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India: Save our cities from environmental hell - Concerned citizen’s letter to the ministers for Urban Development and Environment

4 July 2018

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Shri Hardeep Singh Puri
Minister, Urban Affairs and Housing
Dr Harsh Vardhan
Minister, Environment, Forests and Climate Change
New Delhi

Re: South Delhi’s “redevelopment” and lessons for our urban ecological crisis

Dear Shri Puri and Dr Harsh Vardhan,

The widespread protests against the felling of thousands of mature trees in South Delhi show that ordinary citizens are deeply concerned about the environment of their city. The worst air quality in the world, mountains of solid waste, persistent water scarcity, severe traffic congestion, and disasters such as flooding – all these issues compel us to recognize that current development strategies have failed us. Over the last four years, similar protests have erupted in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai and many other Indian cities, indicating the national magnitude of our urban environmental crisis.

In this context, we welcome your announcement that the proposed “redevelopment plan” in South Delhi will be reconsidered. However, the redesign of the projects cannot merely be confined to protecting existing trees. It should also set aside the proposal to create commercial space, which will place an unbearable burden of pollution, congestion and resource extraction on a city that is already in environmental distress. Your ministry’s policy of densification will destroy the livability of one of the few remaining pockets of South Delhi and needs to be reconsidered.

Since this issue is far larger than South Delhi alone, we urge you to conduct environmental audits of all cities and make their findings an integral aspect of urban planning. Environmental quality can no longer be merely a chapter in our Master Plans; it must be central to the future design of our cities. To do this well, your ministry must draw upon the expertise of environmental practitioners and scholars who have devoted their careers to understanding and planning for ecologically robust and socially just cities.

At stake here is the fundamental issue of urban governance and accountability. We are appalled that real estate projects, which have profound impacts on the lives of city-dwellers, are approved without requiring any public consultation. Your Ministry and the Ministry of Environment and Forests must immediately amend its planning and approval processes to enable citizens’ participation. A last-minute reprieve to save trees in response to citizens’ protests is a relief; but it is not a substitute for a mandated, meaningful process of consultation with stakeholders. You could save considerable cost to the public exchequer by incorporating accountability into the planning process from its inception, thereby avoiding delays and cancellations when projects are already under way.

We look to you to create an environment where the immediate and long-term concerns of the city are addressed democratically by including the views of all stakeholders as well as subject experts. Amending the urban planning process is essential for this. The environmental costs of “redevelopment” will be borne by all of us and by future generations. Let us recognize that these costs are already overwhelming. The re-design of our cities according to ecological principles must start now.

Thanking you,

  • Amita Baviskar, Professor of Sociology, Institute of Economic Growth
  • Pradip Krishen, conservationist and author of Trees of Delhi
  • Ravi Agarwal, environmentalist and former member, Delhi Tree Authority
  • Geetha Athreya, communications specialist, former UNICEF
  • Mrityunjay Athreya, Padma Bhushan awardee, management educator and social thinker
  • Sonali Bhagwati, architect and former member, Delhi Urban Art Commission
  • Mita Bose, former Vice Principal, Indraprastha College, Delhi University
  • Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group
  • Alok Chopra, Consultant Cardiologist, Ashlok Hospital
  • Maja Daruwala, Senior Advisor and Board Member, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
  • Kapil Dev, former cricketer and captain of India’s world cup-winning cricket team
  • Romi Dev, entrepreneur
  • Annapurna Dixit, former Central Information Commissioner
  • Neeraj Jain, Senior Consultant, Chest Medicine, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital
  • Chetana Kohli, education and social development expert, former UNICEF
  • Ravina Raj Kohli, media professional and Founder #MyRightToBreathe
  • Sunita Kohli, Padma Shree awardee, architectural conservationist and social activist
  • Arvind Kumar, Chairman, Center for Chest Surgery, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital
  • Harsh Mahajan, Consultant Radiologist
  • AGK Menon, architecture, urban planning and conservation Consultant
  • Kalyani Menon-Sen, feminist researcher and activist.
  • Manoj Misra, Convener, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan
  • Pankaj Munjal, Chairman and Managing Director, Hero Motors Company
  • Rahul Ram, musician, Indian Ocean
  • Shekhar Singh, environmentalist and RTI activist