See mummy, the roof is covered in solar panels!

We took the train from Amsterdam to Berlin earlier this month. While the change of staff from the friendly Dutch to the slightly brusque German crew is noticeable, the scenery outside isn’t immediately very different. It takes a while for the oh-so-flat Dutch scenery to transform into the rolling countryside around the Rhine. But Udai’s observation was on the ball when he started pointing out the growing number of houses with solar panels on the roofs. Soon he was showing us homes and barns and storage sheds with their entire roofs covered in solar panels!

solar-panels-roof-germany-537x357-300x199I made a mental note that day (12th June) to look up the solar energy achievements of Germany but it slipped my mind. However, I read today that at about the same time as we were excitedly pointing out all those solar panels to each other and telling Aadyaa what solar was all about, Germany had set three national records related to solar energy! Over 50% of the country’s energy needs are now met by solar. Mind blowing indeed, especially for a nation not abundant in sunshine. Can we in India imagine the potential here?

Probing deeper, I gather that Germany’s solar capacity is largely installed on residential and commercial rooftops rather than at industrial facilities. However, from a policy perspective, I understand that the nation’s heavy subsidization of solar and wind energy while cutting back on nuclear energy production has meant both extremely high power tariffs and increased carbon emissions owing to more usage of coal and gas. Everything has a flip side, I suppose!

The elephant in the room: Will/Can the BJP address environmental concerns?

A surprising number of people I know reasonably well, who had offered no opinions or shown enthusiasm all through the build up and during the polls, broke their silence yesterday after BJP’s victory was safely established. My first thoughts are about why people are so reticent about their political leanings or current feelings. If you’re right wing, it’s OK! Why be apologetic about it? As I began to read what people put up on FB, I began to see that for the majority of people on my timeline, their vote was in favor of stability and development. They believe that Modi can provide the sort of leadership that can bring the bounce back in the economy. For people like my driver and maid, they are hoping Modi brings life to the agro sector and most importantly, brings prices down. Fortunately, I do not know too many people who would like Modi to send the Muslims to Pakistan, etc etc. I do know a couple though, but like they say, one doesn’t always choose one’s acquaintances!

Let’s agree for the moment that the mandate is for a better economy and better governance. Looking at the analysis, I think its pretty remarkable that entire communities chose to abandon their traditional leanings and voted for the BJP, at times against the logic of caste or region. It’s a big responsibility for the BJP now, to steer the nation back onto course. Media is working overtime to offer opinions on what Modi’s priorities will be- economic growth, foreign investment, controlling inflation, reviving the farm sector, taking away the malaise of the subsidy, making people more self-reliant, assuring justice for all especially minorities, etc etc. No one is really talking about the big elephant in the room: environmental sustainability.

Kafila promptly carried a piece on this yesterday, on the dangers of the BJP government being a surrogate of the corporate sector sans checks. Among other concerns, environmental sustainability is something that those of us who work in the development sector have been really worried about. It seems that a government that plays to the corporate sector won’t bother too much about this. [For those who will jump on me at this time and tell me the UPA was as much a corporate surrogacy as Modi's will be, let me tell you that this is not the time to compare the Congress' crony capitalism to the BJP's. That point is moot now, with the majority mandate. ]

When it comes to the environment, big the problems still remain. India’s record is dismal. We’re going downhill fast! Food security is a concern, toxicity in food and water is causing epidemics of lifestyle and other diseases. Pollution levels in cities are peaking. We’re not healthier humans, we’re probably getting sicker and sicker. I don’t think we can afford five years of turning a blind eye to environmental concerns, especially if we are looking to make more investments in infrastructure and industry. I don’t buy the idea that its all right for the developed world to worry about the environment, while developing nations like India should first focus on growth. Climate change is a reality, however much the extreme right in the US denies it! India’s only salvation will be in finding innovative ways to achieve growth in a sustainable manner. This impacts every sector. Our ways of production, of eating, living and traveling, of disposing waste, all need to change if we want to build a better future, sustainably.

I am also equally concerned about social equity in the context of neoliberal economic thinking, but am less paranoid there because I know the BJP will have to, in some way, benefit the vast electorate that has supported it this time. In my work, especially at micro Home Solutions, I’ve always pushed for a market-based approach, but its not always possible to do that owing to the lack of transparency in our system. How Modi will address social concerns therefore remains to be seen? The Gujarat model hasn’t any good answers and its something the new government will need to work on, I think.

I’ve made no bones about my own political leanings. They definitely do not veer towards the right. As a proud Indian, however, and a believer in the democratic system, it is my duty to support the government in power with good counsel in my own field of expertise. This piece has been written in that spirit. I see myself in the role of the enabler as well as the watchdog and critic, as a person who can make a small contribution to ensure India doesn’t take the road to disaster while thinking it’s taking the road to progress!

Water tales: Drowning and thirsty at the same time!

Water is on my mind these days. how can it not be, when some parts of our country struggle to deal with floods while millions of others depend on erratic and expensive sources of water to survive! To top it all, we have a roof leaking at home and, as gathering clouds strike fear in my heart, I am reminded everyday that water finds a way to get in everywhere. And become the heart of many a problem.

Clearly, India is at the brink of a gigantic water problem. We know it. A recent study by the Earth Policy Institute warns us of food supply problems because of overdrawing of water for underground aquifers, dropping water tables, contaminated water sources…a bleak picture with India being one of the regions most certainly at risk.

“India has a regulatory vacuum with regard to groundwater, and it is a free-for-all market when it comes to extraction and pricing.” writes Saritha Rai in her article in The Forbes that highlights the risk posed to businesses from water scarcity. This was brought home to me today this morning when I was interacting with a private landlord who builds and rents out units to migrant workers in Gurgaon’s urban villages.

I am neck deep in research to figure out ways in which the private informal rental market in the city’s urban villages and illegal colonies (link to HT article in which I was quoted, on this issue) can be catalyzed to be a legitimate and thriving source of rental housing supply in Gurgaon. Interestingly, while local landlords do not consider policy as a hurdle, choosing to stay outside the ambit of government surveillance with the freedom to do as they will, it might be the need for water that will push landlords towards seeking alliances with the government. Just like independent electrical meters help landlords track usage and allow them to charge for power separately from migrant tenants over and above rent, there are moves to meter water and pass the rising costs of water to the tenant as well. Landlords do fear that their ‘fail-proof’ rental business will, despite all their innovations and adjustments, meet its nemesis in water!

Dark clouds loom outside today. Rain threatens and my home also gears up to meet some aquatic challenges! Are we destined to drown in water without having any to drink?

Shit happens,it matters and is a serious business! – Sanitation experience from Kumbh Mela

ramblinginthecity:

I posted something that started witht he same words, but was entirely different in content. This post tackles shit literally and very analytically in the context of the Kumbh. If there is no dignity when you go to experience God, what hope do we have?

Originally posted on The Meta Narratives:

It is a very essential subject but a most people feel repulsive about. It is our own solid waste/feces and liquid refuse/urine, especially in a country like India with a high population density. I have been working on water and sanitation for over 5 years now. But I have  never had such close quarter encounter with sanitation, its management and issues like I did at Kumbh Mela.

Think about 30 million people visiting a place as small as 58.3 Km2 on few auspicious days. And a floating population of 2-3 million people on a daily basis. This for a period of not few days but 2 months. In such situation to ensure proper sanitation and maintaining the environment becomes very critical for the health of pilgrims and smooth running of the Mela. During my time at the Mela ( 7 days ), I rode through the all the sectors looking at varied facilities…

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With or without wheels…..some of us showing the way.

ramblinginthecity:

Brave and committed people inspire me and give me hope. Here is my friend Kiran, passionate about tourism with meaning and devoted to offering experiences imbued with culture and nature, writing about architect Sanjay Prakash’s amazing personal committment to a Car Free existence. Totally inspiring!

Originally posted on Birdsong & Beyond:

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While driving to the bank a couple of days ago, I saw a familiar figure on the curbside, in a very leisurely, ambling sort of demeanor. I felt pretty sure it was my architect friend Sanjay Prakash, who I had not met for a rather long time. This person seemed leaner, and very relaxed. I had passed him in a hurry so I thought of calling Sanjay to ask him if indeed it was him I had seen, and where was he headed to. I was so glad I called him, because not only was it really him that I had seen and I got a chance to catch up, it also turned out that reason he was there on the roadside was that he was now a Car Free person by choice.

It seems when his last car got too worn out, he decided not to go for another…

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Is ‘Cities for People’ the new mantra? Takeaways from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report

“Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities — that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence.” I am quoting from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report brought out by the BMW Guggenheim Labs after a 33-day series of free workshops and citizen consultations in Berlin. This glossary of terms is an attempt to document the “temperature” of a specifc time and place, Berlin in the summer of 2012 and it is interesting to note how some things havent changed and at all and yet, how citizens and urban professionals alike are moving towards a more human, more experiential understanding of what a city is. So much for those bizarre robotic urban imaginations depicted in sci-fi movies. Cities for people are here to stay!

I find it heartening that this sort of people-centric thinking is gaining prominence and read it as a sign that there will be a growing movement towards changing the bureaucratic and technocratic mindset to a more interdisciplinary one. Here are some of the concepts I found really reassuring and exciting:

The idea of community life and accessible and well designed urban commons (better known as public spaces) is now well understood and established. There seems to be concern that urban environments are reducing the number of connections we make and a recognition of a need for city design to help us maximize human connections.

The role of citizens and non-designers/non-experts in how a city evolves- terms like ‘activist citizen’ and ‘bottom-up engagement’ are turning traditional thinking about urban planning and design on its head. Collaboration, crowd-funding, digital democracy, self-solving, place-making are some of the related terms that give an insight into the muria ways citizens can influence their urban environment. The citizen is no longer being viewed as a passive player at the mercy of policy and regulation, but as a powerful force of change.

Sustainability as a growing concern is reflected strongly and is intertwined with the ideal of a healthy city. This in turn includes ideas like the need for experimentation, walkability and cycling as a means to get around, a concern for food security and the links between urban and rural, mixed-use over the typical use-wise classification of spaces, intelligent buildings and smart cities, the reduce-reuse-recycle adage, the need to promote the share culture, the idea of upcycling (increase the value while reusing) rather than merely recycling,…many innovative trends can clearly be seen in this area. To me, these moves towards sustainable living combimed with bottom-up efforts can really be a potent combination for positive changes to happen. However, all of this will hinge on the ability to create awareness, dialogue, debate and a deeper and wider understanding of the issues among non-designer, non-expert citizens.I found it interesting that the report acknowledges the sheer complexity of urban form, and how the megacity is changing our notions of the centre-suburb model. This is a significant shift that will influence lives and the practice of city design considerably.

The idea of “Minimum Variation, Maximum Impact” in which small changes can be made to move towards more “sustainable and socially responsible cities” seems like a good way to do things.

The powerful concept of ‘cities as idea generators’ was in here too, and it is vital for cities to leverage their innovation power in order to grow economically and to survive in an ecological sense as well.

The idea of technology as a driver of change came across strongly, as a means to interact and have dialogue, as a means to deliver services, as a means to collaborate, design, a whole bunch of functions in fact.

[On another note, Disneyfication was a term I loved here. Its something I've always thought about and never realized it was an actual term! It refers to "a process of urban transformation that increases homogeneity and simulated reality rather than the preservation of historical elements and cultural difference.". Poor Walt! I'm sure this wasn't his intention....]

What does this report mean for another city, another time, another context?  I work in India, in the Delhi-NCR area, which happens to be one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in the world! I certainly see many of these trends relevant for my city. As an urban practitioner, the 100 Trends outlined here help me think through and prioritize issues even as I often gasp with the sheer complexity of what we do as urban problem-solvers! Most importantly, some of the terms here helped me find specific ways to move to a more people-centric, people-driven agenda for city development, and that’s a big reward.

Let’s campaign for Indian cities to create long-term spatial plans: It’s a matter of survival- Sep 12, 2012

Despite the numbers being thrown at us everyday, it is hard for many of us to truly grasp the fact that the world is becoming irreversibly urban. Urban in the way we live, think and function. At the same time, even those of us, like me, who thrive on everything urban, long to escape to quieter places from time to time. We enjoy nature, we crave fresh food, we pine for the sight of green.

How are we going to reconcile these two worlds- the urban and the rural? Deliberations at the World Urban Forum, held recently in Naples, suggest that cities across the world need to wake up to the fact that endless sprawl is counter-productive, resource-wasting and a terrible way to deal with urban expansion.

Urban areas need to be dense to be efficient. In being dense, they demand intelligent planning of resources, but offer opportunities to optimize investments, for instance, in services like public transport. In being dense, they also accommodate more people on less land, leaving land that can be used for other purposes. Urban farming is one such opportunity that cities in India must think about actively. Parks and urban forests are also critical groundwater recharge zones, also recreation and breathing spaces for human inhabitants.

All this can only be achieved by stringent spatial planning, as experts in the WUF concluded. I read about this in an article published by the Global Urbanist, with much satisfaction, but warning bells went off in my head as well! Hold on, hold on! There is a problem here!

Founder member of mHS (where I work) Marco Ferrario was also at the World Urban Forum. He reports that there was a scarce representation of both India and China, the two most populous nations in the world and among the fastest growing economies (there was more representation from Africa though). Also, these are nations that are really struggling with the problems of urbanization. Local governments in India are struggling to keep their heads above water and long-term planning and vision is not something they have the capability to do at this time. There are many minor success stories, but largely, the landscape is bleak and urbanization is haphazard, gobbling up vast amounts of land with no thought for balance and sustainability, food shortages and long-term survival.

This is a strong case for the involvement of urban professionals, ecologists and environmentalists in developing long-term area plans for Indian cities. If we do not heed this advice, we will disintegrate at a speed faster than we can imagine and we leave a world devoid of hope for our future generations. If we do take heed, we might have the rare chance to steer our civilization away from disaster to an existence that is as vibrant and efficient in its urbanized networks as it is sensitive and joyous in its conservation of nature.

I am tempted to start a campaign across India to impress the urgency of spatial planning upon state and local governments. If institutions and professionals join hands, perhaps we could wake up politicians and bureaucracy from their slumber! On that note, my FB page is resounding with the success of a citizen’s effort to clean up a certain area in the city and Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon’s laudable response. Efficiency in rendering municipal services is essential, but so is the creation of a sustainable future through long-term spatial planning that has essential not-for-sale (how naive, what is not for sale? I hear the sniggers people!) components like green areas, urban farms, parks, public spaces, revitalized natural water bodies and forest zones, etc. The right densities, people-centric development, walkability, all that good stuff- it’s high time we demanded it for our cities instead of being happy to read about interventions in nations far away!

Greening affordable housing is a mixed-up agenda- Aug 27, 2012

When you work in the field of affordable housing, you focus on cost, quality and accessibility. Of course, among other things, but these come first. In the past few months though, I have been noticing that the sustainability agenda is attempting to envelope the affordable housing space as well. Well, I’m not saying there aren’t connections. Of course, everything that we build must be sustainable as far as is possible. But to load the cost of sustainability on to a low-income consumer, it might be rather unfair.

The ‘green’ agenda, in my view, is clearly a fad. Of course it is vital for our very survival. But many of those professing to champion green buildings only offer lip service to sustainability. The most common example, of course, is glass clad buildings that are LEED certified despite being made of materials that have the highest embodied energy and needing expensive technology to maintain thermal comfort inside the building envelope each day. I am no expert and I am sure there are clever ways of doing this.

But when green types insist that affordable housing is a huge opportunity to go green I see red! Let me explain.

First. The urban poor, and indeed the poor anywhere, already have perhaps the lowest average carbon footprint possible. Except perhaps for adivasi populations still living in the forests. Consumption of resources is low, optimization is high. Reduce, recycle and reuse is already a motto that is essential for survival. Whatever sort of intervention we plan for the urban affordable housing space will mean reorganizing their lives from the informal to the semi-formal to the formal. Automatically, consumption will increase as the systems formalize. What else are we professionals and policy makers who are already from the consuming classes capable of imagining?

Next. There is barely any formal supply of affordable housing in Indian cities. So where and how will the so-called green interventions happen? Who will pay for the additional cost of sustainable design and construction, however minimal? It is all a fuzzy scenario, since there is no clarity about who is coming forward to bridge the demand-supply gap.

Solutions. No brainers and I’m not even claiming these are original!

Green agenda- States and local governments need to adopt policy measures to incentivize green building. All manner of sustainable technologies, from solar power to rainwater harvesting and a variety of green materials like non-polluting insulation must be made easily available and their taxes reduced to urge adoption.

Affordable agenda- Heavy incentives like faster approvals, higher FSI and lower taxes and interest rates for affordable housing projects would be a start. The real issue is land, of course, so the government would have to chip in the free up locked land and rationalize land prices. On the other side, demand aggregation to attract developers to such projects is a dire need, as well as R&D to standardize design elements and enhance efficiency.

Two birds with one stone? I don’t think the market in India is there yet, or will be for a long time. When middle and higher income groups opt for green housing, the poor will follow. After all, housing is all about aspirations. And the poor will always aspire to what you and I already have.

Goa: A green like no other- July 27, 2012

The familiar drive from Dabolim Airport to Caranzalem. By now, even Udai knows the shortcuts and landmarks. Every single time I stare enthralled by the beauty unfolding with each turn. Monsoon is a particularly good time to come to Goa. The beaches are not on priority, but the verdant rich green seeps through me; a healing green, a soothing green, a green that spells prosperity, hope and life. I love it! I miss it, this particular green of the Konkan coastal belt. The sheer variety of hues, with the fresh green of standing paddy fields and the darker hue of the coconut palms highlighted by the greys of the overcast skies.
Of course, my associations are strongly influenced by the warmth and love of family, the feeling of coming home. I am happy each time to see the marshy backwaters. And fervently hope they remain. That the fate of this blessed land might (is, cynically speaking) be in the hands of the greedy is a heartbreaking thought. I wish it were possible to hold up Goa as a model of sustainable development. Utopian thought perhaps, but certainly one fit for the future.
Some captures from the drive home. Enjoy the green!

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Of celluloid fantasies and the human penchant for intelligent stupidity- July 12, 2012

Every time I brush my teeth, I fleetingly remember that the last time I visited dentist was years ago. And she had showed me a super scary image of certain waiting disasters inside that needed to be filled in at some point, sooner or later. Life has gone on since and I have ignored the cavities. I know, somewhere inside, that I will attend to them the day the toothache gets unbearable.

That’s what we humans are like. We are intelligent enough to know we are making mistakes, even to work at finding possible solutions, but prevention is not something we really buy into. We wake up to reality when disaster strikes.

No wonder fantasy and science fiction fire us up like nothing else can. I just watched The Amazing Spiderman tonight. I’m not one for green and blue liquids in glass viles, transmutations and reptilian creatures that emit ghastly noises. But even I, who cringes when the suspense gets too much (I do know where Udai gets that fear factor from!), am a sucker for the good over evil theme. As long as things get all right in the end, I’m willing to sit through the horror and the gore, the absolute idiocy of celluloid sci-fi.

Unfortunately, real life guarantees no happy endings. We have played dangerously with nature over the past few centuries. Toxins that humans created are now omnipresent in our food chain and no amount of organic labeling can ensure a toxin-free food item anymore. Drugs, toxins and dietary changes are probably responsible for a worldwide epidemic of lifestyle diseases- obesity, heart disease, diabetes. We like to think the human race is immortal, but we do not know for sure. Perhaps we will mutate and adapt to our environs, perhaps we will perish and turn the Earth into the hands of less meddlesome species! Intelligent stupidity is a hallmark of ours certainly…let’s see where it takes us?

I write this as the date changes to Friday, the 13th and I smile…the more we know as a race, the more we cling to elements fantastic, bizarre, illogical…perhaps that is our escape from the reality we know we must face someday.