The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Trapped in the commonplace

A drain being laid by the municipal authority in Bangalore.
Notice that the bottom level of the drain is the same as the road.
In my opinion this term seems to both define and limit us folks in the subcontinent.
When you look at developmental works being undertaken by govt agencies in your city what do you see? Beyond the obvious addition of flyovers, underpasses, pavements, roads, medians don't you see shoddy work? For that matter, most construction (including private ones) that dots the urban landscape is sub-standard. When you confront this it triggers the usual blame game insinuating everything from a poor workforce, substandard materials, poor compensation for work done and so on.
The government is a reflection of the people governed.... and by state of our public works our appreciation of what is 'good design' is poor at the best. Look at our development body and municipality driven initiatives, our parks are fenced off with a sad meshing painted green; public walls are rendered in the most atrocious paintings that are meant to reflect 'our culture'; pathways which cater to pedestrians are made like mini check dams, making them impossible to get onto by the elderly or the physically disabled. Or for that matter, what is considered permissible urban interventions by the authorities; billboards cluttered along roads, shrouding skylines; parks are made but with boards denying almost any kind of use apart from staring at the greens; traffic signage and lights placed awkwardly where one cant see them, or, altogether missing. One could go on..The important point to note though is there is minimal resistance by US the users of this infrastructure to all this.
A painting on a Bangalore city wall... as apart of a
cultural initiative by the city municipal body
Image source: 
Where does the problem lie? Of course it takes a lot to create such a deep infliction, but could it be more to do with US than THEM or THAT? What exactly do I mean by that? By now most of us are familiar with the famous 'chaltha hai', or 'will do' attitude of us Indians. We seem to accept almost anything that is dished out at us. Move beyond the built environment and we see the quiet acceptance of everything from the kind of governance, education, television content, cinema, medical care, quality of commercial products, and so on. Perhaps it is this 'live and let live' kind of 'dharma' that we follow which allows all kinds of mediocrity to thrive along with rare examples of brilliance. This has also lead to a social culture that seems to depict a breakdown of society... you see this in our civic sense; love thy neighbour has been hit out of the park. Rules are almost meant to be broken... traffic, pedestrian, building violations, encroachments.... this is what we have become.
But there is change. We miss it because of the din of the commonplace, it engulfs us. There is a change in some sectors like telecommunication, computers, automobiles, apparel, footwear, etc, and that is in turn resulting in lightning speed changes in other industries like advertising, sales and marketing.
To see if this is a sign of better times to come, let us examine it.
What has driven this change? Predominantly the triggers have been external commercial forces tapping into a vast market pool, post the liberalisation efforts in the late 80s and 90s. This has had a domino effect in spawning a glut of entrepreneurial ventures across the nation. This includes the birth or growth of numerous design houses.
Hoardings mar the very facade that lends a character to the city
Has this change been good? From a sustainable perspective, I think not. Some direct impacts have been pollution and a gorging into our natural resources. While a plethora of opportunities seem to await our nation's youth, it has also created wider chasms between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. From a design perspective, while there have been some truly innovative indigenous examples, the bulk of design from all fields have been imitations (both good and poor) and are touted as a global/contemporary trends. More local design innovation is desperately needed. From a built environment perspective, our cities and towns are rapidly transforming themselves in this global mould encouraged by the political-commercial shouts of Shanghai-ing or Singapore-ing this place or that. Technologies have changed, but the same does not reflect in how we execute work. Take for example the laying of underground cables along city roads; 'trenchless' machines have now been in use for over a decade, but the mess created, the closing up, etc have not changed.  'Pre-cast' kerbs and medians are now more in use, but the design and eventual laying is still harsh and pedestrian unfriendly. Power systems have changed and billing privatised, but power lines are drawn in much the same haphazard manner.
Will such change lead to an eventual rising above this rut? In my opinion, there has been a greater myopia with this change.  Consumerism has lead to a hoarding mentality with no sensitivity for sustainability. Real estate is an investment because of land value and not because of the quality of product, therefore people buy anything that is sold as long as the location is fine! For sure, consumer awareness will lead to an improved product quality, but driven more by sales rather than by consumer pressure. To add to our woes, better quality products are priced higher, which means that there will always be a market for shoddy lower priced products. In the real estate industry though, one can carry on regardless with shoddy products as long as the promoter has the right land, the proverbial golden goose!
What then is our ticket out of this mediocrity? There is no quick fix solution and the process of change is bound to be challenging and long. But a strong will to see a marked improvement and proudly set a renewed subcontinent standard is necessary. If I absolutely should take a shot at some possible ways out, then my bet would be to set a vision/road-map of where we want to be as a first step, where every individual would see themselves as an integral part of nation building. Today, such a all-encompassing vision does not exist.... only in such a context can smaller vision statements/action plans for industry, growth, technology, education, and so on can thrive. The next step would be to try and change attitudes of a nation starting with the setting in place effective mediums of education (to address the development of civic responsibilities to skill sets). We need to be able to set benchmarks for ourselves and have an opinion of good acceptable work, driving a change in our outlook. Only then can we begin to hold ourselves and others accountable.  Finally, instilling a keen sense of purpose in organisations, supported by a zero tolerance for poor standards at all levels. The more we allow mediocrity to flourish, the lesser are our chances that we will ever redeem ourselves. A high expectation from designers, products, governments, etc..... this should traverse all spectra.  I am aware that all or any of this is a tough ask and may span generations to achieve this, but try we should... all of us.