Letter from the Stinkcity of Thiruvananthapuram
Respected development tourists, leftists and scholars from the West who have been coming here seeking your heterotopia, welcome to the city of Thiruvananthapuram.
Yes, you are here to see that Kerala which gives you relief from the relentless decline of the left in your part of the world.You have been honouring us with such visits since the 1970s. We have been happy to oblige, cast and recast to suit your projections. When ‘social development’ was fashionable in the UN circles, Kerala was indeed the space where you found ‘social development’ thriving. But when ‘human development’, the theoretical and political provenances of which are quite different from those of ‘social development, became your preference, Kerala transmogrified itself most willingly into the paradise of ‘human development’. And then you came to be fascinated by ‘participatory development’, we diligently turned into the very fount of ‘participatory development’. Thank you very much for keeping us afloat in the imagination of Western left developmentalist intellectuals (though I do see that the oodles of ‘agency’ showered upon us by you may actually be your way of compensating for the shrinking of your own agency in the face of the triumphant march of neoliberal capitalism in your homelands)
But do forgive me if the city of Thiruvananthapuram does not oblige this time. Indeed, even if you seek to stubbornly cling to your projected image, your noses would strongly protest. Hard empirical realities rise up like the treacherous rocks, hard and relentless, on one side of the wonderful calm cove of Kovalam, against which your delicate projections may shatter painfully. Though the seemingly-endless ‘garbage crisis’ is supposedly at an end now, such is still the stench in some of parts of town, including central places. After the shutting down of the waste treatment plant at Vilappilsala , a panchayat adjacent to the city, by panchayat authorities there on December 21 last year,the waste collection and disposal system in Thiruvananthapuram city collapsed completely. We have been witnessing a horrendous series of utterly pointless confrontations between the City Corporation and the State government, between various political parties, between the residents of Vilappilsala who are determined to keep the plant closed down and the Corporation who are equally determined to have it opened, between the authorities and the residents of those parts of the district where alternative facilities have been proposed, and between different politicians, often of the same party, who differ on whether the plant should be opened or closed. A more disorienting, indeed terrifying, din can hardly be imagined.There is such a total breakdown of both political will and political imagination, so damning is the evidence of frightening cynicism and unconcern in the responses of leaders and civic authorities, so tepid is the response of the sufferers, the residents of Thiruvananthapuram, that it appears that we are forever condemned to rot in this all-pervading stink, both material and moral. And all that the Corporation and the public can think about are technocratic and individualised solutions. The High Court order to reopen the plant is still dangling like a Damocles’ Sword over the heads of the State Government, the Corporation and the Panchayat alike.In short, a paralysis of both practical wisdom and moral reasoning beumbs us. (Or maybe we have got used to the stink, both moral and material. I am quite intrigued by the sight of a large number of sensible people participating in the horrible moral stink that pervades the Malayalam public sphere from the media coverage of Sukumar Azhikode’s death. Liberal humanism is harder to bear in death than in life, it appears).
So beloved friends, forgive me that I puncture your rosy reveries. It is not I really, who has deprived you of the consolations of heterotopia; the mounts of stinking muck that threaten to rise up anytime will soon begin to have consequences that will be visible to you through the lenses of development that you are so fond of: soon, we will have quantifiable health consequences, to say the least.
The people of Vilappilsala who have been suffering for more than a decade from the consequences of living near a horrendously polluting waste treatment plant can hardly be blamed for remaining totally impervious to the pleas of the authorities and even from some of their own leaders. They cannot be expected to forget how their repeated efforts for attract the attention of the authorities to their plight were ignored or put down, all these years. Their resistance has been strengthened by the presence of a powerful local body — the Vilappilsala panchayat is the focal point of resistance to reopening the plant. So we have a situation in which one local body confronts another — something totally unanticipated by the romantic reveries around democratic decentralization and peoples’ planning of the 1990s, a crisis that is not new in Kerala (a similar stand-off between the Kochi Corporation and the Brahmapuram panchayat occured a few years back).
Both this crisis and its stubborn refusal to be resolved, I think, should be understood in the light of certain crucial weaknesses of democratic decentralization, and our inability to take note of the intense speed with which Malayalees have been changing as a society over the past twenty years. The People’s Planning Campaign of the 1990s imagined Kerala as essentially consisting of ruralcommunities and localities closely knit by the cooperative self-interest of individuals.Both these have proved to be mistaken perceptions. Though an urban culture which bestows anonymity and mobility to individuals is sadly missing in Kerala, urban infrastructure has grown rapidly all over Kerala in the past decade, often driven, also, by panchayats eager, for instance, to build shopping centres as part of their development initatives. And urban governance has been decidedly weaker, in the face of new forms of emergent predatory capital especially in construction, that increasingly seeks to control urban space. The political will of urban bodies to remain in the driver’s seat of local bodies has been poor indeed; nor have they been able to evolve a form of urban governance that differs signficantly from the tide of neoliberal urban reform. The crisis, therefore, has been allowed to build up over the years and no government can claim innocence.
Secondly, the sense of the ‘local’ has changed too — it now may refer, equally, to a group of self-interested rational individuals seeking to further gains. In other words, the cooperative game may well have given way to a competitive game. Wherever such a notion of the local has prevailed, it may be very difficult indeed to think of local self-government as envisaged in the People’s Planning Campaign.In fact, it would have very difficult to think about it except in a minimal sense and perhaps as the distributor of individualized social welfare (in practical terms, this could also become very difficult indeed). It would be very hard, indeed, to expect it to handle the garbage crisis except in a token sense. It was foolish of the architects of decentralization, too, to think that the cooperative game would never turn into the competitive game, given that their thinking was implicitly informed, right from the beginning, by liberal notions of the individual.So even though the rumor floating around these days, that the resistance offered at Vilappilsala is being orchestrated by the powerful land mafia who has bought up the land around the plant for dirt cheap and with the help of local residents who have been promised princely sums for their lands may be totally untrue, but it is not unimaginable or impossible in the Kerala of the present.
What the crisis calls for, I think, is a fundamental rethinking of democratic decentralization and local planning. What we needs is planning that begins with ascertaining collective interests, and not assuming that the sum total of individual interests will automatically constitute the collective interest. The various fora for deliberation set up within the local bodies should start with widespread democratic discussions in all three tiers that will first ascertain collective interests, and decide local priorities on that basis. But ‘collective interests’ are certainly not given. This process will work only when marginalized social groups are inducted into this process as political entities, and not as passive beneficiaries and governmental categories — otherwise, collective interest will inevitably the same as those of the elite. In other words, Gramasabhas and Ward Sabhas in urban areas will have to be rethought as spaces for collective reflection and deliberation on common interests, which then would underlie the priorities and allocations in planning. If this were the practice, we would not have had to witness the sorry plight of the poor who live in the low-lying Karimadom Colony, who were the worst victims of the flash floods that accompanied a few days of heavy downpour in Thiruvananthapuram. Sadly, many of the extremely underprivileged women who live in this colony are also the sanitation workers (organized in self-help groups by the State’s poverty eradication programme) who collect garbage from houses. It was a harrowing sight to see their homes, which are already marked by underprivilege, further ravaged by the massive amounts of garbage from the clogged water channels that overflowed during the heavy rain — garbage packed in polythene bags from fancy city shops like Style Plus and Kalyan Silks, and supermarkets like the Big Bazaar and Spencer’s.Indeed, we would not have been shy to demand that those who produce most waste must take the primary responsibility of disposing it — including provision of space for decentralized treatment of waste. Thus we would have waste disposal facilities mandatorily constructed in areas like Prasant Nagar and Kawadiar, where the rich live. What a far cry would that be from the present proposals, advanced by technocrats and politicians alike, that the waste generated by the city should be treated in facilities that may be built in remote areas, preferably forest-fringe zones!
Local planning that does not obliterate the politics of the local will also require a clear consciousness of the manner in which different forms of capital, global and local, impact our daily lives intensely, so that planning takes into account these elements as parts of the vital scene. That is, we do not permit capital to remain invisible. In the present case, for instance, a huge share of the garbage is generated by the hotels and restaurants in Thiruvananthapuram which have not yet complied to the Corporation’s demand that they install waste treatment facilities. A large amount of plastic is generated by the shops, especially the large supermarkets which hand out polythene bags (though they are not free anymore, the prices are low enough for the middle-class). Planning to end the waste treatment crisis ought to, then, take into account the role these elements have in producing the present crisis and think of ways in which they may be made not only to comply, but also compensate for the damage done.
But of course the crucial question is, who will bell the cat? Which section of the political mainstream has the willpower to make this transition, given that the imagination of both left and right politicians remain blighted by their obsession with neoliberal growth, and given that their bums have savoured equally the comfort of the cushions predatory capitalists provide? Here my thinking grinds to a sad halt. All I can do is turn to you, dear left-leaning heterotopia-seekers (who even get their fieldwork organized by their friends in the left parties), tenured professors from fancy metropolitan universities , please do write me a line if you have a clue.