Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Freedom, Free will and the Role of Faith in Urbanizing India

From the desk of Vitasta Raina
Dated: Aug 28th, 2018
Time: Irrelevant

It is kind of difficult to begin a dialogue on free will in a subject such as urban planning and design which is so deterministic. Human elements, of course, cannot be controlled the same way in which the DCRs control setbacks and building heights, but there are civil codes and laws in place to monitor and control criminal human behaviours. I wanted to pick up the subject of free will, faith and freedom and their role in shaping our cities because I find it fascinating. But to begin with, and I envisage this subject to go on for a couple of posts in the coming months, I'm concentrating only on definitions and differences more for my own study and benefit first, and secondly, for building context in the subject for further study. While it's easy to understand how faith controls and regulates land use (For instance certain shops are not allowed in proximity to religious structures and religious buildings cannot be razed in spite being illegal), it's not all that easy to understand how free will and various types of freedoms such as the freedom of expression and fundamental rights such as the right to live and work anywhere in the country, affect long term strategic plans of cities, particularly planned city extension areas.

One of the more instrumental aspects of the recent Big Data revolution in urban planning has been the way in which trends related to traffic, migration and weather patterns for instance, can be used in real time to monitor and affect changes in existing plans or to tweak certain portions and allocations of the land use plans to engineer greater efficiency, saving both time and money and enhancing quality of life, lessening risks to exposure and minimising various threats to life and property. However, much debate is also rife alongside these features related to how much freedom or rather how many forms of freedom such measures can curtail. However, freewill is a rogue factor, related more to the immanent act of decision making that while being associated to notions of freedoms on the vast terrain of cities, also manifests as smaller infringements on the human psyche affecting the agency of human beings and has far reaching impacts on developmental studies, community behaviour and the culture of cities.

Free will as a subject of behavioural science impacts the ways in which decisions related to planning exercises occur. While this may be based on scientific data collected over time and trend analysis of geography, economic flows and climatology, more often than not, planning town level facilities and amenities and various public infrastructures, takes into account socioeconomic and demographic studies as well. Free will is related to faith in that decisions are based on ethics and values and these draw out from our conceptions and ideas of 'good vs. bad' or what is considered morally correct and incorrect. Faith as an instrument instills in large sections of society various ideas of what occurs within our lives as a consequence of our actions and the choices we make. These are considered right or wrong at a universal level on what religious understandings or faith based frameworks impart. If we didn't believe that thievery was immoral for instance, our actions and choices would lead us to believe that government scams are not incorrect thereby changing the way the government functions. But is free will subservient to individual or group faith? Let's go back and examine how these may impact an urban level scheme.

Let's take the example of a redevelopment scheme where a majority of existing tenants live in informal hutments on site along with a formal housing society. While logic would dictate that the informal settlement be removed from site, the redevelopment plans generally include in-situ options for including the tenants and accommodating them into the formal housing systems. This decision to include the economically weaker sections (EWS) and lower income groups (LIG) within formal planning exercises is driven by notions of what is considered moral and just in socialist or socially conscious societies. The act itself is based on religious philosophies and faith in fellow human beings. However, there is limited freedom of choice after the planning has occurred, when the actual development on ground begins. In many ways what we understand as our freedom is merely a small function of the free will and faith of governing bodies and the bureaucratic, religio-political and financially powerful classes of society.

Role of Faith, Free Will and Freedom of Choice in Urban Planning. (c) Vitasta Raina. Aug 2018

In our country where while multiple factors affect a regional urban plan, the overall frameworks of faith provide a firm ground for bringing congruity to an otherwise diverse group of people with differing worldviews. This systemized moral code of conduct is regimented further into rules, laws and legislatures meant to provide and ensure freedom to all citizens. Free will however, is essentially an individual phenomenon based on an individual understanding or misunderstanding of the popular notions of morality. In recent years, there has been a lot of stress on inclusion in urban planning leading to the popularization of collaborative and community led planning exercises with a stress on individual and grassroots level interventions in urban schemes, instead of the traditional top-down approach. An example of this was seen in the formulation of Smart City Plans prepared by city officials during the Central Govt.'s Smart City Challenge in 2015.

In the Smart City Challenge, while citizen consultations took place, similar to the citizen consultations for the New Urban Agenda drawn out by the UN Habitat, to select locations for Area Based Development portion of the smart city plan, and the citizens were given the freedom of choice to choose city level interventions, the act of the challenge as well as the decision to conduct the mission in itself was not left up for debate. In many ways, the freedom of choice was an empty gesture with limited available options, with none to repudiate the mission itself. The subject of planning, thus, is a tricky one because it necessitates collective decision making to arrive on 'common ground'. However, the decision making process itself is often outside the arena of the planning exercise and the existing governing laws of the land, and is repetedly led by specific motives and politico-economic alliances.

Faith as an instrument is employed by the privileged factions of society to exercise control over citizens and cities. But without notions of faith to guide moral actions, free will would lead to an era of self-centric barbaric hedonism where survival of the fittest would prevail. However, in current systems such action already occurs where the politically influential use cities as playgrounds to service individual needs and where citizens enjoy freedoms curtailed by powerful ambitions and group compulsions.

In coming times however, with progress in quantum thinking, the answer to the question: would you do this if it were morally right or wrong, may get more complex, wherein any decision could be both right as well as wrong at the same time. What would urban plans look like in such cases? Walking down the skywalk in Mumbai's Bandra east, looking at tin shed structures jutting out of 5-star hotel lobbies and urban agricultural fields next to sewer lines hidden behind billboards and cracks in concrete walls, in all the informality that exists and greets you behind every high-end, high-rise residential tower, I think they would look a lot like this.

Bombay Love.