Can we make basic services more like cell phones?

It was noted with great ballyhoo earlier this summer that more Indians have cell phones than toilets.

To which I had the stunning response: So what? Or to be more precise: cell phones are easy. Once you build the infrastructure, adding new customers is a matter of adding customers indefinitely, or at least, as long as the bandwidth holds up. Toilets, however, are hard. The value of your fifty-buck porcelain bowl isn’t in the porcelain. Take away the multimillion-dollar piece of public infrastructure it’s attached to, and you’ve got. . . a chair.

Or, a chair with a nice view.

Along these lines, I’ve seen a number of articles recently that suggest ideas for cutting the infrastructure line on the budget and focusing on “distributed” solutions to the continued failure of developing world governments to provide basic services. “Water ATMs” in Mumbai, where women and kids don’t need to queue up at the public tap for the brief window of during the day — generally sometime between godawful and unspeakable — when the water runs. Solar power to run irrigation pumps in rural India, skipping the creaky grid entirely. And yes, bio-digester toilets.

Are there downsides to giving up on big public infrastructure projects? On the one hand, there’s a permanence to major infrastructure that is at least symbolic of a social compact. On the other hand, when that infrastructure is slow in coming and erratic in its functioning, it’s hard not to think broadly about alternatives.



It’s not every day you see people’s homes being demolished. Thank God.

Over the course of less than a week, I watched hundreds of people’s homes bulldozed in Hampi, a world heritage site set in a haunting boulder-strewn landscape in India. It’s stunning: you can tell why folks considered this place sacred from at least the 9th century on. The centerpiece is the massive Virupaksha temple, one of Shiva’s most holy temples.  Its surroundings got a bit, shall we say, profane over the years: a jumble of backpacker guesthouses and tchotchke shops that provided a nice living for a few hundred families in the shadow of Virupaksha.

No more.  The initial demolition took place last fall (the Guardian did a heartbreaking piece about the evictions in May). After a standing as a ghost town for nearly a year; the bulldozers rolled in this week for the coup de grace.

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Here’s how you destroy hundreds of people’s livelihoods in a single week. First, you knock out all the windows, doors, and roofs, to force people out. This leaves the remaining residents picking their way through rubble piles in a creepy, but brightly painted, ghost neighborhood. Then, you bring in the bulldozers. As residents scavenge rebar and children carry home unbroken bricks, barefoot laborers break the rubble into chunks that can be thrown into the back of a truck. Load by load, lives and livelihoods disappear down the road.

Now, life goes on for the people left behind: repainting their businesses, games of cricket in the streets, and shuttling the streams of tourists to the guesthouses across the river, where you can’t hear the bulldozers, and you can’t smell the dus

Photo of the Day: Seeing People, Seeing Policy

At the risk of meeting the coal industry’s standard of child porn, here is a family that was begging on the street by my office. There are an estimated 26 million homeless in India, of which 3 million are literally on the street. The rest have some sort of roof over their heads, barely.

Gangs that kidnap, buy, and maim children are not the stuff of Slumdog Millionaire storytelling, so the politics of giving to beggars is agonizing. Anyone who has anything dismissive to say about liberal guilt can bite me. I’m guilty and proud. That is to say, I’m not guilty about feeling a duty to use the resources that our unequal world has bestowed upon me in a responsible way.

So: beggars. On the one hand, the thought that I would indirectly reward someone for successfully stealing a child makes me sick. On the other, there is a hungry human being standing in front of me. To not give for the greater good is to make their hunger a tool of my social policy.

The “right” answer is a) the most responsible thing to do is to give to organizations, and b) there are no right answers.

Photo of the Day: Little Kids, Big Loads

There were a whole lot of kids hauling stuff on my street today.

They seemed a lot better-natured about their chores than I was when it was my turn to mow the lawn.

I think some of it probably crossed the line into child labor, which is illegal.

There are an estimated 200,000 kids in Bangalore working anyway. The government has a program to “rescue” working kids and put them in school. The programs are residential, because otherwise the kids don’t make it to class much.

Funny, that.


Okay, so it’s not exactly laying in front of the bulldozers. . .

. . . but hiring private security guards to patrol the streets to prevent illegal construction is kind of bourgeoise-guerrilla in its own way.

The construction in question is a “signal-free corridor” (in American English, “big-ass highway”), which the Bangalore Development Authority is trying to build through Koramangala. Here’s the deal: Bangalore was not build for cars and Lo, the Lord hath sent a plague of Tatas and Suzukis raining down on the People of Karnataka. Private vehicle registrations has nearly tripled in the last decade. The BDA’s response has been straight-no-chaser Urban Renewal:  highways, overpasses, underpasses, and road-widening. It’s hugely controversial, and usually the BDA wins. But then the irresistible force of the BDA ran into the immovable object of the Koramangalan Pissed-Off Neighbors.

Koramangala is the Bangalore equivalent of, say, West Hollywood. The Koramangalans moved to their hood for a certain je ne sais quoi. Je really don’t sais quoi, since it looks a lot like the rest of Bangalore in terms of urban form, but with more Taco Bell and KFC.  In any case, it’s not what most Americans would picture as a suburb, where highways are not out of place. In Koramangala, the main roads are 4- to 6-lane arterials with stores and stoplights, hustle and bustle. Did I mention the KFC?

The Koramangalans answered the signal-free corridor with a lawsuit challenging the procedure by which the project was approved. They got a restraining order, which the BDA proceeded to ignore. Enter security guards. Next: Occupy Koramangala?

The fashionable narrative about the whole hullabaloo is that the opponents of signal-free corridors are enemies of Progress, selfishly standing in the way everyone else’s automobile dreams. But they are raising important arguments in favor of multi mobility: that if you widen the roads enough for everyone to drive, there won’t be many buildings left standing for them to want to drive to.

Photo of the Day: Play

This two-year-old lives with his family on the ground floor of an under-construction building around the corner from my apartment, between the chandelier shop and the mosque. Construction workers usually live in the projects they are building; of the many hazards of growing up in a construction zone is occasional building collapse. Last fall, three children (13, 7, and 11 months) survived the collapse of an under-construction building that killed two workers only because they were playing next to a pile of cement bags that caught the slabs of the floors above.

Photo of the Day: Sweet Doggie Dreams

Bangalore generates about 1,700 tons of solid waste a day. Household waste is typically piled on the street either loose or in used plastic shopping bags. Trash pickers go through it by hand, pulling out plastic bottles, cardboard, and other reusables or recyclables. Everything left behind is collected each morning by street sweepers with brooms. They load it into pushcarts, cycle-carts, and souped-up rickshaw contraptions, and wheel it to transfer points. Ultimately, lorries haul it to the landfill.

Here, a dog rests on a nearly full sweeper cart, presumably dreaming the sweetest of doggie dreams.