People and Governments do not think of sustainability or ecology as being an urban problem- Harini Nagendra, Professor of Sustainability, Azim Premji University. (Part-I)

Paridhi Sinha

Can you please elaborate upon ‘intersection of natural and social sciences’?

Understanding urban sustainability requires the intersection of natural and social sciences. For instance, to clean up and restore polluted lakes or rivers – we need to understand ecology and hydrology. But we also need to understand how people relate to water bodies, whether these are grazers, fishers, or IT workers – and make sure that restoration addresses all their needs. This requires an understanding of social sciences and how people behave. Similarly, if you want to address air pollution, you need some technical solutions – efficient vehicles, electric cars etc. But you also need to incentivize people to move to public transport – this requires making it safer for women, physically challenged people and low-income people, as well as wealthy people who drive in individual cars, to use public transport, for instance. For that, you need to speak to each of these groups and find out what kinds of changes they need to make them move to public transport – some will need low fares, others will need more security and last-mile connectivity, others may need timely bus services on work-home lines. To understand what trees to plant in cities, similarly, you need to study these from an ecological perspective – which trees attract and support more biodiversity, contribute to air pollution reduction, need less water to survive etc – as well as a social perspective – which trees are sacred, what do street vendors prefer, what kinds of trees do residential neighbourhoods want to have, what do people want to plant in their homes vs on streets. Unfortunately most people look at it from one perspective only, depending on what they have been trained to do in college – that is very limiting and will not lead to complete solutions.  

How important urban sustainability is in the present times and how can we achieve it especially once we consider the undeclared air quality emergency in the national capital?

Urban sustainability is especially critical in India today, where 33% of its people live in cities, and where we expect more than 50% of its population to be urban-dwelling in the next 20 years. We can already see our cities struggling to handle these large numbers of people – with epidemic diseases, air pollution-related breathing disorders, deaths due to heat waves, flooding and drought – the list is endless. Yet people, and Governments, do not think of sustainability or ecology as being an urban problem. There is still a view that ecology and environmental issues are not the top priority in cities, instead economic growth and infrastructure need priority. But people live in cities, and human wellbeing needs fresh air, clean water, good food and the presence of nature for good health. None of this can be achieved without paying attention to urban sustainability.

You have been in this field for more than 20 years. There is more awareness among people about the environment now than there was in the past. Veganism is being adopted by one and all, even the Oxford University.  Do you think this has brought positive changes in the way people interact with the ecosystem and use natural resources?

Food choices are personal and impossible to dictate universally. Nor is it easy to calculate their environmental footprint in simplistic terms. In India, traditional fishing, forest dwelling farming and pastoral communities incorporate meat eating and the use of milk, honey and other animal products in their lives in sustainable, empathetic ways, which involves environmentally friendly reuse of vegetable waste to feed animals, for instance. Of course, industrialized meat production is very harmful to the environment and has documented evidence of large-scale animal cruelty, as well as severe health impacts, and should be avoided wherever possible. It is difficult to draw a hard line here – each person has to follow the practices that make sense to them, based on whether these practices are locally sensitive and suited to the environment. It would not be environmentally friendly to purchase organic food if it is blueberries and kiwis shipped and flown in from Australia and the USA to India, for instance. Details matter more than hard lines between vegan and meat-eating. And the human cruelty of many vigilantes groups enforcing meat bans in India is a clear argument against rigidity, coming as it does with its specific enforcement on specific religious groups and castes. In India, therefore, this is an especially complex issue and must be looked at with great care.

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