Reimagining Development - CEPA
13 October 2014

Photo credits: Colombo Gazette

Listening to Kings of Leon’s “Wait for Me” on my mp3 player in the rain, I was walking towards Colombo’s Arcade at Independence Square, after dark. The music was smooth, and the singer kept singing “wait for me, wait for me, it’s all better now, it’s all better now”. Ridiculously expensive-looking cars passed me by, flashing their halogen lights. Raindrops slid from my umbrella, landing like ice on my collarbone. The wind tried feebly to blow the umbrella away, to soak me naked with the silver sheets of rain, like transparent molten steel, while the clouds churned above.

Arcade at the Independence Square, a 85,000 square foot white-washed sumptuous monument waited placidly ahead of me. It is a former colonial mental asylum converted to a magnificent piece of infrastructure, to house shops, restaurants of luxurious nature; a part of the colossal urban beautification blueprint of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence and Urban Planning.

The Arcade is portrayed by its developers as an ‘open space’, ‘a meticulous craft, and ‘an expression of freedom’ where Sri Lanka’s tapestry of post-war development supposedly whispers “poetry in architecture, creating the impression that a beautiful city and a beautiful life is the right of every citizen”.

By now, I have become a regular visitor to the Arcade, I am researching the surge of public spaces in urban areas, and this was my final participant observation visit to the Arcade.

My humble attempt is to understand why people come to these newly surging luxurious pieces of infrastructure, otherwise branded as public spaces. What qualifies them as public spaces? Why should the state spend extravagant amounts of public money to build these even more extravagant spaces? These were some of the questions I was grappling with.

So in I went, to observe and listen to people who visit this space, to make sense of some of these questions and phenomena. It did nothing but present a repository of more questions, mostly, concerns.

The rain had now deserted the carefully manicured lawns and floors paved with cobblestones. The place usually crowded with people walking, staring hysterically into the air, sipping cups of coffee, eating fast food from Burger King, was empty. All that chatter had died down. It’s amazing what a single shower of rain can do.

Yet, those Parisian looking street lamps still flickered light, water fountains still sprinkled water, baristas were brewing hot coffee in the nearby coffee shop, luxury cars still drove by. People were running away from the rain, occasionally tiptoeing to avoid puddles of water, with all that cussing, as if the rain was such a crime. The rain had suddenly quietened things down, and had painted the usually well-lit space in grey.

I, an ardent lover of rain, enjoyed this sudden quietness, this hollowness in space, this subtle beauty of the unexpected rain. It gave me the time and space to reflect on what I had been observing over the past few days, and what I had been hearing from people that I talked to, about this place.

A majority of the people who came to the Arcade did so out of curiosity, to inhale the novelty in the air, to take photographs with friends, to hangout. When I spoke to them, they did confess how wonderful the whole experience was, and how most of them had not seen anything like it before. It’s true, neither have I.

Most of them thought the Arcade was a thing of utter architectural perfection. But not many of us could see how freedom is redefined through the aroma of such novelty and architecture. Every time you inhale the air, there’s nothing but perfection that assails one’s senses. One of the respondents thought that the “building looks nice, but too ‘concreted’”. For them, the Arcade is not their idea of getting out of the routine and structure of daily life, because the architecture of the Arcade is itself too structured.

Another predicted that the patterns of visits to the arcade “might change once the novelty wears off”, and that until it becomes less crowded “it might be a bit tiresome to walk around”. One of the other respondents had visited the place twice, and was not too keen about shopping at the place. They said, “I feel the architecture is a bit too heavy...You keep walking inside long covered corridors, it's like a maze.” “It is far too expensive, and I am also trying to move away from being 'consumerist'”, another added.

Some also thought that they prefer the Independence Square over the Arcade. “I feel myself at the Independence Square...I have seen a difference when people are at the Arcade and when people are at the Independence Square...People are a lot more ‘themselves’ at the Square”, they said. “I have been to the Independence Square more often than the Arcade. There is a lot of free space there to talk, run, ride bicycles, than in the Arcade”, one said. “Both times I've been to the Arcade were when I went to the Independence Square for a walk. Independence Square is a nice place to walk and relax”, another concurred.

Some of the respondents were concerned about the presence of the military in most of these newly surging public spaces. “I don't think anyone is ‘free’ to do anything in the arcade besides what is prescribed as ‘acceptable’ by the military”, said a respondent. “Apart from the politics of constructing and financing the arcade, the large number of police, military makes me feel ill at ease”, said a young male with a part minority and part foreign identity.

All most all of these places were constructed and are managed by the military. The Urban Development Authority is under the flagship of the defence ministry to begin with. An opportunity for employment for the military with the war coming to an end, one can argue. The danger lies in political designing and militarisation of public places becoming the way in which autocrats squash dissent and make democracy, freedom and development believable to enthralled dreamers.

We have seen how public places have manifested as epicentres of democratic expressions in the recent past. For example, Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 toppled President Eduard Shevardnadze from Tbilisi's Freedom Square, Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004 and the recent demonstrations that took place in Kiev's Independence Square are notable events. Egypt’s Tahrir Square took centre stage during the Arab Springs. In Libya, the main public square situated in Tripoli is symbolic of the country's 2011 revolution. Does the Arcade at Independent Square, discourage the possibility of such free and democratic expression, especially due to the presence of the military?

The constructors of the Arcade have taken lessons from the French; they have even visited Paris for inspiration. However, if we recall the days of Baron Haussmann's urban renovations under Napoleon III, in the 1850s and 1860s, which demolished unruly lower-class neighbourhoods and banished their impoverishment by placing spacious, grand boulevards and beautiful parks, they did so with the anticipation that in the event of a revolution, wider streets would be both harder for the revolutionary to barricade and easier for French soldiers to march through.

We have seen similar examples in Burma, Kazakhstan, Russia, North Korea, and China in the recent past, how deliberate manipulation of spaces or the lack of public spaces is a way of instigating autocracy to squash freedom of expression, and collaborative people’s movements.

Throughout my visits to the Arcade, it was too hard for me to resist the temptation to believe that freedom and development is a true manifestation. The perfect architecture was too convincing. Every nook, cranny, and corner kept whispering to my ear “never mind the people, the poverty and malnutrition in Monaragala, the escalating cases of violence against women, stagnant investments in health and education, never mind all that, because this is development, see it, smell it, feel it, believe it”.

“It’s all better now, it’s all better now”, says the singer through my mp3 player.

Is it truly all better now?

“It’s a 'development placebo', an attempt to cover up the many other serious issues in this country”, thought a respondent. “I think it's a waste of public funds, does not benefit the country as a whole, and is aimed to serve only certain classes of society in Colombo”, said another.

How did we end up here, with this linear and monolithic vision for development, which by default assumes that everything is better now? Who truly benefits from these prisons of consumerism, surrounded by manicured lawns and water fountains, where the defence of luxury has given birth to the policing of social boundaries through architecture? Is it to obliterate all connections with broader development issues? Through the apparatus of control and social polarisation, are we crusading to destruct and redefine the very essence of a public space – freedom?

The singing continues through the mp3 player “wait for me, wait me”

If you listen carefully, you can hear, those who are left behind through this colossal, fast-paced and linear development vision calling out, crying “wait for me, wait for me”…

01 October 2014

 

Originally published on the Huffington Post

A few months ago, I was traveling to Hambantota to attend the opening ceremony of the World Conference on Youth, a large youth conference, which was held with an aim to mainstream youth in the Post-2015 development agenda.

We took the Colombo-Matara expressway to reach Matara. From the expressway exit in Matara, the road leading to Hambantota was a narrow one, that went ever and on, until it joined some larger way.

That day, the sky carried the color of deadened stones, and hung above the bare lands along the road. The rain kept pelting down on the window screens of the bus we were traveling. I saw rain drops rocketing towards me, while the gray clouds churned above. Everything appeared grey in this rain, even the air.

And while I was traveling, I couldn't help but think of Mr. Mendis, an elderly gentleman I used to work with.

***

Mr. Mendis has been working for most of his life at an organization I used to intern at, a culmination of eight-to-five working hours, taking crowded buses back and forth, a quarter-a-day arrack habit, and serious temperamental issues. He proudly wears years of faithful service on his sleeve, and is part of Sri Lanka's growing elderly population. He will soon be asked to retire from his job.

With the squeeze of high cost of living becoming more and more overwhelming, Mr. Mendis awaits this transition in life, plagued by the simple realization that he has not saved a cent. He now wonders, how he can go to sleep each night, only to wake up the next day and depend on his 24-year-old son who has just started his career.

He is a man living with cardiac problems. I have seen him anchored to conscious breathing, those long and tired breaths, colder by the hour. I have noticed the muscle spasms on his left shoulder each time he breaths, his constant body pains and his anxiety. A few months ago, he failed his cardiac stress test, and now hanging feebly, onto a hospital waiting list to get an angiogram done. It will take months or years until his turn arrives.

They have told him that he is not a 'priority patient'. Those who are not 'priority patients' hang onto long waiting lists. This is the dilemma of public health care in Sri Lanka, and its insufficient resources to meet the growing demand.

He cannot help but think of the time he used to be young and healthy. Memories come hurtling, while unraveling the life in slow motion. "How wonderful it is to start things than end," he thought. The corners of his eyes were wet, but wetness isn't a celebration.

***

The road to Hambantota International Convention Centre appeared straight, unlike the wires that threaded together the telephone poles by the road, dangling into space as birds started flying away disoriented from their perching.

I couldn't help but wonder, isn't there more to getting to where you're going than just knowing that the road is straight, fast or convenient? Any road or highway will take you to the same place, but how much we pay attention to those who we meet along the way to reach our destination?

Similarly, should the pathway to development only be a straight one? Should we reach our destination at any cost?

The World Conference on Youth cost Sri Lanka some Rs.500 million to host 1500 delegates from around the world. The enormous amounts of public money spent onmassive infrastructure development projects from highways to luxurious shopping arcades and glamorous walking paths in urban areas further add to the irony of lack of public resources for people like Mr. Mendis.

Mr. Mendis represents the majority of this country, whose children may never attend a World Conference on Youth, who probably never reconcile with the fact that he hasn't been able to 'catch up' with the escalating cost of living and indebtedness, with his meager salary. He will never forgive himself for retiring from his job without a support mechanism or savings for his children.

The story of Mr. Mendis is only one in many untold stories. The question is, should we leave Mr. Mendis behind, simply to reach our destination quickly and conveniently as possible? What should we prioritize?

Like many other Millennials, I was born and raised into the millennium with destinies handcuffed to development goals and great expectations. As children we were enthralled by a crystal world that was believed to have great things lie within, waiting, until we come of age.

So we stood waiting and watching, with our button-like noses pressed against the crystal wall, until we were smacked awaken by the development goals that failed us, wars and inequalities that devastated us, and economic and environmental calamities that plunged us to the deepest grounds.

Twenty years later, I met the same set of enthralled dreamers, on my way to Hambantota, to contribute to a discussion on the world's next set of development goals.