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Thinking Ecologically About Development In India’s Cities

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Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Dr Arjun Kumar, Manoswini Sarkar from Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI)

Poorly managed urban growth and development in a rapidly urbanizing India has exacerbated inequalities, exclusion, and vulnerabilities, especially among the marginalized population,” highlighted Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay in a webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute on ‘Thinking Ecologically About Development in India’s Cities’ as part of the series ‘The State of the Cities- #CityConversations‘.

He highlighted the importance of prioritizing sustainability issues as it can contribute to determining the quality of life for urban residents, the economic productivity of Indian cities, and the natural environment. “Thinking ecologically about cities often seems like an oxymoron as people don’t see cities as places of ecology.”

Dr Harini Nagendra, Director, Research Centre, Azim Premji University, Bangalore, highlighted the need for thinking ecologically about cities by discussing how the environment and geography shape the city’s culture as much as the two shapes the ecology. She discussed how these challenges would increase in the future due to increasing urbanization.

However, she drew attention to how most cited papers on urban sustainability were authored by academicians in the Global North, and Indians contributed to only around 0.1 percent of the literature. She maintained that urban theory is driven by the Global North, which shapes the inquiry methods that influence our cities’ practice, planning, and designing.

She further contrasted how cities’ Southern imagination is very different from the prevalent urban imagination and highlighted how policymakers overlook these imaginations when they plan, design, and implement urbanization plans. Across the Global South, we have incomplete theorization, inappropriate methods, and ill-designed planning. This begs the question of what kind of imagination guides our ideas of a modern city.

She concluded her talk by highlighting the need for better integration of research into planning through place-based research. She called for the need for embedded research to understand what shapes cities and reimagine nature as a part of a healthy city where there is a coexistence of both skyscrapers and people foraging along with grazers.

Prof Sucharita Sen, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, added the need for a convergence of development policy with the environmental vision and not a mere addition. She reiterated Prof Nagendra’s point on the need to question how we make our cities and who the city actually belongs to.

She maintained the relation between the historicity of people and the environment. She discussed how migrant workers, slum dwellers, and people whose land is acquired for developmental plans contribute to this vision of development but are ultimately pushed into the fringes. Finally, she also expressed concern for the urgent need to create citizen-oriented policies and engage more in this developmental process.

Dr Jenia Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, IIT Kharagpur, agreed with Prof. Nagendra’s points and talked about ‘ecology of affluence vs environmentalism of the poor’ and maintained the need for urban imaginations to capture the micro political realities, situatedness, environmental placemaking, and everydayness.

She expressed concern for the need to contextualize big developmental plans within the socio-political and cultural realities that remain enmeshed together as part of Urban nature. She finally called for a shift from the idea of ‘ecology in’ to ‘ecology for’ and finally ‘ecology for’ cities; only then there will be less scope of cityscapes being ghettoized or gentrified and more scope of it being more and more inclusive.

Dr Simi Mehta, CEO, IMPRI further highlighted how the implications of urbanization, which is the key ingredient for a country’s development, sometimes being unrestrained and unplanned, often compromises social stability. This often translates into environmental and ecological challenges and the environment being the direct casualty. She drew attention to the disaggregated effects of environmental pollution on the poor and vulnerable and their inability to deal with it. She advocated for the importance of urban agriculture and technology related to it and called for advocacy related to urban agriculture at the policy level.

Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra also focused on the importance of the linkage between humanity and habitat and called for an increase in the man to tree ratio. The ethos of the city needs to be connected with the ecosystem, of which trees are an important part.

He propounded collective climate wisdom, which is an emergent phenomenon and could be considered an important strategy to engage with this decade’s challenges. He observed how there had been adequate discussion in the last decade about the importance of environmental policy but what is now required is action in execution and implementation. In addition to governments’ efforts, he called for the participation of private entities and citizen partnerships.

Answering the questions raised by the panellists, Prof Nagendra elucidated the importance of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity so there can be a convergence of interests between the researchers and the policymakers. She further acknowledged how her optimism arose from the environmental consciousness and activism prevalent in the Bangalore region.

She called for a collaboration of all kinds, remarking that research should not just be about people but also where people can inform the city. Echoing Dr Jenia Mukherjee’s thoughts, she reiterated the need for  ‘Ecologically-Wise Cities’ and not just ’Smart Cities’.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’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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