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In May 2011 undergraduate student Deven Comen conducted interviews in Mumbai, India as part of an ongoing initiative of the Berkley Center for...

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Deven Comen

Deven Comen graduated from Georgetown College in 2012 with a major in Government. Deven worked as a research assistant for Professor Katherine Marshall on the religion and global development database. During the fall 2011 semester, she studied in Pune, India, and wrote letters for the Junior Year Abroad Network. She also participated in the Center's Education and Social Justice Project from Mumbai, India during the summer of 2011.

Deven Comen on Development in India

October 5, 2010 | 2 COMMENTS

What is an Indian environment? Is it the vast rice paddies smattering with collective labor? Is it an ashram overflowing with hippies finding inner peace in the style of Gandhiji? Is it the decrypted urban slum rote with distended bellies of malnutrition? Or is it mountains deep in the Himalayas surrounded by snow and greenery?

Try 20 minutes away from central Pune, a bustling metropolis of the 7th largest city in India where I am spending my semester abroad.

Magarpatta City is a modern township on the outskirts of Pune consisting of a mini golf course, an artificial lake, multistoried residential apartments, and a flourishing IT park. It promises 32,000 trees and a “new way of life for the networked society of the new millennium.” How is this neatly planned, creepily spotless, zero-crime, zero-poverty place real—and in India?

Being a development enthusiast in India can be a little overwhelming. After reading philosopher Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom sophomore year, I began to judge every development scheme from water management to education equity in terms of how much agency local people were given. As far as Magarpatta City goes, many domestic and international developers consider it a model of future communities in developing countries. My Political Economy Professor announced a field visit to Magarpatta City to give us a lens into modern development as we finish discussing theories in light of India’s explosive growth. I was excited to see this “different kind of development” marketed as an alternative to the coercive land acquisition and exclusive development projects happening all India.

Hailed as an “innovative township,” Margapatta City is the result of 123 farm families pooling 400 acres of ancestral farmland and setting up a private company that developed a commercial-cum-residential project. To oppose the Pune administrators seeking to convert their agricultural village into an urban zone, the farmers decided to embrace urbanization on their own terms. Now the same farmers own shares in the company proportionate to the value of their land, earn dividends on the shares they hold, rent from tenants and make more money from contractual work for the company.

By holding principles of environment control, good living standards, modern education, and total security, Margapatta City’s 7000 citizens adapted the San-Jose walk-to-work and walk-to-school model. Only here can one “enjoy an environment which vibrates with positive energy to live [his] life better.”

Margapatta City feels like a cross between an extremely sterile section of Manhattan’s financial district and a desolate army base. Because it is meters away from the hopelessly chaotic squalor of Pune, the glossy uniform IT and apartment buildings of Margapatta are appealing, yet seem Pleasantville-perfect. The foreign look and promise of “a fresh way of life” provide respite from the dust, potholes, noise, and broken roads of urban India. The development of the city emphasizes a growing popularity towards Western convince living and desires for security, leisure, and transportation.

When I asked the marketing executive of the company where the religious centers were on the impressive model of Magarpatta City in the glass case, he shook his head. “We celebrate all services at the ‘Cultural Center’ here.” My mouth flew open. One cannot walk more than 100 meters without running into a place of worship or an idol in Pune. Religious holidays occur frequently; literally everyday involves some kind of worship, even if it is morning sun salutations. The marketing executive went on to explain that the community celebrates Christmas just as they celebrate Diwali. Though impressed with the religious inclusiveness, I still felt like the ‘cultural center’ was another substitute for Indian tradition. Just like the fake pond, the promise of a city where “religions and cultures melt and become one” left me with uneasiness.

Besides homogenizing Indian culture, Margapatta City doesn’t really constitute development in my opinion. That original group of farmers is surely pleased with its amplified income, but switching from farming to capitalism was not a systemic change. If one has to make an average income of 70,000 Rupees a month to afford an apartment here, the rising tide is not lifting all boats.

How do you build community in a place like this where traditional Indian values of family and shared space seem distant? I wonder if the 11pm-7am quiet hours and 24-hour security feel restrictive. Discussing our class visit afterwards yielded words like “bubble,” “safe haven,” and “dystopia.” Our professor couldn’t figure out why a bunch of Americans felt so uneasy in a place she perceived as our normal surroundings. Stepping out of myself for a moment, I looked back at my rural upbringing. Though not technically the suburbs, Durham, CT is a pretty isolated and isolating place. It was clean, safe, and comfortable. Feeling hypocritical for my criticism, I racked my brain for why Margapatta City felt unsettling. I guess it is the slogan that unsettles me: “the pride of Pune.” Though I’ve only been here two months, the pride of Pune is not an IT park you can reside in. Pune is an incredible, buzzing melting pot of international intellectuals, faiths, socioeconomic classes, and cultural diversity.

Magarpatta’s CCTV cameras, guard checks, strong gates, and security teams may produce a 0% crime rate, but these measures also close Magarpatta to the rest of Pune. The isolation is reminiscent of Washington D.C.’s gentrification pushing out vulnerable populations into other communities. What will happen to the children growing up here, perhaps not even knowing the yes, suffering and yes, incredible diversity just meters away? Will they awaken to the real world or remain trapped in Plato’s cave? Perhaps that is a little overly dramatic, but after falling in love with all of India, including its grime amidst beauty, Magarpatta felt like a mono-culture…and thus un-Indian.

COMMENT FROM EMILY CABANATUAN - OCTOBER 7, 2010

Deven,

I found your letter about Margapatta City to be extremely fascinating. Although I am also interested in international development, I’m neither well-read nor well-traveled, and have never come into contact with a development project quite like this. I had the same gut reaction about the community that you described—it sounds like a disturbingly bland place to live, which automatically sounds unappealing in comparison to the rich cultural diversity you describe in Pune. I wonder, though, how many other Indians have this same gut reaction. Do you know what the Indian press has had to say about the city? I would be curious to know whether the idea of living in a “bubble” like Margapatta City is as distasteful to many Pune residents as it is to us, who (I feel) are almost trained from childhood to appreciate the idea of cultural diversity and vivacity and reject homogeneity. I imagine that it would also be interesting to speak with some of the residents of the city, besides its directors. I wonder what their take would be on your impression that the company is creating an isolated, almost un-Indian monoculture, or if that’s even a concern.

COMMENT FROM DEVEN COMEN - OCTOBER 23, 2010

Hi Emily,

I appreciate your readership. Your questions about the Indian reaction to Margarpatta were exactly the ones I was wondering. Since visiting, I have met several Indians who feel the same way I did about Margapatta--that the blandness takes away from Indian culture. One woman I know works at an IT firm there, but lives outside because she "would never live there." It is also becoming increasingly difficult to own real estate there because property prices are skyrocketing. Others say that living in Margapatta is just like living in a neighborhood. It's not like they never leave when a major metropolis is 5 minutes away. I've also heard the argument that it is a safe place to raise children. As more and more Indians adopt a Western lifestyle, the comfort and cleanliness appeal to them. I guess it is most popular for the elderly population, who enjoy a more relaxed and quiet lifestyle, but don't want to move too far from networks in Pune city. I wish I had a chance to interview residents--I am going to try and make another trip there before I leave. Thanks again.

Deven Comen on the Hindu Holiday Navratri

November 4, 2010

“Dusserhra is a celebration, a reaffirmation of the goodness in us which always triumphs over evil. Happy Dusserhra to you.”

Who knew that I would learn about the meaning of Hindu holidays from a text message? In India, everyone SMS-es. The chaiwallas, the security guards, the teenage kids downloading ring tones, even my quite hip ‘hostel mom’ Swapna used the above text to wish me a Happy Dusserha, the tenth day of the Hindu holiday of “Nine Nights”: Navratri.

The first three days are devoted to Dhurga, a warrior and a very strong female also known as Kali. The second three days are devoted to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity and the final three days are devoted to Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and learning. All three goddesses have great shakti, or divine power and energy. During Navratri, Hindus seek the blessings of all three aspects of the divine femininity, thus the nine nights of worship.

From the hostel, I could hear the drums and sounds of the procession, for all nine nights. I was instructed to stay inside, namely because:

a) I’'m foreign. I attract a lot of unwarranted attention which is “dangerous” according to my host. Her concern is appreciated, but having to drive around to view the idols without even getting to roll down the window feels overprotective.

b) Firecrackers are really scary. In fact, her 14 year old son still has burn marks from a wayward firecracker popular at Indian festivals. Newspapers feature government advertisements warning about the noise and air pollution caused by “crackers.” However, to be the one family not participating in traditional “cracker” burning is hard to incentivize.

Anyway, I got to partake in some traditions of the nine days, with supervision. People deck out their cars and two wheelers with chains of orange carnations throughout the festival. During the Dhurga portion, I visited some the goddess also known as Kali, the goddess who destroys all our human impurities. I also took part in traditional garba and dandiya raas dance, popular particularly in the neighboring state of Gujarat.

During the days spent worshiping Saraswati, all objects involving learning or wisdom are honored. The tools used in knowledge created are worshiped, from the implements of agriculture, the manufacturer's machines, the intellectual’s pens, the household articles, and the children's schoolbooks. For example, a friend visited her host dad’'s factory, watching each of the machines be blessed and prayed to. Our program’s, computers, and printer had the red dot of chili powder and orange saffron on the top, a mark of blessing and thanks.

For the Navatri days devoted to Lakshmi, our hostel mom took us for a quick drive to view nearby idols. The stages upon which the idols are placed seem to be permanent features in the streets of Pune; with all the festivals, only the specific god and interior décor changes regularly. One idol was nestled inside a temple filled with water. One literally wades knee deep clutching the ten Rupees (to be offered to the goddess of wealth) in exchange for promised blessing.

According to the Ramayana (Hindu scripture) Dusserhra, the last day, is special because Lord Rama invoked the blessings of Durga for the killing of Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Sri Lanka who had abducted Sita, wife of Lord Rama. On this auspicious day, many Indians start new ventures believed likely successful. Hence, all the undertakings be it laying-in of foundation of a new building. Some open a new commercial establishment or in Swapna’s case, resolve to practice twenty namascar salutations (sun salutations) ever morning “from Dussehra to Dussehra.” I resolved to spend 2 minutes every night recalling the blessings of my day. Hopefully I can keep it up all the way until next Navratri.