Public conversations teach us a lot, but can they push us out of gridlocks to act towards co-imagined futures? Musings post an RWA consultation #BoloGurgaon
“..if we still have the luxury of acting as if the system is legitimate, the system will hoist us with our own petard of legitimacy. This is not a counsel of despair, only an analytic judgement, that the crisis will have to be projected as deep, systemic and wide-ranging, before resistance finds a focal point.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s closing paragraph in his column this morning found resonance with my musings earlier today as I read and shared widely this hard hitting piece by Hussein Indorewala on the real estate-ification of our cities. Hussein’s piece lays bare the processes and outcomes of a development paradigm premised on unlocking land value for the benefit of a privileged few as opposed to an understanding of land as a collective good. Even as I read, I wondered how an intelligent reader could reconcile the criticism being leveled at the state, at private interests and at the ‘system’ itself with his own personal aspirations and choices, for a better and more stable life, with its trappings of acquiring homes, occupying improved offices and accessing modern amenities and services. What terms of reference does a mall goer, a corporate executive, a home owner have to interpret Hussein’s writing?
Other disparate events in my life, chiefly my engagement with the #BoloGurgaon campaign, have also been urging me to think deeper about why those of us who do engage with the key debates of our times, feel utterly paralysed by the world around us? Why do we accept the status quo? And why, even when we do act in one area, we are unable to resolve the conflict that arises with our being complicit in acts of exploitation when we assume other identities.
One obvious example is the allegations against elites who campaign for ‘green’ causes: How can elites who are already at the forefront of consuming products like real estate, automobiles, clothes, travel and exotic food that are the worst culprits in carbon emissions, also be leading the Fridays for Future protests and come out in numbers to save forests? How genuine is the solidarity being built between adivasi forest dwellers in Mumbai and elite campaigners for saving the Aarey forest? In an age of anti-elite politics, these campaigners appear as duplicitous to many, even though individuals them have indeed taken enormous strides forward in not only checking their own personal consumption but in exhibiting leadership in sustainable practices in organizations and communities they work and live in. We have seen similar debates in Gurgaon too with the Save Aravalli campaign, which has been enormously successfully in keeping conservation alive as a kay public issue in the city.
Another example could be the struggle to accord dignified working terms to working class individuals we know – domestic help, driver, construction worker – while urging our colleagues and children to negotiate for better wages and working conditions, even as we broadly recognize and stand for the values of freedom, dignity and equality.
To put it bluntly, how do we change the system when we are inside of it, and especially when we are beneficiaries of it? Dr Mehta is hopeful when he dreams of a moment when we will accept that the crisis is “deep, systemic and wide-ranging”. I have less hope. Because these are words we are already using to justify our own positions, to offer excuses to ourselves.
In a recently held meeting with Resident Welfare Association representatives as part of the #BoloGurgaon campaign, this conflict was clear as day. Like in the meeting with street vendors and e-riksha operators, there were rallying calls for unity and consolidation, in order for RWAs to amplify their political voice; a voice they would use to demand services that they should be entitled to as tax paying citizens of Gurgaon city. Equally apparent was their frustration and lack of faith in the ‘system’. The lack of accountability of bureaucrats and the self-interest of politicians were brought up repeatedly as the reasons why the system is dysfunctional. There was little faith in representative democracy and local governments but they hoped that amplifying their voice as a community would elicit response from a system that they admitted was better off centralized (less doors to knock, if door knocking is what one needed to do!). The paradox in this was also not lost on anyone in the room!
What does “deep, systemic and wide-ranging crisis” mean to those who see the system from particular vantage points? To me, the articulation of despondency we heard from RWAs, in which amplified noise was their most coherent strategy for change, is already a recognition of such a crisis. However, there is no imagination yet of how a changed order might look. What will replace the ‘system’? Will that also not be a system of some kind, with its power centres and prescribed channels of access? Who will guarantee that this new creature will be kinder and more efficient that the beast we encounter today?
The vehement response against our proposals on strengthening local government in the Citizen’s Charter tells us that people are not yet ready to back a new system, even when it is designed to put more power into their hands. One part of this resistance is likely coming from the unacknowledged ways in which centralized power provides access to the elite. Another strain of this is the abhorrence that the elite feel for dealing with the everyday rot in municipal systems, rot that the poor face in visceral ways everyday but we as wealthier citizens have been able to shield ourselves from in some measure. To me, conversations might be more useful if we aim to forge unlikely partnerships, is RWA reps would listen to street vendors and vice versa. If we truly acknowledge that crisis is here, we would be moving out of our comfort zones and talking, walking, raising our voices together. That is the future I would imagine, not a solution, but a new terms of engagement at the very least.