Thursday, May 28, 2015

'Make in India' in sync with 'Think in India' will lead to real progress!

Diagram by Jessica Hagy URL:

Jessica Hagy has made an interesting diagram showing the relationship between making and thinking. When we spend a lot of effort in making but little effort in thinking then we create the usual ‘stuff’.  When we spend a lot of effort in thinking and relatively little in making then we create ‘art’ objects. Progress of human society requires both – the usual stuff and the art objects. Making and thinking goes hand in hand. We make what we could think about and we should constantly think about what we are making. Balancing between making and thinking takes us to the progress.

The government of India has launched the mission of ‘Make in India’ which has captured the imagination of many. But how are we progressing in the area of ‘Think in India’? Like business houses taking lead in ‘Make in India’, the higher education institutions will have to take lead in ‘Think in India’. Do we have an ‘enabling environment’ in the country to pursue higher education system which promotes critical thinking rather than curtailing it? Do we have enough ‘investments’ in original research and is our young generation ready to take up career paths of being researchers? Do we have any vision of having a world class university or ‘smart’ university system yet?

Traditionally we have believed in ‘Education That Liberates’ (sa vidhyaha ya vimuktaye).  In 1947, many newly established modern institutions vouched to be progressive, liberal and innovative. But unfortunately, there are only few institutions in India which continue these traditions. Most universities spend their time dealing with government regulations and managing to work within their meagre budgets. When are they going to ‘invest’ in critical thinking, original research or innovative pedagogy? For example, most universities in India do not have access to international journals, then how are they going to publish anything in them and get a ranking amongst the top universities in the world? Our students need to be given more choices in their curriculums and they should be allowed choose their own multi-disciplinary pathways. The teachers needs to be more accountable, approachable and rigourous in their approach to teaching. Our universities need to embrace diversities, new ideas and new technologies. Sending an SMS to parents when their adult daughter or son does not attend a class is not the best use of technology and neither is it the right approach to education.

We are in a strange situation now. The government has pulled out of higher education more or less but it still wants to dictate what to teach, whom to admit, whom to hire, what to pay them and how much fees to charge. The big business houses start their own universities (probably to diversify their business) rather than supporting the well-established universities. And then there many individuals which would donate their money to religious charities rather than investing in higher education institutes. Probably, we haven't we realized the need of making good, stable institutions in this country yet.

In short, 'Think in India' will need some attention, some policy support, and some money with more autonomy! We will have to work towards supporting innovative thinking in this country. Otherwise, we will flood the job market with 'stuff' without substance. 

(25th May, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Govt & land owners are partners in development for well-planned towns

This is the centenary year of the first modern town planning legislation in Gujarat State. Bombay Town Planning Act was first legislated in the year 1915 and the first town planning scheme was prepared in the Jamalpur area of Ahmedabad in the year 1917. We have a hundred years of history of developing common infrastructure by land pooling and converting agricultural land into urbanised land in peri-urban area of a city. When the whole country including the parliament is debating the land acquisition act, Gujarat has shown a collaborative and practical way of getting land for common purpose nearly hundred years back.

In a typical town planning scheme, all land parcels of an area are pooled together irrespective of their revenue boundaries. A town planning officer then plans the area for roads, basic services provision and reserved land parcels and returns about 60-50% of land to the land owners in the close vicinity of their original area. Laying down infrastructure in the area brings dynamics of land market and even after losing nearly half the land, the owner rips immense benefits out of well-adjusted, well-shaped land parcel in return. The government gets the benefit of planning the area properly with a land bank for common infrastructure. In well-planned town planning schemes, both the government and the land owners are partners in development – not adversaries like the land acquisition process. 

The success of town planning schemes in Gujarat almost sounds like a fairy tale but we should not kill a hen laying golden eggs. On one side, we have a real challenge of making the town planning schemes more widespread, more effective and quicker in implementation. On the other side, the town planning scheme mechanism should not be used where it abuses the very spirit of it - seeing the land owners as partners in development. When town planning scheme mechanism is used in green-field sites like the Special Investment Regions (SIRs), the land owners will tend to lose instead of gaining out of the promised development. The government can only promise urbanisation in the SIRs but cannot jump start it. In absence of urban land market rural lands, the rural land owners or the farmers are exposed to huge risks and the government has a little liability. It is unfair to use the town planning scheme mechanism in such situations. 

So how should we celebrate the centenary year of modern town planning in Gujarat? First of all, by documenting the good practices of town planning so that this can be emulated in other states and in other cities. Secondly, by introspecting – city planning has a lot of scope beyond mere land re-adjustment. We need better designed streets, more open-green spaces, and better municipal services. A city is all about her people not only its land. So we need better mechanism of planning beyond land pooling. And finally, we must celebrate by future proofing – how do we improve the town planning scheme mechanism so that it is more sustainable mechanism and is abused less. Let’s celebrate 100 years of mutual benefits and equitable profits of development. 

(18th May, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

big cars, bigger egos and culture of rule-breaking kills people on the roads!

We are curiously watching the case of Salman Khan’s drunken driving and roadside killing. As of now, Salman Khan, balancing between public sympathy and hatred, is delaying the process of justice with a hope that he might evade it completely. As a reputed judge and author Tom Bingham said, the rule of law unfortunately is ‘hooray for my side’ for most of the people. This partisanship is often used to put pressure on the judiciary. Besides the larger issue of the prevalence of the rule of law, Salman Khan is surely a bad role model for the young motor vehicle drivers. 

Salman Khan is not the only bad role model in young people’s life. Youngsters learn most of their behaviour traits from their parents. How about parents (on motorbikes and cars) dropping kids to school by driving on the wrong side of the road? Lot of people believe that we should teach the kids traffic discipline from their childhood - catch them young! Kids learn more looking at the conduct of their parents then what they learn in the children's traffic parks. How do we expect the kids to follow traffic rules when there is a prevailing culture of casual rule breaking for the sake of little convenience? Unfortunately, this culture of casual rule breaking is considered social smartness in most cases and is further encouraged.
The wrongful behaviour on part of the motor vehicle drivers also emerge from their imagination of seeing themselves as 'victims' - 'what do I do when there is no provision for me!' or ‘give me more space, I am more important than others!’ When someone buys an expensive, big vehicle the feeling of victimhood doubles up - as if buying an expensive vehicle is a license to ask for more road space, free parking space and honking unnecessarily. More powerful people with their more powerful vehicles have a great sense of entitlement. When this self-assumed entitlement for unlimited road space is denied, they see themselves as victim of relentless traffic and not as equal participants in adding to the chaos. The combination of the culture of casual rule breaking and notion of ‘victimhood’ results in road rage and wrongful traffic behaviour. 
The statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau shows us that the bigger vehicles are responsible for larger number of road fatalities. Trucks or SUVs going at a high speed will kill more people than an auto rickshaw. With bigger vehicle comes bigger responsibility of saving other people’s life. 1.25 lakh Indians die in road traffic related crashes every year. If we are serious about reducing the road fatalities then we will not only have to make the physical infrastructure of our streets safer but also target some of these social issues - bad role models, sense of entitlement/victimhood amongst the privileged drivers and the culture of casual rule breaking. 

(11th May, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Technologies don’t make cities smart; accountable govts, clean streets do

After waiting for a year, Union Cabinet finally approves two urban programs - Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (aka AMRUT) for 500 cities and Smart Cities Mission for 100 cities. There will central allocation of about one lakh crores rupees in next five years. On prima facie, it seems that AMRUT is the second phase of the good ol' JnNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission), which has partly financed the bus rapid transit, flyovers, water-sanitation, waste management projects in Ahmedabad and in other cities. 

AMRUT is a continuation of the past policies but the ‘Smart Cities’ has captured the imagination of many people. It is a powerful political slogan and like all political slogans, 'Smart cities' make big promises without really telling you what they are. And debates are raging in the country about what are 'Smart cities'. Some news items claim that smart cities are all about information technology, automations, remote-controls, sensors, CCTV cameras, access controls and what not. But what if these so-called smart cities end up being private townships like colonial times when there were beautiful enclaves for the Whites and dusty-dirty towns for the rest of us. Is this the new smart cities mission going to subsidize and promote these ‘white enclaves’? Lets hope not. 

Keeping our anxieties and excitement aside, let us understand what makes a person smart? Often we are misguided by the appearances but the real smartness is in using optimum resources, being fair and balanced, finding negotiated solutions, being progressive, being responsible for your actions, and being open to feedbacks. Smartness cannot be imposed as it comes from within. Smartness prospers when there is good education, health and good exposure to the world. Smartness prospers when there are ideas in abundance and choices in everything. 

If we go by this definition of smartness then what kind of cities are we aspiring to - surely, the cities with accountable governments, as they will love the feedbacks from the citizens. The smart city government will consult the citizens before spending their money. The technology in smart cities will be used to optimize resources and not for the surveillance the citizens or for useless automations. So what is a smart city - If there is a shelter over every head, clean water and toilet in every house, clean streets and ample number of buses on every road; the city with government that listens to people, which will have political and financial autonomy to run the city - that is a smart city.

A smart phone in hand doesn’t make a person smart. The smart of use of the smart features might make someone smart. A promise of technology is not a promise of smartness. While discussing smart cities, let us not confuse the ends and the means. Technologies are important means but the ends will have to be cities that take care of us, inspire us and encourage us to take a stroll and to roll on two non-polluting pedals!

(4th May, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)