By Bhargavi S Rao
June 5, 2021 marks the 49th year since the UN General Assembly designated the day as World Environment Day, marking the first day of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. The day is globally celebrated with meaningful themes relevant to the challenges at various points of time. This year’s theme is Restoring Ecosystems.
With the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping across the world in waves and impacts of climate change that are hitting hard, some significant lessons are being learnt by humanity. That life can never go back to business-as-usual and that we need to build back differently is the writing on the wall.
Even as the second wave of the Covid pandemic swept across the country killing several in its path, the pandemic of non-communicable diseases has been burgeoning across the country over the last two decades. In the year 2000, India got the title of ‘Diabetes capital of the world.’ Hypertension has also been emerging quietly causing significant burden on the health system. These two Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in India are further complicated with the fact that a large percentage of the population are unaware of their diabetic or hypertensive status and have no idea of the numbers and metrics that indicate their health status.
The rise in these two NCDs is largely attributed to degradation of our ecosystems due to urban proliferation with decreasing open green spaces, change in lifestyle over the years driven by the nerve-wracking GDP based economic engines, and socio-cultural changes, with a host of other factors contributing to these conditions.
Bengaluru’s ecosystem once comprised of open green spaces such as parks, urban forests, lakes and open public spaces. Such spaces help reduce temperature, improve air quality, cut noise, and provide space for physical activities such as walking, cycling, playing, exercising that help reduce the burden of these NCDs.
But with increased urbanisation and improved urban economies, they have been encroached, reduced and destroyed, risking the ecological ambience required for a healthy living. Over the past year and a half, among the many lessons that the Covid pandemic has taught us, it has highlighted the importance of open green spaces. Being caged within four walls, however large or small, for long periods of time has left us yearn for fresh air and greenery.
Over the last two decades, despite several protests across the city, the city’s footpaths were removed, trees felled and roads widened to accommodate the ever-increasing cars of the city. This impeded walkability of the city and the opportunity for physical activity drastically dropped. Public cries to create cycling lanes went unheard except for some tokenistic measures of drawing cycling lanes in one neighborhood in the city that was soon repurposed into a parking lane by the residents.
The iconic Cubbon park and Lalbagh of the city have been turned into gated enclosures mostly manicured to cater to the city’s tourists. The last remaining forest areas in and around Bengaluru such as Turahalli remain contested for various facelift commercialisation projects. Despite several high court orders, lakes of the city continue to be threatened by encroachment and privatisation thereby rendering them inaccessible to the public.
With changed floor area ratios in residential areas across the city, and building byelaws never followed, the city has turned into a concrete construction sandbox with construction debris or material lying all over. Urban infrastructure projects such as underpasses, white topping, the metro rail, tender sure and the smart city projects have further left the city in rubbles.
In such a situation, people are forced to stay indoors and rely on indoor spaces for physical activities as going out is not a stress-free leisurely activity, but one that tests reaction times and agility instead. Lack of physical activity and lack of access to open recreational areas increase the risk of lifestyle diseases. Open spaces motivate people to be more active and connects them to nature. This has tremendous benefits on rest, recuperation, better mental health, improves cognitive abilities and overall well-being.
This world environment day is an awakening call to restore these ecosystems and ensure they are accessible to all. Integrating nature-based solutions into restoring urban ecosystems will help reduce carbon emissions, adhere to the Paris Agreement and advance the SDGs. The public health crisis cries for immediate action from all concerned departments and agencies. A one-size fits all approach will not help address the current public health need. It demands a holistic approach with application of nature-based solutions.
Creating and maintaining open green spaces requires a diversity of voices. It cannot be another investment to pour concrete and steel. A holistic approach with local community knowledge is essential to including various food and medicinal plants that can help create unique local ecosystems. Access to locally grown greens and fruits in urban areas is a step towards sustainable living and improving nutrition. There are examples from across the world of civic engagement in creating greener cities. Various high court and supreme court judgements too have stressed the need for collaboration between government and local communities in planning urban spaces.
The city is presently all geared up with functional ward level committees. The time is ripe now to launch ward level restoration of ecosystems. Ward-level action plans with community participation is essential to make the city walkable and cyclable, a city with plenty of open space for physical.
Bhargavi works at the intersections of Community action with Law, Policy, Finance and Governance.
First Published in: The Bangalore Mirror