Monday, August 30, 2010

Mobilicity 2010 - Commuter Rail for Bangalore

The focus of this year's Mobilicity was this fantastically researched and detailed Commuter Rail proposal by IDS and the other folks at Praja. This morning's discussion included common citizens, elected representatives, bureaucrats from the likes of Railways, Metro and BMRDA, and academicians focused on urban issues and sustainability. This gives me real hope. This, to me, is what citizen activism should be all about!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blame it on the boys' school

I have a theory that men who studied in boys-only schools tend to be, on average, a little more competitive at sports than others. In school, I was obnoxiously competitive at football and ended up pissing off bigger guys, not a good idea considering my slight build. Retaliations had involved spilling of blood (mine usually)- and I don't mean that metaphorically. To this day, even when the setting is idyllic Goa, beach football games involving my school friends and me contain a lot of posturing, jeering, and sledging, and the trash-talking only stops when it's time to start drinking again. In the cricket games we play at work, I secretly relish the bitter rivalries and provocative matchups- Northies vs. Southies, Dev vs. QA, etc.. I've convinced myself that aggression on the sports arena has a purpose. All that wasted testosterone keeps us from waging real wars, I believe.

Yet in later life, I've tried hard to rein that instinct in because outside of boys' schools equanimity is rated rather highly. I have been fairly successful in staying detached while playing any sport. However, chronic afflictions have a way of showing up every so often, like when I play Settlers of Catan with my friends I can't help making a rat-race out of it. I notice that in the real world cutthroatiness is met with clique-ry, mass resistance, and sometimes. elaborate displays of sabotaging one's own games. Our contests, then, usually descend into a game of proving how little we care about Settlers of Catan. And I want to win that game too! Quick, I need some zen.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Listening to Grasshoppers

While the dust from the Meter Jam debate is only just settling, I happened to read this passage from Arundhati Roy's "Listening to Grasshoppers". For those of us familiar to her dogma (and she's never subtle about its dissemination) she unwaveringly bats for the folks that "development" has left behind. She points us to the peace-time collateral damage that the middle class has learnt to ignore. And this extract made a lot of sense in the context of the recent debates:

"Ironically, the era of the free market has led to the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India - the secession of the middle and upper classes to a country of their own, somewhere up in the stratosphere where they merge with the rest of the world's elite. This Kingdom in the Sky is a complete universe in itself, hermetically sealed from the rest of India. It has its own newspapers, films, television programs, morality plays, transport systems, malls, and intellectuals. And in case you are beginning to think it's all joy-joy, you're wrong. It also has its own tragedies, its own environmental issues (parking problems, urban air pollution), its own class struggles... This India has its own People's Movements and candlelight vigils (Justice for Jessica, the model who was shot in a bar) and even its own People's Car. It even has its own dream that take the form of TV advertisements in which Indian CEOs (smeared with Fair and Lovely) buy international corporations, including an imaginary East India Company. They are ushered to their plush new offices by fawning white women (who look as though they're longing to be laid, the final prize of conquest) and applauding white men, ready to make way for the new kings. Meanwhile the crowd in the stadium roars to its feet (with credit cards in their pockets) chanting 'India! India!'"

When I started reading "Listening to Grasshoppers", I gave the author a hard job by already picking up a bias, thanks to this review that I had read a few weeks ago.

I confess that I'm settling somewhere left of center in my own political beliefs and Roy did test me. I see the need for a matured democracy and a responsible form of capitalism and so I cringed while Roy unapologetically attacks both those ideals. She sets her tongue on fire and lashes it about wildly. Even when she uses humour it's not to lighten anything. I labored on despite these put-offs because she takes up issues that have always left me with a lot of questions - plebiscite in Kashmir, naxalism, Afzal Guru, Narendra Modi- and represents the side of the issue that has been completely abandoned in the debates in the mainstream media. I gradually started to get convinced of her intellectual honesty in her treatment of the Kashmir issue, as her question whether India needs independence from Kashmir more than the other way around really lingered (not unlike the pitch in this classic). I was finally won over in the title essay in which, in a speech delivered in Turkey no less, she likens the Turkish treatment of their Armenian minority to the Muslims in Gujarat. This book is worth a buy for that essay alone.

In sum, I can't help feel that she would be a lot more useful to the people that she lends her voice to if she could only remain objective at all times, and if she deigns to occasionally acknowledge that not everything is black or white. By continuously spitting venom at the establishment she becomes easy to dismiss. If she only tried to educate and enlighten rather than confront I'm sure she'll land herself a lot more converts. At several points in the book I kept wishing that she stops frothing at the mouth and ventured some real solutions. Yet, she's vitally important, not least as a counterweight to the idiocy that someone like Arnab Goswami can preach from his pulpit. I'm proud that this system that she so vengefully condemns, despite all its flaws, lets her be openly heretic. She's, for me, the canary in the coal mines. As long as you hear her sing, everything's not lost.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why I'm indifferent to Meter Jam

I refrained from writing about the consumers' boycott of autorickshaws for two reasons; first I hardly ever use autos and second I don't have a constructive solution to offer to commuters. I got dragged into this by Shreeni. I must concede that the situation is terrible, and the autodrivers of Bangalore deserve the bad name they've accrued over the recent years. But here's why I still won't support Meter Jam.

Market can pay more than it currently does
I admit I don't have the stats and I am basing this argument on a hunch, but I think Auto fares are artificially, and unjustly, kept down against market forces. If you were to ban fare meters and let the Invisible Hand (and a million emotionally charged bargains) determine the prices of each journey, I'm certain that the fares would be significantly higher than the current average. Even now, the reason that the autowallahs refuse to take you is not because they want to starve themselves, but because they know they'll get another sucker to pay more. I don't get the fairness of this, by keeping the fares low we are pandering to the rich folks at the cost of someone who really needs the money. The same 'victim' who didn't have qualms about paying Rs.60 for a pepsi inside the multiplex is suddenly outraged when he came out and talked to the autodriver. I can see how frustrating this must be to the autodriver, and I'm not counting having to live in a city that's becoming costlier at a rate faster than the autofares are increasing. (Disclaimer: To understand his problem is not the same as justifying his behaviour.)

Reciprocity of ill-will
So the consumers boycotted. And they are probably thinking smugly "Ah! That should teach those guys a lesson. I showed them!". Now do they expect the autodriver to go "Oh! I've learnt my lesson. I'll mend my ways"? Reality check. He's probably thinking "Now, let ME show you". I think Meter Jam will only antagonize the equations.

Generalizations are easy
Take any set of people in my country and we can easily dismiss them with an insulting generalization. Civil servants are weasels. Bus conductors are rude. Kannadigas are harsh. Bus drivers are maniacs. Marwari businessmen are X. Muslims are Y. If you want to believe any of them you'll get a million pieces of corroborative evidence. Even the autodrivers are probably thinking "Software engineers are arrogant pricks". You can't escape those generalizations, but to act on them is slightly immature.

YES vs. NO campaigns
I have significantly more belief in YES campaigns than in NO campaigns. I'd rather waste my energy telling you why you should use the bus than trying to tell you not to use the Auto.

Lastly, I remember my childhood neighbour, Chandranna, who now drives an Auto, and my dad's car occasionally. People in the other thread believe that these autodrivers make a lot of money (they probably forgot that fuel has to be bought!). Let me assure you that this guy can barely make ends meet. He works as a security guard during the night to ensure that his kids go to school. I also remember the time I took an auto to a multiplex in Jayanagar. The autodriver wanted to know, in painful detail, what a multiplex is like. That's when I realized that this guy will probably never see the inside of a PVR movie hall. I thought of him when I read about Meter Jam. The least I could do is to stay indifferent.