Independent Fellowship Workshop 2004-05

НазваниеIndependent Fellowship Workshop 2004-05
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Independent Fellowship Workshop 2004-05


24-27 August 2005

Day 01

Wednesday, 24 August

Vivek Narayanan, coordinator of the independent fellowship programme at Sarai, initiated the workshop, remarking that the programme was meant to be a safeguard against "our own complacency and self-involvement as an organisation". The intent was for the fellows to be "independent", i.e., self-motivated, able to work on their projects "without either hand-holding or the stick". The fellowship was based on a workshop format, with the understanding that the fellows would continue to develop their projects, which would move forward at their own natural pace. Similarly, the protocol of fellows posting on the Sarai Reader-list created opportunities for dialogue "from intention rather than as a requirement".

Narayanan pointed out that there were 1100 members on the Reader-list, and that the postings could be seen as "a new form of publishing", a form that was "spontaneous" and "provisional", and had a "strange status that not everyone is comfortable with". He added that Sarai was a space to which people, including the fellows, developed emotional as well as intellectual attachments; Sarai was "a performance without a stage, where the audiences are also performers", and where the cumulative effect of such performance could not be predicted; Sarai was a place of contest, "albeit one where no person would win, but where jousting and struggles are encouraged, in the knowledge that no attack is personal, but is in the spirit of the game". He clarified that with regard to the fellowship research, Sarai hoped for works in progress, and not finished products; hoped for a variety of forms of the spoken and written word; and hoped, most of all, for original provocations and challenges.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Sarai-CSDS, coordinator of Sarai's distributed research network of which the independent fellowship is one component, stated that Sarai would like to see a certain kind of relationship between the work the fellows were doing and the tradition for which CSDS is known, and which Sarai celebrates: "occasionally iconoclastic, occasionally eccentric, but always insightful intellectual endeavour". Sarai foregrounded the idea of public engagement as an important part of the intellectual process. "The mechanisms of cultural creativity can be housed within institutions, but can also be barricaded within them. The Sarai-CSDS effort, from the beginning, has been to push intellectual and cultural creativity out into the public domain. The independent fellowship and student stipendship are part of this effort to encourage a public conversation. The architecture of the fellowship and stipendship is conducive to play, to the enterprise of connectivity of intellectual energies." The postings and presentations were crucial input that formed an archive for later fellows to access, provided material for publications outside as well as within Sarai, and provided material for exhibition practices and performance. "We also encourage the idea of theory itself as performance," he added.

Sengupta presented a range of slides and statistical information regarding the expanding parameters of the fellowship programme over its past four cycles. He clarified that that the fellowship and stipendship created constituencies of a wide range of people who do not necessarily engage professionally with public intellectual or creative activity. "We foreground the idea that the life of thought/creativity exists in general public life…The fellowship enables individuals to find a public for work that is not necessarily finished, a public that listens during the process of thinking, a process that is underprivileged in academic life. It fills a lacuna, in the general absence of incentives for independent creative work in university and cultural spaces. It functions on the dynamic premise that interdisciplinarity should be the norm rather than the exception in academic life. It establishes a dialogue between discourse and practice, and encourages a public conversation between knowledge and creativity."

Sengupta added that the themes/forms that have emerged during the last four cycles of the fellowship are coincident with Sarai's original vision. "Some have no precedents, for instance the graphic novel." Sarai could claim the "modest achievement" of initiating new modes of expression, and enabling forms that were at the cusp of initiation. The fellowship had systematically continued to lay a certain stress on contemporaneity, "the here and now of where we are"; on urbanity, which is under-theorised and under-reflected in South Asian culture; on the culture and politics of technology; on the protocols, ethics and politics of knowledge transmission; and the public rendition of ideas. These themes were also evident in the submissions this year.

Panel 1: The Grid, the Relay and the Reality

Karen Coelho, Chennai

Tapping In: Urban Water Conflicts as Citizenship Claims in Chennai

This project explored collective, contentious and transgressive practices of urban citizenship as articulated in claims to water in the city of Chennai. It used multi-media techniques to interrogate the narratives of order purveyed by the reforming state, from the vantage point of its margins. Municipal water reforms outline a technocratic discourse in which universal service is guaranteed through rational improvement. But the underground grid, the embodiment of this sovereign order, is, as everybody knows, punctured and intersected by bypass connections and illegal taps that reveal the contentious and compromised order of a ground-level service. The project examined these challenges to the myth of orderly service from the perspective of citizens struggling for access to water. The points of leakage in the urban order of the grid may constitute sites in which local claims to citizenship are being asserted, challenging liberal (and neo-liberal) norms of individual-based citizenship.

Muthatha Ramanathan, Bangalore

Tracing Spatial Technology in the Rural Development Landscape of South India

This study critically examined the increasing use of a new suite of technologies, remote sensing (RS) and geographic information systems (GIS), for planning in the natural resource management (NRM)-based rural development sector in India. The key question: how is this emerging paradigm altering the nature and content of NRM-based rural development in India? The study borrowed from an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that draws from Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Critical Development Geography (CDG) to research an NGO's use of these technologies to facilitate development in a cluster of villages in Raichur, Karnataka. The researcher undertook a multi-sited ethnography in order to understand the everyday details of the entwined processes of technological and development practice.

B. Mahesh Sarma, Delhi

Contending Techno-Paradigms of Contested Public Space: The Politics of CNG (Compressed Natural Gas)

The study examines in depth one of the most visible and massive technologies brought to bear upon us in the recent past: the complete conversion of Delhi's road-based public transportation system, into CNG mode. It explored the context under which such a transformation was warranted, the process by which it was ushered in and the actors involved in the whole process, their agendas, both stated and unstated. The study focused on the interesting ways in which the choices were brought into the public consciousness, and the manner of their negotiation and selection, and the results and consequences.

Awadhendra Sharan, Sarai-CSDS, initiated the discussion following the presentations, remarking that in contemporary studies of urbanism, there are two critical issues. First, that of scale, a question relatively ignored. Knowledge generated by and valid for one scale does not automatically transfer to another scale. Second, the question of formal knowledge, "a myth", as against contingent, practice-based knowledge. The common approach is to see the latter as the opposite of the former; "the book becomes redundant, the practice becomes celebrated". In the case of these presentations, the myth stays what it is, "a grand narrative", but its "porosity" and "seepage" is taken into account. "What is the 'outside' of this?" Sharan asked. "Is there a pure 'outside'?…Is CSE, the selling of science, TERI, etc., the pure 'outside' of a more democratic practice that can be available in a pure form? What is the relationship between the myth/grand narrative and its porous 'other'?" Sharan added that another issue was the different relationships between democracy, government and state. "There's no one answer, no one map." In Coelho's paper, governance comes out as the villain; in Sarma's paper all the actors are villains. "What is the ground of the critique? Is it a moral principle that prejudges everyone else as somehow being compromised? Or is the critique a way of negotiating the challenges of contemporary society?"

T.P. Sabitha stated that she was "uncomfortable" with Sharan's formulation of the "outside", and that all three papers had problematised the relation between formal and informal, through identifying networks, mapping grids, incorporating local knowledge and describing the complicity between government officials and civil society groups. The papers did not claim that there was a clear "outside" at all. Rochelle Pinto asked Ramanathan if she had found a "gendered usage" of technology in her study. "You talked about the mapping of plots of land: are households also mapped, and are kitchens part of the cartography?" She asked Sarna if he saw "a trend towards the professionalisation of democracy…The media has a tendency now to displace responsibility onto the 'expert', whether the judiciary, the activist, the NGO; articles are constructed by calling in 'experts' for the illuminating quote. Does this apply to the model you've outlined, in the way solutions are sold and problems are identified?"

Ravi Sundaram, Sarai-CSDS, pointed out that in the critical discourse of urbanism, one powerful tradition of looking at cities is through "the urban eye", which was related to physiognomy, "the way in which you look and the forms you produce when you look". The classic mode is the way you map, the way formal and technical knowledge is produced. "Historically, there is a tradition of urban writing that ends with de Certeau. For him there are distinctions: the cadastral map, the formal map, and then everyday life. But it is a far more complex picture. These binaries, especially in complicated South Asian city politics – your story of Chennai could also be true for Delhi – open up all kinds of other possibilities. The binaries that we often operate under are the last phase in writing about the city in the 20th century, when urban planning was so powerful and 'experts' ruled. Now we have an extremely complex set of indicators, and it is quite possible to go beyond the earlier mode."

An interjector observed that while he was researching for a film on CNG, he interviewed many autorickshaw drivers standing in long lines outside the petrol pumps. "They told me of the need for a particular nozzle required in the conversion apparatus, to make it efficient and quick. The order to convert all autos to CNG was issued, but there was no order to Bajaj to manufacture the nozzle. When I got in touch with Bajaj, they said they needed to import, in this case, but the government was not reducing import duty, hence the nozzle could not be produced. These big changes need to be implemented with clarity…"

Meera Pillai asked Coelho what methodology she had used to get information for analysing a large and complex system. She requested Sarma to clarify his usage of the terms "normative" and "realistic", adding that we understood these in a general way, but the paper was "highlighting a gap that many things fall through". Coelho replied that the dichotomies of legality/illegality and formal/informal "are wrapped up in each other and use each other: that's the only way they can work". She agreed that there is a need to go beyond these, and clarified that she was using the peg of "reform" to look at new kinds of disciplines that, being brought in to reform existing orders, are adopting them. "That's where I critique 'governance' – the paradigms that further deny, further pretend and further punish. It becomes extremely punitive. Front-line engineers are forced to play these denial games because of neo-liberal 'reforms' that are coming in, creating more stringent conditions. It's not that there is an 'order' and a 'disorder', but that the discourse pushes the disorder into the margins, so that you now produce what is more peripheral, produce more thresholds, to push people into the corners by invoking these linear, grid-like orders. So actually, it is more discursive than positivistic...Methodologically, I drew on my dissertation. For that, I had spent countless hours in the depot, in the field, with engineers. For this research, I also did a lot of ethnographic work, interviewed slum dwellers, etc., for their side of the story."

With regard to the relationship between the myth and the 'other', Ramanathan commented that the one thing that came across in her interactions with the NGO where she researched was that "the myth is also in one's interpretation". This NGO "had taken the tools but had not bought the myth with the tools". The organisation had tried to understand the spatial concepts that these tools can be used for, and then tried to modify the concepts. "It's a constant reworking of the dialectic of myth/'other' to try and suit something on the ground, an attempt to modify certain scientific/rational rules in a way that suits the situation. It's not a clean dichotomy between scientific knowledge and practice: it's a melding of both, they pick and choose according to contextual requirements." She clarified that gender does enter the database if the owner of the land is a woman, but she had not researched this ethnographically, hence could not claim definite findings.

Sarma asserted that one had to accept that an ideal democracy did not exist. There were "trade-offs", and "pain, which by the very nature of existing social relationships gets distributed unequally, and is borne by certain sections of the population". In an informed democracy, at least one knows who enforces the trade-offs, and the objectives of the actors. "All the actors are involved in trade-offs… the judiciary is a villain somewhere, the executive a complete villain, the legislature a partial villain." Sarma acknowledged that he did not have a precise definition of "normative" and "realistic". But take the case of the Wazirpur Bartan Manufacturing Sangh versus the State of Delhi. The Supreme Court judgement says that giving land to the jhuggi-jhonpri wala (slum dweller) is like paying money into his pocket. This is a very 'normative' statement, not taking into account that the DDA, which was mandated to house two million people by 1981 provided for 3.6 lakhs. What happens to the rest? This is the 'realistic' situation."

Aarti Sethi, Sarai, mentioned one of Ramanathan's Reader-list postings on the subject of a field visit with a senior soil scientist. "He obviously came from a traditional scientific background, but in the field he had a different vision of his own practice that he brings to bear on the creation of these maps. How does he think through his own practice?" Sethi referred to Coelho's phrase "neo-liberal reforms, the means whereby people's civic and infrastructural options get closed"; this leads to unofficial "bypassings" and "re-routings", made when politicians ask for them. But would they also ask for these with reference to their own constituencies? Vishnu Vardhan asked Sarma if instead of focusing on the "lobbying behind the selling of the science", and the "failure of democracy", the research could go forward and ask why democracy fails.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta remarked that figures like "the grid", "the map", and "science", all "attempt to get a fix on the unknowable being a source of authority for key interlocutors". So far, most of these interlocutors are people with a certain established institutional base. But the reason the grid/ the map/ science becomes effective "is not because of its truth value but because of its affect… No one is really interested in how accurate or precise the measurements are, but in the claim to precision and the claim to accuracy." Is it possible that, gradually, unauthorised claimants would make their own claims to science? "Again, the issue is not whether the claim is true or not, but whether the claimants "would buttress it with the emotional affect of scientific precision, over time. As scientific knowledge becomes a generalised phenomenon, available, embodied within society, would the unauthorised interlocutors begin to use the affect of science to make their claims?"

According to Coelho, people tap into the system first and then use all sorts of ways to ensure a supply. Regularisation takes place in two ways: illegal connections are regularised via a fee; or people bribe engineers and municipal councillors, and just continue. "Neo-liberal reforms focus on policing, making the front line transparent. The vigilance culture is intensified. When you present a critique of 'governance' and differentiate with regard to the 'normative' and the 'realistic', you have to accept that such rhetoric on policy level is able to pervade the myth, and is able to present 'order' as if it was the ideal that would exist if losers at the front line did not mess up. The burden of making unrealistic schemes work devolved onto front line people, who experience the end of the punitive lash: a squeeze of resources accompanied the command to perform better, even while they are policed all the time! That's my critique of governance: it produces all these materialist discourses that don't work, but it succeeds because the myths of order are very attractive to a growing set of people, including the whole yuppie world, which loves to think that things are working, or will work some day." Coelho agreed with Sengupta that the scientific portrayal of things did appeal to people on the ground. "Women in slums talk very knowledgeably about the pipe system; they understand all the nuances, as users in need, they have an empirical purchase on these realities. That's where democratisation needs to go..."

Ramanathan clarified that the "old-school" soil scientist whose practice she described did perceive his fieldwork as scientific, and that she did too. Regarding the "affect of science", she narrated how the NGO she collaborated with for her research had trained local young men to collect data from the field. "I'm interested not just in the content of knowledge but also in practices of collecting it. These young men had to measure 'slope' in the field, but did no cartography or calibration: they walked through the terrain and made notes on maps, then told their superior in the office, with confidence, about their findings. They knew how to use all the tools, database software, are experts in data entry, recording, analysis."

Sharan concluded the session with the reminder of Scott's recognition of the "violence" of high technology. "In fact, 19th-century public health discourse was extremely violent to a lot of people. Claims to comprehensive public health always have violence inbuilt into them. Yet his assessment is that all of us benefit from this. Are the dreams of good public health illegitimate, are the practices illegitimate, are the techniques illegitimate? These are very big questions."

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