Editorial | Don’t betray Dr Ambedkar, Mayor Williams
Sadly, which Kingston Mayor Delroy Williams is unlikely to have noticed, it was not a high-minded welcome people gave this week to the renaming of Tower Street, in downtown Kingston, in honour of the Indian nationalist, politician and human-rights crusader, Bhimrao Ambedkar.
For people who live and work close to where Tower Street intersects with East Street, and where India’s President, Ram Nath Kovind, unveiled the new road sign, the name change brought practical benefits. Prior to Monday, the roads were badly potholed. The drains needed cleaning, and the metal grates under which they run were in a state of disrepair.
“Stink! Stink! Stink. Dirty wata a run pon di road,” was how Elaine Waugh described the environment. Repairs were hurriedly done in time for the ceremony. People were happy for the attention, which is unlikely to last.
It is in that context that we note Mayor Williams’ intention, as he told this newspaper, to rid the capital’s streets of colonial era names and replace them with names “in recognition of our history [and] in recognition of persons who have contributed to [the] fight against social injustice across the globe”.
In that regard, Dr Ambedkar, a 20th-century Indian icon, is a very credible selectee. A member of the discriminated Dalit (lower) caste, who earned doctorates in economics and sociology at Columbia University in the United States and the London School of Economics, and studied law at Gray’s Inn, he headed the commission that wrote India’s independence constitution. He also served in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first cabinet as law and justice minister.
Dr Ambedkar, however, is more remembered for his campaign for Dalit rights. Which is important in the context of the naming of Tower Street in his honour and the preparations there.
The matters to which Dr Ambedkar committed his life were fundamentally about respect for people’s dignity, including their right to live in decent circumstances. In other words, the basics, or small things, matter.
We sometimes state that idea as the obligation of the authorities to, among other things, ensure that the roads are relatively well-maintained, the verges are trimmed, garbage collected and drains cleaned. For people who live in clean environments, rather than in grit and squalor, are likely to feel better about themselves and their communities, and be in the framework for positive engagement, rather than social dysfunction. Indeed, the failure to do these things with consistency, and to get them right, is part of the cocktail that contributes to the dislocation that drives Jamaica’s crisis of crime and violence. Inner-city communities, such as those close to what is now Dr B.R. Ambedkar Avenue, are especially susceptible.
Mayor Williams and his administration do not appear to notice; notwithstanding his episodic emergence from his and the municipality’s cognitive dissonance, to reel off sound-good ideas, like this week’s latest about wanting to make Kingston “an international city, an embracing city – and we want to be characterised in terms of attributes that are significant to us”. If we could only decipher what that means. He used to talk about making Kingston a ‘smart city’. Before that, it was Kingston as the ‘pearl of the Caribbean’.
SENSE OF DIGNITY
Most people would be happy if Mayor Williams achieved something far easier that would enhance their sense of dignity and well-being – like Ms Waugh’s wish not to be assaulted by “stink, stink, stink” when she goes to work. Otherwise, he makes a mockery of Dr Ambedkar’s good name. And of those others whose names the mayor plans to attach to Kingston’s streets in his grand reformation.
Unfortunately, we are not sanguine that anything will change. Just west of where Monday’s unveiling took place, Duke and King streets, which are crossed by Dr B.R. Ambedkar Avenue, are, on either side, lined with the ficus trees, growing almost unmanageably wild. We have urged, many times, that they be pruned and properly shaped. Nothing has happened. No one seems to notice. Not Mr Williams.
South of where Monday’s ceremony was held, parallel to the Kingston Harbour and heading east along the Michael Manley Boulevard, the palm trees planted on the median at the time of the Cricket World Cup in 2007 are now mature, as are most of the other plants. Inconsistently cared for, they are mostly ugly.
These scenes are metaphors of failure and disrespect, inconsistency of effort, and of our susceptibility to distractions in the chase of the latest shiny object. But, surely, we can do better – and can get the little but important things right. Otherwise, Dr Ambedkar’s name is being added to the list of the betrayed.