Thursday, July 3, 2008

Another Great Day in New Delhi

We began our day with a visit to The Centre for Science and the Environment. The Centre is located in the bustling suburbs of New Delhi, but don’t confuse these suburbs with the ones we’ve got in the U.S. We drove for quite awhile (we’re traveling in two mid-size vans, by the way) along a busy, traffic-choked highway to get to the Centre, and on either side nearly the whole way out there was a sea of activity. These highways are crammed in places with small businesses, some in make-shift shacks, others in more established buildings. People are also selling food, drinks, and tobacco off of carts and tiny stalls. These spaces along the side of the road are shared by individuals and families who are literally living on the street. Some rickshaw drivers seem to live and sleep in their rickshaws. Others take shelter under pieces of wood, metal, or tarp that have been cobbled together to provide some shade and a little protection from the rain. Down side-roads and off in fields are whole shanty towns, again a mix of tarps, tents, wood, and metal. These are like little impromptu villages, and the poverty here is stark. You see such scenes repeated all over Delhi. Goats roam the sidewalks, live chickens are for sale in cages, and here and there is a bull, cow, or water buffalo.

For pictures, click here. Most are of street life taken from the bus, but others include the grounds of the Centre and interior shots from the Gandhi museum (see below).

The Centre for Science and the Environment is an important and impressive institution. The building itself is a model of water harvesting, and we started with a tour of how the facility works to re-circulate rainwater back into the soil and for use in the building. It’s a model of self-sufficiency, and the grounds are lush, nearly tropical. The facility is really impressive, but more impressive is work the Centre does to advocate for responsible policies to protect and enhance the supply of water in India. The Centre draws on the basic Gandhian commitment to the local solution of problems and to the use of traditional, environmentally friendly processes for harvesting and renewing water for both farming and consumption (and for avoiding pollution). They’ve been quite successful with the government and India’s Supreme Court in advocating for progressive change when it comes to the environment. We were extremely impressed with the programs they have in place (including the digitalizing of newspaper articles about the environment in India they are beginning to put online on their website).

After our visit to the Centre, where we also had lunch, we went to the Birla House, where Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life and where he was assassinated. On the grounds we visited the site where he was shot, marked by a simple column housed under a temple-like structure. The house itself contains a museum dedicated to Gandhi’s life and teachings, along with an impressive bookstore. We talked as much about the curatorial style of the place as we did about the substance of what was on display. Downstairs is a very traditional museum, Gandhi’s room as it existed on the day he was killed, and halls and halls of pictures of Gandhi from all phases of his life, with enough text on the walls to keep you busy for a couple of days. But upstairs is a different story. The whole space is a postmodern, interactive multimedia extravaganza. My own view was that this floor was an example of how a mania for multimedia and interactivity can overwhelm the substance of a presentation. Beneath all the bells and whistles the content struck me as, well, banal. But you might check with others and get a different story.

We ended the day with a wonderful visit to the Dilli Haat Crafts Bazaar, a beautifully kept commercial space for craftspersons selling silks, scarves, rugs, artwork, sculpture, jewelry, puppets, a dizzying array of things. We started with some food and drink at a little outdoor restaurant run by Navdanya, a biodiversity farm we’ll be staying at later in our trip (you won’t find drinks like we had in the U.S.—ask when we get back, but think a mix of fruit juice, sweetness, and salt), and then spent a couple of hours shopping. The place mainly caters to the Indian middle class rather than to tourists, though some find out about the place. But there aren’t parking lots of tour buses here, the quality of what’s on sale is impressive, and the prices are pretty reasonable.

Most of the pictures I took today were of the roadside shops and activity I mentioned earlier (the bus rides give us a kind of panoramic view of street life in Delhi and I’ve taken to shooting a lot of stills and video every time we stop). I’ll try to post some of them before I collapse.

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