Friday, March 17, 2006
Looks Nice By Night (Pix Vivek Sawant)
A few weeks ago, this writer had the good fortune of being part of a workshop on Bombay..the idea was to bring together people from different `walks of life'. To talk about solutions to improve life in the city. The gathering was called Mumbai Generative Dialogue. No, it was not hosted at the Taj Crystal North or some such opulent address.
It happened at the venerable St Xavier's College in south Bombay. And there is something nice about walking into the Xavier's grand Gothic stone buildings. A stroll across the grand quadrangle surrounded by open cloisters and then onto the section which houses the canteen, open on all four sides. Beyond is another exposed patch with lots of trees, their leaves swaying in the breeze. It was a quiet Saturday morning.
The interesting thing here that it was not about speeches or statements. It was about dividing a group of people into two sets, making them sit down with each other and debate issues. It was about bringing people with often dramatically opposing views together. It was about forcing them, albeit gently, to arrive at some consensus. In thought, if not in action. Boston Consulting Group chairman Arun Maira drove the process.
We sat in a circle, facing each other. In a classroom. I was seated with Raghunath D. Medge on one side and Banwali Agarwala on the other. Medge is the president of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Sup Charity Trust. Translated, he is the boss of the Dabbawalas of Bombay. His mail id appropriately says rdmedgedabbawala@...Agarwala is an office holder with the Confederation of Indian Industry. He is also the managing director of Wartsila Diesel.
And there was the fiery Gerson D'Cunha, former ad-man who runs Agni. In another group were Sanjay Ubale, the young, smart bureaucrat who is the `CEO' of Bombay city, if there can be one. And the fiesty Bittu Sahgal of Sanctuary magazine. Of course, Bittu is more than just the editor of Sanctuary, as we all Bombayites know. And then there was Jamshyd Godrej of Godrej & Boyce, one of the more thougthful participants.
There were lots of others, including academics, experts on transport, from the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority and some from outside. There was the head of an university. There was Vinay Somani, a Harvard chap and businessman who sponsors and runs karmayog.org. This is a website that must be visited and used, by anyone who has any feeling for Bombay. On the face of it, karyamaog aggregates all the NGOs and non-profits who work for the city. But its more than that. Somani has done much to bring disparate views, objectives and grouses together. In an environment of transparency and clarity. You can find BMC's budget on his website, for instance.
The Process IS Important
Why I am I talking about all this ? For two reasons. First, the process that Arun Maira initiated. It showed that sometimes, the process of dialogue and debate is as critical as finding solutions to mega problems. I mean, where do you start when you are faced with one word, Bombay ? Roads, civic apathy, lack of investment, utter lack of interest on the part of state governments, the list is endless.
And yet, the process of bringing such people together and forcing them to come up with a single list of wishes was useful. Particularly when, like students, you have to write out your demands on a Post-It and stick it up. And then be prepared to see it challenged by the rest. Sometimes quite vociferously. And yet it worked quite well. As most of the participants acknowledged at the end of the day. Notably Bittu Sahgal. Though it looked a little shaky in the beginning.
The second reason springs from an anecdote that D`Cunha recounted. A few days before, he said, he got a call around midnight. This was an AGNI activist from north Bombay calling him. The activist had been beaten up by some people who were trying to breach a water pipeline. The activist was trying to stop them. The phone call happened because the police did not register a First Information Report, or a complaint.
A Midnight Call
D`Cunha then called up a senior police person he knew (at night) and got things moving. D`Cunha was not showing off his connections. He was merely lamenting the fact that unless you know people and can pull strings, justice is hard to get. Around the groups, I heard a few more stories. Each one came up in a different context. Some to do with blatant land grabs, others with environmental violations.
So, these guys who I would otherwise think had it going easy did not. Nor were they men and women of inpenetretable steel. They faced the same problems you and I do. And worse, the frustrations. Yet sitting next to them, I noticed a fundamental difference. While they complained about something in private, they were going gang busters in public. Filing public interest litigations, writing articles and even holding protest marches.
Architect P K Das was there too. Ive been on a panel discussion earlier with him. He has some very strong views. Some of which you may disagree with. But he is dogged, like the rest. A week after the Supreme Court decision favouring Mumbai's mill-owners, he wrote an article in an newspaper saying it was not too late. And that the State Government could still change things if it wanted to. Of course, it won't. The politicians in power were never for improving the lot of citizens in Bombay. But Das made the point. Didn't lament, perhaps as I am here. And the good news is that there are others protesting the decision. Which by the way is the most bizarre one I have seen.
And that's the conclusion. The messages I saw on some of my last two posts suggest a frustration with many things, the lack of real freedom of speech, the fact that innocent citizens get hounded for not paying tax and celebrities get away scot free. Dozens of things. I share the frustration totally. And feel quite helpless.
And yet, as the Mumbai Regenerative meeting suggested, there are people who decide to fight. They are normal too. Except for that streak of determination. They crib too. Even worse than me, I thought ! The difference is they do something as well. It does not take that much effort. A D`Cunha is human inasmuch he expressed his frustration. The fact he does something after doing so separates him from the crowd. That's my take home.