By Brototi Roy:
The last couple of weeks have been promising, to say the least, for the air pollution problems of the country’s capital. The odd-even formula gained massive support from Delhi’s netizens, with #OddEvenMovement trending on Twitter feeds, wherein the local people are sharing their stories of carpooling, use of public transport and finding a significant improvement in the traffic and reduced air pollution. Although there are practical hurdles to be overcome, and the jury is out on the viability of long-term implementation of this scheme, these last few days have shown us that the people of Delhi are willing to forgo the luxuries of their private vehicles, and make a change in order to improve the air quality.
Today, urban India is more aware of the impact it has on the environment, and a three-day conference, held at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, in the first week of January, where over 200 environmental and ecological economics scholars, activists, practitioners and students had assembled to discuss and debate on the theme of “Urbanisation and the Environment“, reinforced the willingness to understand and engage in finding practical solutions and policy recommendations to address the challenges of urbanisation.
The conference, which was organized by the Indian Society for Ecological Economics, had two broad themes. The first was to generate interdisciplinary knowledge on the various aspects of urban production, distribution, and consumption, and the second was to enable a well-informed academic and policy debate on the relationships between urbanisation and the environment in India.
The inaugural keynote address, delivered by Sunita Narain, the Director General of Center for Science and Environment, and Editor, Down To Earth, emphasized the need for fair and equitable urbanisation if we wish to make our cities sustainable. She stressed that we cannot depend on technological miracles to solve our air pollution problems. We must re-define mobility if we wish to have clean breathing air.
One of the key questions raised in the conference was the link of urbanisation with climate change, and how it is unequal in the effects it has on the different strata of the society. It was found that the urban labourers, who are directly working in the polluting industries, contribute the least to urban pollution and yet, suffer the most. It was also found that urbanisation has drastic impacts on land use changes, irrigation patterns, and ground water tables, which again harms the sections of urban society (the lower income group) who are directly dependent on groundwater for their survival. Thus, for planning smart cities, social cohesive indicators, which measure the trust people have on each other (to upkeep policies and follow regulations), along with the climate change impact need to be studied in detail before proposing policy recommendations.
A positive finding was that the concern about safety and non-toxicity of our food has led to the introduction of organic farming in many Indian cities. Many households, especially in Bangalore, are increasingly taking up urban agriculture to ensure good quality food products. This trend to bring back the primary rural activity of food production in the urban spaces is yet another dimension of urban India’s growing need to improve quality of life.
There were also discussions on the challenges of urban governance, for both water and air pollution in the cities. It was felt that there is a lack of accountability mechanisms for urban commons, and that the poor were disproportionately affected by pollution. It was also felt that technological advancements are often ignored by city planners, and should be integrated more to ensure better air and water quality in the cities.
A crucial aspect of urbanisation that we generally disregard is the waste economy, which includes everything from the rag-pickers of the informal economy to the big incinerators being operated by the municipality. The waste economy needs much more detailed analysis in terms of the biophysical and toxic material transformations, the private gains and transactions, economic costs, social biases and political vested interests. Another important aspect of urbanisation that we tend to overlook is our one-way dependence on rural India, which creates massive inequalities. The conference raised concerns about how much and till when can the rural supply natural resources to the urban population sustainably. It was recommended that we needed a deeper political understanding of resource valuation and power relationships for policy makers to draft proposals which take into account both the urban and the rural environment.
All in all, the conference was a big step in understanding the main threats of urbanisation on the environment and a few different ways in which it can be addressed, so that we are entitled to implement policies which take into account all the aspects of urban planning to create a holistic living environment.