From Ambedkar statue take right, aur yahan se left

bombay taxi.jpg

When I lived in Mumbai, it took me months to figure out how to navigate the city. Rickshaws, trains, and taxis were easy enough — it was how to communicate where I wanted to go that was the problem.

People didn’t pay attention to addresses – they knew building names. They didn’t say “the intersection of X & Y streets” – they knew the name of the chowk or square at that location. Bafflingly, people didn’t even seem to know street names – as I came to learn, the official names on the map were often recent impositions and virtually unused.

I learned to navigate by landmark: VT station, Shivaji Park, BKC, Shoppers Stop, Haji Ali. Choose a ballpark destination, then zero in from there with turn-by-turn directions based on shops, statues, parks, and buildings – not street names!

So you can imagine how useless online maps were. Although Google Maps technically covered Mumbai (which I found amazing enough), actually using it was out of the question…until now! The Google Maps team in India has been busy trying to solve this problem: “Go thataway: Google Maps India learns to navigate like a local.”

Have you ever been lost? Perhaps you missed a turn because a street sign was poorly labeled, hard to see in the dark, or just not where it should have been? These are problems we’ve all faced, but they’re especially complicated in India, where street names are not commonly known and the typical wayfinding strategy is to ask someone on the street.

To solve this problem, this week we launched an improvement to Google Maps India that describes routes in terms of easy-to-follow landmarks and businesses that are visible along the way.


I can’t tell you how useful this would have been to me when I first moved to India! Check out more details on the Google blog.

Cartography as a weapon


In struggles of sovereignty, cartography is a weapon. I first saw the truth in this statement in the work of Bernard Nietschmann, a professor of mine at Berkeley who partnered with indigenous groups in Nicaragua, Mexico, and Australia to map their traditional territories and fishing areas. These maps became critical tools in the groups’ struggles with local governments for indigenous control over resource rights.

I was recently reminded of Nietschmann’s work when a friend here in Mumbai reported that her copy of the most recent Economist was marked with a blue stamp painstakingly applied on a page containing a map of India. The stamp read: “The external boundries [sic] of India as depicted are neither correct nor authentic.” Much confusion ensued, but an explanation was soon found.

So even as the Information and Broadcasting Ministry plans to ease regulations on advertising in foreign print media, an archaic practice is delaying their distribution.Every edition which carries a map of India — particularly one depicting the Indo-Pak border — is delayed by at least two days. The reason: a special cell of the Customs department stamps each map in every single copy imported with the message: ‘The external boundaries of India as depicted are neither accurate nor authentic.’

In New Delhi, the process starts at the Indira Gandhi International terminal’s cargo shed. The Joint Commissioner, Cargo, heads a 40-member team with an Inspector and Superintendent who have been deputed the job of checking all printed material for anything that may be “inflammatory” or any representation of India in maps which is considered “incorrect”.

In case of any “offensive” representation, the clearing agent of the magazine’s publishing house in India is called to the Customs office. The consignment is opened, and each map in every single copy is then stamped.

The Indian Express article quotes the Economist as writing in a 2007 editorial:

Some readers in India seem to suspect us of malice: perhaps we publish such maps purely to irk the authorities and add to the overtime earnings of the hard-pressed stampers. The truth is more benign: in using “the line of control” that divides Kashmir in the absence of an agreed international frontier we are merely noting the status quo, not endorsing it.

Yet noting the cartographic status quo does grant it legitimacy in a way that obviously threatens the Indian government. In this particular struggle for sovereignty, cartography is a weapon that can be used by any group to articulate and advance their agenda. Indian maps show Kashmir as all Indian territory, Pakistani maps no doubt show the reverse. And despite the Economist’s stated benign intentions, do not mistake this seemingly innocuous statement (from the same article) as anything but a bold agenda of its own:

We use maps not to portray the world as it ought to be, or even as we would like it to be, but as it is.

The Herculean task of governing India


The cover of the Economist this week asks “What’s Holding India Back?” This account of the challenges facing governmental reform is one of the standout pieces, a character study of one of India’s elite public servants that conveys the Herculean nature of the task of running this country.

A four-year veteran of the elite Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Mr Samphel is the district magistrate of Jalaun, in Uttar Pradesh (UP) province. More often called the collector, or district officer, the district magistrate is the senior official of India’s key administrative unit, the district. In Jalaun, an expanse of arid plain between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, Mr Samphel is in charge of 564 villages and 1.4m people.

[In his office], beneath a portrait of a beaming Mohandas Gandhi, Mr Samphel receives a stream of poor people. A turbaned flunkey regulates the flow, letting in a dozen at a time. Many are old and ragged, or blind. Paraplegics slither to the collector’s feet on broken limbs. Most bring a written plea, for the resumption of a widow’s pension that has mysteriously dried up; for money for an operation; for a tube-well or a blanket. Many bear complaints against corrupt officials. One supplicant wants permission to erect a statue of a dead politician: a former champion of the Hindu outcastes who comprise nearly half of Jalaun’s population.

Mr Samphel reckons he spends 60% of his time dealing with individual supplicants—also outside the collectorate. … Mr Samphel works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and reckons he has had two days off since 2003. But this is hardly an efficient way to minister to a needy population almost half the size of New Zealand’s.

Welcome to the megacity

Nice intro to megacity life on Current. This 15 minute mini-documentary/”megapod” on life in Lagos, Nigeria, from a foreign visitor’s POV reminded me of living in Mumbai in many ways…the traffic, the masses of what I would call “subsistence entrepreneurs,” the dearth of social services and infrastructure and the various fixes that people come up with to get by. I was struck though by the threat of violence and unrest that is hinted at in the video — Mumbai by contrast feels very safe, despite similar wealth disparity, migration, and class (plus caste) issues.

I’ve been sleeping on Current, partially due to my abysmal “broadband,” but I think I might have to start watching a few more of these here…what do the kids call ’em?…”pods.” Right, now get off my lawn.

via teh bing bong