This past weekend, I returned after a three week long international trip to the worst smog Delhi has faced in 17 years. Yes, it was bad. My nostrils felt the stench immediately and my eyes watered. My daughter wore a mask to go out and play. Non-stop media reports and social media feeds placed immense pressure on the government to act, forcing stop gap measures like shutting down schools, construction sites and power plants.
Three days later, the winds are blowing and the air is already clearing up. Believe it or not, the smog is beginning to fade from Delhi’s memory. New, more exciting stories will be out. This will soon be old news. Till the next time!
Mismatched! Short-term memory and long-term solutions
My friend Amit aptly calls the interest in smog “seasonal” in his succinct piece today. He also focuses on the need to address the problems of air pollution with long-term measures. This is the dominant line of thinking in the community of urban professionals I interact with. It is not with glee, but with extreme sadness that we want to wag the finger and say “I told you,so!” to Delhi’s residents and policymakers. Because public imagination is, for the moment, captured by the problem of pollution, we see the opportunity to hammer home the harsh reality. And also offer, once again, the solutions that we have been talking about for years.
The truth is that there are no magic bullets. Combating pollution and ensuring air quality needs a multi-pronged and long-term approach. Because the source of pollution are so many, including automobile emissions, waste burning, construction dust, industry and cooking (see this excellent piece by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda for a deeper understanding), several strategies need to be deployed at the same time. Because cities are ever-expanding creatures in these times, the magnitude of these problems will also keep growing, so solutions will have to be planned for the present and in anticipation of the future. Most of the solutions likely to yield results involve difficult decisions on the part of the government, but also substantial changes in behaviour on part of citizens. This change can be triggered by alarm, nurtured by a sustained awareness campaign and sustained by incentives. For example, investments in public transport and good pavements need to be accompanied by measures to discourage private car usage, like higher parking charges or congestion pricing (Another piece by Dr. Sarath lists a set of solutions in this vein).
Professionals have been talking about these measures for years, but only sustained pressure from citizen groups can result in these kind of changes. To do so, we will have to transform our short-term memory to a real awareness of the problems at hand.
A matter of survival: Reducing consumption, community action, sustained pressure are small steps towards long-term change
This is hard to do, primarily because of the extremely confused (and shrill) discourse we have had around this issue. We’ve quibbled and played blame games about who caused the problem and we’ve pointed fingers at who should be accountable for it. In all of that, we have forgotten that year-round pollution levels in Delhi are high; so anything seasonal like fire crackers and stubble burning tips the balance and the situation spirals out of control.
Like many commentators have already pointed out, high levels of pollution should be a cause of long-term concern. The harsh impact of air pollution on human health, including premature births and deaths, is being recognized widely and especially in Africa and Asia, where the majority of urban growth is taking place (see recent report on African situation). It is not about apportioning blame, but about understanding the seriousness of the problem and finding solutions.
There is a lot we can do at an individual level. We can consume less so that we waste less and dispose waste in a responsible way; we can walk, cycle, car pool or use public transport wherever possible; we can prevent the burning of dry waste in our neighbourhood; we can bring down dust by planting more trees and bushes, using permeable surfaces for parking and driveways, and storing construction material properly. At a community level, we can do all of this and more! Garbage segregation and composting is an obvious example. So is discouraging of car use to walk to bus stops and local shops by creating walking infrastructure & community help groups to help children and elders cross roads etc. Efforts at a larger scale are also a great idea. Some of my friends have been running Facebook groups on air quality where information on problems and solutions are shared. All of these measures not only help us but also make it possible to influence the direction of government policy and public investment.
This is not a problem that is going away, folks! And it is not someone else’s problem either! It must mean something that the words ‘disaster’ and ‘resilience’ featured in nearly all of the conversations I had at the United Nations Habitat III conference I attended a few weeks ago. There is a tangible sense now that the significant economic benefits of urbanisation are coming to us at a terrible price and that humans are responsible for much of the damage. Reversing the course of climate change and protecting ourselves from disaster (including episodes like the Delhi Smog) is possible only if we all take responsibility. And make governments heed our concerns! It is a matter of survival.
It would be remiss of me to not thank my friends and family for fueling my thoughts and pointing me to several credible sources while writing this piece. Thank you, you know who you are!
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.
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.
Another mega park, but what are the real benefits?
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav shared this photo on his Facebook page yesterday, with the title- “I would like to share with you the first exclusive pictures of Janeshwar Mishra Park. This 400 acre Global Standard park has a beautiful walkway, water bodies, jogging track, cycling track, landscaping and much more.”
This park, being developed in the Gomti Nagar area of Lucknow, is modeled on London’s Hyde Park and will cost Rs 168 crore to build. Akhilesh Yadav takes pride in highlighting the green-ness of this grandiose scheme from the erstwhile Chief Minister Mayawati’s much-touted Ambedkar Park, which was widely criticized for taking the form of an infrastructure project strewn with stone structures and little greenery. A news item says the park will have “beautiful landscapes, two huge ponds spread over 38 acres, golf course, horse riding trail, lakes, sports centre, gymnasium, cycle track, jogging track, theme gardens, children’s play area, lawns etc.”
I grew up in Lucknow and have strong linkages with the city. My attachment to Lucknow urges me to ask three questions.
1- Do these large park projects really mean the creation of city commons? Or are they exclusive gated spaces more accessible to the elite and subtly less accessible to the poor?
2- Whose land was this and the older park developed on? Were there slum evictions involved? Akhilesh Yadav has made a press statement that implies that the park was conceived to “save the land from land mafia”? What does that even mean?
3- How does a city that desperately needs affordable housing justify a project that not only consumes a large tract of valuable land but also is sure to push property values and housing costs further up?
To offer a background, Lucknow has the dubious reputation of being a city that is in denial of the existence of slums! The municipal corporation doesn’t report any slums in the Census 2011! Yet, the State urban Development Authority estimated in 2000 that 11% of the city lived in slums. In the absence of any substantial addition in the housing stock of EWS/LIG homes in the city and with continued increase in urban population (decadal growth rate has been around 40% for the past decade), one can only imagine that those living in substandard housing with insecure tenure would have increased, not come down to zero.
While I very much appreciate the creation of green infrastructure and open space in the city, I see the park as another proof that city governments in India are obsessed with beautification projects and have very little vision or interest in what the city actually needs. I would have much appreciated the integration of such a project with meaningful amenities for the city. Golf courses (the city already has a functional golf club) and horse riding are clearly exclusive. Why not a govt-run public sports complex instead, open air gyms and an urban forest, not manicured lawns? I would be curious to see what the park’s designers (I believe they are from IIT Kanpur for hydrology and SPA, New Delhi for design and layout) have to say about its impacts on the city’s air pollution or groundwater levels. Despite its multiple ‘green’ features, I would like to ask whether their plan relates to the city’s needs for environmental sustainability. Also, was there any public consultation on what kind of public space the residents want or need?
Plea to Akhilesh
To the CM, I would like to offer a piece of advise. Move the propaganda around these mega park projects moves beyond beautification and to the real stuff. I know you will not answer my provocative questions about urban poverty and elitism, but do ask your PR department to talk about the real benefits of this park if indeed there are any. We, the public, would be very happy to know how this beautiful park will contribute to a more sustainable, economically strong and socially inclusive Lucknow.
We took the train from Amsterdam to Berlin earlier this month. While the change of staff from the friendly Dutch to the slightly brusque German crew is noticeable, the scenery outside isn’t immediately very different. It takes a while for the oh-so-flat Dutch scenery to transform into the rolling countryside around the Rhine. But Udai’s observation was on the ball when he started pointing out the growing number of houses with solar panels on the roofs. Soon he was showing us homes and barns and storage sheds with their entire roofs covered in solar panels!
I made a mental note that day (12th June) to look up the solar energy achievements of Germany but it slipped my mind. However, I read today that at about the same time as we were excitedly pointing out all those solar panels to each other and telling Aadyaa what solar was all about, Germany had set three national records related to solar energy! Over 50% of the country’s energy needs are now met by solar. Mind blowing indeed, especially for a nation not abundant in sunshine. Can we in India imagine the potential here?
Probing deeper, I gather that Germany’s solar capacity is largely installed on residential and commercial rooftops rather than at industrial facilities. However, from a policy perspective, I understand that the nation’s heavy subsidization of solar and wind energy while cutting back on nuclear energy production has meant both extremely high power tariffs and increased carbon emissions owing to more usage of coal and gas. Everything has a flip side, I suppose!
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!
To all the Dilliwalas and Gurgaonwalas who I fraternize with back home, who constantly whine about Mumbai’s crowds and noises and smells, let me tell you this. I love this city. I love its business, its craziness and above all, I love its middle class areas. This trip, I’ve been lucky to stay in Byculla, visit Sion and do my work stuff in Parel. All lovely, densely packed, buzzing and lively places. So much mixed use. Safe.
I love the heritage in this part of the city and I wish more could be done to ensure it doesn’t all come crashing down some day. Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth to out up the pictures I have taken. Those will follow, but I had to write in to say that there are some superb examples of how a city can sustain itself in this city. We should learn and we should be proud and we should keep these parts of the city alive. Not be gentrifying it, but the way it is now, for the people who work and live here, who have contributed to make Mumbai what it is.
“Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities — that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence.” I am quoting from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report brought out by the BMW Guggenheim Labs after a 33-day series of free workshops and citizen consultations in Berlin. This glossary of terms is an attempt to document the “temperature” of a specifc time and place, Berlin in the summer of 2012 and it is interesting to note how some things havent changed and at all and yet, how citizens and urban professionals alike are moving towards a more human, more experiential understanding of what a city is. So much for those bizarre robotic urban imaginations depicted in sci-fi movies. Cities for people are here to stay!
I find it heartening that this sort of people-centric thinking is gaining prominence and read it as a sign that there will be a growing movement towards changing the bureaucratic and technocratic mindset to a more interdisciplinary one. Here are some of the concepts I found really reassuring and exciting:
The idea of community life and accessible and well designed urban commons (better known as public spaces) is now well understood and established. There seems to be concern that urban environments are reducing the number of connections we make and a recognition of a need for city design to help us maximize human connections.
The role of citizens and non-designers/non-experts in how a city evolves- terms like ‘activist citizen’ and ‘bottom-up engagement’ are turning traditional thinking about urban planning and design on its head. Collaboration, crowd-funding, digital democracy, self-solving, place-making are some of the related terms that give an insight into the muria ways citizens can influence their urban environment. The citizen is no longer being viewed as a passive player at the mercy of policy and regulation, but as a powerful force of change.
Sustainability as a growing concern is reflected strongly and is intertwined with the ideal of a healthy city. This in turn includes ideas like the need for experimentation, walkability and cycling as a means to get around, a concern for food security and the links between urban and rural, mixed-use over the typical use-wise classification of spaces, intelligent buildings and smart cities, the reduce-reuse-recycle adage, the need to promote the share culture, the idea of upcycling (increase the value while reusing) rather than merely recycling,…many innovative trends can clearly be seen in this area. To me, these moves towards sustainable living combimed with bottom-up efforts can really be a potent combination for positive changes to happen. However, all of this will hinge on the ability to create awareness, dialogue, debate and a deeper and wider understanding of the issues among non-designer, non-expert citizens.I found it interesting that the report acknowledges the sheer complexity of urban form, and how the megacity is changing our notions of the centre-suburb model. This is a significant shift that will influence lives and the practice of city design considerably.
The idea of “Minimum Variation, Maximum Impact” in which small changes can be made to move towards more “sustainable and socially responsible cities” seems like a good way to do things.
The powerful concept of ‘cities as idea generators’ was in here too, and it is vital for cities to leverage their innovation power in order to grow economically and to survive in an ecological sense as well.
The idea of technology as a driver of change came across strongly, as a means to interact and have dialogue, as a means to deliver services, as a means to collaborate, design, a whole bunch of functions in fact.
[On another note, Disneyfication was a term I loved here. Its something I’ve always thought about and never realized it was an actual term! It refers to “a process of urban transformation that increases homogeneity and simulated reality rather than the preservation of historical elements and cultural difference.”. Poor Walt! I’m sure this wasn’t his intention….]
What does this report mean for another city, another time, another context? I work in India, in the Delhi-NCR area, which happens to be one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in the world! I certainly see many of these trends relevant for my city. As an urban practitioner, the 100 Trends outlined here help me think through and prioritize issues even as I often gasp with the sheer complexity of what we do as urban problem-solvers! Most importantly, some of the terms here helped me find specific ways to move to a more people-centric, people-driven agenda for city development, and that’s a big reward.
The first ever UN Human Development report for Africa released today. And the big discussion was about food security. Amid emotional statements [“History is not destiny, Africans are not fated to starve,” – Tegegnework Gettu, UNDP Africa Director], the report present positive case studies as well [Malawi went from food deficit to a 1.3 million tonne surplus in two years, thanks to a massive seed and fertilizer subsidy programme].
However, food security is something we in India need to get very worried about. India has a malnutrition problem that surpasses that of Sub Saharan Africa! One in every three malnutritioned children in the world lives in India, as per UNICEF!
It seems to me we need another Green Revolution in India. Born in the ’70s, I remember the euphoria the nation felt when it was finally able to stop its dependence on imports to feed its citizens and was even able export food grains way back in 1978-79. The main feature of the Green Revolution was to change the practice of agriculture from a one-crop to a two-crop system, thereby stepping up productivity hugely on the same amount of cultivated land. That euphoria still has most Indians thinking we shouldn’t really be worrying about food production, instead focusing on better storage and distribution. And while improvements across the food chain are imperative, production is still a huge issue that has considerable socio-economic consequences, considering the majority of Indians are still dependent on the land for a living!
We get the impression that persistent droughts in India in the winter months and the deluge of rain that follows, thus ruining crops, is some fallout of climate change that we have little short term control over. However, Sunita Narain, in a Business Standard editorial yesterday, attributes the problem largely to poor management of resources like water and land. Water management is ever more urgent, she argues, because climate change has made rainfall unpredictable. Besides the convoluted logic (or lack of it) of the various government schemes that address irrigation, basic actions to recharge groundwater and to increase the efficiency of water usage are not taken. To add to our woes, India’s agricultural land is shrinking owing to the pressure of other uses, not in the least the persistent onslaught of urbanization and industrial growth.
So when I scream at my children to not leave the tap running when they brush their teeth or for leaving food uneaten on their plate (because there are zillion starving kids who really need that morsel of food; however jaded the line, it is the absolute truth!), I’m not entirely unjustified in doing so!