Category Archives: Environment

The Great veil / A pecking order falls / The veil of civilisation and Hurricane Sandy / The veil of civilization / After Hurricane Sandy blew the veil

[ The Friday Times (Lahore) December 14-20, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 20 ; Down to Earth, 15 Dec 2012 ; Frontier (web), 7 Dec 2012 ; Echo of India, 13 Dec 2012 ; Millenium Post, 7 Dec 2012 ; The Social Science Collective, 9 Jan 2012 ]

“ Ashole keu boro hoy na

Boror moto dekhaye.

Ashole ar nokole take boror moto dekhaye.

Gachher kachhe giye dnarao

Dekhbe koto chhoto.“

–       Shakti Chattopadhyay (poet from Bengal)


Nobody is actually big,

They just appear so.

With the real and the unreal, they appear big.

Go stand near the tree

You will see the small-ness.

We live in a world filled with theories of human nature, or more correctly, theories of human nature that explain differences between people. Such theories have a wide ranging currency and explain differences between people in things as varied as poverty, labour efficiency, honesty, graciousness, violence (or lack thereof), scientific progress, cleanliness of streets, alcoholism, sexual prowess and what not. The power of these theories are in that they set the agenda, around which we create our perceptions of ourselves and others, our assessment of the present, our hopes for the future, our aspiration and desires. This is why it is important we take such ‘human nature’ theories seriously and critically, for they define our present and limit our future.

The cold-blooded violence of the Taliban, the ‘simplicity’ of Chhattisgarh adivasis, the mathematical ability of Tamil Brahmins, the ability of German companies to build precision instruments, the courteousness (‘How are you doing?’) of a white bus driver in Boston, the ‘sense of justice’ of the British, the ‘spirit of entrepreneurship’ of immigrant Europeans in North America, the dapper look of a New York police officer, the sense of duty, discipline and punctuality that is apparently absent among brown folks – this long list is only a small set of qualities that are attributed to the intrinsic nature of a group of people. The Pashtun are prone to gratuitous violence ‘by nature’. The other examples I cite also have this quality of being explained by the nature of the people, an ethnic-quality, so to say, that specially marks them out, for good or for bad. This way of explaining away differences between people not only obfuscate strands of commonality between them, but also work against initiatives of transformation of societies from within (Pashtun women cannot ‘save’ themselves and Pashtun men cannot have any role in such an initiative). Such ideas also make us permanent prisoners of an inferiority complex (lazy, dishonest, unclean brown men) – piecemeal personal liberation coming through some kind of an internal theorizing that one is among the very few with the ‘wrong’ skin but the ‘right’ nature. Our world has this organization, this ‘civilizational’ pecking order of sorts, which manages to encroach upon our innermost subjectivities, deeply colouring our attitudes and aspirations. It even warps our sense of aesthetics, so much so that we cannot even make ourselves dislike what we may know to be bad. For example, my modern urban aesthetic can only imagine beauty in concrete while I know that paving the ground makes rain-water run off, causing water tables to drop. The alternatives, soil, dust, clay, have lost all aesthetic appeal, irrespective of my public posturing. This crisis has multiple far-reaching implications – environmental effects are only one of them.

It is not easy to see the world bare naked, without the ideological veil of the civilizational pecking order, especially when it has been naturalized. Rare are the moments when the veil is lifted. It is the witnessing of such rare moments that helps one unlearn, cleanse oneself off handed-down ideologies and breathe easy. And here comes the story of the hurricane. For Nature in itself (not our perception of nature) has not been brainwashed.

Because it has not been brainwashed, it can be irreverent, indiscriminate. It can lash Haiti’s coastline and lower Manhattan in similar ways and in one stroke can be the great equalizer when dehumanized Haitians and refined New Yorkers, the ‘animal’ and the ‘ideal’ both are frightened and shiver. Rare are these moments when layer upon layer of ideology, constructed over centuries, can be briefly peeled back to show what is generally concealed by the apparent disparities between the garbage-scavenger of Mumbai and the iphone-totting yuppie New Yorker. The approaching Hurricane Sandy caused panic. People tried to stock up on water and food. There were fistfights to buy water. There was no queue. There was no ‘discipline’. There was no ‘West’. There is no ‘West’ without surplus – the genie that bankrolls the breathing space between mere survival and the life of consumer dignity.

A friend from New Jersey called. There was no electricity. ‘Whats the correct way to wash my clothes without the machine – you are from India, you know right? Alas, I am from elite Kolkata, but I knew by seeing. Put water, put clothes, put soap. He said ‘ and then spin by hand?’ He wanted to mimic the machine. With the power gone, the powerlessness showed. Notions of differential ‘progress’ due to difference in ‘intrinsic’ nature felt dubious, the arrows pointing to paradise momentarily did not all point in the same direction. Rare are these moments when the inclined plane of progress, where difference in ethnic location becomes difference in ‘developmental’ time, caves in near the peak. It self-corrects fast. Electricity will be restored. But in the intervening darkness, if you remember what you fleetingly saw, you will never believe again.

To be able to look at your belief-system being battered by a hurricane is not easy. It is not easy to see unclean public lavatories that you thought you had left behind in the tropics. Just one day of a Hurricane blessed holiday of the underclass janitors is enough to create a stench that one has learned to associate with some and not with some.  In the gullet of Manhattan, from where the Empire State Building cannot be seen, pecking orders briefly collapse. They collapse without Hurricanes too, on a daily basis, between the rounds that the janitor makes, in the obnoxious splatters in lavatories of Michelin starred restaurants, in the toilets left unflushed in the most exclusive of hotels. The anonymity of the restroom latch lets out a ‘West’ that is more like something we associate with our skin that we have learned to hate. To take away a single-minded aspiration, from those who are otherwise alienated from all other aspirational trajectories, can be destabilizing. The frequent restroom cleaning keeps the ideological veneer on, for us to aspire and be awed. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Surplus makes near-godliness achievable in this earth. For a significant part of the year I live in a locality of Kolkata. This is also where I grew up – a distinctly ‘down-market’ area called Chetla. People often wear lungis on streets and near the rail-bridge, there are lumps of human excreta on the roadside every morning. As I stroll down the manicured streets of Boston, a dirty thought emerges. If the surplus were to evaporate, would the sauve Bostonian come to resemble my people from Chetla? How would the sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue look, early in the morning then? Would the air still be filled with the nauseatingly the high number of ‘Thank you’s’ , ‘Sorry’s ‘and  ‘Excuse me’s’ I say and hear every day? Would this veneer of gracefulness, thankfulness, personal space, yoga retreats and wine-tastings still mesmerize? What does it take to lift the veil? The ease of unraveling might hold better clues to our commonalities and differences than ideologies of progress and development.

Barbarians say that surplus is the stake that holds the veil to the ground. The stake is deeply embedded – it has taken centuries to ram in thousands of them. They are only getting deeper. Hurricanes can only pull out a couple of them, that too very briefly. The stakes have slave labour, usurped lands and colonial extraction written all over them. Reparations can send the veil flying off.

Meanwhile in other parts of global urbania that are playing catch-up, elaborate mechanisms of creating lavatories and frequently cleaning them are being finalized. However they do not have the advantage of acquiring shipfuls of humans from Senegal. Their dreams of creating a ‘world-class’ Delhi need more than a few fingers of Katam Suresh of Gompad, Chattisgarh. One needs many Chhattisgarhs, millions of fingers to adorn the necks of lakhs of unreformed ‘Angulimalas’. To ‘naturally’ fit in to the class of connoisseurs of ‘Belgian’ chocolate, one needs to be better than King Leopold. King Leopold of Belgium. Google him. Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor. Even their names sound better between hurricanes.

“ Ashole tumi khudro chhoto,

Fuler moto bagane foto.

Birohe jodi dnariye othho

Bhuter moto dekhaye.

Ashole keu boro hoy na

Boror moto dekhaye.”

Translation :

Actually you are small, tiny,

Blooming like a flower in the garden.

If you stand up in sadness

You look like a ghost.

Nobody is actually big,

They just appear so.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Environment, Knowledge, Kolkata, Non-barbarians, Power, Scars, Under the skin

Green is the new farce in Kolkata

[ Echo of India : 30 June 2012 ; Globeistan ]

On June 30, Indian Union’s secretary for urban development Sudhir Krishna came to Kolkata for a holy purpose. The tram system of Kolkata that had been systematically decimated by the Left Front government was at the centre of his agenda. Krishna preached that the trams need to be ‘revived’, even expanded. Why so? Because it has dawned that trams are eco-friendly and major cities in the world are in a tram revival or acquisition spree. The browns need to play catch up. Hence the tram system in Kolkata needs to be revived, expanded and even initiated in other cities. Trams pollute much less than cars per person carried. So far so good.

We need to appreciate the deep farce that such meetings, pronouncements and decisions often constitute. The meeting in question was also graced by the august presence of Police Commissioner of Kolkata. While lesser members of the public are not allowed to hear the deliberations between public servants on public affairs, one can imagine that the Police Commissioner of Kolkata nodded in agreement when Sudhir Krishna hit the green notes about the tram’s energy efficiency and eco-friendliness, how the tram is a less-polluting transport medium of the future. After all, in such green pronouncements, everyone needs to nod their head. Everyone needs to show that are in sync with the good thoughts and ideas permeating the planet. By his nods and occasional quips, the Commissioner might have fancies himself of being a green warrior, in his small way. Such are the tales of heroism that forever go unsung. Bengal can be such an ungrateful place.

At the end of the day, secretary Krishna left for Delhi, a city where the government has ensured that cycling lanes have been demarcated in a big way. While, the unfortunate citizens of Kolkata are stuck with the police that it has, with its lip-service to ecological sustainability, it is its ruthless extortion service that has a special bearing with all this green-talk.

With the approval of the police commissioner, and his predecessor, the Kolkata police has declared more than 30 main roads off limits for bicycles. Kolkata must be one of those rare cities of the world that shamelessly sports large signs on the main roads prohibiting bicycles. Kolkata’s police forces can put up as many shabby posters as they want for the Environment Day. It can organize as many football matches it wants as cheap public relation exercises. That does not take away the reality of the police. The green sheen fades away when the police wait in the streets as stealthy hyenas to pounce upon a hapless person on a bicycle. This bicycle rider was possibly the only person on the street who was not contributing to pollution. For the past few years, a system of daily oppression is executed on Kolkata’s streets. The bicyclers, largely poor, earn a daily wage of less than 150 Rupees. Their ‘crime’ of riding bicycles is ‘fined’ by the police on a sliding scale of Rupees 80 to Rupees 100. The receipt for this ‘fine’ is a chit of paper with an illegible rubber-stamp and an equally illegible signature. The failure to pay Rupees 100, quite common in urban Montekland, leads to confiscation of the bicycle and a date to appear in front of the police. The bicycles often have parts missing when they are recovered. Such is the racket that is at play. Such is the conspiracy against those very people of Kolkata who want to use a non-polluting transport mode. It is a war against the poor and against the city. Some police honchos will sit on environment panels, will talk with conviction about the importance of curbing pollution in the company of the rich and famous in elite clubs. In this sordid theatre, they will have ample time to play their ‘respectable citizen’ role. But the daily wage earner who had to part with more than half of his earning for the sin of riding a bicycle knows these creatures too well. Real fangs are bared in these moments when the green mask falls off the face of the extortionist. The money makes its way up – how high does it get, we will never know. Our Right to Information has limits.

Contrary to Kolkata, many cities of the world have large zones demarcated to be car and bus free, so that maximal mobility can be ensured for the largest number of people without pollution. It is only the brown sahibs who refuse to walk the last 250 metres. What is so special about the brown sahibs that walking does not sit well with their constitution? The National Urban Transport policy, formulated by the Union Urban Development ministry, clearly lays out that bicycling should be preferentially encourages over motorized transport, by earmarking bicycle lanes wherever possible. Did Sudhir Krishna quiz the Police Commissioner of Kolkata about the reason why the policy had been turned on its head in the city? The police commissioner of Kolkata is the product of the force he heads. Why blame only him? He is just the latest.

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Filed under Army / police, Bengal, Environment, Kolkata, Rights

Why Kolkata still matters – grave implications of its mode of urbanization on Southern Bengal

[ New Age ( Dhaka) – Feb 2010  &  Weekly Blitz ( Dhaka) – Feb 2010 ]

For the longest time, Kolkata was the nerve centre of Bengal and this was especially true of the Khulna and Jessore of united Bengal erstwhile which looked westwards to Kolkata as its major center for trade, education and other pursuits. After the partition in 1947, arguably the largest man-made environmental impact due to Kolkata on the landscape of both Bengals was the construction of the Farakka barrage. One of the main reasons of having the barrage in the first place was to minimize and rather grandiosely, reverse the heavy silting of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river which was serious threatening the eminence and even existence of Kolkata as a major port. Hence the planners of Kolkata’s future pushed for the barrage – over much opposition from environmentalists from both Bengals.No real study was done in the planning stages of the possible adverse environmental impact of the construction of the barrage and also on the life and livelihood of the people living downstream in both Bengals.The effects of that misjudgement is well-known and well-felt in Bangladesh and India.Now it stands as a gigantic tombstone to a dead dream of a certain post-colonial era, when technology and emancipation became synonymous. The mistrust that this brewed between Bangladesh and India is the only lingering heritage – for all the planning that it entailed, downward spiral of the navigability of the port at Kolkata could not be effectively checked.Once deemed a “traitor” to India, Kapil Bhattacharyya, who had the pre-eminent vision of questioning the notion of progress and the ecological cost of India’ development track, has been proved right , time after time.

But the notion of “progress” has not changed and if anything, the “development” beast is only more emphatically self-righteous about its methods.In recent years, under the current Left Front regime , there has been a conscious public relations effort to portray agriculture as an out-dated occupation which is to be phased out progressively and if need be, forcefully,  to make way for industry, which ostensibly will solve the unemployment problems of West Bengal. An urban-industrial vision of the world where there would be mega-urban centers, satellite townships,large patches of special economic zones and industrial areas and , as sort of an after thought, the agricultural hinterland of stupendous productivity that “science” would apparently usher in, to offset the loss of agricultural land now dominates the psyche of the leaders and opinion-makers of most of the erst-while colonies of the West. However, as recent events in Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal have shown, that there are other visions of the future too.

This brings us to the issue of the present tendency or urbanization of Kolkata. When Bengali refugees arrived in the vicinity of Kolkata after partition, the “colonies” that were set up around the city were largely unplanned and unchecked.It was an imperative of insane times and the balanced growth of Kolkata, if it had to happen, should have happen northwards but instead happened eastwards.Huge wetlands and salty-marshes were filled – giving Kolkata a new face. But at present there is a more sinister drive towards urbanization , which is not due to any impulse generated by the humanitarian catastrophe of the partition, but due to the interest of the richer sections of society to have urban and industrial bases in the immediate vicinity of present Kolkata. The idea is, these would be posh, well connected, modern centres which eventually would become part of a Kolkata mega-city.The displaced peasants and their families from these newly acquired areas would be employed as cheap labour – mainly in non-skilled roles and domestic homes.This is what has pushed the extension of Kolkata into Rajarhat-Bishnupur-Lauhati area and the recent scandal of violence around Vedic Village amply shows what such land acquisitions necessarily entail.

But there is a greater threat and that it is of immense importance to the whole of Southern Bengal.Subrata Sinha , the former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India, possibly the best expert on the effects of Kolkata’s urbanization trend on the lower Gangetic deltaic region, has opined the following “The Calcutta wetlands form part of the deltaic region of the geo-hydrologically connected Ganga-Hugli-Meghna-Brahamputra river systems and part of the trans-national watershed comprising the Himalayan mountains. The shareholders mainly include India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Unfortunately, the wetlands have been severely affected by urban encroachment; largely crippling their functions.” He continues “The terrain analysis (including the study of aerial photo and satellite imagery mosaics) reveals that numerous rivulets of the shared Indo-Bangladesh deltaic drainage system originate in this zone. Major impediments (roads, buildings and other infrastructure), which are inevitable adjuncts of intensive
urbanization , shall act as a wall across the route of overland flow. Allowing the Singur- Rajarhat belt to develop into a major urban-industrialisation agglomeration will only strengthen the wall. The excessive run-off during the monsoon shall be diverted downslope towards Bangladesh and metropolitan Kolkata. This will aggravate water-logging and floods. “

The potential implications of this is understandable and cannot be under-stated.The land which constitutes Bengal is older than Bakhtiar Khilji’s invasion of Bengal or Aryan expansion into primarily Austric Bengal.The rivers, the aquifers, the mangroves – tie the Bengals together – and their destruction – will bring them down together like inseparable twins.Hence there is an urgent need of the environmental groups and activists to come together without the prejudices that their respective nation-state affiliations bring.Environmentalists from Kolkata, Dhaka, Nadia and Chattagram should be able to talk about the devastation that Farakka and Kaptai have brought to Bengal.Given our
shared past, only an engaging present, can lead to, in all pragmatism, a shared future – for neither flash floods nor salinization respect nation state boundaries.

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Filed under Bengal, Environment, Kolkata