Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Project Summary: "Learning From India: The Modern Commons in Land and Water", May-June 2013


"Learning from India" is the collaboration between a historian of infrastructure, Jo Guldi, and an environmental engineer, Zachary Gates. Because of its traditions of decentralized self-governance and appropriate technology post-Independence, India is arguably the nation in the world with the widest experience of rainwater harvesting, DIY-sanitation, small-scale irrigation, participatory mapping, and other coordinated small interventions, reproduced at scale, that seek self-directed, community-governed, participatory solutions to market and government issues of the allocation of scarce resources like land and water. Our research trip will seek out cases where community map-making has been successfully applied to the allocation and self-government of limited natural resources.

Radical political theorists in the West like Colin Ward and David Graeber suspect that the small-scale, decentralized solutions formulated by local communities in lesser developed nations may hold solutions more egalitarian and sustainable than the top-down, centralized solutions devised by centralized states in the modern era.  Meanwhile, observers like Ananya Roy and John Harriss have been more skeptical, pointing to the cooptation of poor peoples' movements by middle-class NGOs, and the increasing alienation of poor people from state-protected rights to land and water.  Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts of community organizers, NGOs, and inventors, India has a rich experience with community map making, DIY technology, and participatory organization going back through the 1970s.  On our travels, we're hoping to learn about systematic small interventions from rainwater catchment to community self-governance, collecting the best set of tools to promote a genuinely self-governed, sustainable urban ecosystem.

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Our travels are motivated by questions about truly participatory governance of scarce resources, a problem not limited to the developing world.  As a foot-soldier in the battle to restore New England's industrial landscapes, Zachary Gates witnessed first-hand the limits of private-sector initiatives to channel investment against future flood and water shortage to the benefit of all.  Facingthreats of both flood and water shortage, America's cities have much to learn about the possibility of self-governance.  Can maps and community meetings really promote egalitarian consensus around the administration of land and water?  Where have modern efforts to effectively allocate land and water at scale represented the community as a commons?  In the tradition of Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and Elinor Ostrom, we look to the power of history to help us design resilient environments that enable natural instincts towards community, mutual aid, and the preservation of natural resources.  

Our choice of India is the culmination of ten years of historical study on modern administration of land and water.  In her first book, Roads to Power, historian Jo Guldi concentrated on the rise of the professional civil engineer and the infrastructure state and its role in mediating access to trade for communities that became increasingly dependent upon centralized bureaucracy for their well-being.  Guldi's work in "Learning From India" will form a part of her next research project, The Long Land War, which concentrates on the problem of people's movements to restore local control over land and water, from the Irish Land War of the 1870s through the Latin American and Indian land reform movements of today.  Chapters include the creation of a global consensus around rent control c. 1890, the post-1946 attempt by the UN to engineer a global land reform movement as a peaceful path midway between capitalism and communism, and the rise of an international financial market in real estate after 1974  and the creation of global squatterdom. These stories concentrate around the  global swarm of radicals, intellectuals, and activists moving between Ireland, Scotland, India, California, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil, whose movements created a global flow of technologies for the allocation of land, including surveying, financial instruments, and forms of political organization. 

A key chapter in this story highlights the development of participatory mapping as a tool for community self-government and awareness of land ownership, tracing its origins from the  walking tours organized by British radicals in the 1920s through the promotion of Rural Rapid Appraisal and participatory mapping by development expert Robert Chambers at the Institute for International Economic Development in Sussex and his Indian followers.  In their work, participatory map-making was championed as a way of giving sovereign land-rights to indigenous communities, of promoting self-government through egalitarian forms of consensus, and of holding outsider experts responsible to the realities and desires of the local community.  By the 1980s, participatory mapping was spread to India, where economic scarcity and Gandhian ideologies of self-governance prepared elites to embrace decentralized tools for self-direction.  By 1998 the World Bank itself was promoting training in participatory map-making.  Since then, progress in GIS and map-making online has provided the backbone for community self-mapping of forests, toilet allocation, water availability and squatter settlements.  For these reasons, India has become the site in the world where participatory surveying has the greatest institutional support and the widest array of precedent.  On our visit, we will be collecting and curating a representative range of maps, from hand-drawn maps of indigenous peoples' forest territory to GIS-enabled maps for allocating urban water distribution.  We will be asking the maps' organizers about the intentions for which the maps were assembled, the degree of participation encouraged, and the maps' successes as instruments of political consensus and political reform.

Many of these forms of participation are, in practice, extremely corrupt and their actual involvement of communities limited.   Maps have been used in some instances merely to collect information on how much a community is willing to pay for a pump installation, rather than as a tool for questioning the allocation of water between industrial agriculture and the urban poor. Elsewhere the aims of map-making are rather more grand.  In Bangalore, a Public Laboratory-affiliated mapper has been creating maps of GMO's and their relationship to traditional crops.  Can those community-sourced maps be used to generate a broader conversation about ownership, responsibility, and the public good?  Is the map by itself a technology for creating ongoing debate and resolving issues of management and maintenance? 

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