Natural assets critical to health of Indian cities, author says

Harini Nagendra, a professor at India's Azim Premji University, says that lakes, trees, and other natural resources are vital to maintaining health and nourishment in India's poorest cities. 

Manish Swarup/AP
The Pangong lake high up in Ladahak region of India on June 17, 2016.

Indian cities must do more to nurture their lakes, trees and other natural assets which provide food and water for their poorest residents and protect urban areas from rising heat and pollution, says Indian author and academic Harini Nagendra.

Dr. Nagendra, professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru in south India, has charted changes in the semi-arid landscape of her city, which was first settled in the sixth century AD thanks to efforts to build dams and plant trees.

"If you have a long history, you get a sense that urbanization does not always have to have a negative relationship with nature, because the city grew with nature as its bedrock," Nagendra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of a conference on resilience in Sweden this week.

But in the past three to four decades, the high-tech city known for its lush parks and tree-lined streets has been "destroying" its environment, said Nagendra, whose ecological history of Bengaluru – "Nature in the City" – was published last year.

The rot began as far back as the 1890s when the city first got piped water, and people stopped viewing their local water sources as sacred and life-giving, and started using reservoirs as dumping grounds – even throwing in dead bodies.

Then, in the late 20th century, hundreds of thousands of trees were cut down to make space for urban development, Nagendra said.

But in recent years, the balance has begun to shift again, with citizen protests stopping trees being felled, and two dozen local groups springing up to protect lakes in the city's outer parts from pollution and damage, she added.

Other Indian cities are also starting to take measures to become greener by reducing and recycling their waste, reusing water, and restoring wetlands in coastal areas, she noted.

"There is a lot to be done," said the academic. "But there is so much that is positive, with civic groups coming forward to take action, and to help the state act."

People on the move

She said the national government had not taken urban nature far enough into account in its plan to create a national network of 100 "Smart Cities" which are citizen friendly and sustainable. They number about 90 so far.

The urban development program relies too much on technological fixes and partnerships with the private sector, which tends to exclude the poor from urban projects, Nagendra said.

The mission's heavy focus on technology to improve efficiency is a "one-sided way of looking at a city," she added.

In Indian cities, impoverished families rely on nature for things like fruit, fodder, and medicinal plants, she explained.

"Slums are places where people land up caring about nature and doing a lot to preserve (it) because their subsistence, their livelihoods, the nutrition of their children is so dependent on nature," she said. "If you exclude them from nature, you're not going to have a smart city."

For Indian cities to become more resilient to short-term shocks like floods and longer-term stresses such as migration, they cannot afford to overlook the social implications of decisions that affect the environment, Nagendra said.

More research is needed to better understand how growing migration to India's cities shapes their natural environment, she added.

The transient nature of migrants – with many moving every few months – makes it hard for people to put down roots and be motivated to invest in their surroundings, she said.

Giving people land ownership or some form of rights over where they live can help, she added.

This month, Odisha state said it would assign land and property rights to about 200,000 slum-dwelling households that will enable redevelopment.

Azim Premji University is setting up a center to explore ecological sustainability in India's urban areas, which could also make a much-needed contribution to knowledge on how cities in other developing countries interact with nature and cope with ecological shocks.

"We don't understand enough about them to know how to make them more resilient," Nagendra said.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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