Friday, March 17, 2006

Frustration City !



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.

Diverse Opinions

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.

Tough Guys

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.

11 comments:

Bombay Addict on 1:33 pm said...

Hey Govind - great blog as always and thanks a lot for the Karmayog link (although you might want to check the Agni link, its not going to Agni's site).

Like others I share the same frustration and helplessness at Bombay's current state. For my part, I try and vent some ire through my blog, which in particular has my take on the Mumbai Mill Land case in a 5-part series. [I'm still working on the Supreme Court decision, which I agree, was quite bizarre.]

I wish the Bombay Bloggers could get together in a forum/community to take up some issues in a wider forum. I don't know if this already exists, but I think it'd be a great idea.

Thanks for your posts - they would ring a bell with any concerned Bombayite.

Anonymous said...

Workshops of this nature are fine, intellectually stimulating for the participants, something for the media to write about or cover if content starved for that day - other than that what? are there ever any follow-up actions by the participants, any blue-print drawn and presented etc. Post 26/7, the number of panel discussions/ brainstorms held, of which you too were a part - did any of them result in any serious representation made to the authorities? Till date after a catastrophy of that nature, the drainage systems still remains clogged with plastic, nothing has changed -no one has asked and no one has fought or brainstormed any of the issues to a logical conclusion. Those who can influence change do nothing but debate and brainstorm, citizens like do nothing but crib and pray for a chance to migrate - what hope is there?

Anonymous said...

we are city where construction of a flyover is stalled because two sisters who should have quit singing a while ago believed the construction work near their home would generate too much dust that would affect their voice and with it their livelihood and with that a national treasure, a city where some one can actually protest against a sea link which is needed as of yesterday and no one even checks the background of the person/s protesting, a city where a patient is found to have contracted cholera, a disease one would have thought got eradicated along with yellow fever, a city where gastro hits an epidemic situation because the civil authorities cannot even provide disease free water, a city which is suppossedly the commercial capital of a country that's expected to be one of the fastest growing economy's and you actually have cows, elephants, horses etc. all sharing the roads with trucks, BMW's and rickshaws, and the list can go on....

all i can say is thank god the quota for H1 B visas have been increased - do keep me posted through your blog when you think the city is liveable enough to return... till then au revoir

Unknown Indian on 5:23 pm said...

Govind - nice post overall, but your comment on the mill land issue is very surprisingly obtuse, coming from someone I generally admire. The High Court and BEAG were basically attempting to force the government to steal from Mill Owners and give to BMC and MMRDA. The supreme court rightly ruled that the state government is under no such obligation to steal. Public green spaces are needed but the right way to get them is to buy the necessary land using tax revenues (or to get VOLUNTARY donations of land by providing higher FSI) not by stealing from one section of society (and especially not by harming innocent third parties who have paid for the properties developed under the law of the land). For my views on the case, you can see my blog

Unknown Indian on 5:24 pm said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Govindraj Ethiraj on 10:02 pm said...

Dear UI, the second part of your argument makes perfect sense..if the case was decided on MERIT. Tough to argue, for instance, that the BMC will do a better job of managing open spaces than the mill owners.

But it was not. The SC was interpreting, largely, Development Control law 58. Isn't it ?

But the second part, i wonder. Why is the High Court wrong and the Supreme Court right ?

Interestingly, you've blasted the judicial system in your previous post ! So, we have a situation where one verdict works for us and the other does not !

And yet, I have not studied the SC judgement with the rigour it deserves. You have. I have to !

I also want to fortify myself legally before saying a few things I really want to say about the SC judgement.

Note, you said lots of things about the state of the lower courts vis-a-vis Shyan Munshi case.

So, are other courts free of all influences..I wonder. Does not add up, my friend. Just does not.

Bombay Addict on 12:13 pm said...

Govind - couldn't agree more with your answer to UI.

UI - I've already commented on your blog.

To paraphrase GE - Somethings dont add up. Just don't....

Kane on 2:48 am said...

I completely agree that unless you pull the right strings at the right places and at the right time, things never move in India. My dad, into business, has always been facing threats day in and day out. Living outside of India, I hear all the good news of increased job creations and FDI inflows into India, that gives, we folks a better feeling and even prompts a discussion sometimes, if we actually should return back to India. But, what we hear is not the real India, is it?

MNC's with their deep pockets and great influences negotiate across the CM's table. But what about the normal citizens like my dad and many others who slog day in and day out for a better life and success. These increased FDI inflows and other much hyped Indian prosperity does not help to change the crying changes that India needs, does it?

When will the Indian judicial system show light to the cases that are pending decades, when will a normal citized will be able to get what is entitled to without providing something that the implementors are not entitled to but an unwritten norm, bribes ?

When will all these and other crying changes happen? will it ever happen?

With all the world class engineers, graduates, managers... we still let us be ruled by the uneducated lot? Until this happens, how can we realistically hope these brainstorming intellectual discussions could ever become real of this is just another wish list!!!

Inventingthoughts on 9:30 am said...

Govind Keep it moving.
I am a Bangalorean visiting Mumbai often.
In our country there is no other cith like Mumbai. And the strength of it lies in the Intellect of her people as well as the Celeb's across . If both the things are used public awareness will be a very easy thing to attain.

Please look into my blog and advice me on writing. If you find time.

Unknown Indian on 2:58 pm said...

Govind/ Bombay Addict

I think it is very tough to argue that the Supreme Court did not decide the case on merit. In any democracy there is a separation of powers between the judiciary, legislature and the executive. The only question that either the Supreme Court or the High Court had to answer was whether the State Government had gone beyond its powers in formulating the amended DCR 58. The Supreme Court rightly (in my view) held that it had not. As I said in my post, despite all the warts of our democracy, the right place for deciding trade-offs between different public interests is parliament.

Further, in my view, the amended form of DCR 58 was an improvement on the previous version. In any other country, the mill areas would probably have been redeveloped 25 years ago. The amended DCR 58 is a belated step at facilitating the regeneration of the city.

As for the point on congestion, if you have 18 mm people crammed into one small island, you are going to have congestion. The only way cities can deal with congestion is by going highrise. And as someone pointed out on one of the TV discussions, the congestion in the mill areas (viz. Tulsi Pipe, Dr. B.A. Road) is far less than that in Kalbadevi or Pydhonie.

Finally on the scumball greens (this is more in response to Bombay Addict's comment) - there are a very large number of comments in the Supreme Court verdict (including on the delay in their filing the petition) whhich can be interpreted as at least being a rap on their knuckles. Unfortunately, environmentalists have become the latest holy cows in India.

While agreeing with Govind that all is not right in our judicial system, the fact is that all is not right with our NGOs either.

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