Thursday, March 24, 2016

Indian cities should discourage cars completely, not just restrict them!


Delhi's odd-even experiment will be messy, contested and incremental, but restrictions on using cars are here to stay.

The odd-even rationing of roads in Delhi has got everyone talking about air pollution, public transport, carpooling and parking charges. It’s amusing that issues that until recently were confined to policy and academic circles have suddenly entered the public discourse. While this reaffirms the belief that an issue’s proximity to Delhi is directly proportionate to its media coverage, it doesn’t change the reality that the air pollution levels in the capital and other cities are indicative of a public health crisis. And it’s a crisis that has been created by placing our relentless appetite for private automobiles above human interest.
Automobiles dominate our cities and our minds. “Traffic congestion” is part of everyday lexicon and building of flyovers is widely used to claim development in cities. Like the mythological demon that kept gobbling, the demands for uninterrupted traffic flow, wider roads and more flyovers remain unsatisfied.
Private automobiles have become dominant thanks to cheaper loans, lenient taxation, demand for free parking spaces and the absence of effective road-pricing mechanisms. “Car seva” remains the unofficial motto of our urban policies, putting a dent in the city’s budget while officials get criticised for not supplying enough essential “infrastructure” for smooth and fast traffic movement. The large number of litigations against the odd-even car use restrictions in Delhi and the bitter criticism of the capital’s Bus Rapid Transit System illustrate how the incumbent automobile regime resists any form of usage restrictions or re-prioritisation.
Here, there and everywhere
The space occupied by automobiles – moving or parked – is viewed as inevitable and legitimate over other urban activities such as play areas for children or street trading. A car or a motorbike are not only “utility vehicles” but are fast becoming personalised objects of cultural consumption. Popular media and automobile advertisements continue to portray automobiles as symbols of greater freedom and higher social status.
Ownership of an automobile brings a sense of entitlement for consuming increasingly more road space. We have fallaciously linked automobiles and the upgrade from a motorbike to a car as the only possible curve of social and economic progress. Similarly, a spurt in the private automobile sector is viewed as a pathway for economic growth. The automobile regime encompasses political, economic, social and cultural vested interests developed around the relentless consumption of automobile use.
The dominance of automobiles also affects other transport modes and access to public spaces. As automobiles appropriate more and more space, the use and quality of public transport and the share of walking and cycling in commuting declines. Even so, walking and cycling constitute 40% share in urban travel, according to the latest census.
Pedestrians and cyclists scavenge for road space. Jaywalking is not pleasant in most cities. Automobile-free areas, where one can walk freely, children can play carelessly or where the elderly can relax, are rare, gated, exclusive, and at times expensive.
Housing colonies, institutions, streets are infested with parked automobiles, each of them giving up on other activities to accommodate the vehicles. Soon, Gurgaon-like suburbs proliferating in cities around India will lock their residents into an automobile-centric culture, just like the residents of the low-density sprawling suburbs of the North American cities.
We live in cities made for automobiles, honking is an inevitable part of our urban soundscapes, and breathing the foul air emanating from automobiles completes our urban lives. While private automobiles are not solely responsible for air pollution, the dominance of the automobile regime severely affects the quality of urban life.
Long-term projections show that by 2050, the majority of urban travellers in India will depend on public transport of various forms including the para-transits, walking and cycling, carpools or car share if they become popular.
Future course
Despite high vehicle ownership, cities in industrialised countries have reversed their public policies and have started restricting the use of automobiles in one way or the other.
So how will the restrictions on automobile consumption become a political priority in India? Do we have political constituencies around promoting public transport today? Do people demand better buses – GPS-enabled, smart card-operated, etc. – instead of cheaper fuel for their private vehicles? Shouldn’t we have a Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Shahari Footpath Yojana? Will cycling to work be incentivised in the Smart Cities Mission?
There is a silver lining. The problem of automobile dominance in the city affects the elite class, and that’s why there is such a hue and cry at the moment. Delhi’s odd-even car use restrictions have initiated politics of differential mobility on a large scale – a little niche to discuss alternative ways of moving around the city, a first step to dismantling the idea that car ownership gives you god-given rights to the road space.
The policy may not be completely rational and the government might not have the wherewithal to fully implement it initially. But let’s remember that public interventions in India are messy, contested and incremental.
The odd-even formula from Delhi will slowly get more people on board to understand that restrictions on the use of cars are here to stay. It will grow into two-wheeler restrictions, carpooling and, hopefully, better public transport integration.
As long as the Delhi government is keen to stay the course, these restrictions will become a reality in the capital and hopefully in many other Indian cities as well.
Published on 4th January, 2016. URL: 

True leaders lead by action: A welcome change among the politicians!

True leaders lead by action: A welcome change among the politicians (that 'practice what you preach' comes back in political fashion) 

- Ahmedabad mayor Gautam Shah has decided to take the BRTS to his office once a month. Last Monday, he initiated his resolve by commuting to his office via BRTS instead of his official car and he used the public transport throughout the day.
- A municipal corporater from Asarawa has resolved to cycle to the municipal corporation once a month. We hear the same news about a Member of Parliament who cycles to the Parliament everyday.
- Similarly, the Delhi government has decided to put in place the odd-even car use restrictions. The cabinet of Delhi lead the citizens by their own actions. Manish Sisodia, the deputy chief minister, has been cycling to office. Chief minister Arvind Kejariwal is car-pooling.
This is a welcome trend among the politicians across party lines. They are leading by actions. ‘Practice what you preach’ went out of political fashion in last two-three decades. But let us hope it is slowly coming back to public life and public discourse.This is a great trend nationally because the politicians are giving us an important message – individual actions actions matter.
One can be cynical and say that how much do these individual actions matter in the global picture of environmental protection. One trip less by car is not going to protect the environment. Well, it all starts with whether or not you believe in small actions and their power of transforming the world.
Unfortunately, the environmental discourse in India has not become about individual choices. The environmental discourse is more distant from one’s own self in India, where it is ‘some one else’ who is going to protect the environment, not ‘you’!
Some people also believe in ‘my right to pollute’ because we are a developing country. There is an assumption that we will have to pollute our way to prosperity. India as a country might take a bit longer to adopt to fully eco-friendly energy resources.That does not mean that we, as individuals will use that as an excuse not to change our polluting choices. We should not be comfortable with ‘right to pollute’ without exploring the alternatives. Environmental protection or more specifically, pollution-free cities is all about the individual choices that we make in our daily life.
Using a cycle to reach the office or taking public transport once in a while, will help us get out of the routine and try something new. Environmentally-friendly choices are also health friendly. The politicians have already shown us a way and now it is for the citizens do their bit. For politicians will go where we would like them to go. Do we want them to ‘practice what they preach’? Then we will also have to do the same – walk on the righteous path we expect others to walk. Finally, it is for us to decide if we want to make our individual actions matter. 

(21st December, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Resolve to wear seasonal cloths, eat seasonal fruits and walk when you can!

New year resolutions to 'save the world' - we can do a lot more! 

There is a lot more we can do for the environment besides taking pride when the children make drawings on the subjects such as ‘save trees’ or ‘save environment’. Here is what could be our very own seven-point New Year resolutions to save the world–resolutions to ‘be the change we want to see in the world’:
1. Engage yourself with the environment debate - search, read, explore about the environmental issues. Involve yourself, engage yourself first in understanding and then making up your mind to do something about the issue.
2. Live as per the weather - Wear seasonal clothes, eat seasonal food. Avoid cooling yourself unnecessarily. Choose a house with ample light and wind, it will save your energy bills for the life time.
3. Sensible use of transport energy - Walk where you can, cycle if you are alone, motorbike is for the double ride, rickshaw is for the triple ride, use cars for four people and bigger cars/SUVs for large families. Be smart about your air travel and avoid the unnecessary ones, take trains for longer distances – it’s fun! Demand bonus for using public transport from your boss, if you are a boss - give the bonus to the public transport users. Do not resist parking charges to park your vehicles on roads – it is an act of ‘privatising’ public space! Do a campaign for better public transport, good walking/cycling infrastructure, more green spaces around your house and give your vote to such ‘green’ parties in the local elections!
4. First local then global - use more and more local materials, food and groceries. If you like local cheese, don’t go for the Swiss. If you can live with Ambaji’s marble, don’t import them from Italy. Eat a local burger, don’t fall for the American wheat and the French lettuce. Make a small garden and make your house green... even if you just have a little balcony.
5. Adopt green technologies - They will be in vogue if we use them! Use wind energy, solar energy where you can. Conserve rain water. Don’t use clean, potable water for gardening or to wash your motorbike and car(s). Use water miserly, get a plumber and fix that leaking tap.
6. Re-use and re-cycle - make a quilt out of the old saris and a shopping bag out of old shirts and use them with pride. Do the same with the food and don’t waste it. Don’t buy things with lot of packaging. Demand green products from the companies.
7. Be content - Don’t buy everything sold to you. Seek a great joy if you are not being sold anything. Go for shopping after eating, you will buy less. If you are depressed meet your friends instead of going for shopping to pamper yourself. Don’t fall for sentimental consumerism of all things!
Many of these ideas have been very much part of our lives but they are being forgotten slowly. Saving environment is actually saving that lifestyle which taught us to be fair, balanced and not be too extravagant in consuming resources. If we build our life around such ideas (which you will, if you explore the environmental issues) then you will not only add your two pence in climate change mitigation and adaptation but also change your lifestyle for the better. A new year is the best time to be ‘naively’ optimistic about the small acts, when they are multiplied by millions, can transform the world.

(28th December, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Delhi Air Pollution: Ahmedabad should wake up and act, now!

Imagine a city where you wake up and look at the official alert on the air quality and then decide about your day – whether to go out or not. It might be safe to go out on the ‘saffron alert’ days but with a face mask on. Wearing a face mask does not bother you any more. On the ‘red alert’ days, people are advised to stay indoors. Only on the ‘green’ days, you may freely go out without a face mask. But ‘green days’ are decreasing every year. The air purifier installed in your house is working relentlessly and increasing your energy bill with the same rigor, just like those blooming air conditioners. Of course, It is a luxury to have air purifiers at homes and offices and it is even greater luxury to have a choice about going out or not. Since not everyone in the city have these luxuries, majority of the population in this city suffers by breathing the worst air possible for human beings. No, this is not a description of the distant, dystopian future from a sci-fi novel. This is happening right now in an Asian city, Beijing. 
Delhi’s air pollution problem is not less severe than the one in Beijing. Triggered by toxins and high levels of particulate matter, Delhi's air has crossed all limits of safety, breaching even WHO (World Health Organization) standards. The air pollution in Delhi has started a national debate about the quality of air we breath in our cities. While it is heartening to see that the Judiciary, the government and the private sector is working towards the possible solution, the time is running out. The air pollution levels in Delhi are a public health emergency. But let us find out how severe is the problem in Ahmedabad. 
Unfortunately, we not have reliable data about ambient air quality in Ahmedabad from the recent months. One wonders if it is the case of ‘if we don’t look that way, we don’t have to worry about it’. However, the earlier trends show that Ahmedabad does not have a very good track record of healthy ambient air quality. The levels of particular matter, specially the particulates less than 2.5 micrometers are quite high in the Ahmedabad air, often at unhealthy levels. Along with the vehicular exhausts and re-suspended dust due to vehicles, what make the things worst are the industrial fumes, open garbage burning, construction dust and the power plant emissions. 
So what is the plan of tackling the growing air pollution problem in Ahmedabad? There is nothing comprehensive in sight yet. The need of the hour is to have an air quality management unit within the Municipal Corporation with the support from the State government. This unit should have short-term plan of managing construction and road dust better while prohibiting open burning of garbage and other residues. The long term plan would include promotion of walking, cycling and public transport while improving the efficiency of the industries and the power plant in dealing with their emissions. 
Apparently, Ahmedabad has just submitted the plan make the city ‘Smart’. One important parameter of making Ahmedabad smart is to prevent or mitigate the air pollution disaster rather than passively waiting for it to occur.

(21st December, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

A dynamic city deserves a charismatic and inspiring mayor!

A dynamic city deserves a charismatic and inspiring mayor! (Will we ever get one?)

Can you name the last three mayors of your city? Do you know their achievements during their tenure? Did we even get to ask them what they have achieved? Have you come across the interview of your mayor in the local media? We hardly know the mayors of our cities and what they set out to achieve. However, the mayors of various cities across the world are reaching new heights on their charismatic leadership and leading the urban development initiative in their cities. This is for them to elevate to national-level politics after becoming the mayor of an important city. But, quite an opposite turn is taking place in India’s urban politics. The last ten mayors in the city – whether from BJP or Congress – did not make to state-level politics or held an important public office after their tenure as a mayor. The position of mayor in our cities is a ceremonial position in our cities without any real political power.
Many cities have the Mayor-in-Council kind of system where the Mayor has full authority and ultimate political and financial autonomy in his city. In India, we do not have such a system. Our cities are indirectly governed by state governments and do not enjoy full political or financial autonomy even after the 74th constitutional amendment act. Most urban projects would have to pass through the scrutiny of the state officials and politicians. But it is still possible for a mayor to have a decisive role and vision and forge a partnership for development with the municipal commissioner and the standing committee chairman. The successful mayors around the world are punching above their own weights. Cities like New York and London have famous mayors like Michael Bloomberg and Boris Johnson respectively, who managed to implement many successful and people-centric projects in their city. For successful politicians, it is always ‘people first’ and not ‘friends first’.
In many developing cities, a positive turn in urban politics is being lead by their mayors. Tri Rishmaharini is the first female mayor of Surabaya in Indonesia. She is a trained architect with a masters’ degree in urban management and with a work experience of 20 years in government agencies. She decided to make the most of public open spaces and empty lands. In a short time span of three-four years, she managed to develop 11 parks with full WiFi access, libraries, fitness and sports facilities. Similarly, Enrique Penelosa who was recently re-elected in Bogota, Colombia had a track record of developing a new public transport system, building public libraries, giving space to the street-hawkers and building sidewalks. Similarly, Lee Myung-bak was the mayor of Seoul before he became the president of South Korea between 2008 and 2013. 
From Bogota to Surabaya, the city-level politicians have turned adversities into advantages for their cities. Our cities have their own dynamism of local culture and businesses, and are bustling with indigenous entrepreneurs. The results of the local body elections are due in Gujarat and it is the right time to hope for a dynamic mayor in your town!

(30th November, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

In the local body elections this year, I feel cheated as a voter!

Do you know what BJP has promised for your city if it is re-elected to power? And, any clue what Congress has promised for you if given a chance to emerge? BJP declared its city-level manifesto 48 hours before the deadline to end the campaigning for civic body elections. Congress declared its manifesto for the polls a day before that. Interestingly, both parties subtly and directly hinted that the other party has copied their ideas.It does not matter ‘who copied from whom’ but this entire episode conveys only one thing: there is no fundamental difference between the promises made by these parties respectively. We will have to choose between either of these Tweeddledees or Tweeddledums.
Politics in Gujarat has for long been political jugglery between two parties, hence, the lack of an alternative is not a new thing. Seriously, the citizens never got a chance to deliberate on the local urban development agenda of either of the parties. Did we get to discuss the traffic problems, water supply irregularities, solid waste mess created in the city? Did we get to discuss what is the future of the riverfront project or the BRTS? We did not even get a week to look at the manifestos and to deliberate them in detail. We also didn’t get to evaluate the ruling party’s performance in state in the last five years of municipal corporation. We didn’t get time to evaluate the role of opposition party in making the ruling party more accountable. Somewhere, both political parties are going to be happy if there is no demand of accountability or transparency in their decision- making process.
It is true that there is a lot of rush in a build up to this election. But the political parties and the election commission knew that the elections are due, yet they were never prepared for it. It was the High Court’s order, which pushed the administration to conduct the elections in due time. Why would the court intervene if people do their job well? The complacency of not taking the municipal elections seriously flows from the election commission to political parties to local volunteers to the voters. Voters’ turnout is going to be much lesser this time and we can hardly blame the voters for this. One political party might lose the election but as voters and as citizens, we are going to be the ultimate losers. As citizens, we will be giving one political party the right of ruling us for five years without knowing their development agenda. There are no local agendas or promises of changing things in our surroundings. State-level politics of caste, religion and class has crept into these local elections.
I had no rational parameters to choose between two parties. I feel cheated by the system – the election commission, political parties and their candidates. I feel defeated as a voter who wants to see positive changes in my municipal ward. This election translates into losing an opportunity of making democracy work at the local level.
PS: As I claim in the article, the voter turnout was very poor in Ahmedabad (about 27% till 4 pm) but it dramatically increased by 20% in last one hour!

(23rd November, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Corporator, we should meet often and work together for our ward

Dear Corporator, 
you might not remember me but I remember seeing you in a marriage function in the neighborhood last year. I have not seen you ever since. I appreciate the fact that you have attended all the marriages, openings of shops and other social functions in the neighbourhood. Five years back, when you came to my building to ask for our votes, you promised that we will be in touch. I never realised that ‘being in touch’ means you will be attending all the social events in the area, or occasionally we will see your face on the posters and hoardings wishing us for various festivals.
I thought we will have a dialogue about the developmental issues in our municipal ward. But we never got a chance to do that. Now, it is again time for the municipal elections and I am likely to see you again. I hope, you are not relying on an assumption that I will be voting for a particular party based on national or state politics. This time, I have decided to vote for a local candidate who works locally and not based on the party lines. Because the state level or national level politicians are not going to hear my pleas about the garbage collection or footpaths in my ward.
I guess you have put some benches here and there with your name on it. I am not sure if you have done anything else apart from putting these benches. Isn’t it too ad hoc! I don’t even know how much budget you had for the development works. How did you spend it? How did you decide the priorities? When you get elected for five years, shouldn’t you, along with other corporators, decide a roadmap for spending the budget in a planned manner?
Let me make a quick list of the problems in the ward. The door-to-door garbage collection is working alright, but the sweeping of streets and the garbage collections from the streets is not at all efficient. The street garbage is openly burnt which is a health hazard. There are many unsafe spots on the roads in our ward. It is dangerous for anyone to cross the roads – especially so for senior citizens. There are no footpaths to walk on, or safe pedestrian crossings. Every time we raise this issue, we are told that we don’t make footpaths because they will be encroached! Isn’t it absurd! Some areas in the ward are suffering from unhygienic conditions and irregular water supply. Some of the street lights do not work. Are there any plans for more planting trees in our ward? How do we tackle these issues? There are many more in my list.
I will probably not receive any answers to these questions, but that doesn’t mean that I will stop asking. You probably don’t like the ‘concerned citizen’ types like me. Let’s put the personal likes and dislikes aside to try and make a deliberative democracy work at the local level. Shouldn’t we have monthly meetings at the neighborhood level and a large one annually at the area level to discuss your budget and the priorities? Please involve us, discuss things with us, make us participate in your plans for the ward.
Thanks for patience.
a concerned citizen from your ward – our ward (though you know me as a voter).

(2nd November, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Welfare of sanitary workers is the first step towards 'Clean India'!

Welfare of sanitary workers is the first step towards 'Clean India'. (સફાઈ કર્મચારીઓના કલ્યાણ વગર 'સ્વચ્છ ભારત' શક્ય નથી.)

Is it only me, or did everyone miss the great spectacle on October 2 of netas, babus, celebrities and wanna-be-celebrities posing with brooms in their hands? In 2014, this time of the year, the media was buzzing with photos and videos of celebrity cleaning acts. Some naïve people like me thought the dirty days are over. Indian cities will be clean. But we live in times where the photo-ops are more important than the cause.
There are two severe bottlenecks in the governing system of garbage in our cities. One, the workers, who collect garbage and clean our streets, are not much cared for. And the organisations who hire these workers – the municipalities – have their own problems of financial health and political autonomy. Who is looking into these aspects of ‘clean India’?
Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has started a remarkable pilot project of segregating garbage at the household level into dry and food waste. Households, which segregate the waste, will get 5 percent discount on property tax bills as incentives. This is a great way to make waste collection environment-friendly.But the garbage collection, in itself, is a major challenge in most cities in Gujarat. Apparently, Gujarat state has reported that they have 120 towns out of 195, which collect and transport 100 percent of the garbage produced. Only the citizens of those 120 towns can verify these claims. My experience of towns in Gujarat is quite the opposite. Streets remain filthy, and garbage is not collected for days, unless there is an official visit of some sort. Probably, I have only experienced those 75 towns, which do not claim to collect 100 percent garbage.
So, what kind of garbage collection systems do our municipal towns have? How frequently are the streets cleaned? How is the collected garbage disposed of? What percent of garbage is burnt openly? How are they paying for the cost of their staff and equipment? How much is paid to municipal sanitary staff and sweepers?
It is important to recognise the foot soldiers in the battle against filth in our cities. They are the sanitary workers and sweepers, who are the least-paid in the municipal hierarchy. The sanitary workers are paid lower than even the prevalent minimum wages in the state. And then, we expect these workers to perform their duties all seven days a week, whether during festivals or after violent clashes.
Oxford University professor Barbara Harriss-White has studied India’s waste economy in great detail. She says that the dignity and social condition of workers involved in waste management figures right at the bottom of the political agenda. Unlike many countries, India’s sanitation sector is highly caste-based. Many ‘dalit’ workers continue to clean our cities with little or no possibility of moving out of their occupations. Unless the ‘Clean India’ mission addresses such fundamental issues of welfare of workers who are actually cleaning India, our country is unlikely to be either be filth-free or be able to develop an egalitarian society.
Unless the financial health and administrative capacities of municipal towns are improved, they will not have any wherewithal to work toward the welfare of their sanitary staff. Clean India will need explicit policies of empowering the sanitary workers and municipalities.

(12th October, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Lack of good political institutions, not resources, make countries poor!

'Lack of good political institutions, not resources, make countries poor (AKA who will make local actions plans for global development goals?)

World leaders representing 150 countries gathered in New York City last week and agreed to work towards 17 global development goals. More than three years of brainstorming and negotiations took place in every corner of the world to build consensus over them. They are designed to provide a roadmap for countries to finance and shape government policies over the next 15 years. Out of these 17 global development goals, three are highlighted here – end extreme poverty, fight inequalities or injustices, and fix climate change. These three are truly the biggest challenges faced by the world today.
Now comes the hard part. Only time will tell if these goals will remain empty rhetoric or whether they will be instrumental in changing people’s lives for better. Without adequate financing, evidence-based planning and the political will to implement the goals, 2030 will not deliver the transformative agenda desired. It is obvious that the global goals cannot remain completely top-down. Conventionally, all the decisions, plans and finances flow from the top (national level) to the bottom (city level). The real challenge is to translate these goals from national level to the city level and from the city level to the local level. Global goals require local actions. Nothing will change unless you and I see changes in our own neighbourhoods and be part of these changes. But do we have mechanisms in our cities to take the global goals to local levels?
Who will take the ownership of these local action plans based on the global goals? So who is in-charge of our local area - the neighbourhoods we live in? If there are issues like the lack of proper footpaths, problems with water supply or filthy streets then whom should we contact? Do we even know our municipal ward corporator? In fact, we do not have any occasions, which bring the local voters and their representatives together – except the elections held once in five years. Unless we put such mechanisms in place where the local corporators have to take people along, nothing much is going to change. Local communities are in the best position to ask for better infrastructure and public places or support an increase in the green cover. Pune city experimented with ‘participatory budgeting’ where the citizens of particular local areas participated in deciding what is required the most in their areas. 
Urban local bodies are the key local institutions to further any developmental agenda and yet they are the weakest links in the hierarchy of governance. There are a number of peculiarly disjointed efforts, which are far from good governance practices. We have city level plans without budgets and municipal budgets without proper plans. . We have the development plan of the city being prepared for 10 or 20 years but they are not linked with city level budgets. Again, city level plans are not sensitive to local issues.
American political scientist Francis Fukuyama says that ‘institutions matter’- poor countries are poor not because they lack resources, but because they lack effective political institutions. For the local institutions to be effective, they need their own roadmaps – short-term action plans linked with municipal budgets emerging out of various local areas in a city.

21st September, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

‘Minimum government’ means minimum meddling in people’s lives!

The state government has gotten used to putting blanket mobile internet ban. It is the second time in less than a month and this time, it is pre-emptive. Instead of the government preparing itself to deal with social media or other digital applications devised by the agitating groups, it has decided to ban all the internet functions. So from now on, with every political agitation – whether it is the Patidars or the OBC or the opposition party – the government will take the ‘law and order’ measures like banning the mobile internet and broadband internet will follow. One is not sure if other conventional law and order measures like mobilising the police force or patrolling the streets precedes such bans or not.

These are bleak turn of events. The internet ban coupled with the ban on the SMS services disrupts public life. These are not the cries of the affluent class of people who cannot access social media or book cinema tickets. Many important civic amenities are accessed through internet these days. According to the Ericsson study, 45% of mobile internet users are low-income and less-educated ones and the mobile is their only source to access internet. Add 20% students users to this group as well.

On one side, the government of India is promoting its flagship programme called ‘Digital India’, which is aspiring to build ‘digitally empowered society and knowledge economy’. On the other side, the state government is regularly banning internet. How do these two things go together? Along with digital India, the prime minister promised ‘minimum government and maximum governance’. The spirit of the slogan comes from the economic philosophy of letting private enterprises and individuals prosper while the government does not interfere in private life or private businesses. What is practiced in Gujarat is surely not ‘minimum government’.

The act of banning internet is an overbearing, paternalistic act. It is an act from a ‘maximum government’ or a ‘nanny state’, which does not mind curtailing the citizen’s access to information and other functions in the name of ‘law and order’ or worse, to hide its own failures in dealing with political agitations. The phrase ‘nanny state’ is an apt description for -‘Don’t do this’, ‘Don’t look there’, ‘Don’t talk to any one’, ‘Don’t eat that’, ‘Don’t go out’ and of course, ‘I am doing all these for you own good’. A lot of people were sympathetic with the decision to ban mobile internet earlier but this time, it is not going to go well with the citizens – I mean, voters. The digital technologies have made everyone’s life super-convenient. The government should make sure that it remains so.

Governments around the world know our desire for safety too well. Fear from unknown enemies, fear of possible unrest is proven to be very effective for curtailing freedom. But the frequent use of fear tactics is not as effective. Ideally, the democratic checks and balances should overcome such tactics. When the High Court rejected the public interest litigation against the internet ban in the last week of August, the court probably did not want to interfere in the state’s affairs. Possibly, if the High Court had known that this is going to be a regular and frequent practice then the verdict might have been a different one.

(21st September, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)