Behind Gurgaon’s Fast Growth Is A City Dying Because Of Pollution & Water Scarcity

The paradox of unbridled ‘growth’ in Gurgaon is that while it is a measure of unprecedented economic progress, it is also the measure of the progress of stealthy cardiac problems. The side effects of pollution, scarcity of water, electricity and therefore clean air, and horrific traffic jams raises the imponderable question about the limits of urban growth. Should Gurgaon be allowed to grow boundlessly and should its residents hope that a miracle will save them from the menacing effects of overbuilding? Are the politicians and the real estate companies mindful of what they have wrought? One might anxiously wonder: is Gurgaon going to die of sclerotic arteries or dehydration? Will it wither away? Will its residents be forced to abandon it? Will its factories and offices shut down and move away? The single short answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘no’. The long answer, however, is complicated and needs explication.

The fundamental flaw that emerged in Gurgaon’s rapidly expanding circumference was the lack of perennial sources of water that would keep its deep aquifers recharged, such as lakes, ponds or even seasonal torrents, which dried up over time. The dearth felt today is to some degree natural, but it is largely man-made. Certainly, Gurgaon is not alone: this condition is visible in large parts of India and in many cities, most notably its neighbour, Delhi, where the population has burgeoned beyond the wildest estimates, and the Yamuna contracts to a greasy trickle for eight months of the year. These problems have occurred gradually, first, as we saw in Chapter Two, under the colonial regime and then over three decades when an unsustainable population explosion forced rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation.

Even as a small township, Gurgaon had a barely adequate power supply; and until 2011 the huge new demand brought about the plague of partial and total blackouts. The electricity supply remained somewhat erratic, although it is steadier since 2016 in areas where the generation of electricity is not entirely privatised. The logical push for alternative sources of energy seems to get stalled in the stacks of paper in the state-owned Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam (DHBVN) offices. Good, autonomous civic governance has not stepped into the breach, so the problems are needlessly perpetuated. And when you add up these three deficits—of water, power and good governance—the total becomes a frightening number that discourages a unified and sensible way out of it. Analytically, we can tackle them serially.

The scarcity of water is the gravest matter. Today, ecologists point to the large-scale deforestation and the laying of railway tracks from east to west that bridged or blocked the north–south–flowing torrents in the colonial period that created the arid landscape to replace the jhils that made up the avian-rich wetlands. Then came the modern collective push to tap the next available resource: groundwater. This has been done with a vengeance. With the improvement in techniques and equipment, mechanical drills now bore through schist and quartite, often exceeding 350 metres. The depths of precious aquifers are being sucked dry for the use of thousands of condo dwellers and office workers. The turn of the present millennium brought fresh warnings against the falling levels of groundwater, and boring of new tube wells has been banned. But the city has made exceptions for the biggest private builders, and it has no way to stop the urban villagers from extracting groundwater in the lal dora areas.

The village well owners supply their tenement tenants and pump water into small tankers that travel to homes in Old Gurgaon and the newly developed residential colonies, dispensing water for a price to house owners who do not have tube wells. The retail price charged in DLF Phase III by suppliers in Nathupur in 2018 was Rs 900 per tanker of 4,000 litres that would barely serve a family of four for a couple of days. What is truly regrettable is that very little provision exists to conserve or utilize existing resources efficiently. Inadequate recycling and treatment of water and sewage (under the public-private regime of the last thirty years) warrants that a huge proportion of available water is simply wasted.

The falling groundwater levels are clearly etched in my memory. In 1996, when our house was being built in S Block of Qutab Enclave in DLF Phase III, we struck water at 25 metres at the site. It gushed wildly with perfectly potable water, and we did not need anything more than a small jet pump to get it piped to the roof of our three-storeyed home to fill our storage tanks and to water the grove we had planted around it. Then this happy state ended, and we had to dig a new well, now 130 metres deep and with a submersible pump; it gurgled and gagged, and its distress told us that it was going to run dry in a few years. A third one, at 250 metres, lasted only a year before developing a dry cough and then becoming defunct. Of our neighbours, the doctors Mukta and Ram Dhariwal on Nathupur Road had a well of similar depth and water to maintain a luxuriant garden of ornamental trees. Other houses around us, unfortunately, have lawns (a deathless colonial idea) that need to be watered daily and fertilised to keep the grass green.

Every summer, the situation becomes more fraught as the water table plummets under duress from the huge pumps that belch water for construction and industrial needs. The public and private sectors have excelled each other in bringing about this sorry pass. Had HUDA done its due diligence on sustainability and acted responsibly to conserve the finite resources of water and electricity, we might have had a more sensible and sustainable city. Sadly they foolishly handed out permits to dig wells like lollipops at a child’s birthday party. So, the poor citizens seethe and scramble to fill a bucket or two while the rich have water pumps and immense storage tanks underground and overhead for their daily needs.

Had the real estate companies and their irresponsible greed been restrained with strict building limits, or had they been charged for boring their own wells and extracting unlimited ‘free’ water on per gallon basis, they might have been more mindful of the immense strain these soaring extravaganzas and lush green golf courses would put on the fragile ecosystem. Although DLF now has its own water treatment plant and uses only recycled water for its luxuriant golf courses, it is hard to dispute the fact that the recycled water originally comes from the strained underground water supply. The extraction rate—for their super luxurious condominium towers for which zoning regulations were shamelessly flouted—has not diminished. It was only in 2015, when the crisis loomed ominously and irreversibly, that the construction industry was ordered to use only treated water, but they continue to draw groundwater for the consumption of the occupants of residential and business towers.

Meanwhile, in the villages that Gurgaon absorbed, the landowners dug tube wells to profit from the needs of thousands of migrants who now live there as tenants. They do not have adequate bathrooms or toilets (if they have any at all), and very economically use the water that comes from a single pipe for a few hours a day for a cluster of shanties. Their use of electricity is similarly minimal; they live dimly in the glow of a single light bulb, for which they pay heavily. Some jhuggis and tenement apartments have formal connections with which some can run their fans and television sets, but this too points to a lack of calculation about residents’ needs. Neither the builders nor the government made any arrangements to house the migrants that were coming into the new city from all corners of the country.

I visited the latter’s offices looking for anything that would suggest that a ‘sustainability’ study had been undertaken but was met with hostile glares—because the needs of neither town nor country had been planned. The thick pall of sooty grey winter skies are also partly the unhappy products of uncontrolled growth in this city. Additional stress to the water situation in Gurgaon is added by the pervasive ‘construction mafia’, as the Hindustan Times of 31 May 2016 called it, who steal the drinking water supply to build their humongous construction projects when they should really be tapping the treated water supply from the Dhanwapur sewage treatment plant. DLF appears to be the only private company that has responded to citizen outrage and built its own water treatment plant near its Arnold Palmer golf course that services the greens and the residents of its luxury residential towers, although it continues to syphon off groundwater from its deep bore wells for its older residential towers in Phase IV.

This is an excerpt from Veena Talwar Oldenburg’s latest book ‘Gurgaon’ published with permission from the author and publishers HarperCollins.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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