By Ishita Puri, St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

Urbanization spurs a unique set of issues for both human and ecological well being, blemished by economic disparity and environmental degradation. In developing countries like India, urban spaces are the motors of the economy and generators of wealth. While it is difficult for a resource-rich and densely populated India to sustainably fulfill the loft demands of urbanization for food, energy and water and accommodation of increasing waste and emissions, certain efficacious models adopted by European countries can highlight the way forward.

Curbing Vehicular Pollution

Growing energy needs have led to rising carbon emissions, especially in Indian cities like New Delhi and Bangalore, which trap atmospheric pollutants that have adverse effects on both human health and environmental well being. Under such circumstances, particular models adopted by European cities like London (congestion charge), Zurich and Helsinki can be considered as potential solutions for urban spaces in India. Zurich and Helsinki have enacted practices of restricting the number of parking spaces and increasing parking fees, respectively. Although it has successfully dissuaded people from commuting in cars, it cannot be fully implemented in India in the context of its already insufficient parking spaces. However, it can prove to be an effective solution in specific cities such as Delhi where the parking charge is way lesser than the substantial cost of maintaining parking spaces.

The key factor that determines people’s willingness to move away from carbon-emitting vehicles is the presence and prominence of an alternate mode of transport – rail, cycle or bus. It requires adequate state support, in terms of constructing infrastructure, incentivising people and proper maintenance of public transport. The Danish capital Copenhagen leads the way when it comes to sustainable urban transport with its cycling culture that encourages people to cycle to places, rather than commuting in a car. Combining it with health benefits of regular cycling meant that since 2014, the number of kilometers cycled on average on workday has been on the increase, with less than 9% opting for a car. 

What the case reflects for India is the assured success of an approach that makes the costs involved tangible. In other words, expressing in monetary terms the gains and losses of a society that uses public transport versus one that uses private vehicles captures the rationality of people – health benefits associated with the use of public transport are made evident.

Housing the Urban Population

India’s urban spaces are crowded with little to no scope for decent living spaces. With ever expanding slums, we still have thousands of homeless people on the streets of all our cities, who don’t even have proper shelter homes to cope India’s extreme climatic conditions. Finland’s case, however, can provide a solution for this growing lack of housing space. Under its program, Housing First (1987), local organizations collaborated with city councils to convert existing hostels and shelters into adequate housing units, thus restricting the demand for new-constructions from going overboard. Moreover, it also ensured the health and sanitation needs of people, preventing the spread of diseases and infections.Adopting such a model for affordable housing in India can prove to be excessively useful to eradicate homelessness if it manages to overcome the psychological block that people might have against people of particular ethnicity. While other issues such as real estate lobby groups and loss of funds, invested in the housing schemes, due to corruption could be extremely possible hindrances, India’s social fabric – being quite different and diverse – may be the ultimate and overarching obstacle to successful implementation of such a scheme in India.

Resolving the Need for Water

Mismanagement of the depleting water resources in urban areas adds to the strain on natural resources in our cities. Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, needs 80 crore litres of water daily, but it can only make 52.5 crores of it available. Out of this, 80% of surface water is polluted and the alacrity for urbanization resulted in shrinking green spaces and thus, reducing aquifer recharge.

The city of Zaragoza in Spain demonstrates the way towards water conservation. Its 1996 Zaragoza Water Saving City programme was launched with the intention of nurturing a ‘conservation culture’. It effectively levied fees corresponding to the amount of water used – luring people towards water conservation by providing water bill discounts if they reduce their consumption. Contrarily, higher water tax can act as a deterrent to higher water consumption. Hence, the magnitude of charge levied on water consumption can reflect the intent of conservation to the people. This view gains immense importance in light of the Delhi government’s decision – to provide 700 litres of free water per day to households with regular connection – being exploited causing further degradation of water resources. 

Along with financial stimulus, much of this behavioural transformation of people of Zaragoza depended on awareness campaigns. The large population of Indian cities make it difficult to ensure and monitor the impact of public awareness drives. One plausible solution for it is if localities internalize the ‘water saving culture’ and begin with water conservation and reuse at their micro levels and make their difference at the macro magnitude. 

Efficient Waste Management

These problems are accentuated by the increasing population in India’s urban spaces. From a mere 17% in 1950, today almost 34.5% of India’s population resides in urban areas, underscoring the uncontrollable population expansion that cities face. It is accompanied by increasing waste generation, with no standard disposal mechanisms in place. Solid Waste Management is a serious issue that plagues many of India’s Urban Local Bodies. Without an efficient waste disposal system in place, the heaps of trash in landfills have been soaring, leading to greater soil and air pollution. European countries such as Norway have built the Waste To Energy (WTE) infrastructure, where garbage is incinerated to create fuels. The WTE system however, has not been highly impactful in India given the lack of ‘pure’ non-recyclable trash due to the difficulty in obtaining desirable standards of waste segregation in our cities and subsequent high costs of operating the plants.

Additionally, Norway’s second largest city Bergen has a network of underground pipes that transport waste in/out the city and automatically segregates it into predefined containers. Such a system, though being fruitful, may encounter plausible roadblocks if implemented in India. Not only is the amount of capital required as investments too exorbitant for a developing country like India, but it also shifts the onus of segregation of domestic trash from the people to machinery.

Addressing the Human-Wildlife Conflict

Urban expansion encroaches upon biodiversity hotspots, leading to habitat fragmentation i.e. large, uninterrupted protected areas getting divided into smaller, isolated patches. This has put human living spaces in close proximity to biodiversity habitats, thus increasing the possibility of human-wildlife conflict. Such a conflict is also extended to damage caused to wildlife habitats for fulfillment of human needs. Increasing density of power lines to meet the growing energy requirements in Maharashtra has severely increased avian mortality. The extremely low population of the Great Indian Bustard makes even one or two collision-related deaths fatal. As in the case of Karnala, the death of the only breeding alpha male due to collusion with power lines led to a local extinction of that species.

Netherlands’s Long-Term Programme on Defragmentation can become a good starting point to resolve human-wildlife conflicts. A multitude of wildlife passages – fauna corridors, tunnels for aquatic animals and underpasses for mammals – have been constructed. The role of the Long-Term Programme on Defragmentation has been to evaluate those transport corridors that intersect with wildlife passages and suggest possible solutions to avoid such uncontrolled interactions. India’s wildlife corridors face the same difficulties as the passages in Netherlands face – poor maintenance, difficulty in data collection and unsuitable management. However the concept of ecological corridors can be a promising answer to protect animals from rapid encroachment.

Additional Policy Suggestions

Not mutually exclusive authorities for water, air, roads, housing and industrial development hinder efficient governance of these significant resources. However, the situation can be turned around. Rather than struggling to control nature due to its “otherness”, we can learn to appreciate and conserve it; given how essential it is for the existence and subsistence of our urban quarters. In addition to the aforementioned European models, the following measures can be implemented to ensure this change of narrative:

  1. It is important to reward cities which are making progress towards achieving the goals of sustainable and healthier urban spaces. Though enhancement of living spaces is a prize in itself, the satisfaction of gaining recognition for efforts can spur cities to invest in and spread awareness on greener urban spaces, as observed in the case of European Green Capital Award.
  2. A congestion cess / tax can be imposed, as a pilot project in certain pollution-riddled areas, to evaluate if it can keep a check of carbon emissions and if it is feasible, given India’s rising population.
  3. Ensuring information symmetry for the local governments can result in policies that better target environmental conservation and instill sustainability in major sectors of public life.
  4. Efforts must be taken to ensure that adequate investments are made to incentivise the use of alternate greener modes of transport, including improving the existing infrastructure of public transport.
  5. The impact of existing system of installing PVC spirals and bright neon strips on power lines is varied. In addition to this, bird diverters can be installed to prevent such collisions in the future.

A fundamental implication of treating environment as the Other includes negating the significance of its otherness – its capability of sustaining life. It is high time that we realize that nature’s resources are the ultimate foundations of life and health and the homo sapiens are just one of innumerable species surviving on it.