A new anthology touches upon most facets of Indian society, but leaves the reader feeling like the proverbial blind man who describes an elephant by so many different names except the thing itself
The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool… William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act V, Scene I
This June, some people got wind of an officially sanctioned plot to butcher thousands of trees, many over 50 years old, as part of an ambitious plan to redesign some of the oldest government housing colonies in New Delhi. On their ruins would appear modern complexes of high-rise apartments, offices and shopping arcades. Official apology for this arboreal carnage: shortage of housing for public servants. And official indemnity: plant 10 times the number of axed trees in another place.
As the news spread on the Whats-app grapevine, it galvanised hundreds of citizens who cared to come out and protest. Activists dug up seedy details about violations of various laws and procedures. Among other embarrassments, the project’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), a legal document, had data copy-pasted from an EIA for a project in Tamil Nadu, a fact that would be hilarious were it not so banal. Alongside, the activists also moved the courts, which stayed the project till the proponents could defend it as legally kosher.
Before long, what began as a pure emotional backlash against the fortuitous slaughter of trees turned into a full-fledged interrogation of the project’s raison d’être. Indeed, unbeknownst to the campaigners, they had opened a Pandora’s box of difficult, yet inescapable conundrums about class and power, democracy and governance, freedom and equality, aesthetics and sustainability.
Visions of perfection
At a symposium titled “Political Economy of Redevelopment”—held recently in Delhi last month—one speaker, a former head of the Urban Arts Commission of Delhi, bemoaned the brazen defiance of laws when it came to redesigning city spaces. A third speaker argued that going vertical is the only way to provide housing to rising numbers without straining urban resources to the limit. A fourth speaker broached the question of class, arguing that trees are important but much less than decent housing for all. He claimed that the present model is flawed and that for cities to be sustainable, all of us will have to make do with modest-sized homes.
Evidently, people had different ideas about what an ideal city might look like, but almost everybody seemed to agree that the real challenge lay in designing cities in which people live in harmony not only with nature but also with each other.
This is precisely the problem that Paolo Soleri, the well-known Italian architect, grappled with in the 1960s and 70s. For Soleri, architecture and nature were entwined in a harmonious braid. He wanted to know if an architect could design an urban utopia from scratch or whether it would emerge organically from an interweaving of economic and ecological yarns? One can see his unfinished quest in a place called Arcosanti, near Phoenix, Arizona. Built originally for about 5,000 artists/artisans, only 80 people live in a close-knit complex designed to maximise energy efficiency. The artisans grow their own food and sell cast bells to maintain the complex.
The city is a just one motif in a nation’s complex pattern. In the ever-dynamic complex web that a nation is, a city is inextricably enmeshed in the socio-economic, political, and ecological life of other geographies. So an urban utopia cannot but be subsumed by a national utopia.
The recently published book Alternative futures: India Unshackled is a valiant attempt to imagine alternative futures for India in its totality. Edited by Ashish Kothari and K J Joy, the book is an anthology of about 30 separate dreams (more being dreamt of, we are told) about what India should look like in 2100. Two threads run through each individual dream: justice—social, economic and political, and ecological integrity. For imagining their utopia, the editors asked the chosen dreamers, majority of them grassroots activists, to explore wellsprings of utopian ideas other than the much-mined ideologies of Marxism and Gandhism. Kothari says the book is a sort of answer to all those who, tired of the carping criticism of government policies, would often retort: but what is your alternative?
Tapestry of landscape
For instance, in the dreams of Kartik Shankar, editor of Current Conservation, and others, India’s future conservation, contrary to the current paradigm of divorcing people from wildlife habitats, appear as a landscape where myriad social and ecological elements dance together to create an ever-changing tapestry of biodiversity. This would entail creating a much greater pool of commons stewarded by “nested democratic institutions,” including local communities. Need-less to say, current economic growth models will have to go for the sake of a more vibrant biodiversity.
Gladson Dungdung, a Kharia Adivasi activist from Jharkhand, dreams of Adivasi future in which they have reclaimed their rights over lands usurped by others as well as the right to self-determination with respect to their culture and language. Arpitha Kodevari imagines India’s future legal system where citizens are active participants not only in making laws but also in resolving disputes. She would like to see the creation of mediation centres where an enduring conversation between law and society will “bring out layers and complex notions of identity”.
For Dunu Roy, who runs the Hazards Centre in Delhi which supports community struggles, the good dream for India’s future workers where industrial work is neither precarious nor does it cause social and environment damage through evasion of hidden costs of undue capital accumulation, it is essential to do away with the twin fetish of competition and profit.
Activists Pallav Das and M P Parmeswaran dream, separately, of a future where village communities have fashioned a robust self-rule through creating a common pool of private farmlands while maintaining a tenuous yet formal relationship with the state. Das celebrates the example of Mendha Lekha, a tribal village in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, which in 2013 decided to transfer all its individual farmlands to the Gram Sabha. Both believe this is the future ideal model for achieving self-reliance and resilience.
But of all the dreams in the book, Dalit activist Anand Teltumbde’s dream of Dalit future seems to be the most radical. He imagines a time when castes themselves, and not just caste-discrimination (which already is), are outlawed; reservations are delinked from caste; caste-based political reservations are abolished; first-past-the-post electoral regime is replaced with proportional representation; private property in farmlands is abolished; schools are created where kids from across the class spectrum can study; and, a universal public healthcare system is put in place, among others.
If Teltumbde’s Dalit dream is the most radical, human rights activist Arvind Narrain’s about the future of love, dissent and empathy is the most eloquent and poignant. Through the benighted lives of two Bengali women lovers, Swapna and Sucheta, who, unable to bear humiliation at the hands of bigots, commit suicide, and of the US marine and queer Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison because he had passed on sensitive military data to wikileaks, Narrain builds a persuasive case for two kinds of love that imbue life with meaning. “The first,” he writes, “is the notion of love for one person and second is the notion of love in wider sense, which can be characterized as the love of justice or empathy for the suffering other.” He argues and believes that “utopia would surely be a state where the human heart is moved by all forms of suffering”.
Ironically, however, the book, even though it touches upon most facets of Indian society, leaves the reader feeling like the proverbial blind man who describes an elephant by so many different names except the thing itself as he touches different parts of its body. This is partly because, unlike most utopias, the utopia, or utopias, in question is the imagination of not one but many minds with little or no overlap. The only thread running through most, if not all, pieces is that of justice, social, economic, political, and ecological integrity.
So willynilly the dream about India’s future ecology skirts around the questions of economy or politics. Likewise, the dream about India’s future cities does not address the fraught relationship between city and countryside. The dream about or Dalit futures doesn’t engage with the idea of cosmopolitanism. Therefore, critical questions that any perplexed observer might ask of contemporary India are left hanging in mid-air. Questions like: should English be the medium of instruction in schools and colleges? What kind of technologies should one embrace, and who would decide that? Who will decide how much is enough?
Most of the dreamers being grassroots activists, the prose in all but a couple of pieces tends to be plodding and didactic. Curiously, besides, none of the essays are composed in the first person considering they reflect personal dreams of the authors. This, unfortunately, renders them uninspiring, at least for yours truly. Nonetheless, the dreams in themselves are useful windows, at least for policymakers and activists, into the anxieties and flaws of the present as well as into possibilities for the future.
The timing of the book is opportune as it reflects the zeitgeist of our times, which is fraught with an almost universal feeling of gloom and doom and marked by multiple crises—notably, persistent joblessness, deepening inequality, religious and racial fundamentalism, not to mention the forebodings of a warming planet.
Talking about the crisis of climate change, it is conspicuously absent in the book. So is, oddly enough, science. Needless to say, both have a significant bearing on our lives, and hence should have been assigned a dreamer. Climate change in particular poses an unprecedented conundrum for any dreamer. It’s possible, and is perhaps desirable too, to have dreams specific to particular nation-states, as we can at least fight in making them come true. But climate change knows no national borders—the life of anyone anywhere on the planet affects, positively or negatively, the lives of everyone else on the planet. So it may not be enough for an Indian, for instance, to dream the future of India’s climate if others are not part of her dream too.
Put another way, in theory there could be millions of dreams of a future Anthropocene, the epoch where the line between the natural and the human is now a blur. You may put faith in science to sculpt a new Anthropocene while I might dream of remaking the world based on traditional wisdom. You may want to empty half the earth of humans in order to protect endangered species, while I might put my money on reviving extinct species.
This is clearly frustrating. So what does one do in the face of such ideological chaos, except perhaps escape into a burrow of personal utopian fantasy? Maybe that’s one desperate way of preserving what one considers to be at stake in the Anthropocene—a way of life that enshrines certain political, ethical and aesthetic values. As the American professor of law, Jedediah Purdy, argues in After Nature, any reworking of the Anthropocene “will answer questions about what life is worth, what people owe one another, and what in the world is awesome or beautiful enough to preserve or (re)create. Either the answers will reproduce and amplify existing inequality or they will set in motion a different logic of power. Either the Anthropocene will be democratic or it will be horrible”.
Either way, utopia is about fears, dreams and desires, and it can take many forms, like fiction, philosophy, cinema and political theory. It can also be expressed as a lived experiment, such as intentional communities (like Auroville in Pudduchery or Christiania in Copenhagen), or architectural adventures (like Soleri’s Arcosanti), or even individuals living a life inspired by utopian principles (such as someone choosing to live in the forest).
Plato’s The Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), William Morris’ News from Nowhere, are some earlier examples of utopias that imagined new possibilities based on a considered critique of the present. For instance, Morris’ novel was an interrogation of how notions of work, labour, capital, and technology shaped society of his time.
Recent utopian fictions are often speculative reflections on the existential angst about capitalism, globalisation and environment. For instance, Kim Stanley Robinson, arguably the most prolific living author of utopian fiction, in his Mars trilogy, explores the dangers of our blind faith in science and capitalism. Dismayingly, he portrays human nature as incorrigibly morally ambivalent. As a warming Earth causes the sea to bloat and eat up large tracts of land, a group of scientists are commissioned to set up a colony on Mars. One would imagine the supposedly wised-up humans would create a better and saner new world in the light of what they did to the Earth, but, alas, they (mostly politicians, for Robinson has a benign view of science and scientists) continue to be bedevilled by greed, corruption, and Machiavellian politics.
In her insightful Fool’s Gold?: Utopianism in the Twenty First Century, Lucy Sargisson observes that “most contemporary utopias avoid depicting a single solution; they decline to offer one complete and finished vision of the good life”.
Besides, they tend to be a mix of utopias and dystopias. Alternative Futures falls somewhere in the middle—while it doesn’t offer a single solution, it does insist on a comprehensive unshackling. As Kothari said in an interview to mongabay.com: “Its central thread is that without a significant transformation along all the axes, no isolated attempt at creating greater justice, equality, and ecological sustainability will be successful in the long run.”
Some scholars, however, take a dim view of utopias, especially the ones that offer a totalising vision. British philosopher John Gray believes the trouble is that all utopias seek harmony, which goes against the grain of human nature, which thrives on conflict. As he writes in Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia: “If humans differ from other animals, it is partly in their conflicts of interests. They crave security, but they are easily bored; they are peace-loving animals, but they have an itch for violence; they are drawn to thinking, but at the same time, they hate and fear the unsettlement thinking brings. There is no way of life in which all these needs can be satisfied.”
This brings us to the question of what use utopias might be put to, especially the ones sketched out in Kothari’s book that dream of a total change, if it isn’t endorsed and sponsored by the State? As Kothari himself admits in the book, “We are constantly made aware of how serious a situation we are in, how difficult it is to make even small changes and sustain them… and for those with historical knowledge, how many revolutions have started with similar visions but failed to achieve them.”
That, according to Sargisson “depends whether a utopia is the vision of one person or many, a leader or a group of people. The context matters too; is it hierarchical, consensual, co-operative, collaborative, egalitarian, exploitative, capitalist or anarchistic? And intent is crucial. Does this utopia seek realisation? Perfection? To explore ideas? Is it oppositional, critical and/or experimental?”
While utopias that seek perfection and demand quick translation into reality are probably dangerous, there are other kinds that serve not just as guiding lights or mirrors that reflect inconvenient truths about the present, but also as catalysts of radical change. Robinson’s prophetic words, excerpted from his Science in the Capital trilogy, about capitalism and climate change in the US can be viewed as a cautionary tale for any society trapped in the current economic paradigm.
“They went too far in this administration. Their line was that no one knew for sure [about global warming] and it would be much too expensive to do anything about it even if they were certain it was coming—everything would have to change, the power system, cars, a shift from hydrocarbons to helium or something, they didn’t know, and they didn’t own patents or already existing infrastructures for that sort of thing, so they were going to dodge the issue and let the next generation solve their own problems in their own time. In other words, the hell with them. Easier to destroy the world bit by bit than to change capitalism even one little bit.” Therein lies the real value and message of utopia—an urgent call to shun inertia and act! To quote Samuel Beckett from Westward Ho! “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” And therein lies perhaps the real value and message of utopia, and hence of Alternative Futures—an urgent call to shake off inertia and act.
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