Can Chennai's Coovam become its 'Cheonggyecheon'? Coovum, for those who are not familiar, is a giant sewage river that runs through the city. As you drive around Chennai you cannot miss it. Even if you are a tourist travelling behind dark glassed cars with the A/C on, your nose won't miss it.
I have seen black and white photos of Chennai from the early 20th century. Coovam was not always a smelly, dirty river. Once upon a time it had fish and other living beings in it. Clean water used to flow in it. Today, no life can survive it. I suppose almost every third world city has a Coovam. What is third world without it.
Every now and then there are talks of cleaning the Coovam. Even this week there were reports about building check dams across it. Coovam originates in the west of the city and it is not polluted. By the time Coovam meets the sea it is highly polluted.
I would assume that in a water starved city, there would be enough interest in recovering the water from the sewage. And/Or pump sea water in and boats could provide transportation and touristy trips on the river.
Bangkok's Chao Praya river does all this, except the sea water part. The view of the city and the temples from it is beautiful. Come to think of it, pretty much every romantic and beautiful city in this world has a river running through it. And many of them were not clean as they are now. So there is hope for Coovam too. May be we can learn a few tips from Seoul.
One of our earlier attempts at public policy. Marc and I were walking around Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1997 or 1998, right after the nuke blasts in Pokhran. Much of the opinion in India was in a whining mood and breaking out into 'We are the world, we are the victims' song. It was as if IMF, World Bank, Japan, US and the rest of the world owed us their money.
We decided to take a different approach. Make use of the opportunity and get rid of politically directed government to government or quasi-government to government aid.
The following was published in The Economic times. Interestingly, lot of what we said then has come true. India, from what I understand, is now a donor to IMF. The immorality of this can be debated elsewhere. Read on ....
Why International Sanctions Could be Good News for India
by Raj Cherubal and Marc Cooper
The five nuclear tests recently conducted by India have triggered a wave of international economic sanctions. From the cutoff of aid by Japan to the pledge of the United States to thwart disbursement of aid by multilateral agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank, the international community has determined that India must be punished for the Pokhran blasts.
Conventional wisdom claims that poor nations require economic assistance to lift themselves out of poverty and that by depriving a poor nation of desperately needed capital that nation will suffer enough economic harm to change its course of action and bend to the will of the sanctioning nations. We believe that by displacing the need for private capital inflows and delaying free market reforms, perpetual international aid usually causes more harm than good. It is also our contention that the elimination of handouts will, in the long term, not hurt India, but could actually help by compelling its political leaders to accelerate economic liberalization measures which will lead to enhanced growth.
International aid has created a legacy of dashed hopes, arrested economic development, and dependency. The sorry history of the IMF highlights some of the many problems that plague the aid industry. As recently noted by Bryan Johnson and Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation, more than 50% of the nations receiving funds have shown no economic improvement and one third are worse off. At some point it must be acknowledged that not only has years of economic assistance failed to help these nations, but that it may have even harmed them. Such aid permits the political leaders of these nations to continue promoting failed socialists economic practices and avoid implementing vital free market reforms that would lead to long term economic growth. Additionally, capital flows which are directed by political means rather than by the market are all to frequently misallocated and thus do little to improve the plight of the nations receiving aid.
Also, international aid can be capricious. Donor nations are primarily driven by domestic political concerns not the requirements of the needy nations. So aid can be summarily cutoff just when it is most needed and thus can be an unreliable source of capital. There are also questions about sovereignty. Aid usually comes with strings attached and desperate nations are frequently compelled to placate the donor countries. India finds itself in this predicament. This naked blackmail is demeaning to a proud nation such as India and also reveals something about the motives of the donor countries.
India is a poor nation due to lack of capital. A loss of an important source of capital, unless replaced by other means, will make India poorer. While this appears troublesome at first glance, we believe that it could present a positive opportunity. Faced with the loss of politically directed capital, India must turn to the private international market to replace this loss. In order to do so, it must enact key economic reforms to become attractive to investors, and to assure them that such investments will be safe from capricious government interference. With its stable democracy, abundant natural resources, and a huge middle class which is very much Westernized, India should have no trouble in attracting enough private investment to more than offset the effects of sanctions, provided that the requisite economic reforms are implemented
In the past few years, India has taken some encouraging steps in the direction of economic liberalization. Such steps have resulted in strong growth of the kind that is necessary to lift the average Indian citizen out of poverty. Yet poverty remains a persistent problem so further reforms are required. These reforms include clear and secure private property rights, relaxed capital controls, reduction in government interference in the private sector, removal of restrictions on foreign ownership of Indian companies, etc.
Many of these measures will face intense political opposition, but this is where the imposition of international sanctions could help India's leaders. By claiming that such measures are necessary due to the sanctions, the Indian government can use the international community as a scapegoat and gain political cover. This political dynamic is just what is required to break the stranglehold of entrenched bureaucratic and protectionist interests and to accelerate the pace of economic liberalization.
Instead of being viewed as a harbinger of economic troubles, the sanctions that are being imposed on India could represent an historic opportunity. The only path to long term economic growth is via capital accumulation. If sanctions compel India to enact reforms required to attract private capital and reduce its dependency on international aid, than sanctions could be a blessing in disguise.
I have not read Chekhov or Amos Oz. I am ashamed and I promise to read their works ASAP.
Anyway, I remember seeing Amos Oz on TV, January 23rd, 2002 on Newshour with Jim Leher to be precise. (I did a search on Yahoo! to refresh my memory, in case you are wondering). Oz, an Israeli peace activist and author, was commenting on his hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a Chekhovian tragedy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH (from the Newshour): You once said that you hoped that the tragedy of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians would be Chekhovian and not a Shakespearean tragedy. What did you mean, and is it becoming more Shakespearean?
AMOS OZ: Well, my definition of a tragedy is a clash between right and right. And in this respect, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim. Now such a clash between right claims can be revolved in one of two manners. There's the Shakespeare tradition of resolving a tragedy with the stage hewed with dead bodies and justice of sorts prevails. But there is also the Chekhov tradition. In the conclusion of the tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is disappointed, disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, but alive. And my colleagues and I have been working, trying...not to find the sentimental happy ending, a brotherly love, a sudden honeymoon to the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, but a Chekhovian ending, which means clenched teeth compromise.
How anyone can think in such elegant ways is beyond me. Well, it occurred to me a few days ago that Indian cities are a Chekhovian tragedy - a clenched teeth compromise. Everything on the road is slowed down to a grinding crawl. Everyone is forced to accept the anarchy. In fact, everyone, even the most gentle law abiding among us, is transformed into an anarchist. Not a violent one, but a meek one. Breaking road rules meekly. While the traffic police looks the other way meekly, pretending not to see. With clenched teeth, of course.
Even the joy of seeing new roads, laid just before the monsoon season starts, is crushed when you see that it comes with pre-fitted potholes. Smooth black tar roads with giant manholes protruding into thin air. If by luck, the road has no potholes or protruding holes, there comes the water or electricity department next day. Or an arrogant nearby building owner. With pickaxes and shovels, tearing into the fine shiny surface. Bringing the pickax down with a callous rhythm in a manner only irresponsible, insensitive morons can.
Roads that flood at the slightest drizzle. Traffic lights that conk out when someone sneezes. Forcing pedestrians, cows, cars, cycles, cops, sewage, drainage, rain, auto-rickshaws, buses, minivans, vendors, temples, protesters, bus stop waiters, beggars, nouveau come-from-village-looking-for-jobber, sales-children selling at traffic stoplight, lepers (you don't see many of them now a days), gypsies - well you get the picture - forcing all of them to move an inch to the right, then to the left, inch by inch moving forward by sometimes moving backward. Watch out for the cyclist trying to slip into the crack between two vehicles deadlocked.
Slums next to mansions. Mansions in the middle of slum. All accepting the mysterious ways of the Lord. All accepting their place in this society, in this world. Begrudging the other's existence, at least the proximity if not their very existence. Sometimes acknowledging the other courteously, with clenched teeth. Other times, pretending they don't see.
I cautioned our American friend and her daughter on holiday in India when I picked them at the airport. "Prepare to be shocked and awed". New comers to India can have only one of two reactions. Either shocked or awed. Some vow never to return. Some stay and become more Indian than Indians. The paradox is that with all the extremes that is the Indian city, it is a compromise.
Long ago an Israeli colleague of mine described to me the India he saw. He had visited Mumbai (Bombay) after his compulsory duty in the army. He spoke about the man who slept peacefully on a bench in the middle of the day. About the man, who when asked for direction, walked for more than an hour with the Israeli just to make sure he found his destination. About the peace and tranquility that radiated beyond all the chaos and confusion. About patience and tolerance amidst all the pushing and shoving. I wonder if the Israeli noticed the clenched teeth.
I am very sure Chekhov was an Indian. If not, at least he had visited the Indian city and that inspired him to describe his tragedies. Amos Oz would appreciate the Indian city. As a man who yearns for clenched teeth compromises, he will recognise it in the Indian city.
The quality of a city's sidewalks (footpaths,pavements) are, in my opinion, a measure of the culture and civilisation that founded that city. It tells you how much you care about others and yourself. Sidewalks serve many purpose. To walk of course. But good sidewalks ensure a pedestrian's safety. Sidewalks are where you stroll and do your window shopping. Where poor and rich entrepreneurs set up shop and earn their livelihood. Where tourists and locals sip coffee and contemplate about life. Where, in residential neighbourhoods, children play. Only when you visit a pedestrian friendly city do you realise the importance of sidewalks.
Yet many cities, and Chennai is no exceptions, pay so little attention to sidewalks. Not all of this neglect is mean spirited. A lot of it is well intentioned. As wealth in cities increase, coupled with bad "public" transportation, more people end up buying their own modes of transportation. This leads to clogged roads and other related traffic problems. City "planners", or reacters (as they seem to react more than plan,) widen roads. This usually means removing sidewalks and extending the area covered by blacktop (tar). Roads in many areas, if not most, reach right up to the footsteps of shops and homes. This to them is modernisation and progress.
You can very easily get fooled by this. I was. When I drove around the city in a car, upon my returned to Chennai after many years, I was very impressed by the newly widened roads. It seemed like more space for me and my car. But it didn't take long to figure out that this kind of widening of roads actually made matters worse.
When you have wide user friendly sidewalks, people walk on them. Vendors of various kind set up shop on them. All buying and selling happen on the sidewalks. This means that there is a clear separation between pedestrians and vehicles, including cycles. A motorist then have to contend only with other motorists and cyclists. Take the sidewalk away, all the people, vendors and their shops now are on the road, where the sidewalk used to be. So not only have you not gained any additional space for vehicles, you have also endangered the lives and limbs of pedestrians, since there is no longer any barrier between them and speeding vehicles.
One step supposedly forward, many many steps back !
The fact that we destroy sidewalks is a symptom of something much bigger. We don't care about ourselves and our fellow human beings. People to us are a burden. Decades of constant socialists chanting that population is the root cause of all our problems, and not governments' disastrous economic policies, was bound to have equally disastrous social and psychological effects on the population. Population, that is us by the way. For a long time we figured we could blame the others - migrant villagers, slum dwellers, poor, illiterate who infect our city slums - and get away with it. Never did we think that population meant us - you and me. When we look at population as a burden, then someone else is looking at us as burden.
So when the city bureaucrat demolishes the sidewalks, he is only doing what he is taught all his life. You the pedestrian is a burden. Screw you. Walk somewhere else.
Add lack of proper zebra crossing, things protruding out of road that make vehicles swerve from side to side at high speeds, potholes, malfunctioning traffic lights and so on. What you have is bad and unhealthy chaos. Devaluation of human beings. One of the most sadly fascinating sights I had on the streets of Delhi, was the face of a terrified old woman, trying to cross the road, while vehicles went zooming past her. That old lady - someone's mother, wife, daughter or friend - did not have a place in that city. She was a burden.
All this, in my opinion, has cascading bad side effects. Degrading the value of a human being day in and day out on our streets, in subtle ways and in very obvious ways, is bound to have side effects. Unintended consequences.
Read my earlier posting on 'Broken Window' theory. Institutions and environment determine how people behave. Next time when you see people behaving like cattle on the street and cattle like people. Next time when the authorities violate someone's rights on the streets, police beating up someone on the street out of sheer frustration if not anything else, when you see fist fights on the street, man lying bloodied and the vehicle that hit him is nowhere in sight, rise in pollution and respiratory problems due to unruly, clogged traffic. Remember, it may all have started with the non-existent or unusable sidewalk.
Cities exists for people. People created the cities. Cities can be and must be people friendly. And this has nothing to do with the size of the population. (Proof, studies, essays supporting this dramatic claim, and there are plenty by the way, will be provided someday.) Cities need to become pedestrian centric. People centric.
So more clean, safe, sidewalks now !
Why another blog ? Why the unusual name, my blog's that is ? Well, I love cities. Like them or hate them, at least they are not boring. Like many of you, I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. People who love cities, love it for all kinds of reasons and they know why.
But unfortunately, many cities around the world, like Chennai where I live, are a mess. Unsanitary living conditions, poor quality of life, poverty, ... you name the problem, we have it.
It is my belief that most, if not all of the problems, are due to bad governance. Over-sized and overbearing local and national government bureaucracies, lack of responsive public and private institutions, neglect of government's limited but important duties, lack of decentralisation, smothering of economic, social and political freedoms, all lead to corruption, chaos, crime and eventual decay of the city.
Instead of just whining, or worse, offering simplistic solutions, I would like to use this blog to showcase innovative solutions from around the world. Of course, present my own ideas and thoughts too. Hope to help revitalise our cities. Hope every city would be a shining city on the hill, in the valley, on the shore, on the bank of a river or wherever it might be.
There is another reason. I read somewhere that in about 50 years, some 80 percent of the world's population will be living in urban areas. The exact numbers are not important. The point is that, if we don't start setting things right, we are in for a serious mess. People have been migrating to cities for centuries. We can either fight it and deny it. Or we can prepare our cities to receive the hungry, the unemployed, the desperate, the frightened with open arms and give them a place to live a good life and prosper.
Every sentence I have stated above can be debated to death. Urban vs Rural. Cities are the cradle of civilisations vs cities are the armpits of civilisations. Urbanisation is good. No it is bad. So on and so forth. My biases will be in full display via this blog.
Well that is good enough explanation for 'why another blog?' Read on....