Across the length and breadth of India there’s a clandestine rebellion going on ~ the weapons of choice being shovels and brooms. Soma Basu elaborates
WITH Guerilla Gardeners secretly pruning shrubs in neighbours’ lawns and Ugly Indians spot-fixing cities, a statement is being made clear and loud that people are fed up with dirt, crumbling buildings and unplanned habitats. The rebellion is very much on, the weapons of choice being shovels and brooms.
Ugly Indians, a civic group in Bangalore, has made it a mission to “spot-fix” the city by choosing small stretches each week to clean. Comprised of mostly professionals in the 25-40 age group who remain strictly anonymous, it has so far fixed 104 spots ~ two per week ~ mostly around Bangalore’s central business district, including MG Road, Brigade Road and Church Street.
The Ugly Indian page on Facebook has short videos that capture the clean-up in specific stretches — starting with people avoiding the area and then showing the Ugly Indians starting their job, transforming footpaths and walls with the use of bright paint and motifs and, finally, people coming back.
Several like-minded people, fed up with the wastage of public space, have come up with a solution called Guerilla Gardening. A Guerilla Gardener in Mumbai recounted how he noticed a patch of land by the road. All that was needed was getting rid of wild grass and shrubs and a bit of tree pruning. But neither the civic authorities nor the residents’ association were interested in turning it into a usable park, which could be done with minimum effort and expense. So, he took on the job. Like him, groups of individuals elsewhere across the world quietly enter places and spruce them up. The idea is not to “take over” or establish ownership but to transform the place. This does amount to “guerrilla” activity because it’s illicit, so ideally it’s done when others are asleep or not looking.
Guerrilla gardening websites (guerrillagardening.org) offer tips on how to go about it: step one, spot an abandoned patch; step two, “plan a mission” and “invite supportive friends or perhaps enroll supportive strangers”. Take along some perennial plants that do not require looking after.
Spot-fixers and Guerilla Gardeners apart, several city planners and architects are coming forward with innovative projects and designs for better transport mobility, greener cities and habitats that are not destructive to species down the food chain. The government and research institutes have also been taking a keen interest in the issue.
The National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, approved by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is one of eight missions under the National Action Plan for Climate Change that aims to make cities sustainable through improving energy efficiency in buildings, managing solid waste and shifting to public transport. It covers the following aspects: extension of the energy conservation building code — which addresses the design of new and large commercial buildings to optimise their energy demands; better urban planning and modal shift to public transport — making long-term transport plans to facilitate the growth of medium and small cities in a way that ensures efficient and convenient public transport; and recycling of material and urban waste management — a special area of focus will be the development of technology for producing power from waste. The mission will include a major R&D programme that focuses on bio-chemical conversion, wastewater use, sewage utilisation and recycling options, wherever possible.
Close on its heels, Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (National Rating System of India) has been conceived by The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi and developed jointly with the Union ministry of new and renewable energy. It is a green building “design evaluation system” and is suitable for all kinds of construction in different climatic zones of the country.
The Sustainable Cities Programme of UN-Habitat provides technical and financial support to the All India Institute of Local Self-Government to implement the Environmental Planning and Management process in solid waste management in selected cities in Maharashtra.
The CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad is a zero-discharge edifice and a fourth of its power demands is met through solar energy. The building consumes 40 per cent less water and uses 50 per cent less electricity than a conventional structure. Built with fly-ash bricks and spread over two hectares, the GBC has rainwater harvesting channels, a reed bed-based sewage treatment utility, an electric car-charging station, a roof covered with gardens to insulate it from the heat and 25 kW capacity solar panels.
The flip side to these achievements is that the GBC, with a built-up area of 20,000 square feet, was constructed at a cost of Rs 10 crore in 2003. This, according to GBC senior counsellor S Srinivas, is around 18 times the cost of a conventional building of similar dimensions. “We had to import high performance double-glazed glass, carpets, toilet cleaners (which it still imports) and gadgets like Building Management System to meet US Green Building Council standards for platinum rating,” he explains. Several Indian architects have cited the problem in case of green buildings.
However, a lesson or two could be learnt from Tipu Sultan Merkez, a privately initiated school and development project in Jar Maulwi, a small village near Lahore, Pakistan. The school requires seven additional classrooms to accommodate its growing student population. So, Eike Roswag, an architect with Ziegert Roswag Seiler Architekten Ingenieure in Berlin, Germany, took up designing locally manufactured cob and bamboo for the school building. The project won the Gold Award Asia Pacific at the Holcim Foundation Contest for Sustainable Construction.
Roswag designed the new classrooms which are larger than the existing ones. The new structure is of two levels and serves to minimise land use and demonstrate the potential that earth and bamboo have as building materials for load-bearing structures. Glassed windows to the south collect solar energy to regulate building temperatures in the winter. In the summer, the earth naturally absorbs humidity from night-time cross-ventilation and then releases it into the air during the day. This process cools the interior to around eight degrees Celsius, below outside peak temperatures, and provides a comfortable indoor environment.
Among other modifications, an underground brick foundation and a horizontal damp-proof course protect the earthen walls against rising damp and splashing rainwater. As deforestation is an important issue in the region, the simple construction method is expected to incorporate bamboo to reduce wood consumption. The main idea was to promote local traditions, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and expensive products from outside the region and develop natural material and economic cycles. The school is a pilot project for a transformed building method, one that can be adapted for different uses. A private two-level house has also been designed and will be built as a parallel pilot project on the university campus in Lahore.
In India, the Mahalir Aran Trust, a local NGO, commissioned Flying Elephant Studio for the design of a primary healthcare centre on agricultural land at Devara Outhu Pallam in rural Tamil Nadu. Rajesh Renganathan, an architect with Flying Elephant Studio in Bangalore, designed a primary healthcare centre near Dharmapuri, that would not only improve access to critical healthcare at the local village level but also reduce expenditure currently incurred in urban hospitals.
The strong climatic response of the design minimises energy consumption for cooling, along with the conservation of rainwater by employing the best water management practices for landscape development. The project won an acknowledgement prize at a contest.
In the mid-1970s, work began on laying a single shunting railway line that would circumscribe the extent of New Delhi at that time. Originally called the Delhi Avoiding Line, it was meant to decongest the existing city stations of interstate goods traffic to better facilitate the throughput of passenger trains at these stations. Later, in 1982, a parallel passenger rail service was initiated to improve the connection of new residential colonies, commercial and industrial areas to the stations as well as to each other.
Subsequently, the manner and extent to which the city has grown, the non-integrated development of other transit systems networks and numerous systemic issues have left this urban transport system grossly underutilised.
A project has been designed in New Delhi to reclaim the Ring Rail corridor as urban space that will add value to the character of the city while providing a human-powered, inter-modal transit system that increases connectivity. The project has been envisaged in the urban context in addition to its functional role as a segregated shunting line. It imagines the Ring beyond the Rail and puts forth the idea of creating a contiguous belt that is human-powered, a precinct that is pedestrian, cycle-friendly and abuzz with urban activity that is rapidly losing legitimate place in an increasingly car-centric city.
The project also seeks to legitimise the informal sector, recognising its valuable contribution to the city’s economy and culture. It encourages the creation of cooperatives in the unorganised sector which would enable access to social and welfare infrastructure like health, education and micro-finance. Further, the rail corridor proves to be an excellent site for establishing an “information cloud” accessed through basic and most ubiquitous mobile technology (1G) that has witnessed deep penetration into the city population (across income groups). The cloud empowers peer-to-peer recommendation, the age-old system that drives the informal sector, with cheap new age technology through which people can rate, tag and exchange information. All stakeholders reap the benefits.
The project enhances people’s engagement with the physical environs of the city and the technological model developed, together with the reclamation of urban space, has universal application. The project was exhibited at the Urban Mobility India Conference, 2009, at the Urban Habitat Summit garnered critical acclaim. It was self-initiated but now the National Association of Street Vendors of India fully supports the project and feasibility studies are currently being conducted with different land-owning agencies and stakeholder communities.
Building and Civil Engineering Works won the “Next Generation” third prize, Asia Pacific, at the Holcim Foundation Contest for Sustainable Construction for designing a decentralised sanitation system near New Delhi. Several economical projects that promote a green habitat are available. What remains the keyword is implementation.