Thursday, July 06, 2006
Who owns the city?
With all the pursuit and protection of self-interest, who cares about the city of Calcutta? Who represents the city in its plurality? Little wonder that there seems to be a complete absence of any positive vision, since polarisation has come to be in the nature of things.
This city can break from its colonial legacy and build itself anew. The current problems - whether of slums, or of choked canals and traffic-stalled streets - could become the key means for renewal. But for any of that to be realised, the question of civic ownership has to be confronted. Who owns the city?
Public transport is of utmost importance to citizens. Everyone is affected. In Calcutta, public transport has been an issue on which massive protests, rioting and vandalism has taken place. However, the entire public discourse is distorted. A truly public perspective, one that harmonises different and conflicting interests, which is fair and just, based on thinking out the subject in all its ramifications - is conspicuous by its absence. Instead, we have perspectives that are essentially private, or partisan, which are foisted on the rest. And one also has a dichotomy between public discourse and ultimate practice - the former needing to be ‘populist’, and the latter simply playing to the private interests of the well-off.
Is there a critical mass of people, rooted in the city, aware of its wealth and poverty, diligent and honest, who can further the public interest, whose personal interest is this public interest? Who can understand and communicate with diverse interests? Who have a clear vision of the future that is not a gimmicky formula, but like Debasish Bhattacharyya’s valiant campaigning for sensible public transport policy in Calcutta, help to articulate public consciousness?
Through the issue of public transport it is possible to visualise a large-scale public participation in developing a truly civic ethic, a restraint of narrow interests and cooperation with others to erect, avail of, benefit from and enjoy the public sphere. A bus company or a tram company, whether owned by the government or some private entrepreneur, is a public asset. Its sound economics is of utmost importance to the quality of the service it can provide. It is vital that a citizen think of this, and thus take ownership. This is also one of the meanings of Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of swaraj (self-rule).
What struck me in particular about Tramjatra was the earnest attempt to make the project an organic expression of our city, and to attempt social communication across socio-economic, cultural and other barriers. Tramjatra has to be seen in the context of the city of Calcutta’s future, as a humane and healthy city, affording convenient public transport, with a citizenry and civil society that is aware about city matters and challenges, and is alive to its responsibilities to secure such ends.
A positive vision of Calcutta, involving tramway, the desire for this vision, the comprehension of the ramifications of such a vision, the capability to bring this about - all are sadly lacking. The city of Calcutta needs to be awakened from the torpor of apathy and cynicism it has fallen into, thanks to four decades of economic, political and social blight.
The Tramjatra project is bold, imaginative, visionary - and vital. It is about acting to build, protect and secure the public domain, civic society and city community against the assaults of private mafias, capital and the state.
From Tramjatra (ed.) Michael Douglas, Melbourne,2005.