In this post, my (email) interview with Bharati Chaturvedi, a name that needs little introduction to people involved in India’s environmental and social justice movements. The founder of Chintan, one of the country’s most notable NGOs that engages with these issues, Bharati cut her teeth as an activist as one of the founding members of Srishti, during her student days at Delhi University. Since then she has become a leading voice on issues ranging from urban development to waste management and recycling to climate change. You can read about many of these in “Earthwatch,” Bharati’s weekly column, which appears on Mondays in the Hindustan Times. You can also hear her speak in Sunday’s 48c Conversations, where she’ll join Soumitri Chatterjee, Amar Kanwar, Ashok Lal and Sanjay Prakash in an afternoon panel discussion on “sustainable modernities” and urban planning.
Alex: You’ve written about the Delhi government’s plan to install three waste-to-energy power plants, a move fiercely opposed by citizens’ groups, that by essentially subsidizing large-scale industrial recyclers, the city will be pushing informal recyclers, what some call ragpickers, out of work, making “the poor poorer” and taking ‘away their livelihood.” You ask “where has the Bhagidari gone”? Bhagidari as a political concept has an enormous potential, but it is also fairly vague–who are the shareholders in this particular arena of political representation? And who is being left out?
Bharati: I think the discourse about the city is unfolding at two levels-the middle classes and the poor, each with their own vision of Delhi. However, state policy has privileged the middle classes by opening out doors of communication and capacity to them. Examples of these are Bhagidari, which also allows for RWAs of recognized areas to apply for small grants for things like, say, waste handling. This per se would be a useful and democratic process, had it been equitable, and had slums and resettlement colonies been able to access the same capacity building (understanding the system, identifying relevant officials for redressal of complaints, learning about waste and how to compost it etc), access to officials and funds. In fact, many of these areas need such spaces and linkages much more than, say, you or me, because the areas they live in are desperately under-served. What I mean when I say under-served is starkly under-served : In some resettlement areas today, there are only a few taps for several hundred households. Consequently, other versions of Delhi-as-home-and-workplace are swept aside and only one version amplified.
On the other hand, there is also a visible, visual and tacit change in the game of claiming the city. I see markers of these in several places all over, but hoardings are the most straightforward. Just a couple of days ago I saw one that said something like : Now, I can go out world class shopping in Delhi. It was sponsored by the Delhi Government. In our multiple-meltdown moments, it seemed to be like George Bush telling New Yorkers (or was it all Americans?) to go out and shop after 9/11. Just before that, I saw the commonwealth games village condos up for sale on a bus stop hoarding. I won’t plunge into the details, but to build housing for use for under three weeks, uproots the poor, totally ignore the natural river eco-system and increase the intensity of floods in Delhi, when they take place (average is once a decade)-this is all an out of control vision for Delhi that is not shared by the majority.That’’s the way localities like Greater Kailash and Shahjahan Road conquer the rest of the city.
Alex: The work you do both as a commentator, and as part of Chintan, engages with issues that don’t neatly fall into the categories of either social justice or environmental crisis, but somewhere in between. Is there a need to fundamentally rethink these categories from the bottom up? What would you propose in their stead?
Bharati: Yes, we need to be looking at an alternative to the green-brown poles, and living and working in Delhi offers everyone an opportunity to do that. I think privileged people in Delhi have completely underestimated how deeply dependent their quality of life is on the urban poor and that, a decent payment alone won’t sustain the poor or this quality of life. In fact, we need quality housing, water and infrastructure that services both the poor and the rich (or richer,) otherwise the poor will remain poor and the more vulnerable of them fall through the cracks. This is bad enough as it is, but it also has a deleterious impact on cities per se. I won’t be pompous enough to offer an alternative, because I believe that the alternative will lie in what emerges after a process of critical (and brave) institutional engagement with the urban poor and the middle classes both and with each other, and finding common ground on tangible issues (public transportation and clean air, for example). But I also think that as the elite of the city, we also have to demand this process and learn to be part of the process, because the fact is that our voices are louder right now. If we keep opposing public transportation because it blocks cars, we will have blocked transportation for the 60% of Delhi. Instead, we could have made a demand for, say, tree lanes. Just an idea, there would have been many more, if there was the consensus that we needed them. Another challenge for citizens is to stop biting the bait of the simple solution. Cities are complex and even citizens of 21st century cities have to learn to think not in black and white, but in layers with interstitial gray between them.
Bharati: Artists have the advantage of being able to share complex ideas in a nuanced, visual way that creates discussion and debate. Much of this works at the emotional and intellectual level and this is the essence of how the arts can be part of muddling through a process for change. For a more diverse and inclusive system to happen it is very important to create public assent for inclusion. The point remains about the spaces in which artists perform and exhibit, and who traverses these spaces, and in what capacity.