“I like to stay in a gated community for its cosmopolitan culture.”

Um. . . me too.

Okay, I won’t lie: I’m posting this article about Bangalorean metropolitan authorities being unable to figure out whether gated communities are legal for no other reason than to take smug potshots at the Gated. To be fair, “cosmopolitan” in Bangalore means what we might in the old days have called “Western,” so the statement isn’t as odd as it might initially sound to American ears. As for, “we have paid crores of rupees to live in a posh locality secluded from urban civic menace,” I’ve got no explanation beyond the obvious.

 

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Can Pissed-Off Neighbors Save the World?

This story is about a Kolkata developer who was approved to build an 8-story mall, and who decided to up and build a 13-story mall instead. Awesome.  Two things about this caught my eye. First, the claim by the quoted pissed-off neighbor (PON) that the mall had no parking. Given the recent refusal of Bangalore to take strong steps on addressing the impending parking apocalypse, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this were the case. According to the developer’s specs, however, there are two levels of parking, which admittedly seems mighty slim for 13 floors. Not awesome, but probably not apocalypse-worthy. (The link features a seizure-worthy animated image of the mall, which I both can’t and won’t reproduce here. You’re welcome.)

Okay, so on to thing #2: the PON, who along with his neighbors finally forced the state to step in and the city to deny an occupancy permit, at least until the smoke clears. As anyone who has spent 5 minutes in municipal decision making knows, PONs are the foot-soldiers of accountability, the Irked who battle the Irksome on the rocky terrain of noise, height, parking, staff responsiveness, and so on. Their data-driven battles, where winners are declared on compliance minutiae, keep staff aware (and how) that they are being watched. No matter how deeply ensconced in the entrails of your department you may be, you never know when one of the files on your desk is the one that someone will raise a stink over.

Indian cities are badly in need of accountability. . . can the PONs help?  In Mumbai, for example, the juicy battles between right-wing goons (aka, the police) and miniskirt-clad partygoers got even more interesting when PONs started filing information requests on nearby bars, seeking to shutter those that lacked proper licenses. (India passed an extensive Right to Information law in 2005.) Hindu housewives on holy high horses?  Hardly. These are swanky cosmopolitans with the usual complaints about property values and quality of life, or more specifically the lack thereof when one lives next door to a lot of other people having a very good time.  Here, by the way, is apparently how one has a good time on New Year’s Eve in Mumbai:

Granted, the typical PON concern about noise and parking is almost  laughable given the scale of deprivation in India. On the other hand, the use of RTIs holds potential to spur an increased culture of accountability. Any step in that direction is a welcome one.

Make Toilets not War!

51% of people in India don’t have access to a toilet, according to a report by the Working Group on Human Rights (a project of Indian human rights organizations and the UN). That’s not, “they don’t have a toilet in their house.” That’s, they don’t have a toilet. At. All. Just yesterday, walking home along a four-lane arterial in central Bangalore, a girl of about 8 or 9 stopped in front of me, flipped up her skirt, and started peeing on the sidewalk. Like her, hundreds of millions of people like her have literally no place else to go.

I’m not sure if something like this counts as having access to a toilet or not:

One man who gives a crap about this depressing situation is India’s Rural Development minister, who in a moment of PR brilliance this week used the recent test launch of another ballistic missile to publicize a partnership with India’s Defense Research and Development Organization to bring waterless toilets to rural India. Apparently the Defense Dept, which pioneered the technology so the boys who drop the bombs would have a place to drop the bomb, is ready to extend its deployment across India’s southern hinterlands. If it sounds odd that India’s Finest are taking on such a task, the US Defense Department is itself at the forefront of innovations in renewable technologies: energy independence matters nowhere more than out in the field.

The waterless toilet holds such promise for rural India because for such a basic need, toilets are a complex contraption. In a typical city, your humble porcelain bowl is merely the tail end of hundreds of miles of pipes and tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. It reminds me of the recent a flurry of news when it was reported that more people in India have cell phones than toilets. For all its symbolic potency, this stat doesn’t strike me as that odd. I mean, once you’ve built the towers, adding more cell phones are easy — a little disposable income and you’re good to go. With toilets, every bowl comes with an infrastructure bill. The composting toilets aren’t as cheap as a cell phone, but waterless technology nevertheless offers a promising work-around to one of the most significant challenges standing in the way of private privies for all.

No more excuses. No more escapes. You are being watched.

. . . thus sayeth the Bangalore Traffic Police.

Still in awe (and doubt) of the stat that only 6-7% of trips are done by private vehicle, I went a-searchin’ for stats on vehicle ownership. Instead, I found the proudly Orwellian website of the BTP, which proudly displays the blackberries, interceptor vehicles, and computerized control center the BTP will use to bust red light runners, drunk drivers, unpaid-ticket-scofflaws, and other roadside ne’er-do-wells. You thought red light cameras were creepy? The BTP is apparently empowered to confiscate your vehicle on the spot if their tap into the BTP database reveals unacceptable unpaid tickets.

The BTP is on a kick to impose orderly driving on the city. This could be to reduce serious accidents (which are actually on the decline, thanks to congestion-induced speed reductions), to improve mobility — to solve with driving discipline what it’s failing to solve with policy or infrastructure — or just make being on the roads a less stressful place to be. Anyway, a couple weeks back, it launched a “lane discipline” campaign to teach Bangalorean drivers the fine art of picking a lane and sticking to it, rather than charging forward into whatever crevasse you can find or create. The campaign is off to a rocky start, with drivers confused about what all those orange cones are doing there in the middle of the street.  Apparently the jolly billboards of penguins and ducklings the BTP used to introduce the concept will take some time — or some hundred-rupee tickets — to sink in.

Automobile Dreams: 1. Laws of Physics: O

Lying in my downtown Bangalore apartment at night, the sounds of the city float in the open window: calls and chants from the nearby mosque, the occasional auto-rickshaw put-putting down the narrow lane below and, beneath and around and through it all, the grumble and honk of Bangalore’s 24-hour traffic jam. It’s a background buzz, as unnoticeable in its ubiquity as the creak of crickets in a Southern summer.

I’ve spent a month fighting the exhausting traffic (my 4 km commute to work at Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy can take 40 minutes) and hearing people complain about how bad things had gotten since “everyone” had gotten a car. Thus, I was horrified to stumble upon this statistic: the automobile mode share for Bangalore is somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-7%. (See, for example, this report.)

So actually, practically no one has a car, and the city is already at a halt.

This makes it more than a little dismaying that the city government just gutted its first major attempt to have a parking policy, which was to have included charging for on-street parking and requiring proof of a parking space before you can register a car. Because of the labyrinthine nature of Indian municipal governance, the plan was created by the State transportation department, but when it got to the City, the Councillors knocked the teeth out of it.  Granted, the proposal was not without its problems. The proof-of-space requirement makes car ownership even more the exclusive purview of elite Bangaloreans flocking to swanky suburbs. On the other hand, when you’re dealing with a mega-city that was not originally built for cars, retrofitting to make it easy to get around comfortably without a car seems a whole lot more realistic than thinking we can retrofit to squeeze in 10 times as many cars than what clogs the streets today. Parking policies that place the full cost of vehicular ownership on drivers — including the cost of storing the car when it’s not being driven — is an important piece of that equation.