Mumbai Local: Politricks mafia style

May 19, 2009

While it was a relief to find that the city did not vote for a chauvinist agenda as a whole, the ability of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena to cut into local votes is certainly disheartening. In many ways the MNS agenda is here to stay and will keep erupting from time to time unless the city responds forcefully.

The fact is that if they take over the Shiv Sena vote-space in the future, Mumbai is back to square one. One Thakeray will be replaced by another (much younger one) and the city will keep bending on its knees every now and then to a mafia-style political culture.

Right now the ball is in the Congress’s court. Unfortunately, the party can work very differently at the center, state and city levels. It is perfectly possible for some short sighted chief minister to keep one Sena at bay by encouraging another, until yet another political calamity is unleashed.

The question to ask is, why is it that large sections of Mumbai’s population still feel that identity politics is the only way ahead for them? What is it that they see Raj Thakeray doing for them? Is it a sense of empowerment that they experience through his ideology, even if it does not concretely change things for them? Do they feel safe and protected under his leadership in a city that does not fully account for the needs of everybody?

His largest patronage comes from the city’s, post-industrial working and middle-class Maharashtrians. Like his uncle, Raj too has moped up the residues of the city’s once rich, unionized, working class history and transformed it into a space of informal state control – mafia style. Since then, the Sainiks have taken over grassroots activities from the left, infused them with cultural agendas and added huge servings of scapegoat politics, and violence. Moreover, cultural activities, festivities and neighbourhood level involvement have been the hallmark of the Sena and Raj is firmly committed to that legacy.

His largest support comes from informal settlements in the city. From the Koliwadas to old villages to modern slums, these rich and textured landscapes have been his biggest support base. And as long as the authorities choose to ignore these spaces, Thackeray style politics will always be a specter haunting the city’s horizon.

Besides, the dominance of Congress in the city’s political horizon is one thing. Its ability of dealing with a numerically smaller but in many ways louder and more violent MNS is something else altogether. And if Mumbai follows the Delhi way – then that will only feed the agenda of such parties more.

In the capital, the Congress has been pretty aggressive against the jhuggis and slums, and in many ways has only postponed the problem. There will certainly come a time, when the exiled urban poor in that city will emerge as another force to reckon. And if one is not careful enough, will be equally aggressive.

The fact of the matter is that to eliminate the Sena style of politics, the city has to get to the root of the problem. And that consists of working at two levels. One is to make sure that the huge economic divisions that mark the city – most visible in its built environments and highly unequal consumption levels – is narrowed and the second is to proactively replace the cultural language of chauvinist politics with something more dynamic, celebratory and imaginative, in a manner that reaches out to every neighbourhood and corner. For a city that has such a strong culture industry and so much talent, it’s a shame that we have not been able to counter-act narrow cultural prejudices and counteract Raj’s language in a stronger way.

It’s not late though. The election results can become a strong foundation of a completely new political culture for Mumbai.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, Wed May 20, 2009

Adobe Urbanism Expo in Valparaiso, Chile

May 11, 2009

URBZ collaborator, Jose “Cole” Abasolo is exhibiting some of his recent photoshoped images in Valparaiso, Chile. Don’t miss it!

Singular Text, Many Authors: User-Generated Urban Plans

May 4, 2009

The Urban Typhoon workshops held in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo (urbantyphoon.com/2006/reports.htm) and Koliwada, Mumbai 2008 (urbantyphoon.com), yielded a complex set of texts – images, narratives, aspirations, dreams, maps, architectural drawings, data, figures and statistics. Each of them were collectively produced through collaborative interaction between local residents, vistors, professionals, laypersons and experts in a moment where hierarchies were minimised. All these texts were compiled into a report which is freely available for downloading.

These reports are significant examples of what, within academic circles, has come to be referred as multiple-authored texts.

The fact that a book can have several authors – and we are not talking of edited texts of distinct individually written essays – is not new. There are old arguments and debates about the idea of authorship that keep getting recycled within academic debates. From the demise of authorship altogether to the existence of multiple voices – one hears about plurality as an important value – often for its own sake.

Within anthropology, particularly from the eighties onwards, there have been frequent discussions about looking at ethnography (the practice of describing and inscribing other cultures) as a collaborative exercise – in which the anthropologist writes a text about a community in conjunction with its representatives.

Yet – when it comes to validating a collectively authored report about urban spaces – it takes greater effort. While literature and ethnography are spaces in which collective voices can be aestheticized in some way or the other, and eventually accepted, collectively authored reports dont always make the grade.

For one – the fact that there are so many signatures, ideas and drawings makes people draw the conclusion that plurality neccessarily translates into chaos, differences of opinions and contrary choices.

When it comes to drawing a plan for an urban space plurality is immediately seen to represent indecision in terms of moving ahead.

Maybe this is a classic case of over-interpretation – to evoke Umberto Eco.

Just as a city that appears to be messy and chaotic (see our entry on Mess is More below) is not always so – a report that has a diversity of styles, perspectives, opinions, ideas and expressions does not necessarily imply an inability to overcome differences or work with them.

It is easy to dismiss a report that has emerged from a collaborative exercise such as this to be amateur (because lay persons helped in writing it) or just a tokenistic celebration. Not something that can be seriously translated into action. Especially since it often lacks the aesthetics of uniformity of style – if not content.

However, if you look closer you will see in those reports, along with the images, the stories and expression of dreams – a very hard-headed set of visions that can easily be translated into specific urban projects – if you open yourself to the idea that urban spaces can consist of coordinated but distinct styles, designs and approaches.

Of course – one is not saying that these are completed texts or ready made plans. However, to value them, you need to accept that the language of plural authorship demands a different criteria while reading and appreciating them. It is difficult for a reader, so used to a singular voice in a book, to come to terms with two or more voices. She has to make the extra effort and evoke an older connection with stories so that the idea of singular authorship does not dominate her engagement with the narrative. Similarly, for all those involved with urban practices, maybe making the extra effort to read the special language of a plural authored text such as the reports in question, will lead to something equally significant. Perhaps, a genuine move towards a user generated urban plan.

It would be pertinent to ask – how would such a plan look? It would certainly not have a neat start, middle and end, nor a common aesthetic for its drawings. It would definitely have an uneven texture and very diverse styles – chapter by chapter, sometimes even page by page.

And yet – it could well manage to succeed in its mission of revealing a easily executable vision, as collectively and incrementally produced as the habitats it seeks to change, modify, build over and transform.