Maintaining an existing water tank earns you a bigger punya than constructing a new one, said a Purana I was reading as it listed the various deeds that earn you spiritual merits and demerits. I looked back at my life lived in 10 states and 15 cities of the country and all I remember is India under construction. No matter where I lived, there was construction going around, be it houses, public buildings, roads, flyovers or bridges. I have often wondered if I would ever live peacefully without the noise and dust of construction. This quote made me think about the onslaught of infrastructure projects and the aftermath of their completion.
Do we think that our public resources are being put to good use before we launch new projects? Let us look at our public libraries. Every district, city, town, taluka and many villages have public libraries. Ask any random person around you and they probably do not know of its existence and when they do know, it is more as a landmark and rarely as an active member of the library. More often than not, these libraries have great infrastructure and are centrally located. They are the perfect places to host public events, at least the book launches, book club meetings or reading sessions. I do not recall any of this in any city I have lived in. Most of these events happen in bookstores or hotels or cafes. Only in the Goa State Central Library have I seen people and especially children actively making use of it. In most other cities, they are just another public building, distant from their intended audience in every possible way.
During a talk that I was giving on temples of India, members in the audience were struggling to understand their role as public utility buildings. Were they a religious place, an astronomical observatory, a school, a dispensary, a wedding hall, a place to celebrate festivals or a social justice delivery system? How can one place do all of it? This is what confused most people. When I thought about it, I realized that all these are independent public infrastructures in our times. A school can just be that, it cannot be a place to hold concerts in the evenings or during holidays. A wedding hall mostly stays unused during the seasons where marriages are few. Hotels stay empty during their off-season: they are either run at a high cost or shut down. Astronomical observatories are just tourist spots not even used by science enthusiasts.
I am often asked if we should build new temples, and my answer always is, can’t we just maintain the existing ones. Temples that are being treated as relics of the past or mere monuments can be made living, practicing places of worship. Some of them like the Kandariya Mahadeva temple in Khajuraho or Sun Temple in Modhera only need a Murti Sthapana and they can be grand living temples. Can’t we take care of what we have inherited first before creating something new?
Drive on the outskirts of any city and you see big college buildings standing literally in the middle of fields. I wonder if there are enough students to fill those buildings or if they have used a forecasting model to accommodate future scholars. Have they focused as much on the quality of education as they have on the building? Drive-in and around residential areas to see a series of shopping malls, many of them underutilized, and yet many new ones are being erected right next door. Look at the state-managed hotels that more often than not occupy the best vantage location at a destination; except for a few states, most of them are underserved due to mismanagement and service that is nearly absent.
Physical infrastructure is visible and so our political leaders love to create them. It is visual testimony of their development work. Are they being optimally used? This is like assuming that before laying a road, all possible public works that require its digging have been taken care of. Soft infrastructure is like the operating system that makes the physical device meaningful, but it is intangible and difficult to showcase and hence put on the back burner by most leaders.
Even in our personal lives, we rarely ask if we have optimally used all that we already have: be it clothes, shoes, jewellery, accessories or gadgets. Our world is dominated by the media luring us to buy more and more, linking it to our self-esteem or our standing in society, and this blurs out the piles of stuff in our closets.
I must confess that as I write this, the piles of unread books around are staring hard at me. Let me conclude by sharing a note to myself: The goal of life is neither accumulating things nor giving them up. The essence lies in enjoying what we have and making the best use of them.
This was first published in The New Indian Express on Mar 18, 2022.