climate change

Can Indian cities lead on climate action as they go about their development goals?

Climate-friendly projects need to go beyond incremental fixes and move to strategically planning for future growth.

United States President Donald Trump’s decision on June 1 to exit the Paris Agreement – a deal ratified by 149 nations and designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to battle rising temperatures – was met with reproach across the world. Alongside national actors in the European Union, China and India, many unorthodox allies also reaffirmed their commitment to addressing climate change. The mayors of 331 US cities argued that they would act with or without federal support towards a low carbon future, as it is in alignment with their development aims. This position directly opposes Trump’s acerbically stated premise that climate actions are antecedent to development. And so, as Trump unceremoniously departed the centrestage, American cities rose to it.

These events are relevant for Indian cities, which are growing centres of people and infrastructure. Do they, like their US counterparts, have the ability to lead on climate action? Moreover, how will Indian cities cope with the conundrum of balancing climate and development?

Development and innovation

At the outset, Indian cities have little choice but to put development first, with critical gaps in the provision of housing, transit, sanitation, safety, jobs, water and energy infrastructure. Yet, national policy and city initiatives are incorporating climate action into urban planning, driven by the synergies between city development and climate goals.

The Ministry of Urban Development’s Green Urban Mobility and Transit Oriented Development schemes encourage low-carbon public modes of transit. The Smart Cities Mission boosts uptake of rooftop solar, LED street lighting, green buildings and sustainable waste management. The new “Liveability Index” motivates cities to evaluate action across environmental, social, economic and physical terms, as opposed to singular or sectorally-specific indicators.

Climate action in Indian cities is thereby primarily reliant on national and state-level schemes, unlike the more independent governance by cities in Trump’s America. However, the design and implementation of these national or state schemes is often bolstered through local innovation and collaboration with non-state domestic and international actors, such as research think tanks, consultancies and international development agencies.

For example, Rajkot’s municipal corporation was tasked with delivering housing under the state and national affordable “Housing for All” scheme, which makes little reference to climate change. But the city’s engineers, going beyond the mandate of the schemes, included elements of passive ventilation and cooling and a rainwater harvesting system, thereby incorporating energy and climate resilience into their housing design. The project received national recognition, indicating an appetite for environmental leadership through urban development programmes.

US cities are willing to work towards a low carbon future despite President Donald Trump's decision to exit the Paris Agreement. (Credit: AFP)
US cities are willing to work towards a low carbon future despite President Donald Trump's decision to exit the Paris Agreement. (Credit: AFP)

Trade-offs and transitions

In principle, this reliance on easily identifiable synergies between development and climate serves as an effective and politically viable entry point for city climate action. But it gets more complicated when cities need to make a trade-off between climate and development.

Take the example of electric vehicles. The government has announced an ambitious target for all new vehicles in 2030 to be electric, starting with taxis, e-rickshaws and buses and, eventually, private vehicles. The motivations are to reduce vehicular emissions, improve air quality and reduce dependence on foreign oil, all perfectly reasonable. But the scheme avoids asking how cities will negotiate the rise in vehicles with the implications on other urban objectives – such as exacerbated congestion and the need for an increased share of public transit. Policy making has, so far, shirked from deliberating these difficult questions.

More so, unlike in developed countries, decision-making in Indian cities is not about selecting appropriate technologies within a sector, but about managing a more fundamental choice on the nature and form of urban growth. Estimates indicate a tripling of India’s built environment (man-made spaces, such as buildings) to accommodate 200 million more urban dwellers by 2030. Choices on growth today will thereby lock in urban form for the coming decades – which, as history has indicated, is incredibly resistant to change through decades.

This is relevant for the role of Indian cities in mitigating climate change, as their choices will condition the energy and carbon profile of the future. Unfortunately, current trends suggest that their development trajectory is one that promotes urban sprawl, increases motorised transport, reduces green cover, and heightens local pollution. With these stark challenges, will cities be able to lead on climate action and also achieve their development aims?

Beyond incrementalism

Indian cities have demonstrated the ability to adopt low-carbon initiatives when development and climate objectives align. But the approach assumes that incremental fixes and innovations within sectors will eventually culminate in long-term and city-wide liveability – a view that disregards the need to strategically structure future development.

This is important, as cities are not culminations of sites and projects, but complex systems with interacting elements. A green building without access to a transit network is not as useful, because it encourages automobile usage, negating any systemic benefits from its efficiency measures. In cities, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, requiring a structure for how its elements interact. Indeed, this is what planning sets out to achieve.

Given the magnitude of change Indian cities will face in the coming years, how future growth is planned for will be the true test of their success.

The Smart Cities Mission has, in this sense, fallen short of its overarching intention to better structure India’s urbanisation. While it fostered some inter-departmental dialogue, it focused more on project implementation than on engaging with the fundamental question of future urban growth. Cities and consultants, when tasked with finding solutions to city-wide problems, were constrained by national scheme guidelines to think of only technical and digital fixes. As a result, the scheme resulted in projects such as LED street lighting and GPS-enabled buses and waste collection trucks, without rethinking built form or transit networks.

The status quo of city development and climate action leaves open the urgent question of what the nature of growth will be, putting Indian cities at risk of developing urban forms that lock in high consumption and carbon emissions, and stress local environments. And so, while cities begin to develop climate-friendly projects, they have not made the shift to strategically planning for their growth. We are potentially moving towards a more urban India, rudderless.

The authors are Fellow and Research Associate, respectively, at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.