Author Archives: ramblinginthecity

An Uber tale from Udaipur

An interesting experience with Uber last evening in Udaipur, where we are attending a dear friend’s wedding. Do read it in the context of this piece that underscores the concerns of operators in small cities across India and reminds us that the ‘bharosa’ that comes in with informal practices is often what makes systems tick in our country.

So last night we call an Uber to our hotel. As we get comfy and name our destination, the driver’s face falls. The destination is out of his range of coverage, he informs us. No amount of cajoling, offering extra money, nothing will make him go there. But he offers to drop us to the nearest intersection from where we request our friend to send us a car.

The intersection is rather deserted, but lit, and our driver is genuinely concerned about our comfort and safety. He is also visibly distressed about having to do this, but a recent Uber joinee and clearly not comfortable with taking risks as yet. Most of all, he is very relieved that we are not making a fuss. “Uber ke customers samajhte hain (Uber customers understand),” he tells us, in defense of his decision to drive Uber instead of Ola, the more popular app-based cab operator in these parts. Ola would probably have taken us to our destination, he adds, laughing!

Clearly, provisions for flexibility are a double edged sword for tech-enabled services. What is a higher priority- customer service or control over drivers who are expected to game the system? In a country where gaming the system is the system, it is quite a hilarious situation!

 

 

The poignancy of an abandoned home: Voyeurism and research in Tangtou #ShenzhenDiaries

There are moments during fieldwork when you feel like a voyeur, part guilty and part fascinated by intimate details revealed before you. That’s how I felt in Tangtou, where we unexpectedly found an entire block of vacant homes that had been locked up in 2008 unlocked and available to us for exploration.

Built as resettlement housing for villagers displaced by a water reservoir project in the late ’50s and subsequently found to be unsafe in the ’90s, families were finally asked to vacate in 2008 (facts from Mary Ann’s post on Tangtou dated 23rd May 2016).

On the day that we visited, surveyors from the district administration were measuring the homes in preparation for redevelopment of the area. The homes stood open for us and I felt a bit like what an archaeologist might during an excavation. Time had stood still for these spaces that were once lived in and used. A beautifully painted facade. A child’s jacket, broken study table and English language alphabet chart. A kitchen slab where utensils had been left behind and a living room where posters were still on the wall and papers strewn across the floor. All these conjured up vivid images of how hurriedly families might have gathered their possessions when the eviction orders came in.

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thumb__DSC0554_1024.jpgOur understanding of the redevelopment process in Shenzhen’s urban villages was to grow over the next few days, but that afternoon in Tangtou we began to grasp the rudiments. That residents were compensated basis the built-up space they had at the time of eviction. That these compensations could be several times the size of the originally occupied space and were usually hugely profitable for villagers but migrants, who lived as renters got nothing. In Tangtou that day though, where waste pickers sorted thermocol and plastic along its main spine even as we walked in and out of the homes, it was hard to visualize a swank apartment block going up where we stood.

It is hard not to make comparisons to slum redevelopment models in India, especially the SRA model and its various spin-offs, where the developer is permitted to use the redeveloped parcel of land to build for sale commercial apartments while taking the responsibility of rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers on site, in a prescribed ratio. The idea is to leverage the value of the land occupied by slums (illegally, as is often emphasized in government documentation while hardly ever bringing up the failure of the State to provide affordable housing ) to improve living conditions as well as create more housing stock.

Like in Shenzhen, cross-subsidy driven redevelopment schemes in India like the SRA impose eligibility criteria that leave out some residents, usually renters, though the proportion of the ineligible varies by location and may not be as high. Activists have often pointed out that these schemes sanitize the city, but accentuate inequalities by turning families onto the streets. As you can imagine, the cut-off date as well as the documentation that households have to produce for eligibility are hotly contested.

Second, while in-situ rehabilitation does not displace poor households, the replacement of low-rise housing with high-rise apartments has been traumatic for slum households in Indian cities, whose income sources are diverse, home-based occupations are common and for whom the street is the focal point for interaction. The scheme has provisions for community consultation, but the design of redevelopment housing has hardly taken community needs into account.

In Tangtou, the narrow and deep row houses had double height spaces that residents had configured the spaces creatively to meet their specific needs (apparently the width was counted by the number tiles in traditional homes, more the width the higher the family’s status, while depth remained standard). I wondered how residents would alter their lifestyle in their new standard issue apartments. Would they miss the flexibility their older homes offered them?

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Through the week in Shenzhen, we discussed redevelopment several times, and the concern over the issue of rights and citizenship was expressed in many forms, not only by activists and planners but even by village residents. In this short trip, we weren’t able to get a first had sense of how migrants felt about being sidelined, but one expert we spoke to pointed out that the self-perception of migrants as outsiders was perhaps the biggest barrier to  building a campaign for more inclusive redevelopment mechanisms. Another similarity with rapidly growing cities in India, where despite democracy and the Constitutional right to mobility, low-income rural migrants have little voice until they remain long enough in the city to become a vote bank, which is often a few decades.

The Happy People of Shiuwei #ShenzhenDiaries

If you were to force me to pick the best from the myriad experiences Shenzhen offered, I would choose the morning we met the ‘Happy People’ of Shiuwei (term coined by Partha that morning, using it with due credit). When Mary Ann told us we were going to meet women of the community, I expected an informal conversation. Instead, we walked into a hotbed of community activity in which village women had congregated to cook together in preparation of the Dragon Boat Festival.

The sights and sounds of the semi-open enclosure located within the compound of the village office reminded me strongly of childhood visits to my native village in Goa. There was a certain aura of ritual and a sense of comfort in the practiced way these women were working together, very similar to culinary preparations during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at our ancestral home (read about chavath elsewhere on my blog). The dishes themselves, called zongzi and made of rice with multiple fillings that are carefully wrapped into palm leaves and then boiled in water, reminded me more of Kerala’s culinary repertoire. Besides the plain sticky rice, we observed fillings of cane sugar and peanut as well as duck eggs, pork and beans.

As the women worked, they chatted and laughed incessantly. I drew up a plastic stool next to one group and let myself be hypnotized by their rhythmic actions. They weren’t shy, sometimes making eye contact and smiling, but largely they seemed too engrossed to be distracted by my staring and filming (watch video below).

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Unlike the group cooking sessions within extended families or religious groups in India at occasions like weddings and festivals (increasingly being replaced by catered food or contracts to professional cooks, sadly), I was surprised to find out that cooking together is not traditional in this part of China. Instead, a few women in Shiuwei village with the patronage of Shuiwei Holdings Ltd, the village corporation or ‘company’, have taken on the responsibility of bringing women together thrice a year for ten-day periods to cook traditional food items together as an expression of community solidarity and feeling.

Behind the scenes, company employees and retired husbands of some of these women sat around smoking and chatting. They also cooked meals for the group making zongzi. In contrast to the cooking ladies, the men were a curious lot, asking about us and why we were here. On hearing I was from India, one of the men got very animated. “Indian women are always wearing clothes from which their fat tummies can be seen,” he exclaimed, “but you are not dressed like that!” In between feeling shocked at his lack of tact and laughing at the way he said it, I was tempted to show him the pictures from my #100sareepact page!

For me, meeting the Happy People was a great entry point into thinking through the social issues around transforming urban villages in Shenzhen. Located in Futian, Shenzhen’s commercial and administrative epicenter,  Shiuwei is among a clutch of urban villages that had the business savvy to redevelop land in a profitable manner. Rural land in China is collectively owned and by setting up shareholding corporations with village families as shareholders, villages have been able to partner with construction companies to build modern apartment buildings, factories and commercial blocks. In Shiuwei, a well-connected, educated and business-minded CEO (who also incidentally has a fascinating collection of stones housed on the ground floor of the well-landscaped corporation office that also houses recreation spaces for the elderly) appears to have played a crucial role.

Walking around Shiuwei, we saw ‘handshake’ housing blocks located on family plots similar to the ones in Baishizhou, though general standards of infrastructure were much better. We also saw the towering higher-end ‘commercial’ apartment blocks. A set of twin blocks, one carrying the village logo and the other the signage of the construction company, we learned, is a tell-tale sign of village-led redevelopment. On ground, shops specialized in fashion, massages and spa treatments, targeting tourists and rich Hong Kong merchants. The enormous amount of fresh housing stock created is let out to migrants (some of them second wives for the aforementioned rich Hong Kong merchants!).

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Redeveloped into commercial apartment towers, you can see the Shiuwei logo on one of the two

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In the foreground typical handshake buildings

It stands to reason that cooking together assumes enormous meaning for a community of village folk that is so vastly outnumbered by migrants from other parts of China. Savvy business strategy and increasing wealth cannot a community replace, that’s the takeaway here. Even as the exclusion of migrants from redevelopments processes in urban villages in Shenzhen is an area of significant concern, Shiuwei is a reminder of how transitions are not easy for native groups either.

Vibrant Baishizhou: An urban village endangered #ShenzhenDiaries

All the while Mary Ann and Fu Na were with us in Delhi, we talked about urban villages. The discussions often left me confused and I had realized that we weren’t talking about quite the same animal. Our walk through Baishizhou, the first urban village we saw in Shenzhen, was all about finding the similar and understanding the different.

We take a narrow road into Baishizhou, walking alongside tall iron fencing that contain the various gated housing condominiums of OCT, privately built and owned, expensive, home to the better off, orderly, landscaped and pretty. At a cluster of shops at the village entrance, we find the little mobile phone with the resourceful entrepreneur who can fiddle around with sim cards and Indian mobile phones and get us connected, something the uniformed salesperson in the branded telecom store hadn’t been able to do. The cheerful shopkeeper’s daughter entertains us as he works. The lady next door selling buns cannot mask her curiosity. A number of village folk sit around, play mahjong, gossip. I feel at home, the hustle bustle is comforting.

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Inside Baishizhou, the shop-lined narrow streets are thronging with hundreds of children who are spilling out of the school gate ahead. The blue and checked uniforms appear to move with a sense of purpose towards whatever is scheduled next for them. We get some stares and shy smiles, hear a lot of chatter.  Conversation moves from child sex ratio to schooling practices and parental ambition. The busy streets, all manner of shops including the barber shops with the characteristic twirling striped cylinders, an excess of signages, walls pasted with advertisements for rental space and narrow, cluttered side alleys and narrow market lanes  are strongly reminiscent of similar bustling informal settlements in Delhi. We see the ubiquitous 25-liter water here in Baishizhou, the same as Mary Ann and Fu Na saw in Chakkarpur village, Gurgaon. Cables run along external walls and across the street. It’s a familiar kind of chaos.

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As we get accustomed to the eye level and crane our necks upwards though, we begin to  see how an urban village in Shenzhen is different from what we’re used to back home. The famous ‘handshake’ buildings are much taller here, 7-10 floors high as compared to the 3-4 floors in Delhi. They have tiled facades. Whoever built them had certainly used a plumb line!

Like in Delhi, villagers had redeveloped their plots to build high-rise apartments that they rented out to migrants. From the height and quality of the buildings, however, it seemed that they had access to more capital and better construction expertise. Once, we came across a single family home, a couple floors high and with space for a front yard and this offered us a glimpse of what Baishizhou might have been a few decades ago.

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At the edge of the village, we stare at a row of factory buildings slated for demolition. This is the first bit of Baishizhou to go in an inevitable cycle of demolition and redevelopment that has been ongoing in Shenzhen. Many more conversations about the inequitable impacts of redevelopment in Shenzhen are to follow, through which the relevance of the Baishizhou we see was brought home to us. The famous ‘chai’, the Chinese symbol for destruction, is stenciled across the structures, stark and grim.

As the shadows lengthen and we head back to the hotel, we watch an endless stream of people walking back to Baishizhou at the end of what would most likely have been a long working day. The prospect of hanging around till the streets became a frenzied den of leisure activity, largely focused around food (apparently people from Guangzhou atake care of their taste buds!) is welcome, but we haven’t had much sleep and rest is on our minds. And so we walk away.

Luckily for us, we do get a chance to revisit Baishizhou by night, the last evening before we head back to India. And though we miss the crowds, we do get a different sense of this village that probably never really sleeps.

 

Click-click under the Flamboyant trees: An afternoon in OCT, Shenzhen

Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!

Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean  companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.

The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.

What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).

thumb__DSC0419_1024thumb__DSC0430_1024thumb__DSC0438_1024thumb_IMG_9546_1024Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.

What do doodles tell you? #ShenzhenDiaries

Looking through my notes as I write about Shenzhen (I learnt to pronounce it correctly around Day 2 of our trip- it’s Shun-jun for your information), I try to reconstruct the thoughts behind some of these doodles in my notebook. Order, structure, urban forms, technology, the incorporation of nature into cities, human adaptation are some themes I see.

Doodling has been a habit for as long as I remember, predating my training as an architect, usually geometric forms. The doodles usually emerge out of the subconscious, barring the odd sketch of a scene here and there, and its hard to see patterns at times though I keep trying. I’d love to hear about how other people interpret their own doodling. Do share!


  
  

Shenzhen Diaries: In anticipation

I first heard of a possible trip to Shenzhen in mid-March from Partha (we work together at the Centre for Policy Research) during a taxi ride from Delhi to Gurgaon. The name Shenzhen triggered memories of conversations we had about the buzzing Chinese city across the water from Hong Kong back in the early 2000s when Amma and Papa (my in-laws) lived in Macau. Those were the years shortly after Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macau (in 1999) were handed over to China and much was changing in the Pearl River Delta. Papa was flying helicopters for a private airline at the time; and in addition to his usual stories of the rich folks he ferried between Hong Kong and Macau on the famed casino circuit, he was talking about the rich business investors he was flying to Shenzhen and Zuhai, both among 5 Special Economic Zones set up by China along the Eastern seaboard in 1980 as key elements of economic reform. On my trip to visit them in 2000, a year before my wedding, they even took me on a day trip to see the wonders of Zuhai’s swank streets, tall glass buildings and sparkling amusement parks. I wondered if I should expect Shenzhen to be something similar. Over the next few days, however, Shenzhen slipped my mind and I got busy with other things.

Then, in the last days of April Mary Anne and Fu Na arrived in Delhi from Shezhen, full of immense curiosity and enthusiasm, surprisingly unaffected by the oppressive heat of the Delhi summer. Over the intense conversations we had while showing them around the urban villages and slums of Delhi and Gurgaon, I began to piece together a different picture of Shenzhen. Of spaces similar to the ones we work in here in Delhi where migrants and long-time residents squeeze together, feeding off the glitzy growing city and yet, strangely distanced from it. Of a city of hope and entrepreneurship but also struggle and despair.

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Our plans to visit Shenzhen began to crystallize over the month of May and I crammed as much reading about the city and its environs as I could. The picture became fuzzier with every paper I read. Facts and figures, strains of urban history and theory mingled together, shapeless and drifting. I stored as much as I could in a mental shelf labelled “Shenzhen, China”.

We landed in Hong Kong airport in late May and the mountains rising out the water greeted me like familiar friends. On the ferry across to Shenzhen, I finally allowed myself to give in to the excitement of anticipation coming to an end, of the relief of seeing and feeling a city that I’ve tried in vain to conjure out of mere words. Join me on my journey as I attempt to synthesize and interpret what we saw over an intense week of exploration in Shenzhen. Presenting, the Shenzhen Diaries.

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Last weekend in Kochi, a memorable slice of time

To me, travel is therapeutic at many levels. Whether I travel for work or leisure, or even to meet family obligations, I revel in the sensory overload that travel brings. Earlier this month, I was in Kochi to serve as external jury member for 3rd year architectural students at a relatively new private college. While that was an interesting experience in itself, the highlight of the trip was spending time with one of my closest friends and her family.

College buddies, especially if you’ve shared hostel rooms, clothes, intimate secrets and much more, have an understanding of each other that is rare and precious. Both of us found we had saved conversations up in our heads for years and years for the time we would meet and have a chance to have a leisurely conversation. So that was super fun. Just as much fun was interacting with her kids; who felt familiar after only two days of time together.

The ease of being with people who feel like family seeped into the one day we had free. We visited the touristy part of town, Fort Kochi, but we hardly had tourism on our minds. Instead, we wandered through artist Paris Mohan Kumar’s art exhibition at the iconic David Hall, a restored art gallery and cafe that was once a Dutch bungalow. The paintings, which were largely monochrome revolved around the themes of nature and human relationships with an emphasis on the female form, were fascinating in their ability to be complex and simple at the same time.

We then hung out in the cafe part of the building for a while, cooling down drinking mint iced tea and gazing onto the patch of Kerala green and the pristine white stone wall, solid like they built them in the 16th century. Talking, laughing, thinking. And having some unexpected deep conversations.

Soon enough, phone calls came in, errands were run and appointments were rushed towards. The afternoon went by in a tizzy of sushi tasting, professional commitments, shopping and driving around a city temporarily scarred by the construction of the Metro line.

A week later, I’m still carrying that slice of time at David Hall with me. Memories are not necessarily made of a famous piece of architecture, high culture or amusement parks. Nor of expensive meals, cruises and moonlit walks. They are equally made of ordinariness, of words exchanged with an 11-year old child wise far beyond her years, of time spent with someone who understands you better than yourself. Of laughing over spilt cold coffee and of counting ants climbing up a tree. And in the day of smart phone, of taking a goofy selfie.

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Let’s improve museums, but also create shared spaces to experience culture, explore identity

I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.

Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.

Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.

A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.

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Refurbishing and adapting iconic architecture to new uses is imperative. Demolishing important markers of history is tantamount to erasing a section of our collective historical identity. Raj Rewal designed the Hall of Nations in 1972

To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.

 

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On the 1st day of May this year, this past weekend, The Max Foundation hosted its fundraising and awareness event ‘Chai for Cancer’ at Lodi Gardens, leveraging the sheer beauty and evocative power of the heritage site for a great cause! Viji Venkatesh, Country Head, The Max Foundation claims patients feel positive vibes here.

There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!

 

Saving the Aravallis: Documenting Gurgaon’s persistent environmental activism

Much has been said and written about the urbanism of Gurgaon. Amidst uproar and negativity over the general failure of governance, a core group of citizens has been persistently highlighting pressing issues relating to environmental conservation. More specifically, they have brought attention to the urgent need to conserve the sections of the Aravallis that runs through Haryana. To bring these concerns to the State government, citizens walked together a year ago (I blogged about it then), and we did so again today.

What did our movement achieve and what drives us now to continue efforts to engage with the government on issues that have been particularly hard to raise in India at large, but more particularly in a State where mining and real estate interests are politically powerful and directly pitted against us?

This time, last year: A specific call to action to save Mangar Bani

The trigger for the call to action, when we gathered at Kachra Chowk a year ago on 26th April 2015, was the imminent changes in land use regulation that would permit the declassification of forest land and open it to real estate development. A group of focused citizens, some of whom are ecologists, geologists and environmental experts, made convincing arguments that underscore the need to protect the Aravallis to ensure the survival of cities like Gurgaon and Faridabad. These arguments revolve around the basics, like protecting the main water recharge zone for the region, as well as more evolved arguments that call for a different imagination of the city as a place that embraces nature. As a powerful symbol of what nature was capable of, the group decided to focus on the protection of Mangar Bani,  a sacred grove protected by local communities that lies between Gurgaon and Faridabad. I wrote last year about the movement, during which a successful online petition was floated and many citizens, children included, were involved at the time.

These concerted efforts resulted in the Haryana government announcing a protected status for Mangar Bani in early 2016. It is extremely positive that 677 acres of Mangar Bani Sacred Grove has been identified for protection, plus a buffer of between 60m to 500m will be taken up for restoration. This amounts to a buffer area of 1100-1200 acres, which will act as a major watershed for the region as well as restore the already rich biodiversity of the Aravallis. The progressive work on mapping and demarcating these areas has been encouraging, says Chetan Agarwal, who has been deeply involved in the research on Mangar Bani.

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Pushing the envelope for long-term benefits

Today’s walk was intended to demand a follow through of the promises made. The final notification for the Mangar Bani Sacred Grove remains pending and the group is highlighting the urgency of this step. After notification, corresponding changes are required to be notified in records and plans, in order for the protection status to have adequate impact on future development plans for Gurgaon and Faridabad.

And Mangar is only the first step. Much more needs to be done to protect the fragile Aravallis that are facing sever environmental degradation. First, the group urges the State government to notify the Aravallis around Gurgaon as a city forest. The city’s only forested area, the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, has been developed from a brownfield mining site. A collaborative effort of the citizens and municipal government, ABP has become a paradise for citizens to experience open space and nature. But there is considerable opportunity to do much more. By protecting the existing Aravalli areas and developing them as city forests, Gurgaon will join the illustrious list of global cities that recognize and celebrate the health benefits of sensitively integrating forest areas into urban development. The benefits of forests in improving air quality, and long-term benefits of living in proximity to nature are well documented and practised by cities across the world.

Second, the group requests the State government to identify sanctuaries and national parks in Haryana’s Aravallis. Mangar Bani, for example, should be made into a sanctuary. The Aravallis as a whole should be declared a deemed forest and made part of the Natural Conservation Zone (NCZ). There exist today subtle ways to keep large areas of the Aravallis out of the NCZ in a ‘to be determined’ category. This category must be deleted, so that the commitment to conservation is clear and strong. Areas of the Aravalli foothills that have been currently kept out the the NCZ are equally important and must be included. Further, the eco-sensitive zones for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary must stretch to include major lakes – Damdama, Badkhal, Dhauj, and also the mining pits which have exposed groundwater and the buffer for the Asola Bhatti sanctuary on the Haryana side increased. Finally, privatised land in the Aravallis must be restored to panchayat ownership.

These actions will give firm signals against future exploitation of these ecologically sensitive areas for real estate and infrastructure development. Furthermore, these steps appear critical for the survival of these cities, critical as they are to the recharge of groundwater in the region.

Globally, environmental gains for cities have almost entirely resulted from sustained and informed citizen activism. There is no glamour in this sort of activism. It is extremely hard work and I salute all those who are working hard behind the scenes to keep these issues burning and alive in Gurgaon. Walks like today’s gives citizens like me an opportunity to do our little bit. We must hope that every little bit counts.

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