“Let’s Run for Our Children’s Lives”

Against some horrifying environmental statistics, an urban habitat specialist urges us to get into immediate action for the sake of the future of humanity and the world at large

Revolutions come to Indians, silently, creeping up our sleeve, as we deal with our problems incrementally. Anything good or bad takes its time to hit us. Telecom changed with mobile tech and universalised communication, private couriers transformed parcel services, Paytm and its brethren changed transfer of money, electronic three wheelers are driving the way we transport ourselves. The big brother, i.e., the government, only woke up after these revolutions had happened. And they happened because: Necessity is the mother of invention – the guiding force of human beings’ quest for fulfilment. The industry caters to people’s needs faster than the establishment, which then responds with policy interventions, to regulate what the market has set in motion. What does this mean for the needs that fall under the direct control of the government – such as urbanisation?

Just close your eyes and think of any city in the country where the environment is clean, water is pure, all civic amenities are available; there are good schools, good healthcare facilities, women are safe and people can pursue their passions into excellence. None! In 72 years since independence, we have not really created a heaven on earth in any city. The most imaginative and creative piece of urban settlement is Chandigarh, and even its clones, Bhubaneshwar and Gandhinagar, could not recreate the initial magic.

Cities aside, even our hill stations have only degenerated over time, what, with reckless violations of urban envelopes, and utter disregard for safety standards. Development protocols such as those for construction, design and geography-specific requirements etc. are not implemented by rapacious builders and overlooked by regulators.

Recalling ‘Stories from my journey’, Christopher Benninger, the great master architect says tellingly, “the human settlements we have lived in, the buildings we have lived in, have moulded and tempered the way we think about space, form and urban structure.” Our buildings and monuments, both = state-owned and private, will tell our national story for a long time. Why are we so myopic that we build only for the short term and not something that will last centuries to represent the growth of our civilization=? And we build without respect for geography, ecology and nature – devastating floods in Kerala, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and so many other states; unsafe constructions in hill stations and over flood plains and water bodies. The icons of our heritage and symbols of our civilisation cannot handle the havoc of the monsoons anymore, which we know will happen every year. Are we really insane?

Municipal authorities reeking of apathy must be given their share of the blame, but we, as members of the civil society, have to accept our own citizenry’s failure. That we are suffering because of the mistakes of the previous generation is no reason to be totally regardless of the debts we owe our successors.

What we need now is a revolution—a way in which urbanisation can be driven and managed with the human being and all other living things as its focus.

Our urban challenges are complex and multi-dimensional. We cannot resolve them in comfortable sequences, but we have to find answers that converge on these challenges. In 1901, only about 11% of our population was in urban areas and by 2017, the World Bank estimated it to be 34%. At this time, it would be safe to estimate this figure to be around 35-36%, and increasing by the day. People are relocating for economic, social and educational reasons as well as owing to the limited opportunities in rural India and distress in agriculture. Our cities are not prepared for such an influx; in fact they have not been prepared for the last six or so decades. The litany of woes and inaction is long but everybody knows about them. It is one thing that there are deficits in civic infrastructure, in amenities, in housing and socio-cultural spaces, but the consequences of these have been devastating to large sections of populations, particularly the migrants and the poor of our cities.

Disease and pestilence have brought untold miseries to these lives. Cancer, Opioids epidemic, seasonal viruses and other health impacting illnesses are a constant feature of urban dwellers’ lives. Much of this is a result of our poor waste management systems. We have to focus all resources on waste and what we can do to manage it. We are putting out 62 million tonnes of waste in a year and we do not have efficient disposal systems for more than 40% of it, and that too in the bigger towns. This quantum is growing at more than 4% annually. 80% of our cities do not have any disposal mechanisms and waste is dumped anywhere and everywhere. Partial efforts involving individual successes are not going to help. This is literally a mountain size problem and will need herculean effort. Even the average population is in denial, occupied as they are with issues of livelihood.

Shortened life spans, lower human productivity and hence lower economic growth, is a totality of challenges that have made urban reformation more complex, and short term or temporary fixes harder to accept. We cannot run away from the urgency of bringing solutions to the challenges of the city. We do know what is to be done. For far too long and only for petty political reasons, the mandated empowerment of the local self-governments has not happened. Because it has not happened, there is limited skill in these units, which ironically gets quoted as another reason to not do it. The municipal body has to take the lead in navigating the city management. The environmental crisis is upon us. Its denial has cost us many lives and citizens’ health.

At the root of all civic problems is water and its sources; its accessibility and quality. We somehow adhere to just about minimum standards of potability. We have to get to the highest standards. Merely the cost rationale is not good enough as the health of our people must be accorded the highest consideration of any sensible governance paradigm. Cities are already becoming vulnerable to water shortages and may even have to go without water in the very near future. And we continue to destroy river systems by not having effluent treatment systems in all riverside cities. The emphasis on cleaning the rivers cannot succeed if our towns by the side of our rivers are discharging waste every day into river streams.

The reality of our situation demands that fundamental issues have to be addressed substantively. While policy structures and financing the infrastructure are important, the real investment has to be made in mobilizing public awareness and participation in civic ecosystem. Running marathons for public causes is nice but any consistent betterment of our urban environment is a marathon of marathons and this race must start with all of us running for our children’s lives. 

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
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