Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India, 10 October, 2012
By Rick Worthington
First, a confession: I had never heard of Hyderabad, India before my involvement with World Wide Views on Biodiversity, a project to provide citizen input to the delegates at the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity Eleventh Council of Parties (COP 11) that started here on Monday (October 8). Arriving early Sunday at Rajiv Ghandi Hyderabad International Airport after 33 hours in transit from Los Angeles, my exhaustion receded as I left the secure area of Arrivals and took in the vista revealed by a spacious outer room that is open to the green countryside descending below the airport. Walking through the space became an immersion in contrasts. Its fresh air provided tangible relief from the conditioned variety dispensed in airplanes and most airports. The massive concrete structure, and in particular its open front at the far side, framed a pastoral scene beyond. And the openness itself struck a pleasant contrast with conventional, security-driven airport architecture.
The greenway leading from the airport to the city was lined with pink and white flowers on luscious tropical bushes, and attractive billboards welcomed delegates to the convention. There were unmistakable markers of a metropolis in the global south—people walking at the edge of the highway with little concern for traffic whizzing by, buildings with re-bar extending above incomplete structures—but these accentuated rather than diminishing the intrigue and energy that had emerged at the airport, leaving me to wonder if this was a new kind of Third World city.
Soon enough, vast expanses of wretched structures housing the urban poor appeared alongside what had been a greenway, and the bustle of foot, motorcycle, car, bus and truck traffic going all directions at once (at 7 a.m. on a Sunday, no less) cemented Hyderabad’s affinity with places like Bangkok, Johannesburg and Lima. Iconic among the many images of that ride in its illustration of calmly living at the edge was the motorcyclist traveling alongside my taxi (i.e., within about 6 inches) who navigated with his left hand while holding a cell phone to his ear with the right. In this context, the airport and greenway seem to symbolize what development can muster in countries like India: a beginning toward socioeconomic improvement that quickly yields to the sheer enormity of the challenge. By contrast with the greenway, the majority of Hyderabad’s land and inhabitants is beset with incessant traffic, air befouled by exhaust and dust, and the ubiquitous stench of garbage. Security is high at passages between these two types of zones, whether the particular boundary is between the street and hotel, or between a country club and its environs.
Among the splotches of prosperity in this bleak landscape is a high tech zone known as HITEC City, which includes the Hyderabad International Convention Center hosting COP 11. Few things convey the cultural and political underpinnings of this zone better than the promotional ventilations of a developer who aspires to multiply its initial footprint nearly 100-fold:
“Hyderabad,a twin city along with Secunderabad, has now acquired a third dimension – Cyberabad, a city by itself, covering 51 sq.kms. It has been declared a pollution free, eco-friendly town. HITEC City forms the core of this new knowledge hub. Some of the other institutions which are part of Cyberabad are Indian Institute of Information Technology(IIIT), ISB, proposed golf course, botanical gardens, night safari, Engineering Staff College of India, University of Hyderabad, etc.”
Information technology is at the forefront of Hyderabad’s considerable high tech activity, but the city is also the center of biotechnology research and business in India. The ecology-for-the-rich culture of the convention center’s neighborhood, as well as the prominence of the life sciences industry in its economy, leave one to wonder: how did a biotech center become the host to the Convention on Biodiversity, where conflicts with the agendas of biotech developers in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and other life sciences industries simmer just below the surface, and not infrequently above it? This tension dates at least to the founding of CBD in 1992, when U.S. President George H.W. Bush declined to sign the convention at the behest of pharmaceutical companies that chafed at its aspirations to compensate biodiversity-rich (i.e., developing) countries and indigenous populations for the use of their genetic resources and knowledge of them. (Bill Clinton later signed the Treaty but it was never ratified by the Senate, leaving the U.S. in the company of Andorra, the Vatican, and South Sudan as signatories who are not bound by the treaty, compared to 192 countries fully integrated into it).
Are CBD and our own project, World Wide Views on Biodiversity, largely symbolic exercises in a larger cultural and political environment that is dominated by forces opposing their aspirations to sustainability and democracy? Or is it possible for contrasting agendas to identify zones of convergence that lead to effective action toward CBD’s aims? Questions like these emerge from the contrasts I have observed in my first few days in Hyderabad. In subsequent posts I will report on observations here that prompt concerns about CBD, inspire appreciation for what people are actually doing, and help inform a vision of prospects for the future.