Refresh and reset
Present times urge us to revisit our urban development trail and incorporate adaptive behaviors that will ensure the dignified existence of human race
We have reached a stage in history where scientists and activists are agreeing that our prevailing system is putting us and our planet on the course of a real catastrophe. Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist in Chile says: "We have to assume that human activity causes damage, so how much damage do we want to cause? What is enough damage to live well?" That is the real question and we need to find answers to it. Chile has declared a climate and ecological emergency and decided to rewrite its Constitution. Almost never did the climate and ecological crisis play such a central role. This time it has happened. A wise move?
Climate change and global warming are causing huge damages by causing floods, typhoons and cyclones the world over — in Central America, in Africa, in Malaysia, the Phillipines and in our own backyard. We simply cannot keep repeating the mistakes of the past.
All our experts and sarkari planners tell us that our urban population will double its present size by 2050. We have about 35 per cent of the total population living in cities and peri-urban areas. Even if we do not double, we will certainly go up to 50-55 per cent of our population. Are we ready and, more importantly, wanting to be ready? The past has not been really impressive, not because we have not made progress, but because we have made progress by overlooking the vital ingredient of 'respect' for nature and environment. These two — nature and environment — have to be at the nucleus of our urban development for the next half century, if we are to redeem our cities, make these healthy spaces and start paying our debt to our future.
It does not make sense to dwell on what has gone wrong with our urban landscape. A combination of limitations has led to our cities being ranked as polluted, deficient in quality drinking water, having non-existent waste management and coal-dependent power supply. Our priorities have been eschewed and planning of cities a monumental casualty. How are we going to get out of this ever-expanding cycle of despair until we show determination to change our ethos of apathetic disinterest towards our future environment and well-being?
Economists Eric Lonergan and Corinne Sawers have observed: "Any serious attempt to curtail the climb in global temperatures requires junking the assets underpinning the carbon economy — oil rigs, coal fired power stations — and building a new infrastructure based on electric vehicles, wind and solar power and battery storage." Future economy cannot take in any populism and must end. We are doing no favors by promising free power, free water and a license to pollute rivers. The transition towards green is not a walk in the park but a serious financial and strategic initiative. Politicians have to find another way to charm their voters. Promise healthy and pollution-free cities, pure drinking water, green spaces etc. — people can be swayed by the temptation of a better life too if governments actually deliver.
Urban development, based on a planned model, is easy to outline but in reality, needs a degree of institutional integrity to implement. More so, we need the integrity of the process of planning. A plan that gets altered because of sectional or private interest will not get us the healthy cities we long for. A planned development is not only a landscaped skyline. It pertains to the respect given to the elements — direction of the seasonal winds, solar capacity, water rejuvenation, waste disposal and regeneration, and more. Above and beyond everything, we have to have the will to pay heed to these elements.
The single-biggest thrust needs to be on raising waste management apparatus to the level of a sacrosanct obligation for all citizens, and the municipal agencies have to put all their energy into fulfilling these obligations. This is a huge challenge. We have a waste management industry estimated at USD 1.3 billion. We generated 54 million tonnes of solid waste in 2019, including 3.3 million tonnes of plastic. We have guidelines for waste management formulated by the Central Pollution Control Board, which demands segregation of plastics. Again, as per CPCB, only 60 per cent was handled, and the rest ended up in landfills, burnt or lost in nearby water bodies. Today, only 20 per cent of the waste is sorted and processed while 80 per cent is dumped as a mixed waste in about 1,684 landfills across India. Cumulatively, this waste is spawning diseases and epidemics of unspeakable proportions, adversely affecting the poorer segments of the population and others as well. Landfills are simply not an option, as the ecological damage is far too severe because of methane and other gas emissions that produce leachate poisoning. If we don't address this, we might as well bid goodbye to the most basic rights to breathe fresh air and drink clean water. Studies by IITs of Delhi and Mumbai, NEERI and CPCB have testified to the enormous costs of landfill dumping of wastes. Cleanliness will usher in only when sustainable strategies are put in place for an enduring period of time.
Nature's adaptations to a warming world offer us lessons in flexibility that should inform our own response, says Thor Hanson of the Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid fame. We have been putting off moving away from gas and diesel because of our mindset that electric options are not viable. Now with tech advances, every single effort to cut use of gas and diesel is a step up from its polluting predecessor. Gordon Orians, an American biologist, says simply, we must do everything we can. There is urgency, like we cannot imagine. To quote Thor Hanson again: "In nature, the responses of individual organisms determine the fate of populations...and entire ecological communities". True, we need stronger climate policies and strong leadership to take them ahead, but those things will be the result of cultural change and not the cause of it.
The pivotal role of local governments needs to be scripted and defined with a clear mandate, as they are the only medium positioned to lead and navigate the 'adjust and adapt' missions. At present, there is very little or no capacity among those to digest the scale of climate challenge before us. State and local governments have worked and are still working at cross purposes on critical issues of city management, and even of regulation. We should have an ICRA like agency to give ratings to these bodies, and state government-municipal harmony should be a determinant in the awarded rating, as all outcomes are dependent on their mutual compatibility.
We have to see the onset of dramatic behavior changes in us. Here, perhaps the animal kingdom could serve as a lesson where the most flexible species have an edge. Bears are eating berries instead of salmon, brown pelicans now venture hundreds of miles north of their former habitats. There are millions of examples where climate change is forcing change in lifestyles. Those who adapt well will prosper and those who don't, will escalate into extinction. We have to start building our future habitat now.
The writer is the now retired-Director of the India Habitat Centre. Views expressed are personal