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Saving the Aravallis: A new imagination for the ecologically smart city

Activism is not a choice, but a means of survival. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rewards of embracing activism, mentioning our family’s weekend participation in a protest to protect the Aravallis around Gurgaon and Haryana. That urban expansion has become a threat to nature is something that has bothered me for a while, but I also believe there must be ways to co-exist and imagine a new kind of city, where the richness of nature and the density of humans can co-exist and even benefit from each other. Or at least the latter from the former!

Mangar Bani is an untouched part of the Aravallis, revered and protected by local communities and a glimpse into what this habitat could be if we were to think ecologically smart!

Mangar Bani is an untouched part of the Aravallis, revered and protected by local communities and a glimpse into what this habitat could be if we were to think ecologically smart! Photo credit: Vijay Dhasmana

I’ve tried to articulate this vision in an article for The Alternative published recently. I welcome your comments and views on this piece: Death on Arravali: Stopping the squeeze on India’s oldest range between Gurgaon and Faridabad

Moreover, I would urge you to read and sign our petition to the Chief Minister of Haryana that urges the State to protect these forests and work towards making Gurgaon and Faridabad ecologically smart cities.

Slums have dwindled in India! Pondering on fresh NSSO data

The latest NSSO data (Surveys done between July and December 2012) shows that slums have actually reduced in Indian cities! Liable to be missed in all the hullabaloo of politics, this is a huge achievement for India. If it is true… For one, comparing the Census, which is an actual count of the people who live in the country, with sample survey data seems a bit strange. How do you explain these differences? Nine million households live in slums in 2012 as per the NSSO as compared to 14 million as identified by the Census 2011. The NSSO counts 13,761 slums while the Census found 37,000! I would take these numbers with many pinches of salt!


The good points

Only 41% of the slums are notified by the local authorities. I am glad the data points this out. Not being recognized or notified often means the denial of services and living in perpetual fear of eviction, as is pointed out repeatedly by the work of several organizations across the country. Transparent Chennai in particular has been vocal about this point (Read their excellent editorial in The Hindu on the India’s invisible population). So while the media is seeing the drop in the number of slums as indicative of the political mainstreaming of India’s urban poor, much remains to be done for those who reside in slums and other unserviced areas in our cities.

It is also heartening to see the improvements in services. The report says that 93.5% of slums have power supply and 71% have access to drinking water. There has also been improvement in drainage, sewerage, garbage disposal, primary education and medical facilities ranges between 15% and 45% compared to the data from five years ago. This does indicate the de-linking of the service provisioning from legality and more integration of the slum into the urban fabric. And perhaps the ability of slum populations to access services outside the slum. We know that slum dwellers are not always poor, but sometime middle class people living in slums owing to negligible affordable housing stock in the formal sector.

One strange point

The majority of survey respondents (70.8%) cites better accommodation as the reason to move out from a slum. The initial analysis seems to point to the success of government schemes like JNNURM and RAY. However, the total number of homes added to the housing stock under these would probably not add up to 5 million, methinks though I have to check on this!

One question

Those of us who work in the sector will wonder about what specific improvements in the attitudes and policies of local and State governments towards existing slums could have brought about such a decrease in number. Evidence from the ground seems to show an ever increasing diversity in the types of squatter settlements and only marginal and isolated instances of positive governmental or collaborative interventions.

More analysis needed

Sure, these are off-the-cuff comments and someone (not me though) would need to analyze the results more thoroughly. It is encouraging to see more data being generated about urban informal habitats though. Slowly, it looks like many gaps in our understanding are getting filled. It is up to us, those who live and breathe this stuff, to overlay the data and the anecdotal evidence and come out with a more nuanced understanding of the situation. Not a mean task, but important and fun too!

Water tales: Drowning and thirsty at the same time!

Water is on my mind these days. how can it not be, when some parts of our country struggle to deal with floods while millions of others depend on erratic and expensive sources of water to survive! To top it all, we have a roof leaking at home and, as gathering clouds strike fear in my heart, I am reminded everyday that water finds a way to get in everywhere. And become the heart of many a problem.

Clearly, India is at the brink of a gigantic water problem. We know it. A recent study by the Earth Policy Institute warns us of food supply problems because of overdrawing of water for underground aquifers, dropping water tables, contaminated water sources…a bleak picture with India being one of the regions most certainly at risk.

“India has a regulatory vacuum with regard to groundwater, and it is a free-for-all market when it comes to extraction and pricing.” writes Saritha Rai in her article in The Forbes that highlights the risk posed to businesses from water scarcity. This was brought home to me today this morning when I was interacting with a private landlord who builds and rents out units to migrant workers in Gurgaon’s urban villages.

I am neck deep in research to figure out ways in which the private informal rental market in the city’s urban villages and illegal colonies (link to HT article in which I was quoted, on this issue) can be catalyzed to be a legitimate and thriving source of rental housing supply in Gurgaon. Interestingly, while local landlords do not consider policy as a hurdle, choosing to stay outside the ambit of government surveillance with the freedom to do as they will, it might be the need for water that will push landlords towards seeking alliances with the government. Just like independent electrical meters help landlords track usage and allow them to charge for power separately from migrant tenants over and above rent, there are moves to meter water and pass the rising costs of water to the tenant as well. Landlords do fear that their ‘fail-proof’ rental business will, despite all their innovations and adjustments, meet its nemesis in water!

Dark clouds loom outside today. Rain threatens and my home also gears up to meet some aquatic challenges! Are we destined to drown in water without having any to drink?

A Word A Week Challenge- Boat

After a hiatus, it’s back in my life, A Word a Week Challenge on A Word in Your Ear!

Boat. One of the first words a child latches on to in utter fascination. That marvellous object that bobs upon the water, that potentially carries us far away, into the realm of adventure. As grown ups, of course, we associate a boat with serenity, a welcome lack of anchor for a while, before the rhythm of life reclaims us. Here is a collection of boat pics from various travels…

Barcelona, Summer of 2011, tranquility and patience

Barcelona, Summer of 2011, tranquility and patience

Nainital, Uttarakhand, Winter 2013, Waiting to make a living

Nainital, Uttarakhand, Winter 2013, Waiting for passengers

Nainital, Uttarakhand, Winter 2013, Attractive and bizarre

Nainital, Uttarakhand, Winter 2013, Attractive and bizarre

Nainital, Uttarakhans, Winter 2013. We are not forgivern for going in an ordinary boat. Aadyaa loves the bizarre dragon, grandmum loves Aadyaa and is holding her from jumping into the dragon!

Nainital, Uttarakhand, Winter 2013. We are not forgiven for going in an ordinary boat. Aadyaa loves the bizarre dragon…

Mumbai, Summer 2013. Pulling away from city magnifique on the ferry to Elephanta Island

Mumbai, Summer 2013. Pulling away from city magnifique on the ferry to Elephanta Island

Mumbai, Summer 2013 A pseudo-traditional ferry luring tourists out to sea; the historic Gateway and Taj Hotel in the background

Mumbai, Summer 2013 A pseudo-traditional ferry luring tourists out to sea; the historic Gateway and Taj Hotel in the background


Magic of the Basilica Cisterns, Istanbul- June 11, 2012

The last memory of Istanbul was also the most magical. A few hours left to leave, our bags packed and waiting, we decided to look for the Basilica Cisterns. Rumored to be in Sultanahmet, the area we had made our home for the 6 days in Istanbul, we had to walk around before actually locating this obscure gateway and were only able to find it thanks to a tour group operator trying to get his 45 people in through a narrow opening.

The Basilica Cisterns are a massive subterranean chamber built in the 6th century to store water to supply Istanbul city, then a most remarkably populated center for trade and commerce and the capital of the mighty Byzantine Empire. This is the largest of several such cisterns built by the Byzantines. The credit for this one goes to Emperor Justinian I.

With the proportions of a cathedral, the cisterns measure about 140 meters by 45 meters. Some 336 marble pillars, built in the typical Ionic and Corinthian styles, support its roof. A 4-meter thick waterproof firebrick wall keeps the water safely held. At the peak of its utility, the cisterns held an astonishing 80,000 cubic meters of water, which was transported into it via aqueducts from forests some 20 kms away!

Even with hardly any water in it, it was cold and damp, with the pillars and ceiling sweating droplets of water. The floor was slippery and it felt really eerie in the darker parts. Quite a fantastic experience for those of us who have spent many happy childhood days buried in strange mystery books. They also added spooky music to enhance the ambiance!

Restored several times over and most recently by the Istanbul municipal corporation, the cisterns stand as a testimony to man’s urge to urbanize and his ability to create infrastructure to sustain urban life. As an urban professional, I was inspired to see the remarkable feats of engineering and water management that have truly survived the test of time. At the same time, I was reminded of the bitter disappointments and frustrations of providing our modern cities with amenities as basic as water and sanitation.

Here are some images of the magical Basilica Cisterns. Forgive the blurs; these were taken with very little light and no tripod.

Fortunately, this tour group disappeared pretty soon and we could explore the cistern in relative peace….

I think I can forgive myself for using the flash, this once, in here 🙂

Water sagas: Stories of community action and despair about our most precious resource- May 24, 2012

A few days after I read about CII’s initiative to initiate blue ratings in India, probably the first in the world to monitor industrial water usage in a holistic manner, an encouraging story about the revival of a river caught my eye.

Today’s The Hindu supplement carried a great story about the revival of the Hindan river that originates in Saharanpur and joins the Yamuna, crossing Ghaziabad and other parts of the NCR. The Jal Biradari is a community organization comprising environmental activists and citizens from all walks of life that has consistently campaigned to create awareness among villagers about issues like falling water tables, pollution and exploitation of water resources. They do this through padayatra, or simply by walking through villages and interacting with people.

In contrast, the blog outlines Mumbai’s struggle to put into action measures to clean and manage the Mithi river, a massive gutter that flows through Mumbai. Images of the July 2005 floods in Mumbai are still fresh in people’s minds. Public clamor for a clean up that could create much-needed green spaces for the city grows, but migrants keep pouring in and the poor who live alongside the sad trickle of water are increasingly threatened, by lack of action and potential action alike!

Rampant discharge of industrial effluent into rivers is the primary cause of the sad states of rivers like these across the nation. Coupled with increasing urbanization and the consequent pressure on land (often translated into greed for land), rivers are threatened; and so are we who depend on water for our existence. The ill effects of polluted rivers need no elaboration- among other things, toxic vegetable and fruits threaten to damage our future generations irreversibly!

Interestingly, one only needs to stop discharging the effluent for a river to do its own thing and clean itself up. More importantly, green areas that allow groundwater recharge are critical to our survival. Governments, while they blame private developers for the evil deeds and wish to regulate them, are known to be responsible for the ‘unkindest cut of all’. The proposal to develop the Mangar village area into an amusement park is one such hare brained scheme in the news recently.To amuse the people who won’t be around when the water taps run dry?


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