Monday, 20 January 2014

No shit!

Jaisalmer Fort, India
Apologies for the provocative title.  I’m not trying to be rude.  I’ve been in India for the last five weeks, which may account for the conspicuous lack of up-to-date posts in my blog.  Notwithstanding all the remarkable changes in that remarkable country during the 40 years over which I have visited it, excrement of various kinds has dominated my daily life all that time.  And unfortunately it has been a concrete analogy to my professional frustrations as well.  I fell in love with India as a traveller in 1974, but for the last 22 years I have also been drawn back there by work in heritage conservation.

I have had the privilege of counting amongst my friends some of the most passionate advocates of heritage conservation in the country, in particular Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri of the Ahmedabad architectural firm Abhikram.  For most of their entire professional careers, Patel and Zaveri have championed not only conservation as a vital component of sustainable cultural tourism, but also as a vehicle for keeping alive the traditional building skills and craftsmanship which can so enrich contemporary building practice.  

One of the long-term frustrations with India has been the profound distrust of top-down processes.  Which is a nice way of saying that corruption is so endemic, top-down funding rarely reaches its intended target programs.  For that reason the focus of much of Patel and Zaveri’s work has been to demonstrate that conservation initiative can also be driven from the grassroots.  And while they express a certain satisfaction from keeping these issues on the agenda long enough to see some increasing acceptance, like me, they lament the continuing cultural indifference to the quality of the public domain, and all the opportunities lost.

So it came as an extraordinarily pleasant surprise to visit Jaisalmer recently, and to be confronted by what appears to be a runaway success in claiming back that remarkable desert city.  One of the reasons I included Jaisalmer in my family’s itinerary was that I wanted to see the outcomes of work implemented by INTACH (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), which had been widely reported in conservation circles.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the key projects undertaken by the named agencies (including UNESCO and World Monuments Fund USA) were the installation of a drainage system throughout the ‘city in the fort’, and the restoration of Har Raj Ji Ka Mahal, the maharajah’s palace. The former, augmenting drainage and installing toilets in the individual households, is supported by the compelling analogy of a sandcastle under threat of unforeseen quantities of water.

What we found instead was a much more typical Indian story, though with far from typical results.  The truly inspiring project of the last twelve months appears to have been the coming together of Jaisalmer residents in a voluntary organisation called 'I love Jaisalmer'.  In talking to some of its leading lights, a darker side of the ‘establishment’ projects emerged.  Several members of the residents' association told me that not all was as reported with the INTACH led project.  I have to be careful, because I could not check some of the facts for myself, but it's worth opening up the residents' allegations:
  • The much vaunted drainage project apparently failed outright, because the contractor used 3" pipes for the mains - not only do such pipes not have adequate capacity, but you cannot connect to them with the standard 4" outlets of toilet pans.  It seems that most of the working toilets one now sees in the fort area have been built and installed by the residents themselves.  
  • Sounding even more like a conspiracy theory, the danger supposedly posed by poor drainage is itself described as a 'beat-up', energetically pushed in order to more effectively attract foreign donors.  The residents have engaged their own engineers, who have verified their views.  
  • The palace project was widely characterised as a diversion of money, with the best chance of arranging kickbacks.  Certainly, the quality of the visible restoration work is relatively poor, but that may be explained by disproportionate expense of hidden structural work.
Whatever the unvarnished truth, ‘I love Jaisalmer’ is inspiring evidence that enlightened self-interest can achieve great things, even in India.  The group was founded hardly a year ago, with the overriding objective of simply removing all the garbage and excrement from the fort, its ramparts, and from parts of the newer city at the fort’s feet.  And this objective appears to have been met with spectacular success.  Regular turnouts of volunteers have cleared literally hundreds of tonnes of malodorous rubbish that had been thoughtlessly discarded over decades. The simple expedient of providing rubbish bins and publicizing the fact that foreign tourists actually use them, also appears to inspire not only the residents, but even the notoriously thoughtless Indian tourists.  The streets of the fort are now remarkably clean. 

Which only highlights the fact that the cows are still not cooperating.  My post title is in fact a rallying cry rather than a statement of fact.

For an overview of the Jaisalmer conservation projects, jou can start with

There are several articles on 'I love Jaisalmer', but if you don't mind the usual breathless style of Indian newspapers, read this: