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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 11

The Frailty of Quasi-Federalism in India

The Rajya Sabha reverberated with staunch opposition to the approval of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021 (GNCTD Bill) on 24 March, 2021 . The Bill contains amendments that would bolster the powers of the Lieutenant Governor (LG) of Delhi and further limit the administrative powers of Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP government.

In stark contrast to the earlier-vested powers of the elected government to take independent decisions on most administrative matters, the bill  mandates  LG’s approval prior to every executive action. CM Arvind Kejriwal called it a “sad day for democracy,” while Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi called the bill “the most pernicious and the most unconstitutional bill the Rajya Sabha has ever received.”  Having received Presidential assent amidst opposition walkouts in the Rajya Sabha, it has yet again resurrected debates on the current government’s commitment to federalism in India. This is not the first time that the government has come under scrutiny for passing heavily opposed legislations jeopardizing constitutional federalism. The recent GNCTD Bill, along with certain other highly controversial moves like the stance on “one nation one election”, the abrogation of Article 370, the CAA & NRC and the passage of the farm bills, all in the face of incessant criticism and opposition within and outside the Parliament, has brought the BJP under question. So, how do these contentious bills get passed despite such strong opposition? One could consider the role of India’s “quasi-federal” structure and its compatibility with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s longstanding agenda of attaining a unitary state with an overly dominant Centre. The larger debate that these legislations highlight is the inadequate checks that India’s quasi-federal structure presents to a government with a parliamentary majority. 

“Federalism” refers to the constitutionally allocated distribution of powers between two or more levels of government; one at the national level, other at the provincial, state or local levels. The principal feature of federalism is that the various levels of governments operate within their own constitutionally-defined jurisdictions with substantial independence from each other. A key tenet of the federal concept is the voluntary compact between several independent states that agree to become a part of a nation and are required to submit an integral part of their power to the Centre.

However, in most federal countries, the difference in power between the central and state governments is not as substantial as it is in the case of India. The herculean challenges faced by postcolonial India in terms of cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity have contributed extensive powers to the Centre. The disunity and secessionist tendencies that postcolonial India witnessed in the form of linguistic nationalism in the South, accession of the Princely States, the Kashmir conflict, and regional rivalry with Pakistan, among others, led the members of the Constituent Assembly to advocate for a strong Union government. This was deemed necessary to ensure  political stability  for India’s survival as a unified nation-state amidst enormous cultural heterogeneity and national security threats. 

Unlike other federal countries such as the US, the Parliament in India has the power to admit new states, create new states, alter boundaries and their names, in addition to establishing unity between states or dividing them. Further, there are various provisions in the Constitution that allow the Centre to override the powers of the states; the power to make laws within fields that have not been specified within the Constitution lies solely with the Centre. Additionally, on fiscal matters, states have limited capabilities and are quite heavily dependent on the Centre. Thus, the Constitution of India was drafted with strong centralizing tendencies that confer maximum powers to the central government and is thus referred to as “quasi-federal.”

BJP leaders have been pushing for the idea of “one nation one election” in various public platforms ever since the agenda reserved its space in the party’s 2014 election manifesto. In fact, as recently as in December 2020, BJP conducted roughly 25 webinars propagating the idea. . This agenda will further affect the limited autonomy of  regional parties that contest to form  state governments across India. This centralized control of state legislatures and state governments adds to the longstanding goals of the BJP to attain a unitary state. Further, advancing the abrogation of Article 370 that granted a special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir bypassed the citizens of the state. Moreover, on 12th December 2019, the Parliament passed the heavily contentious “Citizenship Amendment Act,” which is widely considered an “anti-muslim” law. And the farm bills of 2020, which continue to see protests, received Presidential assent to become a law in September 2020.

Despite opposition parties protesting against these anti-federal legislations, the BJP has been able to enforce them majorly due to their absolute majority in the Lok Sabha and a substantial standing in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP has 305 legislators in the Lok Sabha, which is more than enough to pass any bill without the support of allies. In the Rajya Sabha, the BJP has 82 members (38 short of the simple majority of 120), but it’s allies  take the  tally to 107. Additionally, various regional parties such as the BJD, Shiv Sena, the YSRCP, the TRS and the NPF (total of 19 members) registering their votes  in BJP’s favour, gives them the required number – above 120.

Complementing such  a majority, the powers vested in the Centre under Article 256, 365 and 356 allow the BJP to enforce any law that would strengthen its hold over the states. Article 256 says that all states are obligated to enact laws passed by the Parliament, whereas Article 365 states that if the States do not comply, then the President may hold that a situation has arisen in which the government of the State cannot be carried on in accordance with the Constitution. Resultantly, Article 356 authorizes the President to remove State Governments and dissolve state assemblies if they cannot run in accordance with the Constitution.

As political scientist Philip Mahwood argues, culturally diverse and developing countries like India require federalism not just for administrative requirements, but for the very survival of the nation. However, the centralized structure of federalism adopted by India to tackle post-independence challenges appears to be compatible with the unitary agenda of the Central government. Additionally, the BJP’s majority forming the Centre and their recurrent tendencies to bypass state governments and its citizens pose an extreme danger to federalism, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution and must be protected at all costs. 

Picture Credits: Ipleaders

Saaransh Mishra is a graduate of Political Science and International Affairs. He is deeply fascinated by geopolitics, human rights, the media and wishes to pursue a career in the confluence of these fields. In his spare time, he watches, plays, discusses sports and loves listening to Indian classical fusion music.

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 10

Delhi’s Water Crisis: Not Just a Water Shortage Issue

Recently, the shortage of water in Delhi prompted the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) to approach the Supreme Court against the Haryana government. Raghav Chadha, Vice-Chairman of the DJB, cited the rising ammonia levels in Yamuna and its falling water levels when there is a necessity for higher water supply in the upcoming summer months, as reasons for the shortage in Delhi’s water supply. Chadha claimed that despite notifying officers concerned of the Haryana government on a daily basis, no concrete action had been taken and there had been no improvement towards restoring any normalcy, pushing him to take up the inter-state matter with the apex court. While the Supreme Court has decided to hear the DJB’s plea against Haryana over the looming water crisis on March 25, the Delhi-Haryana water dispute is an age-old tale that needs immediate resolution.

Haryana supplies water to Delhi through the Carrier-Lined Channel (CLC), Delhi Sub-Branch (DSB) and the Yamuna. There is a regular fall in the level of Yamuna, especially during summers, affecting the quantity of water received at Wazirabad Pond. The normal level of the Yamuna near Wazirabad Pond should be 674.50 feet but it has dropped to 670.90 feet, failing to observe the Supreme Court order of February 1996, which stated that the pond level in Wazirabad has to be kept full. 

The drastic fall in the water level at Wazirabad pond has affected water production at Wazirabad, Okhla and Chandrawal water treatment plants which supply drinking water to central, north, west and south Delhi. To add to these problems, Haryana through CLC canal is supplying only 549.16 cusecs against 683 cusecs and Delhi Sub-Branch canal is supplying 306.63 cusecs against 330 cusecs. While the quantity of water supplied to Delhi by Haryana is diminishing, the quality of the water has not met the necessary standards either. This is a recurring issue that is still seeking addressal as the rising level of ammonia and other industrial waste in Yamuna has made it unsuitable for water treatment.

At the surface level, the Delhi-Haryana water dispute might seem like a problem with a straightforward solution, but in reality it is riddled with legal and political baggage that pose a serious threat to the availability of water for Delhi in the future. 

LEGAL HISTORY: Punjab, Haryana and Delhi

The reorganisation of the state of Punjab in 1966 set the ball rolling for a series of legal interventions that would dictate the water-sharing agreements between Punjab and Haryana. Considering the fact that Haryana is not a riparian state that is largely dependent on water due to 70 percent of the population being involved in agriculture, it was important for Haryana to claim a water supply channel from Punjab. However, by 1976, the failure to reach any mutual agreement on water-sharing led to the central government passing an order for the construction of the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal, which would divide the Ravi-Beas surplus water in favour of Haryana, at 3.78 : 3.26 Million Acre Feet (MAF). 

Even though the matter should have been resolved here, Punjab’s non-cooperation led to the slowing down of the construction of the canal. Through repeated interventions, such as the 1981 agreement which stated that the construction be finished in two years, the 1990 SC order which stated that the construction be finished in a year, and the 2004 SC order which stated the same, the state of Punjab failed to live up to its obligations. In turn, the Punjab government passed The Punjab Termination of Agreements Act, 2004, which rid them of all these aforementioned obligations. 

It is no surprise, therefore, that Punjab’s non-cooperation with Haryana on water-sharing agreements have resulted in repercussions for Delhi. In a report for the Firstpost in June 2018, Pranav Jain reports, “Even though the Delhi government paid for concrete lining of the Munak Canal in order to avail benefit of water saved from wasteful leakages, the Haryana government often plays truant, and routinely diverts water from the Munak to multiple off-shoot regular canals downstream, a little before the Delhi-Haryana border”, indicating how the Haryana government is forced to play foul with regard to its water supply to Delhi.

While legal tensions are responsible for elevating the water sharing disputes between the three states, the growing political differences between the Centre and State governments in Delhi are making matters worse.

POLITICAL TURMOIL: BJP vs AAP

Raghav Chadha’s move to take the dispute to the top court is not the first time in the recent past when an AAP party member has made an attempt to resolve the inter-state issue through legal means. In May 2018 as well, the DJB chaired by Arvind Kejriwal had moved the Supreme Court, Delhi high court and the NGT regarding the reduced quantity and quality of water supplied from Haryana. What followed was a war of words between lieutenant governor (L-G) Anil Baijal and Kejriwal regarding how the issue was handled, with the LG citing that attempts should have been made to resolve the water dispute through negotiations and dialogue rather than through confrontation in court. As reported by Pranav Jain, it is no secret how the BJP has constantly made use of the Lieutenant Governor (L-G) office in crippling the efforts of the AAP government in Delhi.

However, in response on May 31, the BJP-led Haryana government assured supply of water until the monsoon season, but under the condition that the DJB and Delhi government withdraw all the cases filed. The AAP government responded to these demands swiftly, succumbing to the political pressure that was evidently overruling these decisions. Dinesh Mohaniya, then vice-chairman of the DJB, claimed on June 01, that the Supreme Court case had been withdrawn as the court directed them to approach Upper Yamuna River Board (UYRB). Similarly, the NGT case on pollution and excess ammonia flowing in raw water, was withdrawn as it “was no longer the case”. Given the additional bureaucratic procedures that the Delhi government is forced to take in shifting the case from the SC to the UYRB, and the regulations that need to be put in place by the Haryana government to resolve the release of industrial waste into the Yamuna, it is surprising how these issues were deemed as resolved within a day’s time. 

Clearly, there is a growing misrepresentation between what is happening at the ground level in comparison to what is being agreed upon in these water-sharing disputes. The AAP government’s decision to withdraw all cases momentarily in 2018 indicates the lack of foresight that was present when dealing with the grave circumstances of water shortage. This has hampered the progress that could have been made in resolving this issue, but the crisis continues to loom over Delhi’s future even today. If the Centre and State government do not work in tandem to resolve these legal and political disputes, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab could be facing a water crisis in the near future with no immediate answer. Environmental concerns can only be addressed once these internal disputes are overcome, and it is the need of the hour for elected representatives to avert any emergencies in the foreseeable future when it comes to the provision of a basic necessity such as water.

Picture Credits: Tribune India

Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.

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 7

Museums of Democracy: How the Central Vista Project highlights the Importance of Curating History

This is primarily because any history we read, hear, or watch, is refracted, it is shaped by the person or thought process that is engaged in the exercise of compiling it. The difference between History with the capital ‘H’ and history as everything that happened in the past is crucial. The former is carefully picked out from the latter – a series of events  and artefacts chosen to tell a story. The historian then carefully selects these ‘chosen ones’ to help shape the narrative they wish to see furthered; a narrative that is intrinsically based on the politics of the day.

The question raised then is why should someone care about this act of selection now? The answer is simple, everyday instances like the renaming of roads, the demolition of buildings and the rebuilding of common spaces reinforce this act of selection. One such undertaking that makes one stop and think about this is the Central Vista Redevelopment Project.

The project aims to renovate 86 acres of land in New Delhi, including historical buildings like the Parliament House, the Rashtrapati Bhawan, and the India Gate. Moreover, the National Museum is also set to be taken down and rebuilt where the current North and South Blocks stand in the Central Secretariat. The area, associated with affluence and political power is commonly called Lutyens Delhi after the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker who designed it when the capital was shifted to Delhi in 1911 under the British rule.

Ever since its announcement in September 2019 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the project has come under scrutiny for violations of municipal and environmental law as well as change in land use. Following this, the Supreme Court gave it the green light in January 2021. Close to a month prior to January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation of a new Parliament building under a Hindu ceremony. The ceremony itself was allowed when the government reassured the court that no demolition or construction would begin until the final decision had been received. 

The focus of this article, however, is to draw attention to something that seems fairly inconspicuous at first but can have lasting impacts on how we associate our present with our past. The act of demolition and consequently rebuilding employs the historical process mentioned earlier – that of selection and by extension erasure of what gets chosen to be rebuilt and featured. With the National Museum for instance, the idea is that North and South Blocks will be able to house more historical artefacts. However, which artefacts are highlighted and how are questions that remain to be answered. 

The entire episode reminds me of something Susan Sontag said in relation to photography – “[To photograph] means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power.” While she was talking about the act of framing something within photographic borders, the idea at its crux seems especially relevant here – when somebody controls the framing of the past, they wield power. Perhaps, therefore, the same self-reflectivity is required for the curation of renovated spaces.

While the words ‘heritage’, ‘redevelopment’ and ‘conservation’ paint rosy pictures in one’s mind about the building of new spaces, they actually point to the larger question of historical knowledge production. Buildings and architecture has always been used to assert power, symbolise progress and display grandeur. The act of rebuilding is not unique either, as history is replete with examples of the same. That being said, the question, especially with an edifice like the National Museum is its current housing of historical artefacts, and the process of curation that will go into the remade property. 

While the aforementioned already acts as a repository of history, the other buildings like the current Parliament House are receptacles of public memory of post-colonial India while themselves being colonial products. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) is a prime example of a building set to be taken down which is associated with the memory of a former Prime Minister. Founded by Kapila Vatsyayan, it is a space where art has found expression during nationally significant events. Keeping the relevance of these in mind therefore becomes important as contemporary history may be memory for now, but it will not remain so for the coming decades. This highlights the importance of preserving not just historical remains but also elements of post-independence public memory that have not become canonical History yet.

Preserving public memory, if nothing else, can create context. They point to the uncomfortable understanding that even if features do not fit proposed narratives, they cannot be razed. For instance, the reason behind the decision to withdraw the candidature of colonial Delhi and Shahjahanabad as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2014 has been traced by some to their legacies rooted in the Mughal period and the colonial era. While the legacies may cause discomfort to some, their significance cannot be dismissed.

The Central Vista Project sheds light on the importance of history and public memory. The fact is that the past cannot speak for itself. Whatever the past says, it does through the actors who consolidate it. The thing to keep in mind then in light of the project is this – demolishing heritage buildings should not open up the passageway to raze history.

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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Issue 7

The Violence We Inherit

This year, the morning of 26th January held two instead of just one Republic Day parade. At Rajpath, celebrations for the 72nd year of the adoption of the Indian Constitution took place, whereas, in another part of Delhi, the farmers were exercising their right promised by this prestigious document, to highlight their demand to revoke the three controversial farm bills through a tractor rally. While at one end, the sound of the 21-Gun salute echoed in the air, in another part, chants of ‘kisaan kanoon wapas lo’ and clashes between the police and farmers were observed. 

Soon, videos surfaced on social media platforms of farmers driving tractors recklessly, bringing down barricades as policemen scrambled out of their way. Instances of police indulging in lathi-charge and tear-gas at protestors were also recorded. Events escalated to a level where certain protestors derailed from their march to hang the Nishaan Sahib, a saffron flag of great relevance to Sikh religion, at the Red Fort. The aftermath resulted in over 80 police personnel injured. 

In the past, having been known as the land of satyagraha, we have developed a certain identity rooted in non-violence. Does this notion influence the different ways we view violence in a protest today? While violence has been excused in certain contexts, it has been condemned in others. Moreover, there is a culture of blaming the violence on a ‘foreigner’ as a means to separate oneself from the narrative as it hinders the ‘non-violent’ reputation of India.  

With regards to R-Day, various conflicting views have surfaced regarding who holds the baton of responsibility for instigating the derailment of events. While Delhi Police Commissioner, SN Srivastava claims that the farmers were responsible for inciting violence and should be held accountable for their condemnable actions, various farmer leaders have explicitly separated themselves from those who chose to deviate. In an interview with the Hindu, Balbir Singh Rajewal, the president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union claimed that “it was a historic parade by lakhs of farmers with over 2 lakh tractors and 99.9% of the farmers stayed peaceful”. Along with this, certain farmer union leaders, as well as the opposition, have been propagating the view that the farmers were not responsible for the mayhem, and violence was instead enforced by individuals who were ‘foreign’ to the community and aimed at wanting to defame the peaceful farmer protests.

As simply consumers of news content, judgement about ‘who is responsible’ cannot be passed without proper investigation. However, it is interesting to note the emergence of different narratives surrounding the violence witnessed on R-Day. Certain sections that support the farmers argue that the violence showcased was ‘minimal’ and justified, considering that the government was choosing to ignore their citizens’ demands. Some even claim that it was anyone but the farmer responsible for the upheaval. However, those who do not believe in the farmers’ cause broadly argue that engaging in violence is condemnable and therefore warrants severe repercussions.

This manner of justifying violence in certain instances, and condemning it in others is not new to Indian culture. Ancient Indian epics like the Mahabharata have justified use of violence, where dharma (duty) to the caste system supersedes the value of kinship bonds. Romila Thapar, in her paper ‘War in Mahabharata’, highlights the moral-ethical dilemma that surrounded the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, where the latter encouraged the former to kill his maternal uncle as he was an ally of the Kauravas. So, social obligations towards one’s caste became a valid explanation for killing a kinsman. Despite the description of “arrows tearing apart chests of warriors and free flow of blood creating a pandemonium”, the epic is still passed on in the form of tales to future generations, with gruesome violence deemed acceptable in the name of acquiring a kingdom and protecting its people. While the aim may be universal peace, it is reached through violent means.

Furthermore, ancient India has often been deemed as ‘peaceful’ and the reign of terror and violence has often been blamed on the ‘foreigner’ or ‘intruder’, like the Mughals and the British. This association of non-violence with ancient India exists  because we predominantly identify ancient India with Ashoka, the great emperor of the Mauryan dynasty who chose the path of non-violence and Buddhism after witnessing the repercussions of the Kalinga war. However, historian and author of ‘Political Violence in Ancient India’, Upinder Singh, in an interview with theWire, highlights how even “Jain and Buddhism texts use the vocabulary and imagery of war. Mahavira is a jina (victor); the Buddha fights a battle against the god Mara before attaining enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree.” Historian DN Jha, in his book ‘Against the Grain’ also challenges this rhetoric of ancient India being devoid of any religious violence. Jha traces the Buddhist Sanskrit work, Divyavadana that describes Pushyamitra Shunga, a Hindu ruler and founder of the Shunga dynasty in 185 BCE, as the “great persecutor of Buddhists”. Jha claims that the ruler was responsible for the vandalising of the Sanchi Stupa and burning of the Ghositaram monastery in Kaushami that killed Buddhist monks. 

While these are just a few of the various instances of violence in India’s past, they have either not been emphasised enough or have been consciously ignored. The question to raise then is, when is violence excused and when is it not? 

The glorification of non-violence can be credited to satyagraha for freedom from British colonialism in modern Indian history. As Indians, we identify as the land of ahimsa and, therefore, choose to ignore the other side of the story. In fact, school history textbooks, sidelined those who engaged in violence for the freedom struggle and labelled them as ‘radicals’. However, movements like the 1857 revolt, showcased extreme violence that shook the stability of the East India Company within the country. The violence, while aimed towards a ‘foreigner’ was instigated and chosen by us as a path to rebel. If it weren’t for the widespread killing and burning of bungalows as well as chants of “maro firangi ko” (kill the white man) that filled the streets, would the British have left when they did?

Coming back to the opinions concerning the farmers’ protests—it can be observed that both the views justifying the violence and the ones condemning it and blaming it on an ‘intruder’, are views that are not new to Indian history. These biases can be observed in the ways we judge violence in current times.

Harshita Bedi is a student at Ashoka University pursuing her Psychology major. In her free time, you would find Harshita catching up on her sleep.

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 4

The Infamous Smog: Crop burning and much more

It’s that time of the year when the infamous smog once again chokes the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR), reigniting old debates on crop-burning and its alternatives. Year after year, almost every newspaper prints scathing columns condemning the smog that settles in the region due to the burning of crop residue. Why do farmers continue to burn crops?

Crop burning occurs during the short period between the harvest of Kharif season and the sowing of Rabi season. This leaves the farmers with around 15 days to harvest their crop and get the field ready for the sowing of seeds. Innovations implemented as a result of the Green Revolution changed agricultural practices. Technological innovations brought in the new mechanized style of harvesting which uses the combined harvester—primarily aimed for rice and wheat—to harvest crops. After running this harvester through the field, the short and stiff residue is leftover.

Upon harvesting the grains, the leftover stubble is cleared. This was cleared manually or by having cattle graze on the field in the earlier days. The leftover residue then provided fuel and fodder for cattle and was used as a source of compost for the fields. Now, as labour costs continue to increase, the work done manually takes more time. Thus, stubble burning, which is a cheap and accessible method of clearing fields for the next season, has become the norm. This has been a major reason for the smog.

But is the smog caused solely due to crop burning by farmers? While there is some truth to the statement made by these columns that condemn crop burning, it remains somewhat simplistic. Unfortunately, this season also happens to collide with Diwali. The already polluted Delhi air is overburdened with the added pressure of multiple field fires, adding insult to injury. But Diwali isn’t the only contributing factor for the decline in air quality. 

As we get closer to winter, the temperature around this time is just starting to drop. We know that hot air, now filled with pollutants, rises. However, as elevation increases, the atmospheric temperature begins to drop due to the thinner atmosphere. At this point, where the temperature starts dropping in the atmosphere, the pollutants remain trapped, creating a shield that prevents the polluted air from rising any further. This causes the pollutants to remain in the air that we breathe, creating smog. The lack of strong winds in the region during this time of the year is also a significant contributing factor and results in the pollutants being suspended in the air.

One can interpret the smog to be the result of the intersection of various unfavourable factors including geography, climatic conditions, industrial and capitalist processes, technology, illiteracy, need, desperation and perhaps, the lack of adequate alternatives.

As a solution, governments have gone from levying heavy taxes on farmers and passing an ordinance for a 20-member committee to tackle air pollution in the NCR. However, stringent laws and harsh punishments rarely, if ever, act as preventive measures. In our present situation, creating committees is simply a redundant act of pushing the burden of accountability on a different set of shoulders.

The recurring smog is battled with feeble water spray machines, air purifiers and masks. In reality, these are all but preventive, and we may have misunderstood the problem at its root for a significantly long time. The introduction of specialized agricultural machines, subsidies and loans along with strict laws are but mitigating factors. None of which consider the long-term health of agriculturists, consumers, soil health, accessibility and soil toxicity—all which are significant and yet not spoken about. To battle pollution arising out of crop residue burning, we must first arrive at a clear understanding of the problem. Dedicated research, trials and increase in government support in agriculture are key to arriving at a robust solution for this problem.

Given these “solutions”, our future seems but a foggier rendition of the present and the past. Policies aimed at diversification of crops grown will help us take a step towards a long-term solution to the adverse effect of the pollution arising from crop burning. However, battling smog does not end here, industrial pollutants demand a more complex approach which is beyond the scope of this article.

A possible solution could be to replace monocultures in favour of polycultures. Diversification of the regions where these crops are grown could also help. Creating policies favouring state-sponsored labour, or perhaps changing the kind of seeds we use. 

Various complexities drive the problem of pollution in India. One may trace the roots back to the green revolution, maybe even condemn it. But the truth of the matter is that we must rethink the industrial model of agriculture that is rampantly in practice today. We must rethink agriculture.

Hiteshi Ajmera is a student of Political Science and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: Photograph by Neil Palmer, distributed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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).