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Issue 15

‘We are a country which hates its poor’: Planner Paromita Roy on moving mountains in a metro

Central Delhi’s Karol Bagh which once had no space for shoppers to walk, is now pedestrian-friendly. Dwarka, a sub-city in southwest Delhi, has carved space on the same road, for cyclists, e-rickshaws and is on its way to get the longest cycling track in India. With the 2011 census showing the rise in Delhi’s population from 1.39 crores in 2001 to 1.68 crores, space is at a premium. Some planners are fighting all the way to keep it inclusive and in some cases, winning.“I was shocked to see the drawings, they are making road designs and there is no footpath”, urban planner Paromita Roy’s initial response as a consultant with the DDA (Delhi Development Authority), as part of UTTIPEC (United Traffic And Transportation Infrastructure (Planning & Engineering) Centre, a DDA think tank). But it is not just people on the street, she is standing up for.

While CoP26 pays lip service to scrutinizing the flying habit, in India, it is festival rush hour for trains.‘We need to connect the stations back to people.’Roy argued recently, as part of the key IRSDC team (*Indian Railway Station Development Corporation) Setting up new codes to ease  moving around an Indian railway station. Habibganj, MP’s capital railway station is already showing some proof of a shift.

Aritro Sarkar speaks to Paromita Roy to understand how giving people the freedom to move about with affordable and convenient public transport options, can make climate change relatable.

Part of Issue 15 of OpenAxis. Interviews with path-breaking Indians responding to climate change challenges. 


As an urban planner who has worked in China, Brazil, the United States and India, what is it like, in terms of differences, challenges?

In terms of work, of course, I learned a lot. The US gave me a lot of self-confidence. Over there, talent is valuable.That is, I think, the most important thing. They teach you how to value yourself. It’s not that they value everybody. You can discover your own strengths when you are in a place like the US and then you can build on your strengths and you can excel in that field and you will always get respected. Here, even if you are good, nobody will respect you. People will always put you ten steps down and there, if you are good, then you will always be pushed up ten steps. So in terms of my stature and with the amount of respect I had, I definitely had more respect in the US than I have in India. Having said that, in India, I have been able to do much more work because in the US I was working only on private sector projects. 

I spent about a year in China working in the Shanghai office of ARUP. They were very nice and very, very hardworking. They don’t believe in rest. So there are no sofas in the offices – you are not supposed to rest. Only work. That was Chinese work culture. Too much.

Honestly, when I came back, I was a nationalist. I used to be like, desh ke liye kaam karna hai (I want to work for the country). Now I am indeed working for the desh, but what disappoints me about India is that we don’t take care of our own people. Every single person is out to outdo the other person. We don’t know how to co-exist. We don’t know how to collaborate. That’s why good professionals are not happy in this country. They want to just leave. Honestly, if I was not India-born, I would have probably left.

Given your wide experience working in sync with governments across the world, what kind of projects have you led with central and state governments in India?

Most of my work [in India] primarily has been with UTTIPEC. It’s a brilliant organization that the DDA formed. Before UTTIPEC was formed, everybody was working separately and everybody had to run behind each other. Every urban project involves at least five to ten agencies minimum, maybe more. UTTIPEC allowed for them to talk to each other. All agencies would come and sit together and discuss and fight and brainstorm things. I remember we were doing this multimodal integration plan for phase three metro stations in Delhi, which are now implemented. These meetings used to be chaired by the secretary, honorable secretary of PWD and co-chaired by the commissioner of traffic police. And then DMRC, PWD, UTTIPEC, MCD, all these organizations used to be sitting around the drawing board and everybody was looking at a drawing and giving inputs. I’d never seen something like that in my life. They were so collaborative, which doesn’t happen easily in our country. We had ten departments giving inputs into a drawing, which was going to be implemented on the ground. That was amazing. 

You have also worked very extensively on the concept of transit-oriented development. For our readers, what exactly does it mean? 

It’s very simple. It’s not actually transit-oriented development, it is actually just common sense. 10 years from now, you have your wife waiting at home and you are coming back from work on the Metro and then you are walking home. What would you like to do? Would you like to get out of the Metro and then stand in line and wait 15 minutes for a rickshaw? Or, would you just love to get out of the train and immediately get into a high rise apartment, in a nice airy apartment? I don’t have to tell you, now you can answer for yourself.  So TOD is about this convenience. For people who are using public transportation, don’t torture them right now.

For instance, my house is 250 meters from the Metro station and I’m scared to walk. Believe me. I take a rickshaw to go through 250 meters. 250 meters is a three-minute walk. In the US, I used to walk two kilometers from my office to the metro. So why am I not able to walk? I’m scared because there is no light on that street and then are dogs over there. And of course, the men. It’s so dark. It’s so scary. I was scared to walk alone in that three-minute walk. Now, TOD is about making that walk pleasant, fun, safe. How can you make it safe? Through lighting, and natural surveillance through crowds. In Lakshmi Nagar, it’s chaotic, but I sometimes will get on the station at 2am and even then I feel safe because there are vendors and it’s got people running across the streets selling things. I never feel unsafe there, but here, in Dwarka, I feel very, very scared.

Somebody said this to me which I really liked. Hope is not a plan. You can’t hope that one day some hawker comes on my street and makes it safer. No, you have to plan for safety. You have to design for safety. You have to design for people to be comfortable. You have to plan for people to find convenience so that they don’t have to take the car out after coming back.

So all of these things, the planning principles, which enable this better quality of life for people, is transit-oriented development. Anyone who uses metro, if you ask to list three or four things that they would like, that is TOD. 

How does efficient urban design address climate change? Can you give an example which can help our listeners?

Climate change is a very broad thing. For the first 10 years of my life, I was working on climate change, but I don’t like talking about it. Why? Because it doesn’t matter to the common man. My housekeeper or the driver who drives my car – do they know the meaning of climate change? I’m not interested if they’re not. We need to stick to the basics. The basics are just giving convenience, giving good healthcare, giving good education. Let them earn money. If a guy earns a hundred rupees a day – more than 70% of our population earns a hundred rupees a day – and is spending 30 to 50 on travel, then we have failed as policymakers. Right? So beyond whether he’s polluting or not, it’s more important for me to see that out of the hundred rupees, he should not have to spend, ideally nothing, but if he’s spent something, then it should not be more than 10 rupees or 20 rupees, which is also a lot. So I think we as designers, planners, policymakers need to understand what we want, and what people need.

It’s a key performance indicator: let me reduce the expenditure of this guy to less than 10%. They all invest in cycles, unka cycle chori ho jata hai, puncture ho jata hai. Metro station mein parking karne ka jagah nahi hai. Maid jo aati hai unke liye bhi cycle parking ki jagah nahi hai (Their cycle gets stolen and punctured. The metro station has no place to park them. Domestic maids also have no space to park their cycles). We talk about climate change, but do we realise that climate change is linked to giving cycle parking to your housekeepers? You have to see whether you can give people basic resources within walking, cycling distance, or you can make it cheaper and you can give them housing where they are working. Or you’ll give them housing where there is a transportation port, like a bus station. So they are absolutely interlinked. 

Over the last few years, you have been working with the Indian railway station development corporation, the IRSDC. To what extent is climate efficiency a part of the IRSDC’s plans, when it comes to rethinking India’s railway stations? 

I don’t think we ever talked about climate change in the context of stations. I’m not saying it’s not real, probably it is important for policymakers, but I don’t think I need to engage in that. But where we do want to focus is – and I think the honorable PM also wants this – is to focus on railway stations as institutions. Think of the famous quote that [Spanish urban planner Santiago] Calatrava has: railway stations generate cities.

Image Credit: Paromita Roy

So most of the smaller towns that have developed around India have generated or, have taken, birth around the railway stations. They were made for whatever purpose. But the towns grew around these thousands and thousands of stations that we have. So, these cities have grown around the railway station. Wherever we go, whenever we say that we are redeveloping the railway station, the local bodies are always so happy. People are so happy that finally our railway station will be new and modern. It’s something that brings immense pride to the locals. 

With the railways, I travelled all over the country, saw the railways from inside, learnt how the stations work. We need to connect these stations back to the people, because when the British built these stations, they would actually be on the peripheries of the city. So our goal is to reconnect the people and the stations: it’s always very people-centric and we don’t really talk about theoretical things. 

I think all the work that IRSDC has done, it’s a rich legacy and I’m sure that will be taken forward. In fact, the team is mostly going to merge with the parent department at the RLDA, who will be now taking over and integrating all of the work. For administrative reasons, it’s just much easier to connect, and to bring accountability when there’s a single organization. So that’s why the government decided to merge the two organizations.

In your work with the Delhi Development Authority, could you tell us about one project that has benefited mass transit in Delhi?

The most important memory I have. When I used to attend the first two, three meetings, I was shocked to see the drawings that were presented because – and I was coming just from US, so it was a bigger shock – none of the drawings had footpaths. That was the first thing I noticed

my god, they are making road designs and there is no footpath. In the States, we could not imagine drawing a street section without a footpath. Luckily, the honourable Lt. Governor, at that time was very, very traveled and very, very aware of these things. When I pointed it out he was quick to be cognizant and repair these designs. That’s where street design guidelines took birth. I can say with absolute certainty that at the time there was nobody in the country who was even talking about footpaths. The team of UTTIPEC prepared those guidelines and then it was adopted. A lot of it was of course already being implemented as part of the Commonwealth Games project, but it was at that time, looked as beautification. 

So it took us a while to move away from looking at footpaths as beauty elements, to viewing it as a utility element. That was one of the major things that I think UTTIPEC started. Then of course, transit-oriented development also took birth in UTTIPEC. That’s also a very important concept because when the metro was being built in Delhi, there was no concept of the kind of TOD that I talked about: access to station safety, around stations, pedestrian spaces around stations.

Image Credit: Paromita Roy                                                             Pedestrian shift at Karol Bagh

All these concepts were not there. I remember, when we used to be living wherever, which had a Metro, most of the time you would meet friends near the Metro station because it was just easier to get home after that. So we would just get out of the station and go to some restaurant right in front of the station.When I came to Delhi, I didn’t want to get off at the Metro station and then take a taxi to go to a restaurant. Why can’t I have my restaurant at the station? It didn’t make sense.  Dr. Sridharan was very much aware of these things. He was saying that he has been championing it for a while. 

It was actually his pet subject. Of course, it had to be done through an agency, which was empowered to do that. The DDA was empowered to do that. DDA is currently doing a pretty good job of taking TOD forward. Hopefully in the coming years, we will see the plan’s implementation.

From the various projects you have done, can you tell us about a project that either got stuck or failed?

Oh, there are many, but I don’t think projects are ever scrapped. I feel that everything gets implemented, some early, some late. Good work never goes to waste. Karol Bagh also got dug out after ten years of gathering dust, when the MHA took it up. After the implementation of the Karol Bagh redesigning, the recent Dwarka cycle track project got implemented. What I find is that compared to what we envisioned, reality turns out to be a hundred times better. In Karol Bagh, when we were starting the pedestrianization project, I used to tell the stakeholders that we just want to see people sit here peacefully and have ice cream. If I see that, I’ll be happy, but when the project got implemented, these are thousands of people, old, young, sitting and having chai and ice cream, hanging out on the streets. I was crying that day. I could not believe it. It’s like your life’s dream has come true. And come through 10,000 times better than what you had imagined.

It’s like the people of Delhi are waiting for a place to breathe. When you give them that, they are like, just out on the street. In Mumbai and Calcutta, it’s not so bad because over there people find their nooks and corners to hang out. In Delhi, it’s very difficult because of all the other safety issues, traffic issues. People don’t like being outside. There’s no space to give and the moment you give them space, everybody’s there. 

I was very fascinated by the concept of Delhi’s bus rapid transit system, which got scrapped in 2016. I could never really understand why. Why do you think it didn’t work out, because on paper it sounds like a great solution to a lot of traffic issues and it also promotes public transport? 

Yeah. We are a country which hates its poor. We hate poor people. I can say this on record. We work only against the poor, and I don’t expect that to stop, unless there is a tremendous political will to push it, which there was at that time. There were some planning flaws, too, admittedly. It is very difficult for a system which is meant mostly for the poor of sectional society to compete with space from the richer section of society. And I think we are very far from that, very far. 

That leads me very organically to my last question. What are some situations of hypocrisy you have faced from upper class and upper middle class in designing urban projects?

I’m trying to think. I mean, I don’t know where hypocrisy is not there. I mean, if they can afford three cars, then obviously they will always insist on wanting to drive them. So I don’t really blame them. As a government body, we always have to look at everyone’s needs. So the super rich people who own more than three cars are less than 1% of the population. But having said that, it’s not that we don’t have to take care of them. But the way to take care of the rich is different from the way to take care of the poor.

I’m not against anybody, I am for everybody. It’s like being a mother. If she has three children, and one of them is suffering from a disease, the other one is okay, and the other one is very healthy, the mother will make a decision: where do I invest my limited amount of food. So a government officer, I feel, is like a mother. I think if we just mandate that every government officer has to use public transport at least three times a week, you will see all the changes that are required.You won’t have to do anything, because then they will realize, oh, I can’t walk to the station. Oh, it’s too expensive to take an auto rickshaw to the station. So let me move my housing close to the train station. Let me make a good foot path. They will apply their own brain because it’s all common sense: you do this and all your problems will be solved. The people who are sitting on the seat are extremely intelligent, much more intelligent than you and me. 

They just don’t know what’s wrong, because they never see the problem.

*The IRSDC was merged with the Rail Land Development Authority (RLDA) in October 2021.

A few questions and all answers have been shortened for brevity and ease of reading. The tone and tense of the conversation originally recorded on audio, has been kept intact.Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations, and media studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 3

China’s Kintsugi: How it filled cracks in India’s diplomacy, gaining influence in South Asia

India shares deep socio-cultural ties with its immediate neighbors Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. In the past few years, there has been a palpable shift in diplomatic and economic alliance between these countries. Historically, India has been the leading power in South-East Asia, being also the leader amongst the non-aligned states with great affinity with the three countries. But recently, there have been various pointers that suggest these countries have been leaning more towards China and that this has put the kibosh on India’s influence in South Asia. There have been conspicuous and strategic shifts that have put the northern giant in a position that India was once in. With there being conflicts between India and China in forms of tensions at the border and India banning the Chinese app TikTok, it is important to look at whose influence is growing in the region as this implicates several political decisions in other states. 

Nepal

An adage by Nepal’s first king Prithvi Narayan Shah goes as follows: “Nepal is a yam between two rocks”. The rocks here refer to India and China. The trajectory of the relationship between these countries in recent years can be likened to a tug of war with the two powers vying for greater influence on the Himalayan nation in between. 

India and Nepal share a porous border. Between these two countries, there are also deep intersections in terms of ethnic identities, culture, political history, trade and diplomacy. Since Nepal is a landlocked country with high mountains and rocky terrains bordering China, most of its imports come from the southern plains and more than 60% of those come from India. Yet, when the country was just recovering from the disastrous 2015 earthquake, India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal, restricting import of goods. 

The Indian government refuted allegations of betrayal in the face of tragedy, holding that the Madhesi conflict in southern Nepal was the actual reason for its decision. The decision nonetheless angered many politicians and citizens in Nepal, harboring anti-Indian sentiments because of how difficult life became due to the scarcity of daily goods in Nepal. 

With Nepal’s economy plummeting, there were reports that the Indian Oil Corporation declined sending adequate oil to Nepal after receiving orders to restrict supply from New Delhi. The Nepali populace agitated over their dependency on India for oil. However,  this was not the only reason that they were furious. At the time, India conveyed to the Nepali government to make several amendments to the new Nepali constitution promulgated that year. This caused many stakeholders in Nepal to be further inflamed at how India played the role of a big brother to Nepal, interfering in Nepal’s internal politics. 

In what was viewed as a keystone to bolstering Nepal-China relationship Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli made an agreement with the Chinese government to buy one third of its required oil from China. China also pledged to donate 1.3 million litres of oil to Nepal. After this, many projects in Nepal were initiated by China under the Belt and Road Initiative, including aid in reconstruction after the earthquake. China’s assistance was key to developing various highways and roads, with more projects including the Kathmandu-Kerung railway in the pipeline. 

In late 2019, India inaugurated plans for a railway near Limpiyadhura region, which Nepal claimed to be its own. The Nepali parliament issued an updated map that includes this region as its own. Many Nepalis supported this move. While both the countries have claimed this territory, the ‘cartographic war’ still ensues as little development has been made through diplomatic negotiation as it was proclaimed before. 

These factors put a severe strain on India-Nepal relationship. With China aiding several projects and a communist government taking hold in Nepal, allegiance between Nepali politicians and their Chinese counterparts has been observed with greater rapport in contrast to a much less cordial relationship with India. 

Pakistan 

Since Partition, India and Pakistan have had a relationship that has been rife with several tensions. The two countries have fought four wars and observed several armed conflicts and stand-offs over the years. The fact that several attempts have been made by both countries (Agra summit, Lahore summit, Shimla summit, state visits, talks through diplomatic channels) to improve their bilateral relations shows that they view each other as important neighbors. These efforts have been impeded by the wars, border skirmishes and cross-border terrorism. 

Following the 2016 Pathankot attack and 2019 Pulwama attack, the renewed bilateral relation under new governments in both the states has deteriorated. While India has alleged that the attacks were orchestrated by the Pakistani government, the latter refuted it and claimed that the attacks were local retaliation to increased Indian army presence in the region. This also stoked nationlist sentiments amongst citizens in both countries. After the 2019 attack, India revoked Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation trade status, which implied the subjection of Pakistan goods to higher tariffs and restrictions.

While Pakistan’s relations with India declined, it developed a close relationship with China. Pakistan’s nuclear warfare development program has highly benefited from China’s support. Its  nuclear arsenal consists of weapons that operate in air, water and on land. In May 2020, a ship from Hong Kong headed to Karachi was detained by the Department of Revenue Intelligence and Kandla Customs for mislabeling an autoclave, a device used to manufacture long range missiles, as an industrial dryer. Clearly, China’s and Pakistan’s strategic relationship has been of great concern for the Indian national security. 

In addition to assistance in nuclear weapon development, China has also aided Pakistan’s economic growth with its incorporation into the Belt and Road Initiative through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China will also assist in building railways and highways through Pakistan to the port of Gwadar. This will increase not only trade but also Pakistan’s political and economic dependency towards China, which might pose hindrances to India-Pakistan relationship and also be challenging to India’s own security in the region. 

Bangladesh 

Like with Nepal and Pakistan, India shares rich socio-cultural and historical ties with Bangladesh as well. While India was a strong ally in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, a few years later, Bangladesh’s new ties to Islamic nations and an emphasis on its own Islamic identity deteriorated relations with India. Furthermore, the two countrieswere part of opposing alliances during the Cold War, which also put more strain on their friendship.

While their ties have seen some improvement with India and Bangladesh making major agreements with regards to land and water disputes such as the Teen Bigha Corridor and co-operation against terrorism, there have also been tensions regarding killings at the border and migration. 

Bangladesh has enjoyed a prosperous commercial relationship with China. Since 2006, China has been Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. In addition to trade, China also pledged to support Bangladesh with a staggering offer of $24 million in loans after Xi Jinping’s visit in 2016. While this has improved Bangladesh-China relations, this improvement seems to have come at the cost of India’s relationship with Bangladesh. In 2018, China exported $17.8 billion to Bangladesh while India exported $7.5 billion. On the other hand Bangladesh exports amounted to less than $1 billion to China and about $1.2 billion to India. 

It is evident that the rise of China’s influence is eclipsing that of India in these three countries. This foreshadows the growth of China as a regional hegemon in South Asia through several political and economic measures. With India also competing to gain the same vantage point, it has landed itself in a race to ensure efficient diplomatic dialogue, while refraining from interference in its neighbors’ sovereignty and inhibiting their prosperity. As for China’s surging economic influence, it is not something that has gone unnoticed. Experts are aware of the implication of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and what the spillover effects of economic dependence can be. Having said this, India’s relationship with its neighbors is still pivotal on accounts of trade and close socio-cultural ties.  For social cohesion amongst states in South Asia, neutrality will be key to ensuring that there are no tensions. At the end of the day though, its neighbours cannot ignore India even if they are under the influence of China.

(Featured image from pxfuel.com)

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Issue 2

Am I my Map? Cartography and Reworking Identity

We live in states as docile citizens and take a lot of things for granted. There are many facets which directly affect our nation that we have never even thought about. Maps are one of them. 

The very creation of a map entails conceptualisation of borders and their representation. That is why maps are called ‘projections’. The idea is to take an orange peel (originally spherical) and spread it flat, it can never fit neatly into a rectangle without stretching, cutting and bending it. When an n-dimensional globe is reduced to a 2 dimensional image on paper, it will lose its precision. We do this exercise with the orange peel on a global scale (quite literally) whenever we make maps. 

We use maps in our daily lives. States use them to assert dominance and demarcate territory. In the process, we implicitly agree that the word ‘projection’ allows for distortions. On top of that, we understand that distortions are acceptable in any form of representation. The question here is exactly which distortions are we willing to accept?  

Knowing this, it is unfathomable that borders are sort of a given. The more robust your border, the more secure your national identity. This is why soldiers get stationed to harsh climates, fight over land which is uninhabitable (as in the case of Ladakh) and countries use their maps to assert influence. The question to ask is why does your national identity depend on a border you have never seen? 

We are all products of different identities– caste, class, gender, race; it’s just a matter of context which identity gets called upon at what time. With the nation state, the identity that gets called upon most often is that of the citizen. As Sankaran Krishna brings up in his work, Cartographic Anxiety, While we don’t relinquish our religious, linguistic or regional identity, they are rendered vestigial, at least for the time being. Cartography creates an ‘India’ on paper while simultaneously conversations, laws and political mechanisms create the ‘Indian’ in our minds. The existence of one serves as reinforcement for the other.

This conversation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; India has experienced threats to its borders from Pakistan, Nepal and China in the past couple of months. These are intrinsically tied to cartographic representation as maps become important for both escalation of conflict and its eventual disengagement relevant in the current context. 

Pakistan’s new map, as explained by Prime Minister Imran Khan, shows the aspirations of its  people as well as the people of Kashmir. For India, these aspirations mean showing the Indian territories of Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and parts of Gujarat as disputed. The new map came as a response to India’s inclusion of areas like parts of POK and Gilgit-Baltistan in its own November 2019 map. While Pakistan claims to stand for the Kashmiri cause, India has called this battle of the maps “an exercise in political absurdity.” The map here is defining the state’s position but it’s also defining what national matters are because it defines where the nation begins and ends quite physically in a political imagination. 

In the case of Nepal, the new issue of the Indian map of November 2019 was exacerbated by another issue– the virtual inauguration of a road to Lipulekh by the Indian defence minister in May 2020. Nepal claimed that at least 17 kms of this road fell on its land. The issue gained traction in Nepali domestic politics as it saw protests with #BackOffIndia trending on social media. In the following month of June, Nepal’s Parliament approved a revised map showing the disputed areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as its own.

The root of the Nepal problem can be tied back to different interpretations of the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 which demarcates the origin of the Mahakali river as the natural boundary. The countries differ on the point of origin. We have inherited borders drawn by British colonial powers. India is anxious to cement them in areas such as the western front, and contest them at other fronts. 

India also shares a 3488 km long border with China. It is one of the longest disputed borders in the world. The current standoff at Galwan Valley deals, among other things, in occupying land that the two nations perceive to be theirs. It is a game of perceptions where ground reality matters little, simply because it would mean one side or the other giving up their claim. 

The three instances seen through this lens tell us one thing– there is a connect between military confrontation, people’s stance and map-making. 

Nations can allow their maps to engulf more territories but never to shrink. Looking at India and its neighbours, redrawing the map must be seen in light of people’s opinion and diplomatic arcs. Bookings Fellow Constantino Xavier said in an interview to Scroll “India cannot afford to think of permanent friends anymore in its neighbourhood.”

In conjunction to this question of maps, we need to ask ourselves if we are taking a top-down view of the border. Does the map matter beyond the concerns of the state for border populations, especially in the case of an open border like India and Nepal? While the focus was on India, the conversation around borders and maps is larger. Questions of identity become important in dealing with refugee crises, in camps deliberately placed outside legal boundaries and in treating people as foreign, alien and different.

Many mechanisms are used to reinforce our citizenship. The map is one of them, it imprints a visual image in our mind of where we belong. This is why people in Nepal protest Indian encroachment, and Indians break TVs at a call to boycott Chinese products in the climate of the standoff. Maps show you the state as a natural, ideal entity. By placing troops, defiling natural features and building walls among others, the state seeks to fit this ideal.

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Uncategorized

Phones and Guns to Phones with Guns: Am I a Soldier?

By Sanya Chandra

Do you ever think how many ways the state is in your home, or on your phone, quite literally hugging your person? Do you think your means of entertainment are detached from diplomatic posturing? If the answer is yes, you are wrong.

A writer and producer of a videogame company was invited to join a panel advising on the future of modern war. This is Dave Anthony, a creator of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 whose expertise the Pentagon evidently thought could benefit US conceptions of real warfare.

The video game, part of the larger Call of Duty series, features Europe dependent on American forces for liberation after having been invaded by the Russians. How and why did a game developer have enough currency to advise on matters of international warfare? Purely because modern war videogames deal in authenticity. To create his product, manufactured and sold to you, Anthony engaged in conversations with war veterans to give it a life-like character.

Making the game gave Anthony the skills to comprehend, create, and also think of possible solutions to complex real-life problems. Playing them does the same to you, as you’re dealing with situations veterans have partly provided. This is just one example of how politics shapes popular culture and is in turn shaped by it. The fact is, that this is not the only example out there.

Indians today would have noticed the announcement of the videogame FAU-G (Fearless and United– Guards) on 4th September, a couple of days after the game PUBG Mobile was banned. FAU-G is Fauji Hindi, meaning soldier. Released by a prominent actor, Akshay Kumar, it is a prime example of what is generally termed as the Military-Entertainment Complex.

The idea goes to show that actions of private companies and the domain of diplomacy overlap. While no state will go as far as to produce its own games or movies, political events create the context under which are accepted,  thereby motivating their production.

Akshay Kumar’s tweet announced FAU-G, specifically in support of the Indian government’s AtmaNirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. It is a movement to make India self-reliant, in terms of economy and infrastructure, among others. 20% of FAU-G revenues will be donated to BharatKeVeer, a trust set up by the Office of the Home Minister. Donations to this trust are also exempt under the Income Tax Act. The ‘Atma Nirbhar’ scheme came in the wake of global disruptions in Chinese led manufacturing supply chains because of lockdowns and travel restrictions caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic; and exacerbated by military tensions between India and China in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, provoked by Chinese attempts to claim the territory as its own. As troops are eyeball to eyeball, India’s response has been to boycott over 118 Chinese apps including PUBG’s mobile version. The tweet ends with “Trust #FAUG”, a sentiment often echoed in the Prime Minister’s addresses.

The entire episode reflects a symbiotic relationship between the military and popular industries. Military videogames, by that logic, establish both your national identity and the context itself. They see you as the crusader for justice and they posit the context that a hostile environment is threatening you. You become Rambo, a soldier who fights enemies to protect his country’s interests. While this may not be overt or even intentional, it creates the scene in which warfare becomes palatable for the general audience.

In addition, videogames are set in a military warfare setting. They rule out the possibility for negotiation to ‘fix’ the hostile situation. Negotiation is a key part of most exchanges between two nations; when games and movies tell stories they seek to entertain. Situations where threats have existed and a successful response has been military are precisely that– entertaining.

Drawing back on the Call of Duty example, another edition of the game imagines a second cold war set in the year 2025. Hence, while some games draw on the past and attempt lessons from history, others cultivate preparedness for war in the future.

The same logic flows through movies as well. We are now seeing Chinese assertiveness widely called ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ after a 2015 nationalist film and its 2017 sequel of the same name. This phrase is used both by Chinese and international media. The cinematic Wolf Warriors are soldiers in the People’s Liberation Army.

China is actively constructed as a nation under attack. Seeing itself as uniquely vulnerable, the tagline begins to make sense– “Even though a 1000 miles away, anyone who affronts China will pay.” This is linguistically evident, especially in the case of the Twitter allegations by Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijan. The tweets were a response to international criticism of Chinese ill-treatment of Muslim minority group, Uighurs, in Xinjiang province. Lijan’s response– a criticism of racial segregation in the United States capital.

This aggressive stance comes with the LAC clash and importantly, the enactment of China’s new security policy towards Hong Kong which depicts the willingness of Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping to openly assert and consolidate its power. The pandemic of course looms like an ever-present threat which first originated in Wuhan. According to career diplomat Shyam Saran, the pandemic question has caused a sense of “deep insecurity” to Chinese leaders.

Insecurity is dangerous, popular culture tries to replace self-doubt in your country with a degree of surety. You are after all Rambo, Fauji, Warrior. This perfectly complements national leadership’s pleas to support unequivocally the actions of the armed forces. In addition, popular culture feeds the attempt to justify actions as you, the citizens, have carried out the same actions, albeit virtually, from your phones. Your actions, games, and movies have no direct consequences, but they serve as testing grounds for belligerence.

We have seen two tangible instances of the link from popular culture to war and diplomacy– the USA and China. The link is mediated between theoretical reflection and the lived dramas of everyday life . With the coming of a new videogame, will India follow suit?

Sanya is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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