Tuesday, May 27, 2014

IIT Bombay – Build, Build, but Where is the Imagination?

Indian Institute of Technology, (IIT) Bombay, now Mumbai – my alma mater – has undoubtedly been a happening place, even when I was there some 25 years back. Still, I was quiet taken aback to see how much was “happening” when I visited it sometime last week.  This was not the usual campus sort of activity. Rather, what is happening is that the campus is in the middle of a construction boom. It is abuzz with the sounds of excavators (popularly called JCBs), bulldozers, concrete mixers and the likes. Mingling amongst young men and women wearing the characteristic look – half earnest, half I could not care less – of students on campus, are seen men in plastic hard hats and bright yellow and green coloured reflective jackets. Construction is on everywhere.

Excavator at a construction site near YP Gate
Now anywhere in the world, construction is a sure sign of progress – or, to use a more nuanced and lively word, construction is a sure sign of “vikas”. In the last few months, the word (and its more mundane sounding English equivalent, “development”) has been much thrown around as India witnessed an energetic and loquacious election campaign. While India waits for the new government to unleash vikas, the IIT Bombay campus – as always – seems to be miles ahead of the country. 

Naturally, all this must be great for the campus and its residents. But somehow I am left feeling just the opposite. Not surprising, of course, because I am amongst the minority which believes in such odd ball things like rivers should flow, and dams that stop the flow of a river are not exactly great news; that open spaces are nice, nicer than glass fronted tall buildings; that mountains are great, particularly when they are not hollowed out and cratered by mine pits; that if we need to forego some coal extraction to keep in place centuries old forests, that’s not a bad deal; that animals, plants, fish – in fact, the entire non-human biota, have a right to live and a right to an ecological space that will ensure that they live; and that such a right accrues to them not because they are useful to the human race, but rather because its intrinsic to their being on this planet.

So when I saw the campus last week, I was, to repeat what I said earlier, quite taken aback. I saw in the happenings on campus a microcosm of what is happening in the larger world out there, things that go against the grain of what I have outlined in the earlier paragraph.

But I must qualify my above thoughts. I am not an extreme ecologist nor, to use a word that has often been thrown at me and my friends, an eco-terrorist. If I think a river should continue to flow, I also agree that it’s okay to extract some of its waters for human use. But some, not all. How much, and how to arrive at this how much, is a complex interdisciplinary field of science, technology, social, environmental and political processes, called “environmental flows”. Similarly, I feel that we need to mine minerals, but “how much and how” remains the crucial question. This approach needs to be extended to all things described above.
So when I felt bad at what was going on at IIT campus, it was not because open spaces are being eaten away rapidly, but because it seems to be done in a mindless manner. I understand that IIT badly needs more hostels, residential quarters for staff, departments and so on. Yet, I wonder whether all this cannot be built without destroying open spaces, dumping muck in the lake and destroying the greenery? 

Old Hostel 10 makes way for a new high rise 16 storey H10

Indeed, if there was one place where one could expect an innovative answer to this question, which is a smaller version of the larger question confronting humanity – how can we meet the needs of human beings at the same time ensuring that we destroy the surroundings the least – then it could have been IIT Bombay. It has the brains, it has the talent, it has the funds; what it probably lacks is the interest to take a particular approach to developing the campus. Else, we would not have a flashy new air conditioned sports complex coming up on the gymkhana grounds – a sports complex that takes away significant part of the sports ground itself! (Alumni may be interested in knowing that construction is coming up on all three sides of the gymkhana grounds H1 to H3 side, H4-H5 side and H8 side.). Or muck being disposed into the Powai lake. And so on. When I asked around if there was indeed a master plan, several people – who I know are sensitive and concerned campus residents – said if there was one, they were not in the know of it. 

While walking along the lake side path from the (old) guest house to behind hostel 8, (hardly a lake side path, now that the lake has receded so much), I wondered aloud: With so many alumni donating generously to the Institute for a variety of causes, including for big new departments and buildings (sometimes named after themselves!), why has someone not thought of donating funds with an express purpose of preserving a part of the campus? A sort of a no-build fund, a modified version of “debt for nature swap”? My friend, an alumnus and a faculty, Prof. Milind Sohoni, immediately responded saying that apparently the batch of 1980 had done something like this, giving funds to preserve the very stretch of the path that we were walking on. I also saw a small park called Kshitij built as a part of this. But it seems the authorities have renegaded on the promise to preserve the area, as there is a new big multi-storey guest house being built next to this very path. 

A heap of excavated debris piled up. A common site at several places in the campus

Certainly, part of the reason for me to feel bad about the campus is because I spent five incredibly great years there, and have a residual attachment to it. But I don’t want to make too much of this attachment – I no longer live there, and have visited it probably all of 10 times in the 25 years since I left it. But my disquiet stems more from a sense of missed opportunity. IIT could have showcased a different way of doing things, an approach that would not only keep the campus as beautiful it was, but would have also been an inspiration and guide for how to do things in the larger world outside. 

But then again, may be IIT, and the world outside wants to do things in this very manner, and they are indeed showcasing and inspiring the world with an approach they believe in?

May be I am really in a minority?

27 May 2014

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Shripad, very sad to read this. I really wish what you say the decision makers of IIT campus and as a step in that direction, more of the alumni reads this and post comment and send letters to IIT bosses to rethink what they are doing. Indeed IIT needs to set an example of sustainable, human and nature friendly "vikas", but if there is neither an attempt nor a debate in that direction, that is very sad. Let us shout in the IIT hostel style collectively, may be, may be the bosses will listen?