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Once centres of civilisation, Indian cities turning into 'major cause of concern'

By Soumyadip Chattopadhyay* 

Each year, October 31 is celebrated as the World Cities Day. The theme this year was Adapting Cities for Climate Resilience. The Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, organized a special lecture on city as environment as part of the discussion under the #WebPolicyTalk series on the State of Cities -- #CityConversations.
Those who participated included Prof Awadhendra Sharan, Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi; Rumi Aijaz, Senior Fellow and Head, Urban Policy Research Initiative, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Delhi; Prof RB Bhagrat, Head, Department of Migration and Urban Studies, International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai; Dr Ravikant Joshi, Consultant, Urban Finance and Governance; Prof Gopa Samanta, Professor of Geography, University of Burdwan, West Bengal; and Prof VP Sati, Professor, Department of Geography and Resource Management, Mizoram University.
Prof Sharan started by discussing that for a long time there has been a growing interest in the cities. Cities have been the centres of civilization for centuries and represent diversity and urban democracy, making them extremely important. Cities offer an array of opportunities to a large population due to which a large-scale migration has occurred from rural to urban areas, leading to a demographic transition.
Today, one of the major concerns of Indian cities is the quality of life. There are issues related to an improper drainage system, sanitation, noise pollution, air pollution, congestion, climate change, etc. that our cities are facing. However, they do have massive scope for development.
As per Prof Sharan, there are three major issues that the cities today are dealing with. The first is the urban pollution followed by climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. One thing that particularly needs to be addressed in the Global South is be it poverty, issues related to poverty, industrial pollution, etc.

Globalization and urbanization

Certain issues are only discussed or taken seriously during a specific time of the year. For example, air pollution, especially in northern India, is only talked about between November and March, even though it persists throughout the year. There has also been a serious mismatch in governance. Improper allocation of funds and resources also poses a major problem in dealing with issues that our urban areas deal with.
Dr Joshi pointed out yet another major challenge to the Indian cities: unprecedented population growth. While cities in developed countries have already undergone their process of urbanization and now must focus on becoming carbon neutral, Indian cities are yet to urbanize and are already dealing with population explosion coupled with other challenges.
Prof Sharan talked about how cities are both social and natural entities. Resources flow in and out of the cities. They also impact the governing relations that prevail at a particular point in time. In the 19th century, the Indian hot and humid climate was seen in racial terms when compared to the climate of Britain.
In order to make lives better at home, efforts were made to ensure indoor cooling with verandas and balconies for ventilation. With technology, our ways of indoor cooling also changed. The air conditioners that we use today run-on electricity and emit greenhouse gases that further cause global warming. The rising temperature then again leads to increasing demand for air conditioning and to cater to that demand fossil fuels are burnt.
It is important to minimize our need or temptation for air conditioning in a country like India, where resources are already limited. Earlier, people used natural ways to cool their indoor spaces but post-globalization, more and more air conditioning technologies became available at cheaper rates. The demand for energy used to cool the urban spaces has exceeded the demand for energy used for any other purpose.
Climate change is the cause and result of the same. We need to adopt more energy-efficient technologies and rediscover passive cooling methods. In this time, we have gone from thinking about modernizing our homes to thinking about climate change. Technology is not changing every day but our consumption is and we need to understand our consumption in order to understand the kind of cities we wish to build.
Prof RB Bhagat added that it is not possible to understand environmental degradation without properly understanding the built environment which includes the houses, flyovers, towers, and all the other man-made aspects. Built environment is representative of the wealth of the nation. As the wealth increases, more and more buildings come up. Therefore, the resulting pollution indirectly represents a country’s GDP.

Case study

Prof VP Sati shared a case study of Dehradun for a better understanding of problems that the urban environment faces. After Uttarakhand got its statehood, there was a massive influx of population into the city of Dehradun. From a population of four lakhs in 2002, the population grew to 12 lakh in 2011.
As many as 113 slums emerged in Dehradun and around 90 of them were situated along the banks of two major streams of Dehradun that have now become dumping grounds of waste. Dehradun has also been experiencing a shrinking of agricultural land. Earlier, it was the producer of the country’s finest quality of Basmati rice. Now, it has been reduced to a concrete jungle.
Dehradun also comes under the fifth earthquake zone. Vertical expansion of the city and the earthquake proneness of the area is yet another problem. There has been a hundred percent increase in vehicles in Dehradun in the last decade. The average summer temperature has risen from 39°C to 44°C.
There are not enough urinals and dustbins in the city. The settlements were built in 2002 in a very haphazard manner, with no proper planning. Dehradun does not have more space for expansion and yet the population there is still increasing. Dehradun is referred to as a ‘smart city and therefore, the approach to deal with all these issues also needs to be smart.
An important point discussed was that a lot of government policies and actions are more concerned with only aesthetically pleasing one’s eyes rather than actually solving the issues. When it comes to sanitation, instead of making efforts to curb, mitigate and reduce the waste, efforts are made to throw the waste out of sight, and dumped somewhere else. This is simple relocation of the unwanted and not a solution to the urban sanitation problem.
Dr Joshi gave an example of the Swatch Bharat Mission, which for the last seven years has been focusing on containment of sludge, preventing open defecation, and door-to-door garbage collection. The treatment of this waste also needs equal importance and attention. 
There are a lot of questions that come to one’s mind when one talks about urban problems. To whom should these concerns matter? Who should intervene and how? In the colonial period, the government was responsible. The civic associations were not that involved back then as they are today.

Role of government

Prof Sharan shared an example with the participants of how Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, called experts to address the problem of air pollution in Calcutta. Calcutta at that time suffered from severe air pollution and he feared that the French would take over if the British didn’t amend their ways.
Today, it is difficult to ascertain how the government would alone solve these issues or how a group of top experts alone would deal with policy-related issues in the age of social media. As Prof Samantha correctly pointed out, understanding our environmental history is extremely important. If we do not learn from our past mistakes, planning and policy-making will become extremely difficult.
The environment should be about the kind of lives we want to live, the cities we wish to build, the kind of species we want to become. Thinking about the environment requires thinking about many ways to read our actions. We need to take into consideration the perspectives of people from different backgrounds, social classes, contexts, geographies, genders while talking about our concern for the environment.
Changing the behaviour of individuals living in the cities is also extremely important and for that education, mass campaigns become necessary. We all have the responsibility to shape and define our cities wherein equal weightage needs to be given to planning and implementation.
Decentralization is also extremely important. The 74th Amendment Act on local governance needs to be implemented properly. Proper community management and collective action are imperative. We know the problems and their solutions; the main challenge now is their implementation. We need to think about the human, non-human species, and even the dead matter while thinking about the possible solutions. We need to think about the technological changes that can be implemented that are also environmentally friendly. We need inputs from experts from all domains.
A lot of people believe that the solutions to urban problems lie only with the individuals in the technology domain. However, experts from humanities backgrounds would have equally valuable insights. Prof Sharan added that now is an extremely exciting time to become a researcher. Our cities are facing complex challenges that need to the solved by the researcher. 
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Inputs: Arjun Kumar, Mahima Kapoor, Swati Solanki. Acknowledgment: Sneha Bisht, Research Intern at IMPRI

Comments

bernard kohn said…
I of course agree with all the speakers, particularly prof. Sharon...The ussue is "ONLY" one of will, of détermination to ACT,
and not to be satisfied with double talk.
A century ago, Patrick Geddes surveyed 50 indian cities with recommendations of civic responsibility, sanitation, social consciousness...
We know the solutions.....

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