In a large scale eviction drive in the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in Guwahati, Assam in north-eastern India, more than 400 families were evicted by police and Forest Department officials in December, 2017 triggering protests across the State.
The eviction order was issued by Gauhati High Court during a suo motu public interest litigation in 2013 that was later suspended following instruction from the High Court after the State Government made a verbal submission before the court.
The Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary that hosts diverse wildlife including Asian elephants, big cat species, gaurs, primates and avian species is also known for its butterflies.
The Sanctuary that provides wide-ranging eco-system services is considered a vast carbon sink for the city and is located at a stone’s throw from the State capital complex.
While the need for preserving remains of our precious forests can hardly be exaggerated, the plight of the evicted—a section of whom are landless, displaced people—hogged media headlines and raised several questions.
Aggravating natural disasters like flood and flash flood coupled with erosion force thousands of people to leave their traditional homes in the state every year.
After the floods, the displaced people land in make-shift camps that are always inadequate to cater to the needs of such a large number of flood-affected families.
From these make-shift camps and embankments some of them are finally lost in the slums of a city or become ‘encroachers’ in forestland to face eviction again and again.
Guwahati–the largest city in Northeast India–situated on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra has a population density of 4400 persons per square kilometre. One of the fastest growing cities in India, Guwahati’s population grew from 200,000 in 1971 to more than 500,000 in 1991.
Population in the city reached 808,021 by 2001 and the 2012 statistics show the number of inhabitants in city metropolitan area climb to a whopping 1.5 million.
That number is going to be doubled soon. It has been evaluated that Guwahati metro will house around 2.8 million occupants by 2025.
Cities for All with Housing at the Centre
Urbanization in India is occurring at a breakneck pace. Its cities are expected to grow from 340 million people in 2008 to 590 million by 2030.
By 2050, 60 per cent of India’s population will be living in cities. By 2030 we will have six megacities with more than 10 million people. It is speculated that more infrastructure would be built in India in the next 20 years than built in the last 2000 years.
Affordable housing has been given infrastructure status and in India, the challenge lies in building some 700-900 million residential and commercial spaces, says Hardeep Singh Puri, Union Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs.
(A hundred thousand single floor houses have been sanctioned in Uttar Pradesh recently).
This would mean bigger stress on civic facilities and resources like water, sanitation, air quality, housing and land, which already fall short for the existing population.
While housing, as an essential element of urbanization must be at the centre of actions towards sustainable and inclusive urban development, most cities continue to grapple in meeting challenges of affordable housing for all.
With growing population, the need for affordable housing has mounted, especially in our urban landscapes.
The situation is desperate and leads to encroachment on forestlands, wetlands, hills and other ecologically sensitive areas. Interventions made at government levels proved to be inadequate and failed to tackle the worsening scenario.
“The ‘government-enabling’ approach of the past decades has not delivered for the urban poor. It needs a more proactive approach,” said Lois Dronau of UN Habitat.
“Access to housing is closely linked to human rights therefore, finding solutions through policy, planning and financing for the poorest and most vulnerable is crucial. However, people are not included in the conversations”, said Renu Khosla of Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE) while addressing the Urban Journalism Academy (World Urban Forum 9) organized by UN Information Centre and UN Habitat recently in New Delhi.
The speed of growth in cities poses huge challenges, but also offers big opportunities.
“The construction sector is the largest after the agriculture sector. To create jobs is another goal of the SDGs. However, the more high tech it becomes, the less would be the number of jobs. We have to utilize the strength of people rather than the industries,” said another panelist Zeenat Niazi of Development Alternatives.
Niazi said that under Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana (Urban), 20 million houses would be constructed every year which means the overwhelming burden of construction materials would take a heavy toll on the environment.
“Right from digging the soil for making bricks using the top soil (the top soil is essential for growing food and would thus intervene with our food security) to more coal-based plants for energy to burn the bricks – we would be only be jeopardizing the environment more. The massive housing projects would mean indiscriminate mining of limestone reserves for cement and intervening with the flow of rivers with large scale sand mining,” she cautioned.
In India, centrally-sponsored projects as well as state government projects continue to be plagued by widespread anomalies.
In a flood-prone state like Assam, housing projects under the state government need to take into consideration the vagaries of nature like floods and erosion and make required approach for adaptations.
This calls for blending of modern engineering with traditional knowledge. However, such interventions in the state-level are unheard of.
While many cities have made rapid strides in the field of affordable housing for the economically weaker sections, such projects remain conspicuous by their absence in Guwahati – now tagged as a smart city.
Further, the construction industry in Assam is facing an unprecedented shortage of building materials like sand and stone aggregates. The Assam Real Estate and Infrastructure Developers Association (AREIDA) president P K Sharma revealed that the AREIDA members’ worksites has come to a grinding halt since last year and that the authorities have not been able to find any solution to the crisis that has continued for many months.
The construction sector is the second largest employment-generating sector after the agriculture sector in Assam.
Official figures indicate about four lakh workers are directly employed in this sector that in turn supports another 16 lakh dependants (approximately).
The construction sector is also the largest generator of government revenue contributing as much as 38.29 per cent of the cost of a home towards various government taxes. As such crisis of building materials has had an adverse impact on the economy, the AREIDA president said.
With non-availability of stone chips hitting the construction sector hard, many workers left their work. About fifty thousand cons ruction workers find direct employment in Guwahati city alone. Many of these workers who were forced to leave their villages due to flood and erosion faced a terrible time last year when they could not find work for months.
Sustainable development and building smart & resilient cities
Cities today occupy only two per cent of the land space but contribute to 70 per cent of the economy, consume over 60 per cent of the global energy, emit 70 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute 70 per cent of the global waste generated.
With global urban populations exploding, the pressure on resources will also intensify. Resource consumption would grow by five times by 2050.
Under the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, Goal 11 calls for ‘making cities and urban settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’, and is intrinsically linked to Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality. This is aligned with the Smart Cities Mission, and cannot be accomplished without addressing safe, inclusive and affordable housing, transportation, and open public spaces.
UN-Habitat’s Smart Cities project, launched in collaboration with the government, aims to develop cities that are energy-efficient, low-carbon and increasingly reliant on renewable energy sources with a strong focus on walking and use of public transport to reduce emissions.
Disaster preparedness strategies are included in the urban resilience plans.
The smart city mission is a part of Prime Minister Narendra Mod’s vision of ‘bottom-up’ planning—a paradigm shift towards development of core infrastructure by addressing deficiencies in developing the urban landscape with aims to improve the quality of life in India’s fast-growing urban centers.
This involves equal participation of the state and the local bodies to rise up to the challenge. The cities selected need to mobilize resources by forming Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) with public-private partnership (PPP).
However, the prerogative lies with the state government to make a smart city a green city with key focus on a clean and sustainable environment and inclusive development of the selected cities.
Given the chaotic manner in which our urban conglomerates have developed, converting those into smart cities necessarily means a herculean task and Guwahati is no exception.
An administrative capital since days of yore, the city is crumbling under the weight of an expanding population now. Inadequate public infrastructure raises many uncomfortable questions for the government departments especially those entrusted with the implementation of the Guwahati Smart City Mission.
Projects under Guwahati Smart City plan
A smart city has a unique identity, which distinguishes it from all other cities, based on some key aspect, its location or climate, its leading industry, its cultural heritage, its local culture or cuisine or other factors.
Some other targets and programmes of the Smart City vision are – visible area-based development like river and lake sides, drain edges; encroachment-free public areas; intelligent traffic management; pedestrian-friendly pathways etc and Guwahati is focusing on those targets to achieve its smart city goal.
However, many of the targets and programmes have met with public ire. While the focus of target 11.2 is on expanding public transit throughout a city, the two most sustainable, healthy and affordable forms of transport—walking and cycling were not included.
Creation of walking zones only for ‘morning walks’ by blocking important roads has been criticized as a half-baked plan that has hassles outweigh than any benefits to citizens.
The area-based projects being undertaken as part of the smart city plan of Guwahati includes – the Brahmaputra riverfront, the Borsola beel (wetland), the Bharolu ecological corridor, the Mora Bharolu eco corridor and the Deepar Beel Wetland Park totalling 696 acres.
The Guwahati Smart City Mission envisages Deepar beel as a wetland park on the lines of the Hong Kong Wetland Park. The dossier of Guwahati Smart City Mission mentions that the Deepar Beel wetland– a Ramsar site shall be designed to become an international class birding destination–and shall have ticketing revenue, CSR revenues and jungle style eco-lodging with special souvenir shop etc to help generate revenues.
Not taking cognizance of Deepar Beel as an important bird area and also a wildlife sanctuary by the smart city planners irked conservationists. A water park cannot be the solution for Deepar beel.
The focus of the government should be to conserve the wetland ecosystem of this wildlife sanctuary rather then turning it to a recreational park with the sole intention of revenue generation.
“Deepor beel, an ideal destination for thousands of migratory species, witnessed a sharp decline in the number of winged visitors over the years. Construction of a railway line, major road linkages as well as growth of industrial units in and around the wetland’s vicinity shattered its once pristine habitat. No further intervention should be made in this Important Bird Area. Let it remain a wetland only,” Professor P C Bhattacharjee, retired head of Zoology, Gauhati University said.
Besides, all the wetlands are critical to maintaining the city’s ecology and civic utilities, he added. Guwahati coming a distant 50th in the list of the cleanest cities of the country thus shows the lacunae in the civic administration.
The burden to manage waste in a smart city is colossal and needs diligent municipal authorities that are also professional and proactive. The Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) however, had chosen Boragaon in the vicinity of Deepar beel – to be the city’s municipal garbage dumping site!
Degradation of this important water body started heavily with dumping of waste in close proximity of the water body since 2006 flouting all norms of municipal solid waste rules that has been challenged in the National Green Tribunal. The GMC is yet to find a solution as regards to the city’s waste management!
The failure to deliver any concrete solution to tackle the city’s water logging, is seen as the most crucial and challenging task in transforming Guwahati into a smart city. Flash flood results from high rainfall intensity and duration, besides the unsystematic land use pattern and the bowl-like topography of the city.
Compared to the volume of storm water it receives, the main storm-water carrying channel—the Bharalu does not have the matching capacity for discharge. Moreover, continuous encroachment made all major wetlands of the city—the Deepar beel, the Bor Sola beel , the Xoru Sola beel and the Silsaku– shrunk considerably causing drastic reduction in their water retention capacity.
The New Urban Agenda and Goal 11
The New Urban Agenda of the UN Habitat endorsed by the UN General Assembly in December 2016 gives the framework to sustainable urban development while the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development lays out 17 targets grounded on human rights principles with commitment to ensure that everyone is benefiting from urbanization including people who are usually marginalized in the process.
The New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals with regards to UN-Habitat’s mandate to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities that provide adequate shelter for all also underlines the linkages between good urbanization and job creation, livelihood opportunities, and improved quality of life, which should be included in every urban renewal policy and strategy.
While implementation of the New Urban Agenda calls for addressing climate change through mitigation and adaptation effects thereby contributing to the environmental sustainability and resilience, lack of proper planning in state level has only jeopardized the environment further rather than making any headway to achieve SDG targets.
The smart cities mission seemed to have overlooked the urban dimension in Environmental Sustainability and Resilience putting more pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity.
In other words in implementing Goal 11 our city planners are intervening with Goal 15 – “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.
Mubina Akhtar is an environmental journalist and wildlife activist. She can be reached at [email protected]