What’s causing climate risks in our smaller cities and towns?

On February 10th, we organised an online round-table discussion on ‘Climate Crisis and Environmental Sustainability: Lessons for Tier 2 cities’. A summary of some key observations.

A discussion with a difference

Over the latter half of 2020, Citizen Matters commissioned a series of articles, supported by Climate Trends, to look at climate change and environmental sustainability in Tier 2 towns like Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh, Shimla, Rishikesh and Varanasi.

Why Tier 2, one may ask. Because if and when there is a spotlight on issues of sustainability or the urban climate crisis, it is usually the metros that are at the centre of it. Air Pollution is invariably associated with Delhi/NCR, discussions around water crisis are more often than not Chennai-centric, while waste and mobility issues are mostly discussed with reference to Bengaluru. But as this series has shown, many of our Tier 2 cities and towns suffer from the same problems and have the same challenges to overcome. 

Some reports, like Shimla’s effort to leverage its sunny days to make a switch to solar energy, were encouraging, but others, such as the government’s partial approach to ‘development’ in Himalayan cities, or the problem of toxic air in cities on the Indo-Gangetic plain, evoked anxiety. 

Read more: Varanasi’s horrible air quality typical of issues faced by cities of Indo-Gangetic plain

On February 10th, 2021, Citizen Matters organised an online round-table discussion on ‘Climate Crisis and Environmental Sustainability: Lessons for Tier 2 cities’ — to address these concerns amongst the stakeholders and look for solutions together. 

The participants included citizens, journalists and experts. The diversity of panelists, who came from different domains, was aimed at bringing out different perspectives scrutinising climate change in action in these cities. The discussion brought out citizens’ personal experiences, writers’ instinctive analysis of what they saw while reporting from the ground, and expert insight on the overarching issues that plague their respective domains and geographies. 

The aim was to come up with solutions to create engagement in smaller towns and cities.

Speakers (in alphabetical order)

Ankit Bhardwaj: Ankit Bhardwaj is a PhD Student in Sociology at New York University. He was previously a Senior Research Associate at the Initiative on Climate, Energy, and Environment at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. His work investigates the transformations and politics of climate change in India’s smaller cities.

Anoop Nautiyal: Dr Anoop Nautiyal is the founder of Dehradun based Social Development for Communities (SDC) Foundation, working on the challenges of environmental conservation, urban governance and citizen engagement in Uttarakhand. 

Anvita Pandey: Dr. Anvita Pandey is the Coordinator and Scientist at Centre for Ecology Development and Research. She is a Forest and Water specialist with over 8 years of experience in forest ecology, management, water issues and its conservation with respect to recharge techniques in the Himalaya

Ashwani Sharma: Dr Ashwani Sharma is a senior Shimla-based journalist and columnist for the Indian Express and other leading publications.

Jagadananda: Jagadananda was former State Information Commissioner, Odisha and a member of the State Planning Board of Odisha. Presently, he is a Member of the Standing Committee (CSOs) at the NITI Aayog the highest think-tank body at the National level on Institutionalizing Partnership between Civil Society and the Government. 

Jagadananda also leads the Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD), an autonomous development organization working with the tribal and rural poor in Odisha.

Jaskirat Singh: Jaskirat Singh is a Ludhiana-based environmental activist and founder of Naroa Punjab Manch, a citizens group working on cleaning up the Buddha Nullah.

Mridula Ramesh: Mridula Ramesh is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, which focuses on waste and water solutions and education. She is an active angel investor in cleantech startups, with a portfolio of over a dozen startups. She is also a regular columnist for Firstpost on Climate Change and has written extensively for the Hindu and Down to Earth.

Raj Machhan: Raj Machhan is a senior independent journalist and and online media specialist based in Chandigarh, formerly with The Indian Express.

Rishabh Shrivastava: Rishabh Shrivastava is an Independent Researcher, writer and communications professional.

Rutul Joshi: Rutul Joshi is an architect-urban planner teaching at CEPT University. His doctoral research focused on conceptualising the poverty-mobility linkages for Indian cities. Since then, he has continued to work on issues related to sustainable mobility, transport equity and new approaches to reform urban planning in India.

Swati Sambyal: Swati Sambyal has worked in India as well as across the Global South with city functionaries and governments on development issues concerning integrated waste and resource management. She has been a part of the National Geographic forum on circular economy.

Tarun Sharma: Tarun Sharma is the cofounder of Nagrika, a social enterprise which is creating knowledge to enable citizens, with a focus on small cities.

V Vinoj: Dr V Vinoj is Assistant Professor at the School of Earth, Ocean and Climate Sciences, IIT Bhubaneswar.

Identifying sustainability challenges in Tier 2 cities

The moderator opened the discussion by asking writers and authors what, in their opinion, were the key sustainability challenges that they observed in their respective cities.

Author and founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, Mridula Ramesh spoke about Madurai, where she hails from. “I think sustainability is very tightly-woven with equity. In our study, we found that an average household in Madurai was spending about Rs 400 on water per month, though the range of spend was very high. And these are not rich people. Even regular working class people are forced to spend very high amounts of money for access to something as basic as water,” Mridula pointed out. This is true not only of Madurai, but many small towns and hamlets across the country, such as one in Rajasthan that she cited.

She also made a point about how the historical narrative around access to water itself is false. “Climate change may be happening due to carbon, but climate change speaks through water,” she added.

Senior journalist Ashwani Sharma, who had reported from Shimla for the abovementioned series, said, “Shimla, and in fact the whole of Himachal Pradesh itself has seen a lot of natural disasters — landslides, glacier breaks or building collapses. We are a small state and there are many problems associated with our location and small size. But politicians don’t care. For example, in Shimla, just before the municipal elections, they passed a law that regularises all illegal construction, when the city is already under so much stress. There are some 30000 illegal constructions in Himachal Pradesh and 40% of them are in Shimla.”

Read more: Shimla’s haphazard building policy a recipe for climate disaster

Rishabh Shrivastava is another contributor to the Citizen Matters-Climate Trends series. While reporting, one of the major issues that he observed time and again was the lack of a science or evidence-based approach to development. This has been evident in several cases: from the Char Dham Project to the waterfront development around the rivers in the region. In the cities, and in general in the Himalayan region at large, there was not enough importance given to facts cited and studies done by environmental experts and activists. 

Another important issue identified by Rishabh in these Himalayan towns was the lack of consideration for their carrying capacity, given that these are tourist destinations. Lack of data in the public domain makes it difficult to ascertain that carrying capacity and take appropriate measures.“I have faced major roadblocks in availing data about all of the concerned issues in these regions,” said Rishabh.

Anvita Pandey agreed. “Yes. The Himalayas is still a data-deficit region. We only have information on the data that rests with the government. If we talk about the entire Himalayan region regarding any natural resources, we cannot come up with proper projections because of various reasons like outdated information, huge tourist influx, etc.” 

Anvita referred to the example of Mussoorie, which depends almost entirely on springs and is facing a major water crisis. “Still we haven’t done enough to preserve the springs that exist in Himalayan forests.” Encroachment of recharge zones, missing data on how many springs had dried up and lack of awareness leading to over-extraction are some of the major factors behind the crisis in this region.

Space constraint, especially in smaller towns, is another factor. In cities like Mussoorie or other hill towns, as Anvita pointed out, people may know that this is a recharge zone but will still build on whatever little space they get.

Living with risk is an everyday part of life in the Himalayan region. Locals admit that population growth, spurt in economic activities like construction of roads, buildings, hotels, a series of hydel projects and deforestation has greatly exposed them to natural hazards like floods, soil erosion, landslides, cloud-bursts and debris flow. File photo. Courtesy: Dr Suresh Attri

Anoop Nautiyal draws a distinction between the overall issue of development in the mountains and the city-specific issues, labelling the former as a trickier and more polarising issue. 

Speaking on sustainable mobility, Rutul Joshi pointed out that public transport in Tier-2 cities in India is in shambles, but “we are not talking about it nor do we even understand what to do about it.” Meanwhile, the government is pouring in mammoth amounts of money into aspirational infrastructure like metro rail. Metro, with all its excellence, is a very expensive system.

Read more: Metro projects booming, but how many will use them?

Do Tier 2 cities have the level of demand for public transport to justify such humongous spends on Metro? Do they have the need to transport 20000-30000 people per hour per direction, which is the accepted international standard that makes the Metro feasible? More accessible, affordable transport systems like buses, trains can perhaps be much wider reaching and cost-effective. So, there is a tendency to look at big-ticket infrastructure, without looking at fund allocation, priorities of the city and systematic planning. He cited the example of Bhopal Metro in particular.

Rutul also pointed to the lack of investment in proper cycling and walking infrastructure. There needs to be systemic discouragement of use of private vehicles through discontinuation of free parking — something that many cities such as Dehradun and Gangtok have already demonstrated. 

Cities need investment in proper cycling and walking infrastructure. In picture, cyclists in Pune. Pic Ambika Shaligram

Dr V Vinoj felt that while there was a lot of talk of global warming and climate change at a global level, and while India may be a climate champion at a global level, part of many environmental alliances, there was just not enough information at a city or regional level to help formulate effective mitigation or adaptation policy. “Do we really know how climate change will impact us at a city-scale? Will we see more rainfall or less rainfall? Which areas within a narrow urban region will see temperatures rise?” 

Read more: State-of-the-art early warning system to save more lives in Shimla, Kullu, Manali during extreme climate events

City specific data is hard to come by, often captured and recorded at multiple points. Policy makers are also often working with no data, as a result of which the climate action plans are rather generic in nature. This perpetual state of data deficiency is also something that Tarun Sharma highlighted. But according to him, it is not so much the absence of data as its format and accessibility: “Data does exist, but it exists in a form that cannot be consumed easily; Just file an RTI regarding the kind of information you want and sooner or later, you will find it in a collated manner, going back two years as well.”

Dr Vinoj stressed the importance of scientific and domain knowledge and suggested that experts in social sciences and sciences come together to take stock of changes happening at the ground level. “We need to study the impact and then plan ahead. Climate change needs to be included in urban planning itself.”

Speaking of his personal experience in Ludhiana, as he fought for the cause of pollution in the Buddha Nullah, Jaskirat Singh pointed out that there are often many vested interests, leading the government to prioritise big budget projects over more local, but effective, initiatives. He referred in particular to the Rs 1000-crore elevated road project across Ludhiana, which is being pushed over other projects that would have been more environment-friendly.

Read more: Dozens of studies, hundreds of crores, but Buddha Nullah pollution still threatens Ludhiana

Talking about the role of national and international guidelines in place, Swati Sambyal said that decentralisation of high-end projects at the state level is important because where we hit a roadblock is the implementation. “For example,” she said, “we have been talking about the circular economy since 2017. As per the guidelines, Draft National Resource Efficiency Policy, the states were to consider and come up with their own strategies. But so far, Goa is the only state to have brought out a Vision document that talks about how circularity would be adopted across sectors, and not just waste.”

Tarun raised another point related to governance, referring to a study they had conducted on local capacities of cities to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, which are set by international standards. When it comes to governance and decision making, it’s a big challenge for smaller cities to comprehend all these national and international sustainability frameworks (like the SDGs) and then taking (appropriate) action. “If you go to a city like Rishikesh, or Ludhiana, or Dehradun and say we are going to follow the Urban Agenda 2030, or the Paris Climate Agreement, and this is what we need to do, almost a year or two would be spent in understanding the entire document and what (the action) it entails.”

Systemic reasons behind challenges 

“I think a major reason why issues like sustainability are not given much attention is because they’re not electorally resonant. If the politicians are made to feel that they may lose votes by not talking about such issues, they would give more attention,” Mridula Ramesh pointed out, to which all the participants thoroughly agreed.

Tarun says, “There have been several partnerships with international agencies to look at carbon footprint, to look at the climate change that is happening in the city. But these normally happen on a project basis. Once the project is over, people forget about the learnings. Moving away from this project-based approach and having constant engagement at the level of the city is something that is much needed.”

Speaking of the 74th Amendment, and devolution of powers to city governments, he added, “If one looks at the fine print of municipal laws, and looks at the specific functions allotted through these acts in various states, functions related to climate change, environmental management, ecology, management, solid waste etc are still not fully provided to the city governments. There are multiple agencies at the level of the city and so there is no clear accountability of one organization or agency to manage these functions.”

Dr Vinoj also alluded to the very important constraints of hiring by government agencies. “If, for example, the IMD wants to hire someone, they will specify strict eligibility requirements in terms of conventional educational qualification — backgrounds in physics, chemistry, mathematics etc. Professionals with more contemporary, liberal degrees — let us say in earth systems or climate science — may never be hired because of strict rules and regulations.” Such lack of flexibility has significant implications for capacity building within governments.

The two-and-a-half-hour long session ended with a free-flowing discussion on what could be the way forward for solving these challenges and a call to action for various stakeholders.

For more on that, see: Battling the climate crisis in Tier 2 cities: What can we all do?

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