Make sustainability the core priority

It is this time of the year again when Gurugram’s air quality deteriorates to hazardous levels and the city starts looking like a gas chamber. The air seems hazy and heavy and there is a feeling of helplessness all around. Vulnerable sections suffer respiratory infections and allergies and a large section complain of discomfort in breathing as advisories are issued on restricting walking and running outside homes and wearing masks. Worse still, there is no respite from the situation as a number of factors are at work, and given the political, economic and social morass we are engulfed in, there seems to be no quick-fix solution in the near future.

For fast growing cities like Gurugram that are choking with pollution, saving the environment has to be a core priority. We talk of making Gurugram a smart city but without clean air to breathe and clear water to drink and green spaces, a technology-savvy but resource-crunched city has no meaning. This city simply cannot afford cutting lines of mature trees for road widening or de-reserving what is part of forest for real estate development or incessantly using precious ground water for construction. All such acts should be under the lens. A recent proposal to build a road through the Bio Diversity Park, an ecological haven in Gurugram, seems like a threat to cut the very life-line of Gurugram. No wonder, citizens have come out in such large numbers to revolt against the ill-thought decision.

In fact, the city must resurrect its eroding environment by taking proactive steps such as creating more of such eco-havens, reviving water bodies, reserving and protecting forests for ground water charge and green cover; as well as building sustainable infrastructure.  Growth and development needn’t come at a price of environment if we set the agenda right- prioritise balanced development with supportive and innovative policies backed up with tight implementation. 

After all, our government is committed to the global agenda of meeting Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, a set of 17 goals, that ensure combating climate change, providing clean air and clean water for all, reducing energy footprint, ensuring sustainable and affordable mobility for all and integrating the needs of the poor among others. Besides, we have a set of national policies and initiatives (such as Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, National Renewable Energy Act 2015, the Smart City Mission, the Swachh Bharat Mission) and national regulations to protect air, water and forests.  And most of these policies and regulations have follow-through policies at the state level. But by the time these policies and regulations percolate to local level, they appear at best to be just guiding principles with neither concrete actions nor much regulatory oversight. There are serious question marks on our governance structure and mechanisms.

Can we do something to set this right? The least complicated thing is to bring in change at an individual level. We can look at our daily activity to see how we can reduce our carbon footprint. Using solar and energy efficient lighting systems and appliances at homes, preferring a bucket bath instead of shower, reusing and recycling water as well as having rainwater harvesting systems at homes, compost our kitchen waste, using public transport or walk, cycle or car-pooling, avoiding use of large cars such as SUVs when travelling alone are some of the ideas worth considering.

Communities such as RWAs too can become low carbon centres, by lighting up their common areas with solar, installing micro STPs and rainwater harvesting systems to recycle and conserve water and composting the community’s bio-degradable waste. Today, 29 RWAs in Gurugram are segregating waste; a few like Wellington RWA have installed solar and a several others have put up sewerage systems and using recycled water.  

This can be replicated at the city level by undertaking a city-wide ground water recharge program, reviving water bodies, protecting forests, creating adequate sewage treatment facilities, encouraging city-wide composting and so on. Besides, city authorities need strong monitoring capacity and mechanisms to see that laws and bye-laws are not flouted; that ground water is not used for construction, all new buildings above 500 square yards install solar etc.   

Developed cities all over the world have taken drastic measures to improve sustainability. Recently, the European Parliament has voted for a complete ban on a range of single-use plastics across the union in a bid to stop pollution of the oceans. Cities are also moving away from car-centric infrastructure. Singapore makes it very difficult and costly for its citizens to own and use car while Zurich only allows a certain number of cars into the city at one time, and is building more car-free areas.  Stockholm aims to be fossil-fuel free by 2050. We too need to take drastic measures on similar lines.

In Gurugram, with the setting up of Gurugram Municipal Development Authority in 2017 there is hope to see that growth priorities are set right, there are emergence of innovative and sustainable ideas for infrastructure development and that citizens voice is heard.

But we can’t leave it to the authority alone. If the well-being and liveability of a city is undermined, all stakeholders need to pitch in. A decade back, we knew our environment was deteriorating but we did not feel the pinch. Today, we have lost the luxury to wait. We all must act now and push for change.

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