When we actually ask people in SE DC what they think about cycling…

An early table from the 2013 survey

An early table from the 2013 survey

In 2012 and 2013, American University Prof. Eve Bratman and I worked with two of her classes to survey more than 250 commuters in Washington, DC’s Wards 7 and 8. While much of the city — and indeed the country — has seen a cycling renaissance (hooray!), commuters in predominantly poor, predominantly black Wards 7 and 8 aren’t exactly part of the boom.

Above is an early table from the 2013 segment of the survey that specifically asked commuters at a wide range of places what barriers they could identify to cycling. Meanwhile, we note that the overwhelming preference among our respondents in both surveys is still for an automobile.

Ultimately, this leads us to conclude there is more serious work to be done; and we have a few policy suggestions. For a more developed argument, see the initial findings of our exploratory, shoestring research published today by The Atlantic‘s CityLab.

Many thanks to CityLab for listening to us. And thanks to all the co-conspirators (fellow students) in this research. We’re looking at publishing a much more thoughtful, articulated and data-heavy version in the coming months.

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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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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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