* Editorial 2
Placing senior leaders under detention robs them of the opportunity of queering the normalcy pitch
“With every lot of foreign diplomats entering J&K, the shelf of ‘normalcy’ in the UT is extended.” Envoys of different countries enjoy shikara rides on Dal Lake in Srinagar on February 12. NISSAR AHMAD
Three months ago, Home Minister Amit Shah assured the Rajya Sabha that “normalcy” had been restored in Jammu and Kashmir. Yet, the leaders of the two main parties in J&K — Omar Abdullah of the National Conference (NC) and Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) — have not only been under detention for more than 200 days, but have also been slapped with the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act.
As Minister of State for External Affairs in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, Mr. Abdullah defended India’s position on Kashmir to the world, hurled diplomatic epithets at Pakistan in international fora, and wore the national flag on his heart as it were. But now, according to the Public Safety Act dossier prepared by the J&K administration, he stands accused of coddling militants and mobilising the people of Kashmir to defy Pakistan-backed militants and vote in elections. Like Mr. Abdullah, Ms. Mufti has also been deemed “anti-national”. Given that she ran J&K as Chief Minister with her party in alliance with the BJP for three years, it is very strange that the same BJP overlooked her leanings then.
Extending the shelf of normalcy
To show the world that the people of J&K participated in elections used to be the Indian government’s primary goal. The government used to go out of its way to obtain diplomatic certification for turnouts in elections as a measure of the genuineness of the exercise. The usually abysmal turnouts made it all the more necessary for such measures to be taken. An election in J&K is not going to take place any time soon, but proving that such an election is genuine, when it is held, will still be the main aim of this government. The steady chaperoning of foreign diplomats into the new Union Territory is an indication of this. With every lot of them that enters the territory, the shelf of “normalcy” in J&K is extended. Since the situation is “normal”, the question then is, when will an election take place?
The Public Safety Act dossier states that the capacity of Mr. Abdullah “to influence people for any cause can be gauged from the fact that he was able to convince his electorate to come out and vote in huge numbers even during peak of militancy and poll boycotts”. Does this mean that it is now normal for a District Magistrate to complain that a politician is able to persuade his constituents to come out and vote? In Kashmir, schools and colleges were open for months after the dilution of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, but nobody attended them. Is that also now normal? Every now and then, U.S. President Donald Trump reminds India that he is ready to mediate between India and Pakistan, even though New Delhi insists that Kashmir is an internal matter. For the American President to repeatedly make that offer was the norm in the worst of times in Kashmir; now it has become a routine in the best of times as well. Is this too the new normal?
The government has been conducting focused, narrowly guided tours in batches for foreign diplomats to assess and make a broad certification of the normalcy that prevails in J&K to their home constituencies. These diplomats go to Srinagar and no doubt send rosy, impressionistic cables back to their capitals: ‘Shops are open; there are no barbed wires on the main streets; and no menacing soldiers either. There are upwardly mobile politicians and green shoots of political activity. There is an upward tick in developmental trends. No one is complaining of the absence of the sham that was Article 370. There are myriad plans with timelines and bar charts and plenty of projects in the pipeline. Comparisons with the situation in West Bank are definitely far-fetched. And no one got killed’.
On the other hand, Indian politicians who cannot go to Kashmir and determine for themselves just how normal the situation is probably have to request the foreign missions to put out regular updates, in the form of newsletters or health bulletins, to get a better sense of the situation. The promotion of regular diplomatic tourism to Kashmir is apparently very different from the internationalisation of Kashmir, which happens, for example, when China intercedes on behalf of Pakistan at the UN and Indian diplomats exert themselves to temporarily dissolve that crisis.
The challenge ahead
If making “unacceptable statements” can merit invocation of the Public Safety Act, especially when elections are nowhere in view, how much has the crisis in J&K really dissolved? The government can probably take heart that there have been no major instances of violence since August 5, 2019, and no major upheavals or killings. Terrorists have not run rampant. Meanwhile, six months of New Delhi’s charm offensive notwithstanding, alienation is omnipresent, as is the keen sense of hurt, betrayal, anger and resignation.
To hold an election, the delimitation hurdle first needs to be crossed. With new political map-making in the region, there will be seven more Assembly constituencies in J&K. These have to be artfully identified and demarcated, which will be done on the basis of the 2011 Census. A delimitation commission is yet to be constituted. Even the panchayat polls, which the Prime Minister declared a resounding success, left half the seats empty because of the absence of candidates and boycott calls.
The challenge for the government then is how to balance the semblance of peace, which is a result of detentions, deployments and restrictions, and provide a platform of very modest political activity that is sanctified by New Delhi, in a manner that can give the seething resentment controllable political vent over what has been done to J&K. This alone explains the calibrated release of minor political leaders. It is presumable that they have been set free on the implicit understanding that they will not be crossing any red lines drawn by New Delhi. The diplomatic tourists hear and see exactly what New Delhi wants them to hear and see. New Delhi’s hope is that the local leaders of the PDP and NC come forward, give heft to the process, and grow into major politicians. The expulsion of PDP politicians can only be a marker for the inroads government agencies are making in signing on new political recruits. It is probably easier to alienate PDP politicians given the divisions already extant in that conglomeration, although it is odd that politicians associated with an “anti-national” like Ms. Mufti should escape that taint. The continued detention of Ms. Mufti and Mr. Abdullah is being done with the intention of starving them of the oxygen of a following, forcing upon them political atrophy, and robbing them of the opportunity to queer the normalcy pitch. In Kashmir, it could soon be argued that the more things are normal, the more abnormal they really are.
Data-based governance can assist in reducing traffic congestion, as illustrated by a pilot study in Hyderabad
The digital revolution has made interactions between humans and machines, and among citizens, governments and businesses, seamless and efficient. Today, e-governance enables and empowers citizens to directly engage with the state, thereby eliminating barriers in the delivery of public services. The next wave of transformation in digital governance is at the intersection of data and public good. The key to this transformation lies in incorporating data as a strategic asset in all aspects of policy, planning, service delivery and operations of the government.
Transportation is one such critical area, where data-based governance is expected to provide a solution to the ever-growing threat of congestion to urban economies. Congestion caused an estimated loss of $87 billion to the U.S. economy and $24 billion to the four metro cities in India in 2018. Given the limited land resources available, the key to solving congestion lies in improving the efficiency of existing transportation systems.
An efficient transportation system would help ease congestion, reduce travel time and cost, and provide greater convenience. For this, data from multiple sources such as CCTV cameras, automatic traffic counters, map services, and transportation service providers could be used.
A study by Transport for London, the local body responsible for transport in and around the U.K. capital, estimates that its open data initiative on sharing of real-time transit data has helped add £130 million a year to London’s economy by improving productivity and efficiency. In China, an artificial intelligence-based traffic management platform developed by Alibaba has helped improve average speeds by 15%.
Closer home, the Hyderabad Open Transit Data, launched by Open Data Telangana, is the country’s first data portal publishing datasets on bus stops, bus routes, metro routes, metro stations, schedules, fares, and frequency of public transit services.
The objective is to empower start-ups and developers to create useful mobility applications. The datasets were built after an intensive exercise carried out by the Open Data Team and Telangana State Road Transport Corporation to collect, verify and digitise the data.
Hyderabad has also begun collaborating with the private sector to improve traffic infrastructure. One such partnership followed a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Telangana government and Ola Mobility Institute. Under this collaboration, Ola has developed a tool, Ola City Sense, to provide data-based insights that can monitor the quality of Hyderabad’s roads and identify bad quality patches.
The data is provided to city officials on a dashboard, and updated every 2-3 weeks to capture the nature of potholes/roads. The information thus given is useful not only for carrying out road repairs, it also helps officials take initiatives to improve road safety, monitor quality of construction, and study the role of bad roads in causing congestion.
Planning road repair work
A pilot was implemented in a municipal zone to gauge the efficacy of the data in supporting road monitoring and prioritisation of repairs. The early results of this pilot project were encouraging. The dashboard helped city officials plan the pre-monsoon repair work and budget for repairs last year.
The pilot also demonstrated the willingness of government departments to apply data-based insights for better decision making. This tool is now being adopted across all municipal zones under the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. This could also serve as a model for other cities to emulate.
The Hyderabad example shows that governments can make their departments data-centric by institutionalising data collection, building technology platforms and helping the departments develop capacity to handle the insights generated from the data. Command and control centres under the ‘smart cities’ initiative can be an ideal starting point. Such interventions, however, also need to address genuine concerns around data security and privacy.
The Telangana government has declared that the year 2020 will be the Year of Artificial Intelligence. It aims to run hackathons and masterclasses with AI as the theme. Discussions are on to include AI for Traffic Management. At the core of AI-based algorithms is good data, and partnership with key stakeholders can only help build such algorithms. Insightful data will be the key to transform Hyderabad into a ‘world-class city’ in terms of mobility.
Dileep Konatham is Director, Digital Media, Telangana government, and heads the ‘Open Data Initiative’ . K. Yeshwanth Reddy is Lead-Urban Mobility at the Ola Mobility Institute
The themes of the Oscar-winning film are all too familiar to the global South
One of the first things that strikes you about Parasite, the brilliant South Korean social satire that swept up four Academy Awards this week, is how familiar it feels to Indian viewers. Bong Joon-ho directs it like a perfectly timed high-wire act, but grounds it deeply in his understanding of the class divide.
The untouchability of class
The deep differences between the Park and the Kim family that Parasite focuses on mirrors the enormous income gap in India and, interestingly, takes the shape of what is essentially untouchability; only, it’s the untouchability of class. The wealthy Mr. Park’s one abiding fear is that his chauffeur Kim Ki-taek might “cross the line”. The line is left undefined — but it needs no definition for Indians, into whose homes chauffeurs and gardeners might enter, but might not sit on the sofa. We might foot the driver’s bill when we go out, but seldom will he share our table.
If the upper-class Indian justifies this by talking about ‘hygiene’, the young son of the Kim family has fewer inhibitions — he simply points out that all four members of the Kim family smell the same. There’s a poignant scene where Ki-taek’s daughter says this smell can never be scrubbed out because it’s the smell of the basement they live in. What’s left eloquently unsaid is that this is the distinctive odour of poverty. It sharply recalls the scenes from the Tamil play Manjal, where manual scavengers lament that the smell of sewage never leaves their skin. And it seems entirely apposite that it is the sight of Mr. Park recoiling from Geun-sae, hand covering nose, that finally pushes Ki-taek over the edge.
Bong extends the implicit untouchability of poverty with the metaphor of the toilet, that familiar forbidden ground. Two vivid scenes demonstrate how close to that reviled toilet the poor lead their lives. First, when searching desperately for an Internet signal to tap, it’s by sitting on the WC and holding phones above their heads that the Kim siblings are able to read their WhatsApp messages. Then, when their basement home gets flooded, Ki-jeong runs to slam down the lid of the WC to keep the rising sewage from spewing out, but later she’s forced to crouch on the same lid, smoking a cigarette, oblivious to the slime around her.
Secluded toilets, privacy and personal space are unaffordable luxuries for the poor. In fact, not long ago, India’s Attorney General had argued that “it’s not right to talk about the right to privacy for poor people”. Although the court ruled that privacy is a fundamental right, real life seldom offers it to people whose homes are pavements and cardboard-walled shanties.
This awareness makes the contrast between the Kims’ squalid basement and the Parks’ soaring, airy home even more stark. In one significant scene, the Kims, caught unawares by the Park family returning home early, hide under the drawing room table, unable to escape even as the Parks make love on the couch. Jammed there, they are forced to listen to an act of intimacy that mocks the lack of privacy for intimate acts in their own life. It reminds us inexorably of Indian chawls and slums — of people who must carefully time their return home to avoid interrupting others; of tiny rooms divided by saris to create the illusion of space; of couples who crowd beaches and parks desperate for solitude.
Parasite’s bottom-up, unromantic, searing take on poverty couldn’t have come from anywhere but the global South. But its triumph lies in how fluidly it universalises the theme, making it impossible for privileged juries to look away. The film’s fantasy and caprice give it a surreal air, but the mortifications it portrays are only too familiar not just to us, but to audiences everywhere in the developing world.