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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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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Small fishing is beautiful

Small is beautiful

Above: A Panamanian boat man.

I’m in the final throes of my thesis writing; the topic: Explaining poverty in Indian fisheries.

However, for the last week and a half I’ve been writing the history and evolution of fisheries globally, which has me constantly thinking about the stratification of fisheries and the multiverse of fisheries development paths.

In case anyone is interested, a good bit of straightforward reading on fisheries — other than my thesis, of course — is DeSombre and Barkin’s Fish. More encyclopedic but also helpful is the stupidly expensive Handbook of Fish Biology and Fisheries Vol 2.: Fisheries, edited by Paul J.B. Hart and John D. Reynolds.

Note: There are plenty of problems with small- and intermediate-scale fisheries, too. But when compared to fully industrialized fishing and considering the plight of the increasingly depleted ocean, it’s difficult not to argue for the small-is-beautiful model.

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Food sovereignty in her back “yard”

Urban development + food security

Today is World Food Day, a day noted by food sovereignty+security+justice organizations from the U.N. FAO down to the smallest community co-op. It’s one of these international “days” when we’re all supposed to pay attention to the plight of the millions upon millions of people across the world (and yes, in the U.S., too) whose lives are poorer for their lack of ready access to good, healthy food.

Of course, in the U.S., most of us, myself included, let such days pass without notice. And in reality, a “day” of recognition is a rather artificial way of tackling a problem.

But nonetheless, the grad school hippy in me finds the exercise worthwhile. So I’ve been pondering the above photo, of a mother from Kibera, a sprawling slum of Nairobi. I met her October 15, 2009, when I spent a few weeks in Kenya talking to people about water and environment and health (and also lions and zebras). That’s her youngest on her back, her family’s clothes on the line, and importantly, her primary source of fresh greens growing out of a gunny sack on the ground behind her.

The soil in Kibera is compacted and often toxic from waste/chemical leeching. And space is at a premium, so any kind of local ag has to adapt. Yet in back “yards” across the slum people have taken to growing basic roots and greens in makeshift gardens.

In the face of a globalizing world food system that delivers grocery stores full of processed foodstuffs to us in the Global North, here a marginalized peasantry (displaced to megacities) still manages to respond with their own alternatives. Contained within this picture is a powerful and yet humbling critique of industrialized food that we who have plenty need to hear.

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Out with the tide…

Lazy afternoon

…or you’re done for the day.

Above, Havelock fishermen empty their boats for the afternoon; they’ll return to the sea at night or the next morning when the fish are more active and the tide is high enough for them to clear the coral-strewn flats.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing just a little, but these are the opposite of industrial fishing. They’re traditional fisherfolk who have been sustaining their families on small catches for generations.

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$3 holler, y’all

A worthy fight and it only takes $3.

Countries need to develop? Yes.

Electricity is vital to people who live in severe deprivation? Absolutely.

Irrigation can end hunger? In some cases.

Big dams are the way to do it? Not a chance.

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Gully water tap

Work with what you've got

Water in India, like in many developing countries, isn’t exactly accessible to all. Here, in a busy gully in Old Delhi, amid bustling sari shops and dhabas and the like, a water tap is something a focal point for nearby residents.

During an afternoon visit, I watched this man come with several buckets to fill and dishes to wash. He had to fight for time with a nearby snack vendor who had similar intentions.

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We gotta reduce, re-use, recycle

Bad news bears, or something

Dharamshala kids form their own recycling brigade. Basically, they’re on the poorest rungs of society. School is not so much an option or concern; sorting through trash to boost family income is their vocation.

They were collecting and sorting their glass and plastic along the spiritual hiking path surrounding the Namgyal Monastery.

This is reality in an over-poor, over-crowded country. At least it helps mitigate the ever-growing volumes of trash 1.2 billion people produce (though to be fair, India’s waste output in raw terms remains far behind the United States).

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Children of the fort

Brother and sister

Young ones wandering at Agra Fort. Maybe looking for tourists to harangue. Or to be harangued by tourists (read: me).

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