Stations of Development, Heroes of the Franken-City

On Friday morning, March 23,  we departed comfy rooms at India Habitat Centre after a sixth floor breakfast of dhal and yoghurt, fresh fruit and grains. Our caravan comprised three sports vehicles, each with five or six researchers and a driver. As we navigated the roundabouts of Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave, we came upon thousands of students and teachers marching from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to India’s Parliament House in order to protest the suppression of sexual harassment claims against a JNU professor who was allegedly being protected from investigation by the university Vice Chancellor.

Our guide for the day Pranav Kuttaiah explained the importance of JNU and the students’ activism. For many young Indians, attending a public university is the first time that they meet people from other castes, regions, and classes. They then work together to achieve academic and personal goals, modeling alternative relationships to those dictated by tradition and inequality off campus. Consequently, public universities have been transformational spaces for Indian youth and for the country more generally. However, the Modi regime has decided to “grant autonomy” to JNU, a move which would lead to privatization of the world class institution. As in much of the world, India’s private universities have high class teachers and offer challenging curriculum, but only for the wealthy, hence the anger over the Modi regime’s decision which would simultaneously buttress unequal access to education as well as pre-empt opportunities for young people to experience social alternatives.

The next day, our group proceeded to the Gurgaon-Manesar section of the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor (DMIC), itself an effort to animate the national body. According to its website, the massive project is “conceived to be developed as a Model Industrial Corridor of international standards with emphasis on expanding the manufacturing and services base and develop DMIC as the Global Manufacturing and Trading Hub”. The DMIC website’s souped up rhetoric and development strategy, the glossy pictures and vague but determined hype are reminiscent of Shenzhen and its efforts to present the Qianhai Cooperative Zone as the place where business matters.

That shiny future was nowhere apparent, however, when we exited our car near the Delhi-Haryana border. Instead of stepping into air-conditioned halls, we found ourselves on a vast stretch of agricultural lands and a church, where behind the barbed wire and concrete walls, the archdiocese of Delhi had installed the Stations of the Cross. Like Frankenstein, the story begins in death and ends with resurrection. At the first station Jesus is condemned to death, subsequently, he carries his cross, he falls, he meets his mother, he falls again, his clothes are taken away and he is nailed to the cross. He dies, his body is taken down, he is laid in the tomb. This mini-pilgrimage was organized around a wheat field that rustled in gentle wind. Traversing the stations allows Catholics to mediate on the intrinsic suffering of human life as well as their ultimate reunion with God.

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The Resurrection, of course, is the implicit foil to Frankenstein’s project to manufacture a living creature. According to Christian mythology, when God animates Jesus, he returns him to his original divine state. In contrast, the work of the mad scientist produces abomination—“His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Mary Shelley, it would seem, was interested in the affect caused by scientifically rendering soul from flesh—the consequence of immoderate science, she warns, is madness and devastation.

Outside the church several young men approached us on Hero motorcycles, the name of the company once again drawing our attention to the ways that the Franken-City grafts classical prosthetics onto industrial modernity. Just as the rubbished monuments of Mehrauli have been repurposed to create a noble heritage for the nation-state, so too heroic mythology has been repurposed toward capitalist projects. In fact, a brief visit to the motorcycle company’s website shows the current CEO hobnobbing with soccer stars and professional road racers.

The story of how Heroes ended up on this expanse of road, however, is much more a story of global expansion and production chain gangs. In 1984, Hero Cycles began as a joint venture between Hero of India and Honda of Japan. By 2010, Honda decided to leave the venture and Hero became a fully Indian company, controlling almost half the national market. The Hero story is something of a prologue to recent Japanese investment in Indian infrastructure. During the 1990s, the Japanese shunted investment in India to China, taking advantage of the frontier conditions in Shenzhen specifically and the Pearl River Delta more generally. We paused at the Church gate to look across the wide fields and strangely empty road, contemplating two of the stations of modernization—zoning agricultural land for industrial manufacturing and the construction of logistics networks to link manufacturing sites to privileged cities and container ports.

We drove slowly through the next station, the Dharuhera HSIIDC, meditating on industrial pollution. Notwithstanding the location of world class companies like Amul Milk factory in the industrial park, the lack of investment in proper infrastructure is a defining feature of early modernization. Like Frankenstein, no sooner have we successfully built factories and upgraded the investment environment than we realized our plans have gone horrifically awry. The toxins seep and chemicals ooze; we turn our backs on our creation, consumed by nervous fevers.

Dharuhera was the final destination of our morning peregrination and there we pondered the contradiction between the ruthlessness of capitalist exchanges and a more human desire for connection. Consider that we peered through the homestead gates of the village’s largest landowner, but despite an invitation to visit the gardens; we did not enter because we feared being late for our next appointment more than we feared offending a local bigwig. We thanked the caretaker for his kindness and beetled across the street, dodging oncoming traffic to enter the rapidly growing commercial area. We laughed and took selfies and prepared for lunch, abruptly comforted by their willingness to engage with us despite the relentless ugliness of makeshift homes and crumbling foundations of the Franken-City.

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In retrospect, I realize that the protest march we had passed in the morning framed our pilgrimage to some of the stations of the National Capital Region’s development. Just as Catholics recognize their suffering in that of Jesus and young men on motorcycles identify with professional racers, it is necessary for us to recognize our yearnings for a better world in the students’ calls for justice for victims of sexual harassment and continued access for all to the country’s best universities. The JNR students’ efforts to overcome the mess that we have given to them may or may not succeed and the persistent injustices of industrial modernization may all too easily map onto Catholic symbolism of the Via Dolorosa, but the point is clear enough: the means we are using to create a better world aren’t actually working.

That evening we learned that when the young protestors reached INA market, the police prevented them from continuing their march by firing water cannons and using batons to beat students back. The clash resulted in injuries to students and police as well as police assaults on two journalists. Subsequently, I heard comments by a well dressed professor that were even more distressing than the state’s violent response to peaceful protests. She said that the students deserved what they got because previous protests had not been successful; they hadn’t learned, she implied, from their mistakes. Her model of education and its purposes were narrower and more instrumental than Pranav’s. She went on to explain that JNU was earning a reputation as being an incubator for radicals and their radical thoughts. How could a student get a proper education, she asked rhetorically, if they were busy worrying about things that don’t concern them? Students, she implied, should spend their time learning useful skills and not waste their time considering the norms and forms of human society. Indeed, the professor’s simultaneous distrust and recognition of the need for learning is central to the organization of  education the Franken-city, which favors technology at the expense of wisdom; the prototypical scientist obsessively pursues possibilities, rather than considers the consequences of these actions; our best and brightest have become engineers and electricians, rather than philosophers and priests.

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