On the US Elections and Global Issues

So far, I’ve chosen not to speak about the US elections because…well, why waste time on it when you’re not a voter yourself? But now that we have less than a week to go, I can confess I’m scared. Maybe it’s the relentless, polarised media coverage getting to me, but I’m genuinely scared of what’s going to happen after November 8th. My fear stems a little bit from who’s going to win, but it also stems from noticing a political discourse (in both the US and elsewhere) that is turning away from global issues.
 
However important India becomes on international platforms, our futures are still linked to those of nations such as the US or China or entities like the EU. It ought to matter to us who leads these places because that’s who we will be negotiating with on matters of trade, climate change, or poverty. It’s with these leaders that we’ll be devising policies to tackle globally common problems.
 
Whether they admit it or not, large, powerful countries (including both the US and India) are responsible to a certain extent for global outcomes. Unfortunately, political debates across the world in recent years have seen politicians abandoning notions of common global responsibilities for national or local gains. There may be genuine reasons for this – economic decline, job losses, a post-2008 disillusionment with the globalisation promise – but while these need attention, nothing changes the fact that global challenges are not going away. The Syrian refugee crisis is only the latest example of how a local conflict can escalate into a worldwide catastrophe. There will be other such global problems to deal with in the future.
 
Therefore, it’s never been more necessary for countries to engage with each other. Catastrophes like the Syrian refugee crises need to be handled better. We need greater co-ordination on health issues like the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. Solutions need to be found for the current globalisation debacle, so that a free trade environment stops becoming a platform for exploitation. Poverty and climate change remain challenges, reminding us that whatever be the bickerings in Westeros, the white walkers are still coming through that wall. All of this means that international engagements between countries is more critical than ever before. Platforms like the UN need deep reforms but such platforms should only grow stronger and more vibrant.
 
Therefore, while I’m not interested in the intricacies of electioneering in the US, I do care about who finally gets elected. More importantly, I care about the issues they’re elected on. From what I know, this election has seen little talk of the US introspecting on its global role. Instead, the debate’s turned into a ‘Yes/No’ binary on whether the US should involve itself in world matters or not. The answer (for every country) is “yes”, but there’s little debate on exactly how that role ought to be defined. While there is criticism for the US’ international interventions in the past, there seems to be no attempt to find solutions (apart from just turning away). This is worrying, regardless of who wins in the end.
 
Meanwhile, it’s time for countries like India to engage with the rest of the world a lot more. I’m not just talking about governments but of non-governmental actors as well. The media for instance, could do with covering more news from outside India and analysing what it means for Indians. What does Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in Brazil mean for organisations like BRICS? How do Chinese investments in Central Asia impact Indian markets for resources? What does the DA’s victory in local elections tell us about the future of democratic politics in South Africa and how might it impact IBSA? What do Indians gain or lose from a Hilary Clinton victory as opposed to a Donald Trump one?
 
Most importantly, it’s time for us Indians to start taking our global responsibilities more seriously than we have done so far. The Indian government has had a good record of engaging with global issues for decades, but such issues never percolate to public discussions or popular debate. Again, the reasons for these are good, but not good enough. International issues such as climate change, economic slowdown, automation growth, the emergence of superbugs, or the growing bureaucratic logjam at the UN will come back to haunt us. It’s best we acknowledge these rather than turning away.

Podcasts

I discovered a couple of interesting podcasts this week. Both are based in India.

(a) The Intersection is a fortnightly podcast focusing on topics cutting across science, history, and culture.

https://soundcloud.com/theintersection

I particularly enjoyed the last two episodes – one covers a joint Indo-US espionage mission in the Himalayas in the 1960s while another explores the origins of an unknown signal caught by a radio telescope in the 1970s.

(b) SynTalk (short for Synthesis Talk) deals with interdisciplinary topics, attempting to discern the foundations of concepts linking various disciplines. For instance, the penultimate episode dealt with the idea of path dependence, exploring how path dependence is studied and interpreted in economic and physical systems.

https://soundcloud.com/syntalk

This is a podcast I would recommend only to those who don’t mind diving deep. For people not familiar with these topics, the language can be technical, references can be obscure, and the arguments can feel esoteric. However, it does not compromise on richness, and one can learn a lot in an hour or so.

Notes on the Steel Flyover connecting the Airport to the City Centre in Bengaluru

There were a bunch of news articles today on the Karnataka cabinet approving the construction of a steel bridge (more accurately, a steel flyover) connecting the Bengaluru airport to the centre of the city. Reports of this project can be found in the Times of India, The Hindu, Bangalore Mirror, and Livemint. It’s important to point out what’s being given up. According to the Times of India article, the project will claim 812 trees, portions of heritage buildings such as the Baalabrooie Guest House, and public institutions such as the Planetarium.

My quick opinion is that we’re going to be dealing with the consequences of these losses for years. Perhaps the flyover itself may be well-designed, but the price in terms of what’s being given up is just too high. The city centre needs those trees. Replanting five times as many trees in outlying areas does not negate the local ecosystem effects. It’s a bit like saying we’ll compensate for melting glaciers in the Himalayas by somehow increasing the amount of ice in the Antarctic. Even if that were possible, such a move won’t help rivers in the Gangetic plain from dying due to lack of glaciers. The city centre also needs heritage spaces as well as public educational centres such as the Planetarium. The Planetarium in particular is an important social space, affordable, educational, and a locus for many of the city’s science enthusiasts.

There is news on social media of some petitions being made against the flyover. I’ll update details as soon as I get to know more.

There is a point to note for people studying urbanisation though, on how certain inflections in a city’s history can trigger immensely complex trajectories of change. The past decade has seen a drastic reworking of Bengaluru’s landscape thanks to the opening of a new airport in the north. There were contestations on where the airport needed to be located and its eventual location (35 kilometres from the city centre, near Devanahalli) was not accepted by everyone.

Nevertheless, its presence in the north has reworked the spatial dynamics of the city considerably. This is particularly so along Bellary Road which serves as the primary route for most Bengaluru residents to access the airport. From the construction of flyovers to the opening of tech parks to the rapid rise of new neighbourhoods (often without infrastructure like water pipelines or drains), this part of Bengaluru looks nothing like what it did even five years ago.

This particular example of the steel flyover though, shows how deep the influence of something like an airport can be. Many of the places being given up for the flyover are in what’s considered the centre of the city. A lot of the traffic that passes through here does not go to the airport. Some of these neighbourhoods have existed for ages, developing their own internal dynamics and socioeconomic rhythms. Yet, the need to connect the central business district with a distant airport trumps all these factors.

Such a plan hints at a hackneyed way of looking at a city, in terms of only centres, outlying nodes, and infrastructure built in empty or inconsequential spaces in between. This method of visualising a city is proving to be obsolete. Unfortunately, it will take time for these notions to change and we’ll have to endure the costs of that.

 

(This is a modified version of a Facebook post).

On Suprise, Violence, and the Manufacturing of Bengaluru’s Images

I’m seeing posts and articles post-riots about how nobody expected violence of this sort in Bengaluru and that the city has changed. On the day of the riots, news anchors on talk shows lamented about how the image of the city has been “damaged” and “dented”. Others complained about how this was never a part of Bengaluru’s ethos. Overall, there was a sense of surprise and disbelief at what happened on Monday.

The riots should be condemned, but the surprise with which it’s been greeted is surprising in itself. It hints at, for the lack of a better word, an ignorance of the city’s recent past, even among those who’ve lived here for years. This is not the first time riots have taken place in Bengaluru, shutting it down so comprehensively. Nor is it the first time riots have occurred over the Kaveri, placing Tamils in the city at risk.

What actually surprises me is how quickly we forget. In many ways, this erasure of collective memory is great, allowing us to get on with our lives. In other ways, it’s detrimental – deeper issues underlying the violence are ignored until the next set of riots, after which the process repeats itself.

The national and international images of Bengaluru divorce the city from certain facts. The city is not an isolated entity, it draws resources from a surrounding region which is the locus of some deep conflicts. It’s home to several identity contestations while housing large populations from both Karnataka and the rest of India, especially Tamil Nadu. It’s not just home to IT firms and start-ups, but to industries and neighbourhoods in its western half which are barely acknowledged. Much of Monday’s violence involved the intersection of these facts.

Yet, the manufacturing of Bengaluru’s image continues to ignore these inputs. Therefore, surprise results when this image is challenged, as it was on Monday. There is a need for a much more comprehensive picture of the city, one that acknowledges urgent concerns while not advocating violence. Ironically, we could see hints of such an image during the riots itself – the response by the city’s public institutions (especially the police), a relatively unambiguous outcry on social media, even condemnations of the violence by some politicians who’d taken Karnataka’s side in the Kaveri dispute.

However, more importantly, we shouldn’t let our knowledge of cities be clouded by popular images. Large-scale violence in Bengaluru may not be frequent, but has regular patterns which play around the same issues. It’s important we acknowledge these underlying issues, study them, and find ways of addressing them. As long as these issues remain problematic, surprise cannot be a response.

ಕಾವೇರಿ ಗಲಭೆಗಳ ಬಗ್ಗೆ – Regarding the Kaveri Riots

ಇವತ್ತಿನ ಹಿಂಸೆಯ ಬಗ್ಗೆ: ನಾನು ಗೊತ್ತಿದ್ದ ಮಾತೇ ಪುನಃ ಹೇಳುತ್ತಿದ್ದೇನೆ. ಆದರೆ ನನ್ನ ಪ್ರಕಾರ ಈ ಗೊತ್ತಿದ್ದ ಮಾತು ಮತ್ತೆ ಮತ್ತೆ ಹೇಳಬೇಕು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಬೆಂಗಳೂರಿನಲ್ಲಿ ವಾಸಿಸುತ್ತಿರುವ ಕನ್ನಡಿಗರ ಬಾಯಿಗಳಿಂದ ಈ ಮಾತು ಪದೇ ಪದೇ ಬರಬೇಕು.

ಕಾವೇರಿಯ ಸಮಸ್ಯದ ಬಗ್ಗೆ ನಮ್ಮಅಭಿಪ್ರಾಯ ಯೇನಾದರು ಆಗಲಿ, ತಮಿಳ ನಾದುವಿನಿಂದ ಬರುತ್ತಿದ್ದ ಹಿಂಸೆಯ ಸುದ್ದಿಯ ಬಗ್ಗೆ ನಮ್ಮ ಕೋಪ ಎಷ್ಟಾದರೂ ಆಗಲಿ, ಜನರ ಮೇಲೆ ಅಥವಾ ಆಸ್ತಿಯ ಮೇಲೆ ಹಿಂಸೆ ಮಾಡುವುದಕ್ಕೆ ನಮಗೆ ಯಾವ ಹಕ್ಕೂ ಇಲ್ಲ.

ಕಾವೇರಿಯ ಸಮಸ್ಯದ ಪರಿಹಾರವು ಗಾಡಿಯನ್ನು ಸುಡಿಯೋದಿಂದ ಬರುವುದಿಲ್ಲ. ಬೆಂಗಳೂರಿನಲ್ಲಿ ಇರುವ ತಮಿಳರನ್ನು ಹೊಡೆದರೆ, ತಮಿಳು ನಾಡಿನಲ್ಲಿ ಆಗುತ್ತಿರುವ ಹಿಂಸೆಯು ಕಡಿಮೆ ಆಗುವುದಿಲ್ಲ, ಅಪರಾಧಿಗಳಿಗೆ ಶಿಕ್ಷೆ ಬರುವುದಿಲ್ಲ. ಇವತ್ತಿನ ಹಿಂಸೆಯ ಮಧ್ಯೆ ಸಿಕ್ಕಹಾಕಿಕೊಂಡವರು ಈ ಸಂದರ್ಭದಲ್ಲಿ ಮುಗ್ದರು.

ಕಾವೇರಿ ನೀರಿನ ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ ಒಂದು ಸಂಕೀರ್ಣವಾದ ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ. ಇದ್ದಕ್ಕೆ ಬಹಳ ಎಚ್ಚರಿಕೆಯಿಂದ ಪರಿಹಾರ ಕಂಡುಹಿಡೆಯಬೇಕು. ಆದರೆ ಅಂತ್ಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಇದು ಸಂಪನ್ಮೂಲ ಪಾಲು ಮಾಡುವ ಸಮಸ್ಯೆ. ಈ ವಿಷಯವನ್ನು ನಾವೆಲ್ಲರೂ ನೆನಪಿಸಿಕೊಳ್ಳಬೇಕು. ಇದನ್ನು ಗುರುತಿನ ಸಮಸ್ಯೆಗೆ ಬದಲಾಯಿಸಿದರೆ ಯಾರಿಗೂ ಸಹಾಯವಾಗುವುದಿಲ್ಲ.

Regarding today’s violence: I’m stating the obvious here. However, I feel it needs to be stated anyway, especially by more Kannadigas in Bengaluru.Whatever be our feelings about the Kaveri issue, however angry we feel about news of attacks in Tamil Nadu, nothing gives us the right to engage in violence against people or property.

The Kaveri issue will not be solved by burning trucks and buses. Attacking Tamilians because of reports of similar violence in Tamil Nadu will not help catch or punish the people who committed those crimes. The only people at the receiving end of this anger today were those who were innocent.

The Kaveri water-sharing issue is a complex one, and needs to be addressed carefully. However, in the end it’s about the sharing of a resource and it’s important we all remember this. Turning this into a matter of identity does not help.

 

(ಈ ಬ್ಲಾಗ್ಪೊಸ್ಟನ್ನು ೧೨ ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ ದಿನಾಂಕ ಫೇಸ್ಬುಕ್ ಮೇಲೆ ಮೊದಲು ಪ್ರಕಟಿಸಿದ್ದೆದೆ)

(I’d originally posted this on Facebook on 12th September)

Book: ‘The Great Game’ by Peter Hopkirk

This book has provided great relief in recent weeks, while I struggled with writer’s block and persistent insomnia. I had picked it up years ago, while staying in Delhi and had then left it half-finished for some reason. I picked it up again a few weeks ago.

WP_20160731_004

Peter Hopkirk’s “The Great Game” was originally published in 1990. It covers a part of history that people like me never learned about in school – the 19th Century struggle between Britain and Russia for Central Asia. It’s a shame our schools don’t cover this in more detail. Not only does the Great Game provide excellent lessons in colonialism, inter-state relations. and politics, it also highlights the historical impacts of colonial interests upon Indian and Asian history. Russia spent the better part of 200 years trying to invade India while Britain spent the same time defending her interests in the country. Both interfered in the politics of Afghanistan, Punjab, Kashmir, and Leh, often resulting in disastrous episodes such as the 1842 Kabul Retreat (which saw 16,000 Indians and Britishers killed or captured).

In spite of being somewhat eurocentric, Hopkirk shows a rare sensitivity to the Asians who got caught up in the great game. His book portrays interesting non-European characters – Mohan Lal, a Kashmiri in Afghanistan whose warnings to the British went in vain and Mirza Shuja, one of the many ‘Pundits’ trained by the British to map the Pamir and Karakoram mountain passes. More than anything, Hopkirk’s book opens a facet of Indian history that we don’t discuss any more, a facet that shows India’s deep links with larger Asia. Much has changed, of course. For instance, there are no more trade caravans running from Ladakh to Yarkhand. Yet, much remains unchanged. Places like Hunza, Chitral, Kashgar, and Lhasa remain as elusive to most Indians today as they did to explorers in the 19th Century, albeit for different reasons.

What I found most unsettling was the familiarity of historical events. Russian aggressions against the Ottomans sound no different from contemporary sniping between Moscow and Istanbul. Colonial wrangling for the markets of Bokhara and Samarkhand have only been replaced by modern contests for oil, gas, and infrastructure in Central Asia. British misadventures in 19th Century Afghanistan feel almost identical to modern conflicts in the region. It was even rumoured that when the Taliban killed Afghan president Mohammed Najibullah in 1996, the latter had been trying to translate Hopkirk’s book into Pashto, so as to illustrate past mistakes and help ensure they are not repeated in modern Afghanistan.

In any case, this is a great book to read.

—-

Link to book on Goodreads.

Link to book on Amazon.in.

Featured Image: “Remnants of an Army” by Elizabeth Butler

Indian Summer

I have a feeling that the Summer of 2016 will be remembered for years to come. Unfortunately, it won’t be for pleasant reasons. Apart from scientists panicking about broken records in global temperatures, South and South-East Asia haven’t been having a good time. Last year (2015) had been fairly weird, with rains in the summer, no rains in the monsoon, and a fairly warm winter. On the other hand, 2016 so far can be summed up in one word – hot.

Make that two words – hot, and dry. Two consecutive years of bad rainfall have resulted in water sources across the country drying up. Whole rivers have stopped flowing, reservoirs are down to their minimum levels, and groundwater has become extremely scarce. The breakdown of water supply has been most extreme in Maharashtra, where the Indian government had to recently send trains filled with water to supply the district of Latur, where water supply had ceased completely. However, while Latur’s predicament is the most visible, it is by no means the only victim of heat and drought. Eastern India is reeling under a heat wave which has pushed temperatures in certain places beyond 47 degrees centigrade. In Karnataka, a dozen districts have been declared drought-hit.

Much of this disaster was man-made. We had very clearly observed the decline in rainfall over the last two years, and we also knew at the end of last year’s monsoon that we didn’t have enough water for the summer. We were also aware that there was little control over groundwater extraction, and lesser initiative to curb the erosion of water sources – lakes, tanks, farm ponds, rivers. Many of us were well-aware that 2015 and 2016 were El Nino years, and that that El Nino has been typically associated with hotter and drier weather in southern Asia. We knew that there was agricultural distress, and that many farmers were giving up cultivation because of unpredictable climatic conditions. Merely putting all these facts together should have warned us to prepare for heat waves and drought this summer. And yet, somehow we failed, at both national and state levels.

To add to this, many of the country’s other environmental problems are now reaching critical levels. Many Indian cities are seeing large-scale environmental problems which need to be addressed urgently. The floods in Chennai late last year was accompanied by rising commentary on Delhi’s air pollution, Bengaluru’s degraded wetlands, as well as large-scale burning of waste in Mumbai’s landfills at Deonar. There were other events which highlighted India’s growing environmental problems – the conduct of a high-profile festival on the Yamuna river floodplains in Delhi, agricultural distress in Bundelkhand, and now, the burning of forests in Uttarakhand.

For a country occupied with economic growth, it’s surprising that we pay little attention to environmental matters. The links between environment and economy are quite apparent to those who wish to study it. Environmental factors feed into economic activity, and ignoring or downplaying them will not prevent growth from faltering when these factors are affected. But more importantly, this summer should remind us that environment and climate change need to be front and centre of all our planning and developmental activities. The question is, will we remember the lessons of 2016’s summer?