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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 28, June 27, 2009

Mumbai Festival: Looking for that Golden Age

Thursday 2 July 2009, by Ashoke Chatterjee

This article reached us quite sometime back but could not be used earlier due to unavoidable reasons. —Editor

Satyug is an extraordinary theme for a Mumbai Festival held after 26/11—extraordinarily visionary or extraordinarily foolhardy. Or both. Either way, the theme is typical of all Bombay Dreams, with their promises so much larger than their risks. Dreams brought my forebears in the early 1900s to Bombay, the name by which they loved this great city. No fear then of the jobless being hounded by local thugs, or having your head cracked open for using the B word. They came, found jobs, studied, paid taxes, raised families and soon became like the mixes concocted at Chowpatty. We were Bengalis, Gujaratis, Tamils, Punjabis, Assamese, Kannadigas, Brits, Americans, Hindus, Sikhs, Brahmos, Muslims, Parsis, Jews—the list goes on. Everyone belonged to Bombay then and Mumbai now. Local residence wasn’t an essential qualification for provenance. Life took many much farther afield. Belonging to Bombay meant belonging to India in every sense of that idea. Having an address here to come to from time to time was a bonus, not a requirement.

I doubt if my grandparents ever contemplated Satyug, or Kaliyug either, for that matter. They were just too busy getting on with the job, just as Mumbaikers have always done. Yet I do recall how then and later, the seniors in my family were always recalling the good old days. It seemed to mean a time when life was predictable, and played according to the rules. It was a fiction of course, because if the days past were so good, what need to come to Bombay? And rules? They certainly wanted British rules to change, and waved the Brits out of the Gateway with as much enthusiasm as the rest, while speaking English at home as there was no other way to communicate within such a hopelessly bhel-puried family. Which brings me to a central point on this Golden Age business: I doubt if there ever was one, or ever will be. Yet it seems humanity has needed this myth from time immemorial. A good old day long, long ago and a great new day somewhere ahead—something to aspire to, to keep us going.

The letter I received from the organisers of this Festival informed me that some time in 2007 a reporter of The Guardian claimed after a visit to Mumbai that he had witnessed India entering a Golden Age. I haven’t seen the article, and I seem to recall 2007 as a pretty average kind of year. However, he too is entitled to his Bombay Dream. I just hope he knows his responsibility for this Festival, and for this wonderful opportunity given me to bore you.

Back to the Golden Age business. In our tradition, Satyug happened so long ago and will take so long to return—anything up to 4,320,000 years—that our five-year-plan mentality is no match for the patience needed. All this is better left it to the Gods, whose business these Yugs are anyway. Take Kaliyug, our present epoch. Just when you think it couldn’t get Kalyer, it does. And Kalki riding in on a white horse to save us is nowhere in sight. Adjusting to another time-scale, history books describe the Gupta years between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD as the Golden Age of India’s recorded history. Like the Golden Ages of other civilisations, the Gupta Period too was distinguished by great achievements in science, mathematics, the arts, architecture, and governance. Justice too, by definitions current in that time: one historian writes that Gupta emperors ran their kingdom like a police state. Certainly they needed strong defenses, as Huns of some kind or the other are always at the gates of history’s Golden Ages. So, it seems even a Golden Age must have its dark underbelly. That Guardian reporter could have had no inkling of huns sailing into Colaba on 26/11. Yet he may have taken into account the goons who attack art shows, job-seekers and bookshops. Having assured himself of an underbelly of terror, he may then have looked up at the Sensex and seen a golden dawn. Reporters need their breaking news these days.

I have a hunch—correct me if I am wrong—that this seminar may interpret a Golden Age less as a Sensex reading and more in terms of sustainability. That’s a word we hear a lot about, ever since the environmentalists made us aware of inconvenient truths. I doubt if my grandpa ever used that term as—you guessed it—a reporter, Morse-coding dispatches to London from Reuter’s Bombay office. Did that fellow from The Guardian use the word? It pops up all over the place in the Festival programme. Given the patience and immortality one needs for Satyug, let’s settle for sustainability.

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In these past years, so many in Mumbai have worried about the sustainability of our city—and of how to give it a chance not just to survive but to live up to some of its dreams. Of the many plans, the one for New Bombay was a landmark, but not the transformation dreamed about. Ditto for others like the Bombay Urban Development Plan in the eighties. There have been so many other efforts at a clean, green Mumbai that can value its past and meet a future worthy of it: plans, proposals, and coalitions like the Save Bombay Committee, Bombay First and Agni—all of them about aspirations for a quality of life that can transcend the lobbies, the rascals and the apathy that obstruct so many of the hopes we all have for our children and their children. We certainly can’t leave them a Golden Age, but can we leave them a more sustainable city and country?

That depends entirely on what we mean by progress. Bombay Dreams can be just about shopping malls, luxury condos and Shanghai mimicry. That’s one notion of progress that entrances many. If it’s about a quality of life that respects the planet as well as every citizen of Mumbai irrespective of class and income, founded on shared ideas of equity and well-being, then Mumbaikers are still looking for a road map. Perhaps this Festival can point in the direction of one. It’s within grasp, and God knows there isn’t a moment to lose.

Ways of doing this have emerged that draw on tradition as well as on contemporary knowledge, just as this Festival will do. You can see it in the Human Development Indices process, which the UN agencies now use to measure progress in terms that are no longer confined to GDP and per capita statistics. Bhutan has gone so far as developing a system of Gross National Happiness—could Bhutan Dreams be Bombay’s one day? It’s possible, and here’s why.

Some years ago I was associated with an effort at measuring progress towards sustainability at the World Conservation Union (IUCN, Geneva). The background to the effort was despair among scientists sitting in Geneva, studying and reporting the ecological crisis, sharing information of its causes and effects, and watching things go from bad to worse. “Why isn’t anyone listening to us?” was a cry from their collective heart. A young IUCN staffer from White Horse in the far west of Canada, Nancy Macpherson, decided to help find out. Nancy had grown up in that pristine environment, and she knew at first hand that it couldn’t last unless citizens acted. Now she assembled a small team of individuals from several disciplines. She directed them to fan out into the hinterlands of India, Kenya, Colombia and elsewhere to find out what citizens thought sustainability actually meant. Did they give a damn about it? If they did, had they any idea at all of how to find it? The methodology began with a few ‘questions of survival’: How are things going for you? What was it like yesterday? Today? What should it be like for your children tomorrow? What must change to make that happen? Who must change? How would you know that things were changing for the better, or for the worse? To planners, politicians and scientists, there were other questions as well: is change on these terms possible? If so, what needs to be done? What and who needs to change?

These simple questions were asked at village, district, town, city, country and region levels. Depending on the situation, the answers came in maps drawn in sand, pictures sketched by elders and children, wisdom shared at group meetings, in papers and documents prepared by community leaders and by experts, in data gathered and interpreted. Gradually, some broader truths emerged. One was that sustainability is a journey, not a point in time. It’s like a mountain shrouded with mist. We may not be able to see it or describe it with accuracy, but we can certainly find a path that can lead there. The other truth is that the issue is not one of trade-offs between so-called development and Nature’s systems. It may often be presented that way, but that’s a fallacy. Sustainability is about both humans and nature progressing together along the same trajectory, and simultaneously. This is possible and practical. We showed how, using traditional and contemporary wisdom to make road maps of a more harmonious kind. We were able to demonstrate this at several of the levels I have described. In Pakistan, we were able to influence an entire National Conservation Strategy. We could defend these maps and plans equally at gram sabhas and at the desks of planning commissions and UN agencies. Above all, we demonstrated that it was possible to measure progress toward sustainability in a hard-headed, scientific way. One of our colleagues assembled all the data available in UN data systems and analysed these in a book he called “The Well-Being of Nations”. At about the same time, UNDP’s system of Human Development Reporting took shape, with its path-breaking understanding of development as a human condition, not as a statistic or a corporate bottom-line.

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The message is that Mumbai, through its citizens of every kind, can articulate its own vision of sustainability, and a road map of how to get there. This road map can have milestones that are familiar: jobs, incomes, education, housing, heath services, and transport. It can include others that are rare but just as important: not just the numbers of jobs but what kind and who gets them and how. Not just per capita incomes, but issues of justice and equity in who earns, who benefits, who pays what price for others’ progress. Not just water supply and latrines, but their quality and how these are shared. Not just the kinds of transport, but who gets access to them, who benefits and who gets hurt. And whether and how art, science, architecture, museums and entertainment flourish, whether and why we feel better or worse, and whether we feel safer and our children feel more secure. While we do all this, what is happening to the air, water and earth that our children will inherit from us? In short, are we on our way to some kind of Golden Age, and can we measure the pace at which we are getting there?

At the end of the day, what Mumbai may need to know is that there is a way to planning that takes the human and natural conditions into equal account, and helps both of them move in the same direction. It means looking less at ‘progress’ and more at ‘well-being’, looking less at Shanghai and more at Sabarmati. So often, the messages of progress and well-being are simply not the same. It is possible thus to develop plans and road maps that make equal sense to a Dharavi slum-dweller as to a BARC physicist, to an artist at the Jehangir and a commuter at Churchgate or VT. If we can’t make equal sense to all Mumbai’s citizens, what chance is there for a sustainable future? Politicians and CEOs all have a limited agenda. Its only parents and grandparents who have their vision fixed on a tomorrow that goes beyond elections and corporate bottom-lines.

But will anyone listen if we achieve such a road map for Mumbai? Would it go the way of so many plans, so many Bombay Dreams? That’s a real possibility. Yet change — yes, we can! Shri Obama has proved that a groundswell by people can prove unstoppable. That’s the stage our IUCN efforts never reached, so progress has been slow. Change of this kind has to be owned by citizens, not just by agencies, politicians and bureaucrats. So why not here, in Mumbai, through a start at and through this Festival?

If I haven’t yet told you much about that Golden Age, it’s because I don’t believe there is one. But there is a Golden Rule. It is as practical as any prescription for progress with justice. The good news is that we don’t have to wait several million years for the better times. The work on well-being can start tomorrow. And an Age of the Golden Rule may be here, right now, in our very midst. Like at Nariman House on those terrible November nights. A writer in The Indian Express has described how, in that terrible chaos, Muslims saved Hindus, Shiv Sena activists protected mosques and madrasas, a Parsi baker fed the hungry, a Christian carried a severely injured Hindu girl to the hospital and looked after her since. The idea of India and of Mumbai, tested at gunpoint and emerging triumphant. This is progress delivered as caring, just as that Golden Rule has reminded us through all of human history. So why wait? Why not sustainability as the quality of caring, as the well-being of one another that Mumbaikers demonstrated so courageously a few weeks ago? The greatest belief in Hindu tradition is that of dharma, not easy to translate yet it certainly is about our duty to be good. Some suggest that acts of dharma, or goodness, may be “one of the few things of genuine worth in this world that might take away some of the pain of being alive and being human in our post-liberalisation times”. Dharma as being good to one another and to the earth could be a uniquely Indian route toward sustainability. Dharma not just as a Bombay Dream, but also as a Mumbai Reality, so powerfully demonstrated amidst terror. Something to celebrate, something to give real meaning to a Festival of Mumbai that salutes the spirit of hope that has always driven this great, suffering, dreaming city.

Good luck, and thank you.

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