How to ride a tiger
"A city is both a territory and an attitude."
Let me get the heretical part of this piece out of the way. Between you and me, I’m rather glad that the Fab City project didn’t come Karnataka's way. Going by the past history of many other such “fab” projects (I’m assuming “fab” is an abbreviation for fabulous because $2 billion investment and 1,50,000 jobs is just that, isn’t it), the “fab” part remains with the promoters of the project, everything else goes speedily down the drain. I also shudder every time somebody talks about Mysore being the next IT destination of Karnataka. Look what they did to Bangalore, ma. And since I’m pouring my heretical heart out to you, I am also glad that the connectivity between Mysore and Bangalore continues to suck. If it’s a toss up between spending a bone-crushingly exhausting 4 and a half hour bus journey from Mysore to Bangalore and Mysore becoming what Bangalore has, give me the ride to hell and back any day. And if you’re still reading this and haven’t rushed off to write an outraged letter to the editor, I also find it very difficult to stomach how what happens to us every time a project of this nature is in the offing. Just “dollar” does the trick, but 2 billion of them. And 1,50,000 jobs! It is huge, but it still does not warrant the frantic tizzy that we whip ourselves into, first to net it, then afterwards if we don’t, the end of the world would be a less traumatic event. The only time we behave worse is when the existing gods of similar “fab” projects threaten to pull out and go elsewhere with their fab millions. We managed before IT, didn’t we, so did progress and development.
You are thinking - it’s easy for her to talk. She’s neither a young person desperately seeking a job nor a parent of one. I mean, there are no free lunches in life. so choking on a few extra gallons of smog, fighting our way through a few more hours of traffic jam is a small price for a job that pays 30,000 instead of 3000, isn’t it? Actually, though it may not seem so, I’m all for development and these fab projects. It saddens me, for example, to see Mysore become a city of the very old and the very young. (More than it saddens me to see what has happened to Bangalore.) House after house tells the same story of an empty nest in which lonely old people rattle around like dry old bones because their children have left to become NRIs. Dollars in the bank but nobody at home. It saddens me to see fresh engineering graduates wanting to work in Mysore are often forced to accept jobs that pay less than what a peon makes.
But, that still doesn’t mean that the solution to is to become a chota Bangalore.
Or worse still, like the dhobi’s donkey, to fall between two stools. Which, right now, Mysore is in real danger of, as we wait, all dressed up in our “we-have-what-it-takes-to-be-a-Fab-city” best. We have more glittering two-wheeler showrooms than Nanjagud bananas and a hip young population of two-wheeler riders who have one ear instead of two – the other has mutated into a cell phone. (I’m told that the next generation of cutting edge technology is a hands-free two-wheeler.) Beautiful old bungalows have given way to ghastly shopping arcades. And the real estate prices - an obscene joke if they weren’t true – continue to rise dizzily like an item bomb’s miniskirt in readiness for …. what else, a Fab City project.
But, our young folks are still leaving town to look for jobs. Something doesn’t quite add up, does it?
It will, it will, you cry. All we need is a Fab city or two and two plus and we will be in heaven, if not become heaven itself. (And we certainly don’t need a spoilsport Cassandra like you wailing doom!)
So, pardon my ignorance, but why isn’t Bangalore one already? Paradise, I mean.
I know – it’s all “their” fault – the city planners, authorities, politicians, anyone but we the people. But, may I suggest that progress is a tiger, a beast that if ridden right, will make it a great ride to the top (not to mention the bank!). If not, it will gobble us up. The question is, are we willing to learn to ride it?
Before we answer that question, may I remind everybody that we Kannadigas are no strangers to tigers. Or to riding them, our great maharajahs being our most illustrious “riding instructors”! Mysore became the model state (Mahatma Gandhi called it Rama Rajya in Krishnaraja Wodeyar’s reign!) because there was unstinting royal patronage of technology, science and modernization. True, no IT, but even without it, we didn’t do too badly. Building India’s very first irrigation dam was achievement enough, but a decade before the KRS dam went up in 1912, we already had a hydro-electric power plant at in Shivanasamudra (Asia’s very first and oldest) and Bangalore was the first city in India to become electrified in 1905. The common vision of Krishnaraja Wodeyar and Jamshedji Tata resulted in the Indian Institute of Science in 1909. By the time India achieved independence and his nephew, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar was not maharajah anymore but the Governor of the State of Mysore, we had a steel plant, one of India’s oldest and most reputed medical colleges, an aircraft manufacturing factory (HAL), all 9 nine districts connected by rail, telecommunications, polytechnic and engineering colleges. We were the first Indian state to have a Representative Assembly, we had a public health policy, hospitals, good roads and education till middle school was free. And the farmers didn’t have to commit suicide to get taken care of. Even the toymakers of Channapatna got wood at subsidized rates.
If that’s impressive, equally impressive is the fact the maharajahs never lost sight of other things which we now have either completely forgotten about or think is the domain of airy-fairy-activist NGO’s. Wildlife was considered important, Sanskrit warranted Mysore to have one of India’s oldest and best Sanskrit colleges in India. (President S Radhakrishnan studied philosophy here.) And the 3 yoga masters – BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TVK Desikachar – who have made Mysore an international yoga destination were disciples of Krishnamacharya for whom Krishnaraja Wodeyar opened a yogashala inside the palace premises! The maharajahs knew that music, art, literature and dance contribute as much towards nurturing great minds as formal education. There is a lovely story told by the late Dr. Raja Ramanna who said that Krishnaraja Wodeyar would invite him to play the piano and was so pleased by his playing that he paid him 200 rupees every time – a princely sum, both literally and figuratively speaking! They knew that gardens and parks (and zoos!) and fresh air and beautiful architecture were as important for the health of a state as jobs and factories and modernization. We have not one but two “Garden Cities” as proof of that.
Now, a tale of 2 other cities that rode that tiger….
Tirupur, 50 kilometres away from Coimbatore. Population 7 lakhs. In 1985, the export turnover of knitwear from this little back-of-beyond town was 15 crores. Last year, it was over Rs. 5,000 crores. It is one of the largest foreign exchange earning towns in India, the textile industry employing workers equal to almost 50% of its population. In other words, a Fab City, right? (Or "Dollar City”, as it is also known!) Maybe. Let me complete the picture. Tirupur has almost no good roads to speak of, equally bad sewage systems, rising incidence of chronic health problems, especially respiratory diseases among children. Water is so scarce that even for the dyeing units of the garment industry that brought in all this prosperity and development, it is fetched in tankers from as far as 20 kilometres. Naturally, everyone, including the textile barons are now screaming a familiar cry, “Infrastructure! Infrastucture!”
The second city is Curitiba. Curi-who? Curitiba in Brazil. Population 17 lakhs. Almost 40 years ago, the mayor, worried about his fast-growing city, invited proposals for urban design. An architect called Jaime Lerner presented a plan which was soon implemented. First, the public transport system of buses was made so good and so intensive that 85% of Curitiba's population travelled exclusively by it. (There wasn’t much space for the cars anyway because the city centres were made pedestrian exclusive zones and several key highways were bus-only areas!) Then, apart from the mandatory trees and artificial ponds, Lerner’s solution to the garbage problem was really unique - he roped in the city’s poor to recycle the garbage, offering groceries and bus pases in exchange for every 2 bags of rubbish brought in! Curitiba has 54 square meters of green space per citizen - the WHO’s minimum requirement is 10. Today, Curitiba is considered not just the world’s greenest city but also one of the best examples of urban planning.
Cities all over the world are taking matter into their own hands to make posible both development and quality of life. Toronto has “walking school buses”, where children are organised to walk to school, Sacramento demands that all parking lots have 50% tree shade, London charges a “congestion” fee to all vehicles entering the ity centre, thereby reducing traffic and pollution. Berlin’s new parliament building keeps itself warm and cuts carbon emissions by 94% by running its boilers on vegetable oil. And closer home, Sheila Dixit got Delhi’s huge fleet of private buses and auto rickshaws to run on CNG and Mumbai recently successfully phased out its its taxis and commercial vehicles that were more than 15 years old.
So, Fab Cities are made up of people who ride the tiger, not the other way around. Because true development and progress is not just about jobs. It’s also about a better quality of life and that means better air to breathe, water to drink, parks to play and walk in etc., etc. It also means that the common man has as right to it as somebody who brings in 2 million dollars of investment. Apparently, Karnataka lost the Fab City project because SemIndia wasn’t confident of our ability to provide facilities like land, water, electricity and other “infrastructure”! The irony is that in many parts of Karnataka - including Mysore - the common man does not these very same facilities. Just think – if that is so without the Fab Cities of the world, what will happen when we get them and divert huge portions of our already poorly distributed resources to them?
Another thing. Development is a two way street. Which means that it is a joint effort, where each one of us has a sense of ownership of the society we live in as much as we do of our cars, houses, even spouses! Which means that we have to live a little less selfishly. We have to obey laws, pay taxes and empower public offices to do their job. We have to be willing to say “no” to things that will serve a favoured few and harm the majority, do stuff that might make life uncomfortable in the short term but improve it in the long haul. Curitiba was possible only because the citizens wanted their town to be what it is today…
Recently, at the weekly meditation session in my yogashala, despite repeated requests, somebody decided to keep his cell phone on in the vibratory mode. And he was obviously a popular guy, because his phone rang…er, vibrated every 5 minutes or so. In the silence of a mediation session, that was like a bomb going off every 5 minutes. Afterwards, I waited eagerly for our yogacharya’s expected ticking off. But none came. Instead, without singling out the offender, he said just this. It is natural for all of us to seek pleasure, fulfill desires and therefore acquire the necessary things to do that. But, every time you use your object of desire, just pause to think if your pleasure has been funded by another’s discomfort or pain. If you keep that in mind constantly, the appropriateness of anything will become automatically and crystal clear.
I think it’s a lovely rule. So simple and applies to anything – cell phones in public places and Fab Cities!