“A very significant question faced by the urban planners and policymakers in the contemporary context is how to balance the twin objectives of optimizing economic growth and equipping the cities with physical and social infrastructures accessible by all”. Acknowledging the prevalence of this dilemma, Dr. Jenia Mukherjee from IIT Kharagpur, in a webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and IndraStra Global on Enabling Comprehensive Urban Environmental Framework in Indian Cities: Significance, Challenges, and the Way Forward amidst COVID-19 Pandemic, also added that this challenge has become even more pressing within the context of the current pandemic.
Dr. Mukherjee emphasizes that the contemporary period has been defined by different scholars as different cenes like the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Urban Anthropocene, and Urbanocene but all of these overlapping cenes are intricately intertwined with each other. It is important to understand their integration to contextualize the contemporary challenges, adds Dr. Mukherjee. She also dwells upon how humanity is transgressing the planetary boundaries as defined by Johan Rockström during the Anthropocene.
Dr. Mukherjee spoke on the changing scale and shifting geographies of urbanization in the global south. She cited the works of eminent researchers to point out that there is a prevalence of urbanization without growth and infrastructure seen in Indian cities, something that researcher Adriana Allen calls Peri Urbanization. She adds that the current scenario of the Indian cities is such that a few people consume a lot while some others living in the slums and squatters even lack the necessities, and this needs to be addressed.
Speaking on India’s plan to build smart cities with modern amenities (SMART City Mission (SCM)), Dr. Mukherjee states that there is a need to historically and politically contextualize these missions within the larger scene of India’s urban trajectory. Tracing this trajectory from the post-materialistic period she points out that initially, India imported concepts from the west like ubiquitous eco-cities, compact cities, high-density cities, etc.
Several models like Planned cities, the Sustainable Cities program of the 1980s, and JNNURM were adopted, finally arriving at the Smart cities mission. The SCM is in tune with the sustainable urbanization theory of the UN where cities are visualized as engines of growth, however, it misses out the fact that cities by definition are not self-sufficient, she adds.
Dr. Mukherjee opines that the environmental component is not sufficiently focused in the SCM as it is believed that a concept of ‘green’ is inherent in it. However, this ‘green’ component of the mission is more on the lines of ecology ‘in’ cities and not with the larger aim of formulating long-term ecological resilient planning which can establish the larger agenda of ecology ‘of’ cities. This can be achieved if the historical and political contours of India’s urbanization are factored in the preparation of urbanization programs, she added.
Speaking on the impact of COVID-19 and its relation with urbanization, Dr. Mukherjee cited Robert Wallace who designated COVID-19 as a neoliberal disease where globalization and global travel and trade made it an urban-centric disease. She emphasized how the inherent vulnerabilities in the cities contributed to the rapid spread of the pandemic.
Incapability to plug the sudden spike in infections in Kolkata due to the impact of cyclone Amphan exposed the infrastructural vulnerabilities of the city. Also, people living in slums and densely packed squatters could hardly comply with the handwashing or social distancing directives of the government, she added. Despite this stark correlation between the lack of infrastructure and entitlement and vulnerability to COVID 19, there are very few discussions about these inadequacies and vulnerabilities of the cities, lamented Dr. Mukherjee.
Expanding upon her research, Dr. Mukherjee stated that a pandemic of the scale and magnitude of COVID-19 is a wicked problem, which in her own words is, “a tangled mess of threads where it is confusing to determine which thread to pull first”. To tackle such a problem, she adds, the requirements at all three stages of pre, during and post-pandemic need to be fulfilled or it would keep resurfacing in a vicious cycle.
Deriving from her rich research experience on the city of Kolkata, Dr. Mukherjee talks about HUPE, Historical Urban Political Ecology, which combines the knowledge from urban environmental history and urban political framework. In her research on whether Kolkata is a risk city or a resilient city, HUPE proved very instrumental in arriving at a conclusion, which she also shares in her book, ‘Blue Infrastructure’.
Expanding on the HUPE methodology, Dr. Mukherjee adds that it combines archival data and ethnography. It provides scope to come up robust resilience matrix by mapping potentials and challenges that are embedded in the geomorphological and social context of a particular urban city.
Speaking on the essentiality of an approach like HUPE, Dr. Mukherjee notes that Urban Environmental History as a subject is quite new in India, and the contemporary developments and recent dynamics missing. While Urban Political ecology is a well-established domain with a lot of research but they do not have much data leading back 100 or 200 yes. Hence there is a need to combine these domains, as it is done in HUPE, to better understand the urban environmental trajectory of a particular city, she adds.
Charting a framework for moving from Smart cities to sustainable cities, Dr. Mukherjee advises that COVID-19 should be seen as an opportunity to rethink and restructure urban informal settlements in tune with the SDGs. Adding on how to move from the Ecology ‘in’ cities to Ecology ‘of’ and ‘for’ cities, Dr. Mukherjee emphasized that there is a need for a long-term urban mosaic perspective, NGO’s and GRO’s need to be capacitated and there should be a focus on empirical and practical research. She also spoke on developing disruptive resilience by innovating and building an alternative mechanism to cope with the disruptive risks.
Dr. Mukherjee stated that there are unfortunately no concrete or consolidated policies for Indian cities. She added that each city has its narrative and the one size fits all approach should be done away with. She also emphasized that transdisciplinary knowledge is needed and different disciplines and sectors need to work together to craft a common language of conversation that is interesting to a policymaker and to nurture collective resilience.
Responding to a question raised by Dr. Simi Mehta, CEO at IMPRI, on ignorance of local knowledge, Dr. Mukherjee points out that we have to learn from the bottom-up needs-driven local practices and incorporate them in the policy-driven ideas. However, she cautions that there should not be a tendency to over indigenize practices that may not be strictly local and has a history of multisectoral cooperation.
Commenting on the speaker’s presentation and adding an administrator’s perspective to the topic, Mr. Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Government of Maharashtra, stated that the real challenge is with the implementation and execution of programs. This, he adds, is affected by two factors, political will, and intersectoral collaboration, and community engagement.
He also emphasized the need for international collaborations between cities. This need for collaboration was seconded by the speaker Dr. Mukherjee in her concluding comments, as well as by Dr. Arjun Kumar, Director at IMPRI, who also talked about the need for better communication between cities of the east and west coasts.
Acknowledgments: Nikhil Jacob, based in Goa, is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, and is pursuing a post-graduate diploma in Environmental Law and Policy from the National Law University, Delhi.
Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Dr Arjun Kumar