenty years ago. Definitions of particulate matter change as does monitoring equipment and stations, particularly given India’s rapidly developing techno-capacity. Meanwhile, the number of flights has grown drastically, as has the number of people who have experience driving in “fog.”

Unfortunately, when we in the middle/upper class do see the “fog” more appropriately as “smog,” we may still tend to inappropriately assign blame to the poor.

(Note: This is hardly an Indian phenomenon. The world over, in developed and developing country alike, we wrongly blame the poor both for their poverty and for pollution. In 1972 at the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, then-PM Indira Gandhi famously declared that “poverty is the biggest polluter” and most of the world’s leaders agreed.)

Back to the case of Delhi’s smog: In winter, India’s poor are often forced to resort to outdoor fires — cow dung, wood, scrap paper, leaves, plastic, whatever — to keep warm. And it all seems perfectly reasonable, as Delhi winter nighttime temperatures approach freezing, so staying warm is literally a public health concern. The haze of these fires is a common experience among hutments as is the small fire outside a chowkidar’s shack in middle and upper class neighborhoods. This is a tangible occurrence, and it certainly contributes to the annual smog — visible, smellable, heavy particulate smoke in the air can’t be ignored — but it’s certainly not the only cause.

The middle and upper classes deserve a hefty share of blame, for several reasons. First, we keep warm by increasing our electricity consumption to power those ubiquitous space heaters. Electricity in India primarily comes from coal-fired powerplants, which we know is a heavy polluter. But because we don’t all have a smokestack in our neighborhood, we tend to ignore that portion of our contribution to the smog. Second, the middle and upper classes drive and car exhaust is another serious pollution source. Yet we also tend to ignore this because it is a part of our year-round experience. There’s no temporal pollution source to link to the seasonal “fog.” Yet our tailpipes are certainly doing their part. Third, consider a prime culprit behind Delhi’s perpetual dust, which also contributes to poor air quality. Delhi, like most major Indian cities, is constantly under construction. A lot of this construction is for the newly minted, ever increasing middle and upper classes. And while construction itself yields volumes of air-borne particulate, construction also tends to rip up green spaces which otherwise might mitigate airborne dust and keep soil in place. But again, construction is year-round (and a sign of prosperity) so perhaps we tend to think of it less.

This would all be idle pontification if we didn’t also know that Delhi’s air quality is actually hazardous, particularly in this season.

Of course, air quality is an environmental problem that is, at best, difficult to tackle. But we can’t hope to even make a dent if we can’t diagnose it properly.

I understand that this is only a casual analysis. But I think it’s clear: It’s not fog. It’s smog.

And we’re all to blame.

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Dimag aur blog dono me jang lag raha hein

My brain (dimag) and my blog are filled with rust (jang). For the past month, I have been in Dehli studying Hindi 20 hours a week and commuting another 20 hours a week. When I’m not doing either, I’m usually sleeping or mingling (ghumna-milna) with family. Or editing/rewriting one of several papers that need to be submitted for publication on topics (vishay) ranging from education in traditional economic sectors to urban hippy forestry to biking.

Furthermore, in theory if not in practice, I should be thinking in Angrezi as little as possible. So the blog has been powered down (bijli funtoosh ho gayi?) for a while. I’m sure it will come back (bijli wapas aa gayi?) on days when I have my act together. I have lots of things to say — watching debates over environmental protection (vatavarn ki raksha) and economics (arthashastr) and politics (rajniti) in this crazy quasi-democracy (loktantr). Just not enough time/energy to say them.

Cheers.

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