... in india

Capital or the erosion of the social farbric of the city

05 Sep 2014 | 1024 words | capitalism delhi india cities urbanism

Capital by rana dasgupta

This is the second book i have read this year that has the words ‘capital’ and ’21st century’ in its title. While this smells a lot like free-riding on the popularity of the other book, it is not 1.

Capital by Rana Dasgupta chronicles the last one-and-a-half decades of the Indian capital Delhi. It is a mix between encounters (not in the indian sense of the word) with (moneyed) inhabitants of Delhi, snippets of history and more abstract reflections on the city in an globalized world.

It is a fascinating book that describes a city that is torn loose from its history and thrown into the maelstrom of globalization. I have been privileged to vist the Delhi a number of times between 2003 and 2006 and observing some of the transitions that Dasgupta describes. I also spend some time among the ‘bohemian artists and intellectuals’ that he found himself among and who were fueled by the energies unleashed by Delhi’s transformation:

But the anticipation of those years has a much larger scope than the city itself. It sprang from a universal sense: What will happen here will change the entire world.

The people i met were cosmopolitans, and they were delighted to see the walls coming down around india. They disdained nationalism and loved the new riches that reached them via the internet. But true to their own skepticism – and the history of anti-imperialist thought in this part of the word – they were also critical of the economic and social bases of western societies – and the last thing that they wanted from this moment of India’s opening-up was that a similar society be established here, Much of their intellectual inspiration came from Western capitalism’s internal critics: from American free software theorists, from the squatter movement in the Netherlands, from artists in Great Britain who challenged corporate food and property cultures, from Harvard and Oxford legal scholars who imagined alternative possibilities for the ownership of seeds, images and ideas.

Mingling with these people has had an enormous influence on my own intellectual development and the same is true for witnessing the transformation of the urban landscape of Delhi. Compared to what was going on in Delhi at the time, the social dynamics back home felt stagnant. The most obvious illustration of this was provided by the Delhi Metro2: When i first came to Delhi the first section of the Delhi metro had just become operational, yet by the time of my last visit at the end of 2006 the Delhi metro was already having more daily riders than the entire dutch railway system.

Delhi metro - a dream comes true

During those years I have spend a fair amount of time in the city exploring it by bicycle and i recognize lots of places that Dasgupta describes in Capital (most vividly parts of a hike along the west bank of the Yanuma that he describes towards the end of the book). While i am familiar with many of the localities featured in the book i have been almost entirely unaware of the secluded oases of wealth that Dasgupta describes rather vividly. Reading about them, and the role played by the moneyed business elites explains a lot of what i observed but did not really comprehend back then.

This is also where Capital comes very close to Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Woven through Dasgupta’s book is a recurring theme of how a small business elite is ruthlessly riding the wave of transformation and harvesting almost all the wealth generated by it. In this sense Capital can almost be read as a case study illustrating the effects described by Piketty (r > g) in a turbo charged economic catch-up scenario3. In line with Piketty’s main argument Dasgupata recounts how the business elites leveraged existing capital assists (mainly in the form of real estate) to disproportionally benefit from the transformation of the urban economy.

Unfortunately for Delhi and the majority of its inhabitants, this accumulation of wealth is unlikely to benefit the city as a whole. In what is maybe the most important insight provided by Dasgupta he points out that the relationship of Delhi’s elites with the city that provides the foundations for their wealth is fundamentally different from the relationship between the past elites of places like New York, Amsterdam or Berlin and ‘their’ cities. He observes that 21st century elites seem to have stopped to invest in the social fabric of their citie because the incentives to do so have largely disappeared in a globalized world:

Delhi does not hold the overwhelming significance for the super-rich that New York did for the [American elite of a century ago]: it is just a place where the accumulate income, and they have rather little inclination to turn it into an urban masterpiece. They have no personal need of such an enterprise because they have been used to seeing the world’s existing ressources as their own: they do not need to build great universities for themselves because they have already been built for them – in the United States.

Such a feeling is not confined to Delhi. It applies to elites everywhere. members of the Dehi elite are identical to their peers from Paris, Moscow or São Paulo – in that they possess houses in London, educate their children in the United States, holiday in St. Tropez, use clinics in Lausanne and keep their money – offshore, nowhere. That circumstance in which great quantities of private wealth were ploughed back into the needs and concerns of one place, which was ‘our place’, no longer pertains. Not here not elsewhere.

  1. I have to admit that when an internet search for Piketty’s book turned up this one i almost filed it away as click-bait. Only when i noticed the name of the author i realized that this might actually be worth reading. ↩︎

  2. The impact of the then new delhi metro is beautifully captured in Vivek Narayanan’s poem ‘In the early days of the Delhi Metro‘ ↩︎

  3. If you trust Amazons frequently bought together feature this seems to be exactly what people doing‘ ↩︎

Delhi metro now moving more people per day than the entire Dutch national railways

delhi metro > ns

This was mentioned in passing in an item on carbon trading that ran in today’s NOS evening news: the delhi metro is now transporting more passengers per day than the dutch national railways. a quick check on wikipedia shows that this is a bit of an understatement: daily ridership of the delhi metro system is 1.8M passengers per day while the NS is moving a mere 1.1M passengers per day (and struggling to do so i might add).

This figure pretty much blows my mind in a number of ways. while there have been railways in the netherlands since 1839 the delhi metro did only exist for a year or so when i first came to delhi in 2003. in less then 10 years this system has evolved into a system with 6 lines, 142 stations and 190KM of tracks. if you believe the delhi capital website you can even rent bicycles at some stations (back in 2003 the fact that i cycled from conaught circle to sarai was considered completely insane).

This is quite an achievement for a city that did not have much of a public transport infrastructure until 5 years ago. I still vividly how during one of my first trips on the delhi metro i observed multiple grown ups who tried to get a grip on the escalators in various stations. Seeing grown ups, how had clearly never encounters an escalator before, gathering the courage to step onto the moving stairs was one of the most powerful illustrations of modernization that i can imagine.

In the same vein the fact that there are now more riders on the delhi metro than on the the entire NS system strikes me as one of the most powerful illustrations of the insignificance of what is happening in the europe vis-a-vis the rest of the world and asia on particular…

Parallel infrastructures

28 Jun 2009 | 221 words | africa india europe migration rain

Have been spending the last 2 days in Torino for a succession of workshops and conferences, and have used my spare time to revisit some of the places that here we had planned to install the expertbase during the big torino biennial back in 2002 (before we were kicked out of the exhibition). Seems that those parts of the city that we were working in have remained relatively unchanged by the construction madness caused by the 2008 winter games.

However it appears that there has been a change among the migrant street hawkers selling all kinds of goods on the streets of the city. It appears that this trade has been taken over by Indian migrants that have replaced the Senegalese migrants that were all over the place back in 2002. However they still seem to operate in the same networked fashion that i observed back in 2002. On friday evening there was a brief (and relatively unannounced) thunderstorm, and all the street sellers were conveniently offering umbrellas:

I talked to one of them under the arcades of via Po and he confirmed that they do receive advance warnings that bad weather is coming from migrant street sellers in other cities. This enables them to anticipate on the type of merchandise they are offering (and provides a very convenient weather forecast).

Dark fibre

23 Apr 2009 | 323 words | copyright india film media photos piracy technology

In march we spend a week in bangalore with jamie and the darkfibre crew. we had flown there to take pictures of them while they were shooting for dark fibre (more pictures will become available later).

Dark fibre crew at work on the rooftop terrace of a IT office building in South Bangalore

It was fun and extremely interesting to watch the production from behind the scenes and i am really looking forward to the film (jamie has promised that there will be a trailer on the 13th of may). in the meanwhile there is an interview with jamie and his co-director peter mann on the website of the center for internet and society in bangalore:

‘Dark Fibre’ is set amongst the cablewallahs of Bangalore, and uses the device of cabling to traverse different aspects of informational life in the city. It follows the lives of real cablewallahs and examines the political status of their activities.The fictional elements arrive in the form of a young apprentice cablewallah who attempts to unite the disparate home-brew networks in the city into a grassroots, horizontal ‘people’s network’. Some support the activity and some vehemently oppose it — but what no one expects is the emergence of a seditious, unlicensed and anonymous new channel which begins to transform people’s imaginations in the city. Our young cable apprentice is tasked with tracking down the channel, as powerful political forces array themselves against it. Not only the ‘security’ of the city, but his own wellbeing depend on whether he finds it, and whether it proves possible to stop its distribution. Meanwhile, mysterious elements from outside India — possibly emissaries of a still-greater power — are appearing on the scene. This quest for the unknown channel is reminiscent of a modern-day ‘Moby Dick’, with the city of Bangalore as the high seas and our cable apprentice a reluctant Ahab. The action is a combination of verite, improvisation and scripted action.

Activism as a Non-Tariff Barrier to International Trade?

11 Nov 2007 | 331 words | business internet trade india netherlands labor

Patrice has posted an extensvie piece to the nettime-l mailing list that describes a rather bizarre legal dispute between an Indian textile manufacturing company and two Dutch internet service providers (one of them being my own). It comes down to the Indian company arguing that hosting websites that criticize labor conditions in their manufacturing plants constitutes an ‘international criminal conspiracy’:

Now eight Dutch citizens, staff persons and directors of the [ISPs], are indicted and required to appear in person before court in India under a mendacious, but cleverly constructed ‘cascade’ of counts, starting with libel and diffamation, escalating into racism/xenophobia carried on by means of ‘cybercrime’, and culminating in an alleged “international criminal conspiracy”. The latter indictment constitutes an extraditable offense in the sense of international agreements on judicial co-operation between democratic, ‘rule of law’ states. The acting judge in Bangalore now needs only to sign an international arrest warrant for the real risk of deportation and delivery of these eight accused into an Indian remand jail to become effective. Though the Dutch minister of justice still would have the last word […]

Even better, it seems that the Government of India, is backing this rather ridiculous position and has discovered that such activism constitutes a Non-Tariff Trade Barrier:

This slightly out-of-control evolution of what would be in itself a fairly routinous incident in to-day’s globalised, highly competitive economy, might be taken as emblematic for the predicament into which the ongoing trend to lower procurement costs, outsource and delocalise industrial production has landed us. […] India’s minister of commerce, Shri Kamal Nath, has let it known that criticism of the modus operandi of the Indian textile export industry amounts to ‘hidden protectionism’ by parties unhappy with India’s competitive provess and resenting the consequent delocalisation of their own manufacturing base, theoretising a fresh form of NTBtIT (Non Tariff Barrier to International Trade in WTO-GATTese) in the same breath.

The entire text is available at the (slightly old fashioned) nettime-l mailing list archive.

I always thought that they were scary

22 Oct 2007 | 29 words | india delhi dead people

From the BBC: Monkeys kill Delhi deputy mayor – The deputy mayor of the Indian capital Delhi died on Sunday after being attacked by a horde of wild monkeys.

Kaafila (liquid Europe and solid sea revisited)

So over the last three weeks i have been watching ‘kaafila‘ which bills itself as a movie based on the ‘global issue of illegal migration’. It took me 3 weeks to watch because (a) it is a Bollywood movie (and thus runs for three plus hours) and (b) because it is so incredibly bad that i could not muster the courage to watch bits that were longer than 15 minutes. Matter of fact it is so bad that that the songs (those ridiculous dancing/singing scenes that are required to interrupt Bollywood productions every so often) were more bearable than the ‘story’ itself.

So why did i buy it in the first place then? Kaafila contains a scene that depicts what has become to be known as the ‘Malta boat tragedy‘: the sinking – off the coast of the Sicilian town of Portapalo on December 26th 1996 – of a ship carrying more than 300 south-east asian migrants bound for Italy. More than 280 migrants lost their lives in this disaster (the worst post WWII maritime accident in the Mediterranean) and i was curious how this would be portrayed in a feature film made in one of the countries where a large part of the victims was hailing from. Plus some of the reviews actually did sound quite intriguing:

… in their effort to forge ahead closer to their dream, the innocent dozen finds itself trapped sometimes by the Russian mafia involved in the plutonium smuggling racket and sometimes by the militancy on the Afghan borders. Here they meet an Afghani girl…

Now as i said the movie is exceptionally bad. The story is erratic at best, the characters depicted are extremely unrealistic (although the opening credits of the film actually try to make a somewhat realistic introduction into the migrants’ motives for seeking their luck elsewhere) and, on top of this, the trajectory of the journey defies any logic at all:

From India our group of migrants is first flown to Moscow where they are held captive by a Pakistani trafficker for 5 months. He finally takes them across the border to Ukraine (shooting one of them on the way) but decides to take them back to Russia after one of them lights a fire at night, which, according to the trafficker, will alert the border guards and guarantee the group’s arrest.

On the way back another of the migrants freezes to death under fake styrofoam snow while hiding from a helicopter. Back in Russia the group heads towards the Black sea coast where they board a ship that is supposed to take them to Malta. In real life this would mean crossing the Black sea, sailing through the Bosporus, crossing the Aegean sea, sailing around Apulia to continue to Malta (or to be more exact Sicily where the real ‘Malta boat tragedy’ took place). In Kaalifa our heroes board the boat and immediately burst into another dancing scene to the films theme song ‘Chala Kaafila’, a strange mix between eurotrash and hindi film music:

Chala Kaafila is a outcome of a confused state of mind. With music lingering somewhere between the genres of folk and club mix, Chala Kaafila boasts of a strong blend of North Indian music with unnecessary westernized musical goof ups. [from: RS Bollywood Online music reviews]

The song opens with the singer (the only female on board who somehow disappears before the ship goes down) shouting ‘i don’t want to wait no more let’s bring the house down’ over extremely annoying house beats. this is followed by mad dancing of the assembled 300 migrants on the deck of the doomed ship and once the song ends the ship’s passengers become aware of a giant wave (clearly inspired by the 2004 asian tsunami, which coincidentally also happened on a 26th of December) slowly approaching and jump ship in fear.

For some reason (supposedly because they cling to pieces of wood taken from the ship before jumping into the sea) our 10 remaining heroes are the only ones to survive and wash up on a beach (which turns out to be the Russian Black sea coast again). here our heroes meet the wife of an mad Indian nuclear engineer who is selling liquid plutonium to the Taliban (with the help of the Russian mafia). For rather unclear reasons the wife is shot dead by the Mafia and in this moment, out of nowhere, the above-mentioned Afghani girl appears, secures the liquid plutonium, a bag of giant diamonds and offers our heros a lift to Kazaksthan.

From here on the ‘innocent dozen’ comes under the protection of a dubious Pakistani I.S.I agent who teams up with the Afghani girl to fend off waves of waves of Russian mafia killers and Taliban fighters attempting to kill our heros while they cross Tadzhikistan and Afghanistan heading towards Pakistan (along the way various attempts to put them on a plane to Europe fail). En route 4 more of them are being killed despite the incredible marksmanship of the Pakistani agent and the Afghani girl, who kill dozens after dozens of the attackers.

Finally, in Pakistan the I.S.I agent somehow reconciles with his superiors (in one scene he seems to be talking to Pervez Musharraf himself) who had been pissed off with him for another unclear reason (there are hints that he was suspected to be involved in some Abdul Qadeer Khan style nuclear smuggling operation) and arranges for our heroes’ safe passage across the border to India. in the final scene the 6 remaining migrants plus the Afghani girl can be seen walking to back towards an imagined India, now being completely cured of their initial desire to leave mother India and find their luck in England…

Even if i was willing to accept that Malta is an island located in the Black sea, that the Taliban ‘look like Indians wearing fake beards‘ who can’t shoot straight and that liquid plutonium can be handled safely in open containers, this still is the worst movie i have ever seen (with the mask being a close second). Here are some screen shots of the malta boat tragedy dance:

‘i don’t want to wait no more let’s bring the house down’

mad dancing on the doomed ship

mad dancing on the doomed ship

mad dancing on the doomed

the ‘tsunami’ wave that will sink the ship

Where do the cickpeas come from?

12 Jun 2007 | 199 words | food india maps

So one of the things which are really nice about being in the middle east is that you have hummos all the time. I mean at least three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You wont hear me complain. So yesterday night one the way back from dinner i suddenly wondered where all the chickpeas (which are the basis of hummos) come from. One would imagine that there would be chickpea fields or plantations all over the middle east but i have never really noticed any. Turns out nobody in our party knew either (Khalid was pretty sure that it grows on small bushes) which is a pretty amazing amount of ignorance when it comes to one of the most important ingredients in your regional cuisine. According to wikipedia almost all cickpeas do come from India. The percentage of india in the world chickpea production is so high that the rest of the worlds cickpea output seems to be measured in percentages of the Indian production:

To give the locals some credit, according to the same wikipedia article ‘Domesticated chickpeas are first known from the aceramic levels of Jericho’ (which is like 2 hours driving from Amman)

Phantom menace

28 May 2007 | 102 words | berlin movies india china piracy file sharing

Lawrence gave a pretty amazing presentation on ‘what can be learned from asian cinema?‘ at piratecinema on sunday morning. His general point was how new forms of distribution (read shameless copying) slowly lead to another form of aesthetic/cinematorgaphic practice in Asia (or to be less general China & India). towards the end he showed a couple of slides form an earlier presentation he had given at the Asia commons conference in Bangkok last year. I really liked this diagram, which gives a little bit of context to my earlier post about obtaining the latest Bond movie:

Bonus recommendation: Suzhou he (Suzhou River)

Pictures from Bombay cinema halls

26 Apr 2007 | 148 words | bombay india cinema photos architecture

Sarai independent fellow Zubin Pastakiais talking pictures of old-style Bombay cinema halls, and has started posting them to his blog:

I am currently photographing cinema halls in Bombay, India, the city in which I live. Here, we still have a mix of older, single-screen halls, and modern multiplexes. I am fascinated by the cinema hall – from its built architecture and physical surfaces to the people that come to watch films and the people that work there. The project seeks to photographically explore the cultural experience of different types of cinema halls in Bombay city.

There are some really beautifully shots on the blog already and he promises that there are much more to come. I really like the ones showing projectionists next to those ancient projectors so common in indian cinema halls. I took some very similar shots two years ago in Bangalore.

Photo by Zubin Pastakiais

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: