Wednesday, July 23, 2003

the burden of prints

Imprint of the Raj: The Colonial Origins of Fingerprinting and its Voyage to Britain, by Chandak Sengoopta, Macmillan February 2003. ISBN: 0333989163. Price US$26, 224 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in July 2003).

In an obscure village in Bengal in 1858, Sir William James Herschel, then a member of the Indian civil service, experienced a momentary flash of inspiration that would revolutionize the field of criminal investigation.

In an effort to discourage a local businessman from reneging on a supply agreement by repudiating his signature, Herschel prevailed on the Bengali contractor to stamp the document with a print of his left hand. The success of the ploy - conceived as a bluff only - fired the imagination of the colonial administrator, making of him the first amateur student of fingerprinting, and, as Chandak Sengoopta argues in Imprint of the Raj, the technology's true pioneer.

In his first work of popular history, Sengoopta, who received his doctorate in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University, recounts the tortuous path fingerprinting took from colonial India to today's forensic laboratories with a fascination and thoroughness reminiscent of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman and Dava Sobel's Longitude. Born and raised in Kolkata, where he qualified in medicine and psychiatry, Sengoopta brings a welcome breadth of knowledge and experience to his subject.

It was no accident that fingerprinting technology was first applied successfully in one of the far-flung outposts of the British Empire, and not in Britain itself, according to Sengoopta. While the science of the day remained convinced that crime was a hereditary aberration, Britain, with its belief in personal liberty, was reluctant to measure and catalogue its citizens. Not so its colonial subjects. Here, Sengoopta points to the colonial obsession with studying, documenting and measuring the darker denizens of the Empire. To begin with, this effort was simply good business. "The East India Company was not simply a trading corporation and a virtual government - it was also a full-fledged knowledge gathering enterprise staffed by active, if variably talented, learners, explorers and investigators."

But as this knowledge gathering became more academic and more closely affiliated with the budding techniques of science - then still an amateur pursuit - it also became an integral tool for the justification of the Empire. As Edward Said has argued, the Orientalists' investigation became part of the mechanism of control as they sought to "divide, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index and record everything in sight (and out of sight) ... make out of every observable detail a generalization and out of every generalization an immutable law".

After languages and geography, the natural subject for study was the people. With race the obsession of the era, it is not surprising that the first projects involved cataloguing the customs of India's many castes and seeking to separate them into races through careful use of the calipers - the physical anthropologists trusty companion. But it soon became apparent that for the businessman, the individual was of far more importance than the group. "Sciences such as ethnology or geology facilitated control only in broad economic or sociological terms," explains Sengoopta. "These forms of knowledge failed to reach that level where the day-to-day business of the empire was conducted." For that, it was necessary to be able to identify the individual.

Herschel proposed that fingerprints provided a "signature of exceeding simplicity" that even Bengalis, whom the British considered duplicitous beyond compare, could neither forge nor deny. By requiring the colonial subjects in his charge to sign documents with this method, he virtually eliminated pension fraud - a practice that he believed had been general, since the British couldn't tell one Bengali from another. He greatly reduced the conflicts over deeds, reporting that the new technique "lifted off the ugly cloud of suspiciousness which always hangs over [registration offices] in India. It put a summary and absolute stop to the very idea of either [im]personation or repudiation from the moment half a dozen men had made their marks and compared them together."

For all his pioneering work, however, Herschel was not able to convince other administrators of the value of fingerprinting or to bring the technique back to Britain. Nor did he foresee its usefulness in criminal investigation, although he urged the inspector of jails to use fingerprinting to verify the identity of prisoners. What was missing was a useful method of organizing the fingerprints on file.

For some time, therefore, fingerprints could be used once a suspect had been found, but were no help in finding an unknown culprit. It was another colonial administrator who, along with his Indian assistants, developed the method of classification that made fingerprints the cornerstone of criminal investigation they are today. As inspector general of the Bengal police, Edward Henry introduced his classification system in 1897. He brought it with him to London four years later, where he applied the innovation as assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police. There the technology was immediately instrumental in solving several high-profile murder cases, and soon entered the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fingerprinting had arrived.

But the investigative technique retained the taint of its origin in an atmosphere of xenophobia and anxiety about the racial "other". After establishing fingerprinting technology in London, Henry was seconded to South Africa, where he implemented a new labor pass for "colored" laborers that included their fingerprints. Later, Indians, Arabs and Chinese were required to register their fingerprints and "were subject to arrest without warrant if they could not produce their registration certificate with fingerprints on demand". Mahatma Gandhi, who was then still working as a lawyer in Johannesburg, protested that documenting the identity of "non-whites" using a technique otherwise reserved for lawbreakers "reduced all 'Asiatics' into criminals".

Sadly, even if we flash forward more than a century, the same ignorant double standard prevails. Last year, the United States announced that visitors from up to 35 countries would be required to register with the government and have their fingerprints taken, implying once again that a criminal is not characterized chiefly by what he does but by who he is. What's next, measuring noses?

delhi's war on the poor

As if living in a slum isn't bad enough, Delhi's poorest residents face demolition of their homes, eviction to remote sites and resettlement on barren land. And corruption riddles the agencies charged with helping them.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal in July 2003).

EARLY ON THE MORNING of May 31, a phalanx of bulldozers, flanked by 600 policemen, rumbled into a shantytown in the West Delhi industrial district of Kirti Nagar. They had been ordered to destroy nearly 3,000 homes spread over more than four hectares. Families in the slum grimly cooked breakfast, some hoping for a last-minute reprieve, others insisting they would fight. But then the bulldozers started rolling. All thought of resistance evaporated, and everyone scrambled to save his family and meagre belongings.

"There was a lot of confusion," recalls Shalu Gupta, 22, whose home was demolished. "Then a fire started somewhere, and all I could tell my family was 'forget about collecting your things, just save yourself'." The Guptas managed to save a few electrical items--a tube light, a television, an electric fan--but almost all their household goods were lost. Worse, the forced relocation caused Shalu Gupta's father, a security guard, to miss three days of work and he was fired. The new plot they were allotted, nearly two hours away from where they once lived and worked, is much smaller than their old home. "How can a family live in one room?" Shalu Gupta asks angrily.

The Guptas' experience is typical of the cycle of demolition and resettlement that makes it nearly impossible for Delhi's slum dwellers to improve their lot. But with the Delhi assembly elections approaching in October, the slum-relocation issue--which bedevils most of India's cities--is facing renewed public scrutiny in the capital. Much of that scrutiny now focuses on the municipal departments in charge of slums and housing. Human-rights advocates, social workers and slum residents say the departments have not only failed to build affordable housing, but they are also involved in the theft of land and money intended for the poor. The past year has seen a series of corruption scandals involving the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which is responsible for housing, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which handles slum removals. The very agencies tasked with alleviating the plight of the urban poor appear to be making it worse.

Meanwhile, the poor keep coming. Delhi's population increases by at least 500,000 a year, half of them migrants looking for work. But over the past 20 years, the DDA has built only a third of the homes that it estimated would be needed to house the growing population, according to an analysis of DDA statistics by Sajha Manch, a federation of organizations working for the urban poor. Of the "low-income housing" that the DDA did build, 80% was bought by middle and higher-income groups because it was too costly for the poor. Over the same 20 years, Delhi's migrant labour force has erected more than 1,000 slum colonies on public land, and the population of Delhi's slums has grown from half a million to 3.2 million.

The legal owners of the land occupied by the slums are government agencies such as the Railway Authority, the Airports Authority, or the DDA itself. Like landlords anywhere, they're unwilling to surrender their property free of charge, though in some cases the poor live on such land for decades before it becomes valuable enough to prompt the owners to throw them out. Under pressure from the legal owners, the answer that the DDA hit upon was resettlement.

The scheme seems humane enough. The land owner pays 29,000 rupees ($624) per dwelling to subsidize the relocation of the residents. The Delhi government contributes another 10,000 rupees, and the family itself pays a licence fee of 5,000-7,000 rupees that allows them use of a 12.5 to 18-square-metre resettlement plot for five to 10 years. That comes to 46,000 rupees or about $1,000 per household. The money is supposed to fund the acquisition and development of the land for resettlement. But the conditions in many resettlement camps suggest that little of this money is used effectively: They have no water, electricity, drainage or public transport, and some are as far as 50 kilometres away from the city centre.

Slum dwellers and rights workers suspect the money has gone into other projects, or even into the pockets of DDA and MCD officials. A spate of arrests suggest they have reason to be suspicious.

Last year, 56 corruption cases were lodged against various municipal agencies in Delhi. The MCD topped the list, with 10 cases registered and 15 employees arrested. In April, police raided the homes of the DDA's vice-chairman and four senior officers, who were arrested and later released on bail. The Central Bureau of Investigation says the officials are being investigated for corruption but has yet to frame final charges against them. The scandal resulted in the intervention of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who hand-picked a new leader for the DDA with a mandate to clean up the organization. Further arousing suspicions of corruption, in May the top official of the MCD slums department was arrested and charged with taking bribes from property dealers in exchange for plots intended for slum dwellers. He has yet to enter a plea. (The MCD did not respond to faxed questions or requests for an interview and the DDA would only say that the officials have been suspended pending the outcome of the case.)

Any clean-up of the DDA or MCD is unlikely to ease the plight of the city's slum population, because the resettlement policy itself "destroys lives," say activists. Explains Dunu Roy, director of the Hazards Centre, which champions slum-dwellers' rights: "If you relocate the poor 20 miles away from where they earn their living, people lose their livelihoods. Once that is lost, everything is on the line. And in the new place, all the civic services that were available in the old place are gone."

This is painfully evident in Rohini, a remote district in Delhi's northern hinterland where the Kirti Nagar slum dwellers have been forced to resettle. Under the noonday sun, families gather under a canopy, clamouring for emergency micro-loans provided by the charity Indcare. Stretched out over the seven-hectare resettlement area are more than 1,000 shanties built from materials salvaged from the demolition site. One family has heaped together a home from two doors, four corrugated-metal sheets and a now-useless refrigerator--in Kirti Nagar they had power, but Rohini Sector 27 is not connected to the electricity grid. Another family has built a shelter entirely from corrugated metal roofing. In a heat wave that pushes the temperature to 48 degrees Celsius, their home is an oven.

"I lost a house and belongings worth more than 80,000 rupees!" says Bimla Devi, a soft-spoken widow in her 60s who lived in Kirti Nagar for 12 years. A domestic servant and mother of two boys, Devi put almost every rupee she earned into her house. Her small family had slowly pulled itself up: One son ran a successful tea stall and the other had a good job in a factory. Everything they gave back to their mother was razed in under an hour. In return, she received a patch of barren earth in Rohini and a bill for 7,000 rupees.

Evicted slum dwellers receive no compensation for the loss of their homes and possessions--an investment of as much as 50,000 rupees over years for families who earn just 2,000 rupees a month--or aid to build a new home. They simply have to start again from scratch. On one plot, a displaced shop owner has already put together an open-air barber's shop--two chairs in front of a mirror and a battered wooden cabinet.

Purchasing the resettlement land costs the DDA about 7,000 rupees per plot, says Dunu Roy, citing research from the Sajha Manch. "That means that the remaining 39,000 rupees should be going into making roads, putting in electricity, water pipes, toilets, a community centre and so on. At the moment there's no real assessment of where the money is being spent." But a DDA spokeswoman says his figures are incorrect and that the DDA never resettles slum-dwellers on undeveloped land, though "maybe there is a delay in providing civic amenities in certain areas."

Activists tell a different story. They say the resettled residents have no choice but to develop the site themselves, investing their scarce savings in land they don't even own. Often they have to pay for the land to be raised above flood level with truckload after truckload of dirt. Their licence to use their new plot says nothing about what will happen when it expires in five or 10 years.

It's no surprise that resettlement has not reduced the slum areas in Delhi, according to a 2001-02 study by the Habitat International Coalition, which fights for the right to housing. Its research showed that the slums were not crammed with new migrants, but with people who had been resettled outside the city and returned. "If they can't sustain a livelihood, they will come back to [create new] slums in the city centre," says Shivani Bhardwaj, a Habitat coordinator.

According to Habitat International, forced eviction and inadequate resettlement violate several international conventions ratified by India and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution on "the right to shelter." But the courts, which view slum dwellers as illegal squatters, have defended the legal rights of property owners. The Supreme Court's order in one case in 2000 states that slums usurp large areas of public land for private use. Regarding resettlement, the order added: "Rewarding an encroacher on public land with this free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket."

"This is the mindset!" says Roy of the Hazards Centre. "Whereas all these pickpockets are sitting in the MCD and the DDA and the government! Confirmed pickpockets, who have been picking the pockets of the poor for the last 20 years!"

The democratic process has not significantly aided the slum dwellers either, even when they unite to vote in a bloc. Ranjit Choudhari, 23, a resettled slum resident studying for a master's degree in social work at Delhi University, says only when elections approach do politicians offer to install water pumps, build roads or supply buses. How do the slum dwellers know the candidates will make good on their promises? "We were cheated that way a few times," Choudhari says. "Now we don't vote for them until after they do the work."

But slum dwellers can also get caught in the political crossfire. A month before the Kirti Nagar demolition, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and a team of activists had broken through a police cordon and led residents in an aggressive protest, winning a temporary reprieve for the slum. Critics say that Dikshit, who belongs to the Congress Party, espoused the slum dwellers' cause because Kirti Nagar is the home district of a senior official of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party. Meanwhile Congress Party workers alleged that the demolition was a brutal form of gerrymandering--eliminating opposition voters by bulldozing their homes--while the BJP accused Congress of protecting the slum only to protect its votes in the district.

The only way to get rid of slums, activists and slum dwellers say, is the creation of affordable housing near the existing slum clusters, known as "in situ upgrading." It's expensive, but it worked in Mumbai. The World Bank made the humane relocation of 20,000 families living in slums along railway tracks a condition of a 25-billion-rupee loan for Mumbai to revamp its transport system. Resettlement sites were chosen near slum dwellers' jobs, and nearly 12,000 families have been happily resettled over the past year and a half. Delhi has not carried through any in situ upgrading, even after the minister of urban development recommended in 2001 that relocations should stop and resources should go to upgrading slum areas.

Even if upgrading one day becomes a model for other Indian cities, it will be too late for Sunil Singh and his family. They lost a brick-and-mortar house in the Kirti Nagar demolition that was the product of 10 years' work. Starting over, he doesn't even have the 5,000 rupees he owes the DDA for his resettlement plot. Asked what he plans to do, he folds his hands and says with more despair than conviction: "I'll work. What else is there?"

the god in the artist

The Miniaturist by Kunal Basu. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. £12.99 ($21.84)

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2003).

THE MINIATURIST, Kunal Basu's second novel, is a peculiar book--something all too rare these days.

Set in 16th-century India, it traces the career of the era's greatest artist from the imperial court of Akbar, the third Mughal ruler, into exile for an unthinkable crime.

Against the unfamiliar backdrop of the Mughal Empire, Basu writes of the struggle of the artist to burst the confines of conventional morality and contemporary aesthetics "to show what the eye cannot see." Like his artist hero, the writer does just that, unveiling a story behind the plot; the "unseen" struggle of the creative mind, its passions and almost religious ecstasy.

Toward the end of the century, India's greatest emperor, Akbar, commissioned two enormous projects. He ordered the imperial capital moved from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri, and commissioned work to begin for the illustration of his autobiography, the Akbarnama. It is the great ambition of the young artist Bihzad, the hero of The Miniaturist, to paint the emperor's life and become the master of the imperial library. But long before Bihzad can win the commission, he begins to draw portraits of the emperor. He dares to draw himself and the emperor as lovers.

Banished to the desert for that crime, Bihzad discovers the true nature of his art, creating a painting called "The Lady" that is revered as a goddess in the remote area. A string of tragedies forces Bihzad to confront the impotence of his art. He ties a blindfold over his eyes and vows never to paint again. Not until years later, when he returns to Agra as a penniless "blind" beggar does he discover that Akbar has forgiven him and recognized his genius. "You are not an artist," Akbar tells him. "You are a saint, Bihzad. Only a saint is truly blind, seeing none but the God inside him."

Bihzad's final painting of Akbar on his deathbed brings the revolutionary techniques he pioneered in the desert to light in the land's greatest court.

The Miniaturist is an excellent counterpoint to Basu's well-received first novel, The Opium Clerk. Like most fiction about India, that first effort was set during the period of history which most fascinates English readers: the time of the British Raj.

The Miniaturist is that much more intriguing because it deals neither with that pet subject, nor with contemporary India or Indians living abroad. By writing about the distant past, Basu has managed, paradoxically, to say something new. In this he has few antecedents, among them Robert Graves' wonderful I, Claudius.

Like the miniature paintings of the Mughal court, this novel deserves a careful perusal. Basu's every word is carefully chosen, and his every image resonates with meaning.