I turned 37 two days ago. On that day, I was in Chandigarh enveloped in the warm love of dear friends who have been, for the most part, closer than family and the lucky recipient of the unadulterated affection of my two most wonderful children. Considering I was born in that city, I could not help thinking that life keeps coming back in full circles, again and again. These were the tree lines beautiful avenues where I spent the first few years of my life. Despite its inevitable expansion, Chandigarh retains its laid back feel and its vast, accessible public spaces give it a special charm. No other city in India that I have visited comes close to Chandigarh in the sheer amount of green open space available to citizens to walk, play and lounge as they feel fit. Those who live here are cognizant of the huge advantage they have and are reminded of their luck each time they leave town, so I am told.
We stayed the weekend with Nupur’s sister and her family in Sector 30 and the park right next door to her home became our first port of call. Naturally, for Aadyaa is an ardent park lover. And if the park has swings and jungle gyms in it, no force on earth can keep her away! As soon as we dumped our bags at home and gulped down our evening tea, Aadyaa has dragged us down there and passed her infectious enthusiasm to her brother as well. Nupur and me spent an hour watching the kids go up and down the slide over and over again, make friends with the local children and also observe interesting turf wars with them, fortunately none of which ended in fisticuffs!
Next to the slides, a group of young men were playing soccer. They seemed to be members of the local RSS Shakha, a thought that was confirmed when I was woken up the next morning by the chants and shouts of their weekend morning lessons! Mothers sat on park benches nearby, while others watched their kids from inside their homes while they cooked dinner. Men played cards in a corner, some people were engaged in a brisk walk around the park. I heard from didi that the sector had mixed income residents, living in employee housing for officer level as well as Class 3, Class 4 workers from government departments. The mixed income character is critical from the point of view of the usage of public spaces. The sheer vibrance of the neighborhood park Aadyaa chose to play could not be compared to the rather bland nature of the larger, better maintained sector park nearby that boasted some decent walking paths and a musical fountain that played Punjabi music!
Other highlights of the Chandigarh visit were the Rock Garden, Sukhna Lake and Sector 17 market (sataara, as Udai correctly picked up!) and I will blog about those experiences as well. The first evening spent soaking the the green open spaces and the fresh nippy air was, however, the best of all!
When you work in the field of affordable housing, you focus on cost, quality and accessibility. Of course, among other things, but these come first. In the past few months though, I have been noticing that the sustainability agenda is attempting to envelope the affordable housing space as well. Well, I’m not saying there aren’t connections. Of course, everything that we build must be sustainable as far as is possible. But to load the cost of sustainability on to a low-income consumer, it might be rather unfair.
The ‘green’ agenda, in my view, is clearly a fad. Of course it is vital for our very survival. But many of those professing to champion green buildings only offer lip service to sustainability. The most common example, of course, is glass clad buildings that are LEED certified despite being made of materials that have the highest embodied energy and needing expensive technology to maintain thermal comfort inside the building envelope each day. I am no expert and I am sure there are clever ways of doing this.
But when green types insist that affordable housing is a huge opportunity to go green I see red! Let me explain.
First. The urban poor, and indeed the poor anywhere, already have perhaps the lowest average carbon footprint possible. Except perhaps for adivasi populations still living in the forests. Consumption of resources is low, optimization is high. Reduce, recycle and reuse is already a motto that is essential for survival. Whatever sort of intervention we plan for the urban affordable housing space will mean reorganizing their lives from the informal to the semi-formal to the formal. Automatically, consumption will increase as the systems formalize. What else are we professionals and policy makers who are already from the consuming classes capable of imagining?
Next. There is barely any formal supply of affordable housing in Indian cities. So where and how will the so-called green interventions happen? Who will pay for the additional cost of sustainable design and construction, however minimal? It is all a fuzzy scenario, since there is no clarity about who is coming forward to bridge the demand-supply gap.
Solutions. No brainers and I’m not even claiming these are original!
Green agenda- States and local governments need to adopt policy measures to incentivize green building. All manner of sustainable technologies, from solar power to rainwater harvesting and a variety of green materials like non-polluting insulation must be made easily available and their taxes reduced to urge adoption.
Affordable agenda- Heavy incentives like faster approvals, higher FSI and lower taxes and interest rates for affordable housing projects would be a start. The real issue is land, of course, so the government would have to chip in the free up locked land and rationalize land prices. On the other side, demand aggregation to attract developers to such projects is a dire need, as well as R&D to standardize design elements and enhance efficiency.
Two birds with one stone? I don’t think the market in India is there yet, or will be for a long time. When middle and higher income groups opt for green housing, the poor will follow. After all, housing is all about aspirations. And the poor will always aspire to what you and I already have.
The familiar drive from Dabolim Airport to Caranzalem. By now, even Udai knows the shortcuts and landmarks. Every single time I stare enthralled by the beauty unfolding with each turn. Monsoon is a particularly good time to come to Goa. The beaches are not on priority, but the verdant rich green seeps through me; a healing green, a soothing green, a green that spells prosperity, hope and life. I love it! I miss it, this particular green of the Konkan coastal belt. The sheer variety of hues, with the fresh green of standing paddy fields and the darker hue of the coconut palms highlighted by the greys of the overcast skies.
Of course, my associations are strongly influenced by the warmth and love of family, the feeling of coming home. I am happy each time to see the marshy backwaters. And fervently hope they remain. That the fate of this blessed land might (is, cynically speaking) be in the hands of the greedy is a heartbreaking thought. I wish it were possible to hold up Goa as a model of sustainable development. Utopian thought perhaps, but certainly one fit for the future.
Some captures from the drive home. Enjoy the green!
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.
Bangalore was a great launch pad for our Coorg vacation. Today, we experienced the wonder of the city’s weather eating breakfast in the lawns of the Bangalore Club. The kids, after gobbling dosas and idlis, made gleefully for the swings. Under the shade of the city’s enormous trees, they were able to fully enjoy the outdoors. We saw a large number of relaxed parents whose kids were on the swings as well. What luxury to live in a city where even in summer, the outdoors can be enjoyed! As much as they crib about traffic and the crazy expansion of this city, Bangaloreans would not leave their city only for the pleasure of the green outdoors!
One of the loveliest aspects of leaving the city is the experience of enjoying the outdoors. Here in Coorg, the forests beckon and the weather is warm but not enough to drive us indoors as it certainly will be when we get back to Gurgaon!
Today the family was in the mood for adventure. Mum and Udai went on an 8 km trek to Abby Falls. A tough walk for someone not yet eight and reportedly one full of sights of the bountiful flora and fauna of the Kodagu Valley. Aadyaa explored the property and tried all the swings and curvy trails.
Rahul and me tried the obstacle course. He went first and I hadn’t quite made up my mind if I was up to it. On impulse I started the course, but as I went along I found my confidence grew. The sheer height of the ropes from the ground meant you needed full concentration. It was important to focus and relax at the same time and necessary to follow instructions to the tee. It struck me that this was true for anything we want to do well in life. But it’s only that, for many other tasks in our everyday lives, we choose to not remember that we are indeed high above steady ground. Instead, we delude ourselves and create excuses and escape routes in our heads. No wonder the results aren’t often as good as mine were on today’s obstacle course!
The last few days, I have been fairly upset about a few small health issues, the perpetual battle with my weight and generally a bit low. The obstacle course jerked me out of my self pity and drove home the need to set myself small targets, find mentors to help me, follow their advice, leave aside my fears, and simply go for it!