Saturday, October 10, 2009

The 2nd Class Citizen

The second class citizen


5 October 2009

Pankaj Sekhsaria
There is a new hierarchy that has slowly but surely entrenched itself in India’s urban reality. It is not really articulated in that light, but it is an experience that any resident of our cities could not have missed. Get on to the roads of your city as a pedestrian or a cyclist and you know instantly that you are a second class citizen. Zooming cars and two-wheelers, blaring horns, billowing smoke, narrower footpaths, fewer trees – it is increasingly a punishment to get out on to the city roads if you don’t have a personalised mode of motor transport.

More vehicles on our roads
Vehicles are being added to city roads like there is no tomorrow and the introduction of newer and cheaper cars like TATA’s Nano is only going to add to the unyielding rush. While the average human population in six of our biggest metros increased by a factor 1.8 between 1981 and 2001, vehicle numbers increased by over six times. Last year, Bangalore recorded the highest vehicle growth rate in the country with 14 per cent against a national average of 10, and 1000 cars are being added to the roads of New Delhi every day. A crisis awaits us around the corner, if it is not upon us already.

Unfortunately, all solutions suggested to deal with the growing problems of congested roads and traffic bottlenecks are only short sighted band-aids on the symptom. We have lost complete sight of the disease and the drug that we are providing is only adding fuel to the fire. The problem, we need to realise, is not a shortage of road space or width but the astronomically growing number of vehicles.

While no effort is being made to reduce these, huge investments continue to be thrust into creating more infrastructure as a mindless clamour for even more, out-shouts all other voices and suggestions of saner solutions. While there is some recognition now of the need for better public transport systems, the focus continues to be on the hugely capital intensive metro rail systems like the one proposed in Bangalore and Hyderabad. This, even as existing metropolitan bus services continue to languish with little or no additional investment and a quality of service that can only be considered poor. The efficiency and the value of supporting and augmenting existing services is best illustrated by Mumbai’s Bombay Electric and Suburban Transport (BEST) service. The BEST, it is said, carries about 50 per cent of Mumbai’s total road users, yet occupies only 4 per cent of the city’s road space.

Classroom Update

More roads is not the solution
In line with the logic that growth in vehicle population is non-negotiable and questioning it amounts to sacrilege, the single biggest activity in our cities in recent times has been road and flyover construction and road widening. Trees, footpaths, old shops, houses – nothing matters. Conservative estimates suggest, for instance, that in Pune alone, at least 50,000 trees have been chopped down in the last five years alone, many to accommodate the increasing traffic. Pedestrian and cyclists occupy minimum road space and cause no pollution at all, but that is of no consequence. By cutting trees and reducing (even eliminating) footpaths, the situation is only being made more hostile for them. An excellent example of this is the construction of grade separators and the huge expansion of road width on the highway in the suburbs of Pune where I live. While motorists are delighted for obvious reasons, others, particularly those who walk or use cycles have been completely forgotten. There are a number of sections in this stretch where one has to take a detour of at least a couple of kilometers to just cross over to the other side. Twenty minutes of driving time saved for a motorist has directly translated to at least twice the duration of travel time for a pedestrian. School children and old people, in fact, suffer the most.

The recently published nation-wide study on ‘Traffic and Transportation Policies and Strategies in Urban Areas in India’ that was commissioned by the Union Ministry for Urban Development provides some shocking statistics and evidence of this. Mumbai sees an unbelieveable 22,000 road accidents every year. Ten people on an average are killed every day in our metros in road accidents. Delhi tops the list with more than 2000 deaths per year followed by Hyderabad (1196 deaths) and Bangalore (833 deaths). Even smaller towns like Hubli-Dharwad report more than one death every alternate day in road accidents. The report points out, that a majority of the road accident victims are indeed pedestrians – something that is not difficult to understand when one sees that the percentage of roads with pedestrian footpaths is less than 30 per cent in most of our cities today.

A pedestrian first
We should remember that every citizen, even a vehicle owner, is also a pedestrian at some point in his or her use of the roads of a city. Unless priorities in urban planning, in the media and in our thinking are not refocused, this problem is bound to increase. Merely adding and widening roads is not going to help. What is needed is a more fundamental effort at improving public transport, reducing private vehicles and putting the welfare and safety of the pedestrian and cyclist at the very centre of all that we do.

Otherwise, average city traffic speed will continue to fall and yet, more pedestrians will continue to die. The most frightening part is that it could be any one of us, at any point of time.

The author is an independent journalist and photographer and is associated with the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh. He can be reached at

Here are some ideas that would encourage your students to explore this topic further

  • Let your students get a sense of the changes that have taken place in their localities. Have roads been widened near their homes? Have footpaths been removed or added? Have trees been cut for road widening? The students could talk to their parents, grand parents and other elders in the house to find out.
  • It might be interesting to get your children to go to the Road Transport Authorities in their cities and find out the growth in the number of vehicles in their city over a period of time. Let them find out how many vehicles are being added to their city roads every year.
  • Ask the students to do a comparative study of the road width, footpath laws, vehicle densities, etc. between India and other countries.
  • Get the children to document the roads in the cities that have no footpaths today and observe the situation of cyclists and pedestrians. They could spend some time on the roadside, traffic junction and see how people behave.
  • Doing an analysis of relative benefits of different modes of transport. How much space does a bus occupy and how many people does it carry? How does it compare to a car or a cycle?


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

'Scientific undertakings are political projects'


Politics of science

Interview with Geert Somsen, a historian of science at Maastricht University.


Geert Somsen at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.

GEERT SOMSEN is a historian of science with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He currently directs his faculty’s Graduate School and teaches in several bachelor’s and master’s programmes. He graduated in Chemistry but switched to historical research about 20 years ago. Within this field, he has become increasingly interested in the status of science in general. How has science been characterised in the past? What have scientific approaches been meant to supplant? How has science figured in self-portrayals of the West as compared to ‘the rest’? A training in science and technology studies (STS), meanwhile, prevents him from taking the advertised image of science for the actual product.

Somsen discusses with Pankaj Sekhsaria, of the Pune-based Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, his views on interdisciplinarity, his more recent work on ‘scientific internationalism’, ‘politically active’ scientists and his travel to India and Central Asia to look at old traditions of astronomy and science in these parts of the world. Excerpts from a free-ranging interview:

From an undergraduate degree in chemistry to a Ph.D. in the History of Science and finally into inter-disciplinary studies, your academic journey is quite an interesting one.

I graduated in 1992 in Chemistry but I had always liked subjects such as Science and Society, Philosophy of Science, and in the third year of graduation, we had History of Science which I really liked. I then did my Ph.D. in History of Science at the Institute for the History of Science in Utrecht [in the Netherlands] and there was a huge mental transformation from being a natural scientist to being a historian.

My interest in philosophical issues continued and I got more and more fascinated by constructivist approaches. So, during my Ph.D. I did an internship at the University of California, San Diego, in the United States. At that time they had what was called the Science Studies programme – an interdisciplinary graduate programme of history, philosophy and sociology of science. And they had all these stellar names then – Bruno Latour, Steven Shapin, and in philosophy Philip Kicher was there, Chandra Mukerji.... It was really exciting, especially when all these people got together every week in their colloquiums and the poor speakers were completely grilled [laughs]. They would fly in speakers from all over the country, sometimes from all over the world, so it was really great.

I then did a postdoc in Philadelphia, was in Cambridge in England for a while too, and then landed here in Maastricht. Our faculty is very interdisciplinary in research, but especially teaching, and I became even more interdisciplinary here. So I was a historian of science and an STS studies person even before I came, and here I also got involved in courses on avant-garde movements, political ideologies, on all sorts of things.

Do you look at yourself then as a historian or as a scientist?

Historian, definitely not a scientist. I mean, scientists study nature and STS people study science, right? So the object of study is different. People in STS, I think, are from the humanities and social sciences because the object of the study is what scientists do. What scientists do is study rabbits, stars and DNA [laughs] and that is very different. So, I was trained in that [science], and it helps to have some inside knowledge, but I had to sort of make a mental switch.

I also have that experience, then, of what it means to be a scientist. An anthropologist, for instance, needs to acquire some inside knowledge of the culture he is studying. Now, I come from that culture. I only have to step back and look at what scientists are doing. I think it is helpful because it makes me able to deal with more technical issues.Whereas, if I would have been trained in history, I wouldn’t have been able to study what chemists are talking about, because I wouldn’t understand it.

Would you agree that historical investigation is perhaps the best starting point for interdisciplinary and STS kind of work.

When you look at Thomas Kuhn, for example, I think that is certainly the case. He was a sort of a philosopher who was very interested in history and he had much more of a relativist look. It started for him with an appreciation that Aristotelian physics, which we regard as no longer valid, in itself is completely valid. It was a different way of looking at the world and that brought Kuhn to a sort of relativism, which then made him theorise about scientific change. That Kuhnian turn, then, has partly come out of history.

As a historian do you find yourself better placed to work in this field?

No, not really. I see myself on par with sociologists and anthropologists.

So there is no particular advantage that you bring because you are a historian?

Sure. History of science has its own advantage and I really like it. That doesn’t however mean that I am better at STS studies than sociologists or anthropologists are.

You do not feel privileged in any way of being a historian…?

No, but what I think it does is that it brings a sort of a relativism with it, which is a privilege. And that is what the historians have from the outset, but that then is also true of an anthropologist.

So what then are the biggest challenges and advantages of doing interdisciplinary work?

Well of course, it is always combining perspectives that is difficult, especially because they are not always compatible. But that’s when it is interesting. Take, for example, a philosopher’s and a historian’s perspective on how knowledge is produced. A philosopher will always tend to have some sort of a formalised, generalised account that is ideally true even if it is not how it works in practice, whereas, a historian or a sociologist or an anthropologist doesn’t care about how it should be.

It will be the specific thing that they are looking at …

Yes. So a major advantage [of interdisciplinarity] is that as a practitioner, especially if you come from one background, it makes you very aware of the limitations of your own perspective. It makes you aware that there are other perspectives that are also legitimate and interesting. If you are trained within only one discipline then there is a chance that you begin to believe that your perspective is the perspective of the world and this is the way it all is. It can become very parochial in a way and interdisciplinarity makes you lose that. It makes you a little more modest. I think it’s a good thing.

Science & Ideology

And what is the relevance of interdisciplinary and STS studies in today’s context?

I think I have an original answer here [laughs]. I totally agree that the relevance of STS is that it brings about a better understanding of the workings of science and technology. But there is also a cultural part and I think you don’t hear that very often but it is relevant – that science and technology also have an ideological importance.I can see it in my reading for the course I am teaching, the ‘Idea of Europe’, a sort of general history course.

Technology, particularly science, comes in often into this idea. Science has been an important component of the self-image of the West or of Europe or of the modern world, right? Why are we modern and why aren’t others? Historians and other people have pointed to democracy and things like freedoms, human rights, but most often it is because we have modern science, right? So, we’ve invented this sort of method or trick, or whatever it is, that made it possible for us to understand and control the natural world and nobody else has ever invented that. Now whether this is true or not is one question… what is more important is that this figures in several representations of the West to sort of legitimate a hierarchy between the West and other people.

I just read a quote by Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor of the U.S. during the Vietnam war. He says about the underdeveloped world: that they haven’t had the Newtonian revolution, so they never learnt to think in a scientific way; they can’t really understand things, so they need us to do it for them. I think this is very common since the Enlightenment – the idea that we have learnt how to think scientifically and they, whatever they is, haven’t. Therefore, justifying our dominant position in the world.

So there is a purpose to this deconstruction. Does one also have an end in mind when one seeks to deconstruct these ways of looking? Or is that not important?


Inside Ulugh Bek’s observatory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, which is now a museum.

To what end? I think that’s a very good question. One answer would be exposure [laughs], showing that these are not inevitable truths but particular choices.

There is a lot of talk, ideological talk, about what science is and what science does, and like I said, about the superiority of the ways of the West. I think the relevance for STS people or for historians of science like me is to unravel this – to take away some Western arrogance and to undermine this argument of superiority – to make the public aware that all sorts of undertakings that claim to be scientific are in fact also political projects whether you like them or not.

For example, look at current psychology, which has become very mechanistic again. It is very much about cognitive science and brain research. Now I am not against that at all, but we need to keep in mind that this is not objective science but is very much based on a particular view of man, which is an ideological view. I think people need to be aware of that.

Can you tell us about your work on scientific internationalism…

A widespread idea is that science by its very nature is international, that scientists all over are doing, more or less, the same things and therefore form a global community – a republic of letters. Of course this is a very idealised view, because science and scientists, in fact, are just like anybody else.

Brigitte Schroeder Gudehus, for instance, has shown that after the First World War scientists were actually even more nationalist [laughs] than non-scientists. But what I am interested is not whether the idealised view is true or not, but how it is being used, how science as a champion of international cooperation is being mobilised ideologically. And you see that happening in various other ways too, for example in the pacifist movements around the 1900s that led to the establishment of the international court of arbitration in The Hague and later to the League of Nations and the United Nations. Science was held up as the sort of area where this had already happened, where there was already this kind of cooperation.

What I have found interesting is to see what this comes from. It’s from a particular group, the progressive liberals, who around 1900 were associated with the progressive movement in the U.S. that advanced this idea. Science was connected to another kind of internationalism during the Cold War. Gavin de Beer wrote this famous book called The Sciences Were Never At War. He is basically saying that nations have their battles, but scientists are always cooperating and he tries to show it historically.

His point, however, is a Cold War point that we should uphold these ideals of scientific internationalism because they are under attack. And who is attacking them? The Communists of course. So you see that these expressions of internationalism seem very lofty and great but you can unearth the politics behind it.

But then in this ideal form, is scientific internationalism achievable, is it desirable?

Yes, of course, it is desirable, but achievable, I am not so sure. It’s like what Gandhi said about Western civilisation – it would be a good idea [laughs]…. no, I’m less sceptical, – sure it’s desirable.

Then also your other work about politically active scientists…

Yes, this is the other thing that I have been looking at – the ideological uses of science mainly by left-wing scientists….

It is largely left-wing scientists?

Yes, it doesn’t need to be, but it is. The most famous politically active scientists were the so-called red professors in Cambridge in the 1930s – a lot of Communist scientists then, and they really took their Communism to their science. They said that in a capitalist society, science is used for the wrong ends and that we need to change this. We need to have much more planning of science so that it is used for the right ends, and we also need to use science in planning society so that we don’t leave questions of housing, food, etc., to the market mechanism but investigate and plan it scientifically. Well, that might be a nice idea, but there is also something scary about the planning. Critics say you are creating a total tyrannical regime and I think they were not completely wrong about that.

You have travelled to India too…

Yes, I have always been interested in non-Western science and its history. Most history of science is very Western-oriented. There is literature about other things, but it is on the fringe. I thought it would be nice to find out more about this, also to get a more balanced picture of development of science in the world.

We decided to look at astronomy because it is a sort of ubiquitous science – any civilisation has astronomy, if only because it needed to make a calendar and predictions and things. In Uzbekistan, we went to an observatory in Samarkand. It was created in the 15th century, used for a few years, and then gone. It was in the early 20th century that a Soviet archaeologist dug it up. It is a gigantic observatory, much bigger than anything in Europe at that time, and they could make very accurate measurements here. It was constructed by Ulugh Bek, the local ruler. His observations were very authoritative and also known in the West. And this was created in a civilisation, the Timurite empire, that I had never heard of before. Then we went to India... several observatories built, of course, by Jaisingh.

In Jaipur and Delhi…

Right. So this was a maharaja in the 18th century who built all these observatories, the best surviving ones are in Jaipur and Delhi. These are very interesting because first of all they are totally different from Western observatories, they look like skateboard tracks [laughs], they are very beautiful and second, they were built at a time that the standard in the West was telescopes – the telescopic observatory with a dome and a slit with a telescope.

Jaisingh knew this, he himself had a telescope, but he still built complete different ones, why? There was a question and what did he want? What was he trying to do? He spent loads of money on these things, as much on his palaces, which are enormous. I still can’t answer that question [laughs], but you realise that there are things in science going on there, all kinds of science for other means.

We talked actually to the current director of the observatory in Jaipur and he said that every year a Brahmin priest comes and draws a horoscope based on the measurements that they make. And I just bought one.

It’s called the ‘panchang’.

Oh, is that what it is?

But this also brings up the question of the interface of astrology with astronomy. There is an ongoing debate in India whether astrology is a science, and that it draws from astronomy.

But that’s also true for a lot of Western astronomy, that it was intimately connected with astrology, also during the times of modern science. You have to ask not just what was contributed by astronomers but also why were these observatories built? They cost a lot of money and usually they were built not by astronomers, but by some local ruler or state. What did they want? Well, to calculate dates and things like that – later they were for precision measurement for cartography and surveying purposes – for setting exact time and all that sort of stuff. But in the early modern period, astronomy was also very much used for astrology, to tell a king when to go to war, when to have an operation. So the combination of astronomy and astrology has been a common one, also in the West.

The point, however, is something I made earlier and I’d like to stress it again. It is not whether this use of science or that use is right. That is not at the crux of what I am looking at or am interested in. What interests me is to see and find out how science which is considered neutral and objective actually isn’t, and how all sorts of people use it to meet their agendas and serve different purposes. It’s extremely important that we be aware of this reality of science and its use, actually various uses.

Calling a claim scientific, and therefore apolitical, is a very political move in itself, and one that can lead to the exclusion of other points of view from the discussion. Now I am not saying that all points of view are always equally worthy of consideration, but the scientific ones often need a little unpacking, and their politics should not be obscured.