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Saving the Aravallis: Documenting Gurgaon’s persistent environmental activism

Much has been said and written about the urbanism of Gurgaon. Amidst uproar and negativity over the general failure of governance, a core group of citizens has been persistently highlighting pressing issues relating to environmental conservation. More specifically, they have brought attention to the urgent need to conserve the sections of the Aravallis that runs through Haryana. To bring these concerns to the State government, citizens walked together a year ago (I blogged about it then), and we did so again today.

What did our movement achieve and what drives us now to continue efforts to engage with the government on issues that have been particularly hard to raise in India at large, but more particularly in a State where mining and real estate interests are politically powerful and directly pitted against us?

This time, last year: A specific call to action to save Mangar Bani

The trigger for the call to action, when we gathered at Kachra Chowk a year ago on 26th April 2015, was the imminent changes in land use regulation that would permit the declassification of forest land and open it to real estate development. A group of focused citizens, some of whom are ecologists, geologists and environmental experts, made convincing arguments that underscore the need to protect the Aravallis to ensure the survival of cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad. These arguments revolve around the basics, like protecting the main water recharge zone for the region, as well as more evolved arguments that call for a different imagination of the city as a place that embraces nature. As a powerful symbol of what nature was capable of, the group decided to focus on the protection of Mangar Bani,  a sacred grove protected by local communities that lies between Gurgaon and Faridabad. I wrote last year about the movement, during which a successful online petition was floated and many citizens, children included, were involved at the time.

These concerted efforts resulted in the Haryana government announcing a protected status for Mangar Bani in early 2016. It is extremely positive that 677 acres of Mangar Bani Sacred Grove has been identified for protection, plus a buffer of between 60m to 500m will be taken up for restoration. This amounts to a buffer area of 1100-1200 acres, which will act as a major watershed for the region as well as restore the already rich biodiversity of the Aravallis. The progressive work on mapping and demarcating these areas has been encouraging, says Chetan Agarwal, who has been deeply involved in the research on Mangar Bani.

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Pushing the envelope for long-term benefits

Today’s walk was intended to demand a follow through of the promises made. The final notification for the Mangar Bani Sacred Grove remains pending and the group is highlighting the urgency of this step. After notification, corresponding changes are required to be notified in records and plans, in order for the protection status to have adequate impact on future development plans for Gurgaon and Faridabad.

And Mangar is only the first step. Much more needs to be done to protect the fragile Aravallis that are facing sever environmental degradation. First, the group urges the State government to notify the Aravallis around Gurgaon as a city forest. The city’s only forested area, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, has been developed from a brownfield mining site. A collaborative effort of the citizens and municipal government, ABP has become a paradise for citizens to experience open space and nature. But there is considerable opportunity to do much more. By protecting the existing Aravalli areas and developing them as city forests, Gurgaon will join the illustrious list of global cities that recognize and celebrate the health benefits of sensitively integrating forest areas into urban development. The benefits of forests in improving air quality, and long-term benefits of living in proximity to nature are well documented and practised by cities across the world.

Second, the group requests the State government to identify sanctuaries and national parks in Haryana’s Aravallis. Mangar Bani, for example, should be made into a sanctuary. The Aravallis as a whole should be declared a deemed forest and made part of the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ). There exist today subtle ways to keep large areas of the Aravallis out of the NCZ in a ‘to be determined’ category. This category must be deleted, so that the commitment to conservation is clear and strong. Areas of the Aravalli foothills that have been currently kept out the the NCZ are equally important and must be included. Further, the eco-sensitive zones for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary must stretch to include major lakes – Damdama, Badkhal, Dhauj, and also the mining pits which have exposed groundwater and the buffer for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary on the Haryana side increased. Finally, privatised land in the Aravallis must be restored to panchayat ownership.

These actions will give firm signals against future exploitation of these ecologically sensitive areas for real estate and infrastructure development. Furthermore, these steps appear critical for the survival of these cities, critical as they are to the recharge of groundwater in the region.

Globally, environmental gains for cities have almost entirely resulted from sustained and informed citizen activism. There is no glamour in this sort of activism. It is extremely hard work and I salute all those who are working hard behind the scenes to keep these issues burning and alive in Gurgaon. Walks like today’s gives citizens like me an opportunity to do our little bit. We must hope that every little bit counts.

Activism is no longer an option: Embracing it has been a reward

My FB page is a muddle this week. In between posts on seismic safety & disaster relief, and images of protests against the destruction of the Aravalli forests around Gurgaon, there are images of smiling me posing in a variety of sarees sourced from across India. At a glance, this may come across as insensitive, but I see these as the myriad forms of activism that have come to fill my life.

There are moments when I feel frustrated because we are having to fight so much for stuff that generations above us took for granted. Think green surroundings, clean air, an expectation of a human response if you had a road accident, the ability to eat healthy and affordable food, the struggle to find support for the arts….. I can go on and on. Then I remind myself that it is my responsibility and my job to stand up for what I think is worth preserving, encouraging, what I believe is worth fighting for.

This is not activism that leaves me drained and demoralized; not activism that takes away from other important things in life. This is activism that energizes me and I believe there are many ways to build enjoyment into these efforts.

Take for instance, the walk on Sunday morning (26 April 2015) to Save the Aravallis. We, like many others from Gurgaon and Faridabad, made a family outing of it, turning up in color coordinated outfits to hear eminent speakers and activists, hold banners and discuss our concerns with other like-minded people. The value that our participation brought to the cause is evident, but the value it brought to our lives is so much more. For my kids, they are learning early to ‘walk the talk’. Udai is working on animal rights and forest conservation for a school project and this was the most logical extension of what he has learnt. Aadyaa, born with an immense love for nature, is up in arms about the cause. [Note: Watch out for a fresh blog post on this, with more detailed information about the issues and the link to a petition to save the Aravallis]

Listening intently to details about the Aravallis, what they mean to us, what we plan to do to save them, etc

Listening intently to details about the Aravallis, what they mean to us, what we plan to do to save them, etc

Happy to join a large group of people who care!

Happy to join a large group of people who care! Photo credit: Seema Rao/Let’s Walk Gurgaon

The other piece of activism I want to highlight is the #100SareePact. It’s been pure joy. I don’t mind the preparation and the little bit of extra time it takes in the morning to drape a saree;. this has to be one of the most worthy causes I’ve stepped in to support. By wearing a saree, I support an entire industry of craftspeople and artists (weavers, dyers, block printers, painters, embroiderers) and a whole chain of distributors, accessory manufacturers, tailors, etc. I reinforce a sense of pride in my culture and traditions, I celebrate the relationships and circumstances that make a saree far more special that any other garment in Indian culture. I also get to feel good about myself everyday! Check out my gallery to take a peek!

Day 2 ‪#‎100SareePact‬ A gift from my mother. She bought this lovely cotton at a small weaving Centre near Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu. Joining the saree craze is Aadyaa who was salivating over mums new black and white acquisition this morning; here she is draping the fabric over her night suit!

Photo is a bit blurred, but the spontaneous joy with which my daughter draped my mum’s saree to give me company totally justifies the immense commitment the #100SareePact demands!

All in all, what I’m learning is this: One doesn’t have to give up to be an activist, though there are sacrifices to be made (waking up early on a Sunday morning can be tough!). For me, it is no longer a choice to live inside a cocoon, believing all will be well of its own accord. I am inspired in this by many friends who dedicate a lot more time than me working hard to ensure that traffic lights are put up, corrupt officers are booked, the destitute are aided, that marginalized voices are heard in policy making and so on. To stand there in support of the good work that they are doing is my small way of standing by them, of saying I care.

The elephant in the room: Will/Can the BJP address environmental concerns?

A surprising number of people I know reasonably well, who had offered no opinions or shown enthusiasm all through the build up and during the polls, broke their silence yesterday after BJP’s victory was safely established. My first thoughts are about why people are so reticent about their political leanings or current feelings. If you’re right wing, it’s OK! Why be apologetic about it? As I began to read what people put up on FB, I began to see that for the majority of people on my timeline, their vote was in favor of stability and development. They believe that Modi can provide the sort of leadership that can bring the bounce back in the economy. For people like my driver and maid, they are hoping Modi brings life to the agro sector and most importantly, brings prices down. Fortunately, I do not know too many people who would like Modi to send the Muslims to Pakistan, etc etc. I do know a couple though, but like they say, one doesn’t always choose one’s acquaintances!

Let’s agree for the moment that the mandate is for a better economy and better governance. Looking at the analysis, I think its pretty remarkable that entire communities chose to abandon their traditional leanings and voted for the BJP, at times against the logic of caste or region. It’s a big responsibility for the BJP now, to steer the nation back onto course. Media is working overtime to offer opinions on what Modi’s priorities will be- economic growth, foreign investment, controlling inflation, reviving the farm sector, taking away the malaise of the subsidy, making people more self-reliant, assuring justice for all especially minorities, etc etc. No one is really talking about the big elephant in the room: environmental sustainability.

Kafila promptly carried a piece on this yesterday, on the dangers of the BJP government being a surrogate of the corporate sector sans checks. Among other concerns, environmental sustainability is something that those of us who work in the development sector have been really worried about. It seems that a government that plays to the corporate sector won’t bother too much about this. [For those who will jump on me at this time and tell me the UPA was as much a corporate surrogacy as Modi’s will be, let me tell you that this is not the time to compare the Congress’ crony capitalism to the BJP’s. That point is moot now, with the majority mandate. ]

When it comes to the environment, big the problems still remain. India’s record is dismal. We’re going downhill fast! Food security is a concern, toxicity in food and water is causing epidemics of lifestyle and other diseases. Pollution levels in cities are peaking. We’re not healthier humans, we’re probably getting sicker and sicker. I don’t think we can afford five years of turning a blind eye to environmental concerns, especially if we are looking to make more investments in infrastructure and industry. I don’t buy the idea that its all right for the developed world to worry about the environment, while developing nations like India should first focus on growth. Climate change is a reality, however much the extreme right in the US denies it! India’s only salvation will be in finding innovative ways to achieve growth in a sustainable manner. This impacts every sector. Our ways of production, of eating, living and traveling, of disposing waste, all need to change if we want to build a better future, sustainably.

I am also equally concerned about social equity in the context of neoliberal economic thinking, but am less paranoid there because I know the BJP will have to, in some way, benefit the vast electorate that has supported it this time. In my work, especially at micro Home Solutions, I’ve always pushed for a market-based approach, but its not always possible to do that owing to the lack of transparency in our system. How Modi will address social concerns therefore remains to be seen? The Gujarat model hasn’t any good answers and its something the new government will need to work on, I think.

I’ve made no bones about my own political leanings. They definitely do not veer towards the right. As a proud Indian, however, and a believer in the democratic system, it is my duty to support the government in power with good counsel in my own field of expertise. This piece has been written in that spirit. I see myself in the role of the enabler as well as the watchdog and critic, as a person who can make a small contribution to ensure India doesn’t take the road to disaster while thinking it’s taking the road to progress!

Of Form, Texture, Scale: Exploring Nekchand’s Rock Garden, Chandigarh

I last visited the Rock Garden in Chandigarh in December 1991 or thereabouts. I was born in the city and I was revisiting Chandigarh after my early years there for the very first time. I vaguely remember wandering around the sculptures and there are a few really nice pictures of Daddy, Mummy and me posing in front of the exhibits.

I was, therefore, quite excited to revisit the Rock Garden with my children and see how they react. Nekchand is a legend in the city and beyond. Even as the city was being planned and built by an over-enthusiastic newly-Independent nation along the lines suggested by the world famous architect Le Corbusier, Nekchand was piecing together works of art from bits and pieces he collected from the ruins of the villages that were relocated to create the city. Nekchand was of humble origins and a government servant. He worked secretly at night to create this garden and when it was discovered, illegally built on government land, it took a miracle and considerable civil society action to conserve this wonderland and create it into a public park. It is now a valuable resource for the city, attracting hundred of tourists every day.

Saturday 30th March, the day we visited, was no different and we joined the teeming crowds that ambled through its serpentine pathways, admired its fountains and streams, and were intrigued by the strange shapes and forms crafted from waste material. The park is now a model for environmental conservation, recycling all the water on its premises and even running the waterfalls from recycles water alone.

A new area has been added now and here, the scale changed dramatically. Everything is huge, larger than life. As an architect, I found the effect interesting in some parts but quite ineffective in others. Scale is not always a good thing! Another thing that irked me was the diesel-operated toy train in the park, going against its very philosophy of closeness with nature.

Udai and Aadyaa both enjoyed the Rock Garden, climbing all over the place, touching things. The water bodies attract many colourful insects and Udai was most fascinated with the red and blue dragonflies, and complained repeatedly about the fact that I was not carrying my zoom lens! Aadyaa loves climbing. This place was a dream come true for her and we had to keep stopping her from trying to scale the walls….All in all, a highly recommended outing for families. I only wish they had a better way of presenting the garden’s history and significance, a more interactive exhibit that could involve kids could drive home an important message about the importance of re-use and creativity.

My backpack carrier and my adventure lover were both enamored of the Rock Garden

My backpack carrier and my adventure lover were both enamored of the Rock Garden

Ravone-like walkways- The expansion and contraction in scale makes the Rock Garden a delight to wonder through!

Ravone-like walkways- The expansion and contraction in scale makes the Rock Garden a delight to wonder through!

Textures- From old ceramic electrical hardware

Textures- From old ceramic electrical hardware


More texture

More texture

Incongruity is the name of the game...

Incongruity is the name of the game…

three of my favourtie people made to pose in an interesting arrangement, offsetting the texture behind

Three of my favorite people made to pose in an interesting arrangement, offsetting the texture behind

Close-up of the happy poser!

Close-up of the happy poser!

The two sisters rocked the trip, the whacky Chaturvedi humor keeping spirits high....yay for Meeta didi and Nupur!

The two sisters rocked the trip, the whacky Chaturvedi humor keeping spirits high….yay for Meeta didi and Nupur!

Soul of the party...

Soul of the party…

The older waterfall...Even on a warm day, this space felt refreshing and cool...all my efforts went to stop my little one from stepping into the water and slipping!

The older waterfall…Even on a warm day, this space felt refreshing and cool…all my efforts went to stop my little one from stepping into the water and slipping!

The new, larger waterfall is over four floors high and rather spectacular!

The new, larger waterfall is over four floors high and rather spectacular!

More texture in the new phase...pretty dramatic ravine-like effect

More texture in the new phase…pretty dramatic ravine-like effect

The new phase ends up in this large, out-of-scale, rather terribly designed space...totally takes the oomph out of the experience...and do not miss the bizarre diesel-powered toy train! Ugh! My kids of course insisted on riding, you see their silhouettes in there...

The new phase ends up in this large, out-of-scale, rather terribly designed space…totally takes the oomph out of the experience…and do not miss the bizarre diesel-powered toy train! Ugh! My kids of course insisted on riding, you see their silhouettes in there…

As you keave the Rock Garden, the familiar Nekchand-style sculptures say goodbye...check this one out enjoying his beer!

As you leave the Rock Garden, the familiar Nekchand-style sculptures say goodbye…check this one out enjoying his beer! Appropriate indeed, as the rest of this day was dedicated to celebrating my birthday…party time!

The City as Muse- Thoughts during a night drive- Aug 26, 2012

Night time drives have always been fun for me. Last night, we rove from Gurgaon to Civil Lines, Delhi to receive mummy, who was returning from the month-long gruelling and, from what I understand, fantastic adventure of the Kailash Mansarover Yatra (she will blog about it in good time, keep your eyes peeled!)

To get to ISBT, we decided to take the Barapulla and then the Ring Road Bypass. It took us barely an hour to get there on a Sunday night and it was a great drive. As I clicked the pics below, feeling a tad foolish for behaving rather like a tourist, I realized that the city is indeed my Muse. Nothing fires my cylinders like the urban environment around me. Pastoral scenes, lovely as they are, can move me immensely. But city scenes, even the filth and haphazardness, make me feel energized. I don’t think I was aware of this when I chose architecture and then urban planning as my subjects of study. I guess, then, I should thank my starts for ending up in the right spot! I must also say, though, that I do not think one needs training to appreciate the city. I know many (authors, painters, photographers, social workers) for whom the City is the Muse…it’s a sign of the time we live in, our increasingly urban identity. And it signifies the natural instinct of human beings to celebrate their surroundings, and to seek happiness and fulfillment in their context.

I cannot get over how pretty the JN Stadium looks as you drive by

Tombs like this strew the landscape of Delhi, reminding us of how our lives intertwine with the ghosts of the past

A faux-Stupa stands in the vast Indraprastha Park along the Ring Road



Lines drawn in the building sector: Thoughts while speaking at a media briefing- June 28, 2012

Speaking to a group of journalists from across the country can be an interesting experience. For me, it was fun being on the other side. For all the years we ran our media services company (Nupur and me), we were the ones being educated and briefed. I was used to having my antennae out and asking questions that might sound daft to an expert panel. Today, as I fielded queries about the obvious and popular issues, I knew very well that there is a value in stating and restating well known facts, clarifying positions and so on in the interests of hopefully more informed and mature writing and more accurate dissemination of information about the building sector.
Every sector has its typical face offs and actors. In construction, builders crib about corruption, long and tedious approval processes and the like. They hardly ever profile positive initiatives on public platforms, which gies to show what their worth is (only a handful of developers can stand stall and talk about their work). Activists take up cudgels against the lack of ethics and malpractices of developers. Not for profits and professionals struggle with issues on and off the ground, but put up a more positive attitude. Everyone, media included, cribs about the government. So too at today’s event, which was a media briefing organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a lot was said around subjects like environmental clearances, green building design and planning, energy efficiency and sustainability; yet, the people in the room were divided about which sides of certain issues they stood on and united in their opinion of the inadequacy of government action. As a moderator put it, “We are experiencing a collapse of governance (politics is controlled by industrial lobbies)….and the media is often our first line of defence.” He cited examples of honest officials resorting to leaking controversial information to the media when they find evidence of an influential (and politically connected) industrialist being involved in something grossly illegal and know an official report will fall on deaf ears.
Another interesting theme in the context of energy and environment was the expressed need for urban Indians to reexamine our lifestyles. Yes we will consume more as we become prosperous, but unless we exert some control, we could be spinning into a disaster, a self created crisis of resource deficiency. I wonder what the mainstream media made of that thought. Interestingly, the Left aligned journos who kept asking for government subsidies for everything from housing to five star rated appliances had no comments to offer on equality of resource distribution!
That brings me to ratings. The BEE enforced appliance labelling has been one if the mode successful exercises in India of creating a system that incentivises consumers to use energy efficient products. The ratings were voluntary and in a few years of observation, it is clear that Indian consumers value them. The labelling is now mandatory for some appliances and more will join that list as the market acceptance grows. Kudos to all those in the field who have worked hard at making a success of this. These star ratings began at a time when the Indian market was considered terribly price sensitive. No one knew if anyone would value a more efficient product. Aggressive consumer education had its payoff.
To those of us in the affordable housing space, it is heartening to review the star rating experience. However, the challenges at our end are many, not the least educating informal sector consumers who are not well educated and spread across the country about the benefits of the ratings. We are heavily dependent on government incentives that might succeed in luring developers into the rating game for affordable housing.

Shooting in the dark: Affordable housing for Indian cities- May 28, 2012

I’m in Bangalore again, driving through the city to get from the airport to Electronic City, where we will spend two days brainstorming our preliminary research on setting up ratings for affordable housing. Always known for its simplicity and charm, Bangalore screams out its penchant for opulence today. Billboards advertise homes for Rs 5 crore and jewellery advertisements are numerous as well. Affordable housing is going to be difficult to talk about in this setting.
Why blame Bangalore though? Indian metros are seeing a distinct trend of imbalanced development. Two clear victims in this have been the poor and the environment. It is impossible for our cities to survive this way and we are at the brink of two types of disasters- social and environmental.
Gated communities are offering a refuge to the privileged and rearing a generation of people who will have words like equity, balance, multicultural and cohesion in their dictionaries without really grasping their meaning. Two worlds that do not understand each other are springing up before us. Intolerance is fuelling the flames and we are experiencing a severe social schism that urgently needs correction. How do we build trust and eradicate feelings of suspicion?
In this scenario, the concept of developers building homes for the poor strikes me as unsustainable. The gulf is wide. This will only be possible if the government steps in to make the investment profitable to developers. And if organisations and mechanisms can bridge the gap between developer and the low income customer. Institutionalising such a process seems an onerous task. Add to that the fact that access to finance is a key ingredient that also needs to be tackled in an institutional manner. Mammoth changes in policy and attitude are needed.
Working on this rating with Ashoka and other partnering organisations has been revealing. But I am unsure if I am any more optimistic than when we begun. At this point , I feel we are still shooting arrows into the dark and the answers lie right before our eyes, but we are unable to see them!

Remembering the controversy over the Vasant Kunj malls- Apr 20, 2012

Someone I met in Pune commented in a derogatory tone about Gurgaon’s mall culture. I remember when we first moved to Gurgaon in 2004 or so, all of Delhi, especially West Delhi descended on the MG Road malls every weekend in a senseless parade of flashily dressed giggly wide eyed consumers.
Now malls have mushroomed in several parts of the National Capital Region and it’s no longer such a big deal to hang out at one any more.
Our rather impromptu jaunt this evening was to the set of malls in Vasant Kunj. I distinctly recollect the clash between environmental activists and the government when this stretch of land was proposed to be developed back in the ’90s. The land was a part of the Delhi Ridge that is a significant stretch of the ancient Aravalli range and a designated green belt in the city’s master plan. The move was opposed and the government was accused of profiteering at the expense of biodiversity and the future health of the citizens. I remember Arundhati Roy talking to us students at SPA at the time. As an alumnus of our college and a firebrand, attractive lady, she made quite an impression!
Today, we played arcade games with our kids, window shopped and ate at the malls built on that controversial piece of land. Life goes on, people forget, commerce and profit takes precedence over every other consideration and even us aware and responsible citizens must accept the changing nature of cities and the price we pay for development!
All that said, little Myrah’s birthday (she is one if Aadyaas closest friends) was well spent in simple pleasures and genuinely enjoyable conversations!





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