Of mangroves, the Metro and Mumbai Mayor

May 08, 2013, 07:33 IST | Hemal Ashar

An environmental research body releases findings of a city-specific survey that indicate the mindset on issues of water, air and hard-to-find but coveted green, open spaces

One impulse from a vernal wood
May tell you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can
 -- William Wordsworth

Despite often being accused of putting the commercial over the aesthetic, this city proved it had a green heart and yearned for clean, fresh air in its lungs. As for soul? Its citizens were willing to indulge in soul searching too.

A water body and a salt pan with mangroves, opposite Bhakti Park. Pic/Suresh KK

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) a not-for-profit research body focused on energy, environment and sustainable development released findings of the Mumbai chapter of its six-city survey pertaining to various environmental issues.

Prithviraj Chavan gave the green signal to Mumbai Metro Rail trial run. Pic/Nimesh Dave

The findings (which stated in numbers), people’s perceptions and opinions towards green issues were released at an event held at the ITC Grand Central (Parel) hotel yesterday morning.

A monorail takes a trial run between Wadala Monorail Terminus and Chembur. Pic/Suresh KK

The sample size of the Mumbai survey was 1010 and the respondents spanned across different age groups, occupation, education and income levels. They were asked about their inputs on different aspects related to environmental issues affecting the city. Perceptions and opinions on climate, water, forest conservation, air pollution and waste management were collated and crunched into easy-to-understand numbers (see box: Percentages). While the findings were being released, experts and activists debated and raised points on several issues from mangroves to metro and the all important, hot button topic: how does one strike a balance between development and environment?

The panelists at the event (from left) Narinder Nayar, Ajit Gulabchand, J K Banthia, moderator Darryl D'Monte, R K Pachauri and Debi Goenka. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

The event kicked off with the welcome address by Dr R K Pachauri, Director General, TERI who said that the findings were being released first in Mumbai of the six cities surveyed (the others were Bengaluru, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai). “This city has major challenges with reference to protection of the environment.

There is a juxtaposition of a high rate of economic success in some sections with not such a high rate in others, then take confined spaces which are the norm in Mumbai and a citizenry which is quite unique, so we decided to start off in Mumbai.”

Pachauri cited an example of a colleague at Yale who researched that people experienced a, “high degree of happiness and satisfaction when being out in the open, which proves that even city folk confined largely to small, close spaces attach a great deal of value to being close to nature.”

Flamingoes have become pink, winged symbols of the city's fight to preserve nature’s hotspots. Pic/Atul Kamble

It was next speaker J K Banthia, Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra, who touched upon the eternal conundrum of development vs. environment saying that he wished the survey, “had more older respondents who had second and third generations here, so we would have a perspective of how they think Mumbai has changed.” He added, “I think the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) is a major achievement for a city of this size, encroachments notwithstanding. The Mumbra building collapse was an eye opener.”

A female white tiger in a water pond at SGNP in Borivali. Pics/Rane Ashish

Banthia also claimed that there are a number of patterns going to emerge from climate change. For one, “the city will start experiencing more days of erratic rainfall, it may not be long before we see another flood like situation that happened in the city in 2005.” For those who were wondering just how much hotter it is going to get, Banthia claimed that patterns show that we are only going to experience more temperature peaks.

“Currently parts of Maharashtra are experiencing 48 and 49 degree Celsius temperatures, birds are simply dropping dead,” he said. The Chief Secretary also stated, “Disappearing water bodies in urban areas are a major area of concern. Not just Mumbai, even in the Pune Pimpri Chinchwad belt there has been a lot of encroachment so that is a major challenge,” he signed off.

Construction and environment may seem to be contradictory in so many ways, yet, Ajit Gulabchand, Chairman and Managing Director (MD) of Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) said that, “One needs strong city environmental groups here for decisions, everything cannot go to Delhi.” Gulabchand also said that Mumbai needs a, “Powerful mayor not a titular (existing in name only) mayor because city governance had to be accountable to its people.” Gulabchand stressed the need to be ready for large-scale migration from rural to urban areas, and said, “We have to create 3 million new jobs in the near future. We have to balance this with environment issues.”

The mangrove man, Debi Goenka, executive trustee at The Conservation Action Trust, (CAT) and well-known environmentalist said that certain decisions, “By the State Chief Minister and the bureaucracy are not environmental-friendly. For instance the decision to make a Shivaji statue in the sea at a time when we do not have money to combat the drought situation is questionable. Were it not for the Court’s decisions the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) would be lost to the city.”

Goenka added, “Coming to Mumbra, I want to ask why it takes 100 lives lost for the State Govt. to sit up and take notice?” Goenka also said developers were more fitted to the label of “destroyers”. Rounding off his observations Goenka claimed that, “There have to be incentives given for garbage separation and the municipal authorities must treat this issue seriously. I also think the State Govt, which is prioritising the Metro must emphasise improving the suburban train network.”

From those very many subjects, Narinder Nayar, chairman, Bombay First, pointed out that though the TERI survey touched different aspects of the environment, “I would like to see the next report touching upon opinions of people about radiation from mobile towers.” Nayar also stressed that, “Lifestyle and consumption patterns have to change. We have to start with a citizen-centric approach. Climate change is here to stay, it is within our power to see how to tackle this problem.”

From that hopeful people power note, it was on to a clipped Q & A session, moderated by journalist Darryl D’Monte during which MMRDA Commissioner U P S Madan stated emphatically that there was emphasis on public transport, adding that, “The metro and mono are important projects and there is naturally going to be some impact on environment, so it is important to strike a balance there. The MMRDA has also been doing a lot of work on the Mithi River.” Madan’s riposte was in response to Goenka’s words. Goenka simply retorted that it was his “humble request to give priority to the suburban train network.”

As the event wound to a close, it was evident that the old battle between development and environment is here to stay. Even the most optimistic cannot imagine a day when activists and developers come to a common table to smoke the peace pipe. This survey is a glimpse of the mindset of the people who are the real stakeholders in what is going on – a constant game of checks 'n' balances to preserve the scarce, few, open spaces in Mumbai. And, talking about air pollution, most of these speakers and bleeding greenhearts were seen rolling off in private cars post the meeting. Ah, wheel, well, well. To each his own.

The survey showed what people think

Improvement in drinking water quality and availability.

Improvement in waste and waste management.

Deterioration of urban air quality due to pollution main cause for respiratory and skin disease.

Factories were the main cause of pollution.

Transport was the main cause of pollution.

Use public transport.

The reason for using public transport is to reduce their contribution towards air pollution.

Respondents unwilling to segregate waste before disposing it, even though it is an important strategy to manage the problem of solid waste. A majority stated a lack of space in homes for two dustbins.  

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