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Is Delhi dying?

If our cities are to be ecologically sustainable, there has to be a change of mindset in the way cities are designed, says PRABHAKAR RAO, in the context of the urban development of Delhi and the use of concrete.


Development in and imparting aesthetics to a city cannot be at the cost of its ecological health.

Cities are modified and simplified ecosystems. Engineers and planners have always tried to incorporate homogeneous and uniform city design structures. In an impersonalised city environment, homogeneity gives us a sense of psychological security. But the resulting designs have profound environmental implications.

NATURAL processes are always at work, be it a city or a forest, and urban designing/planning can either take advantage of these processes or act as an obstacle. As an illustration, let's take a water starved city waiting for the onset of monsoon. In India, this would mean practically almost all our cities. A delayed monsoon finally arrives. But cities have built-up structures that prevent the enormous water seepage into the soil. Since buildings and roads are unavoidable, drainage systems have to be so designed as to allow the harvesting of rainwater.

Buildings too should have water harvesting structures. But instead what we find in urban areas are drainage systems designed to empty water into a catch basin. As soon as the rain stops, the roads are left dry but there is flooding in the catch basin — drought conditions in one area and floods in another.

The process of urbanisation is going on at a rapid pace. If our cities are to be ecologically sustainable, there has to be a change of mindset in the way cities are designed. In Delhi, the built-up environment is so dense that unnecessary construction activity has to be stopped if it is to be made ecologically sustainable. The use of concrete in areas of public utility is unnecessary, and in fact, detrimental.

While a cause for concern is that such measures today involve large-scale construction activity that entail large monetary resources, what is worse is that the materials, like the cement, bricks, stones, sand, are environment-degrading. For stones, hills are mined and stones are crushed; these being ecologically damaging activities. Pavements are necessary for pedestrian safety, but need not be paved using concrete. Pavements can be raised and kept green with grass beds, shrubs and trees. What is amazing is that grass grows on its own, and rapidly. Grass prevents dust pollution because it binds the soil. Yet, what do we find in Delhi? Pavements that are concrete surfaces. In Delhi, most roads have a negligible pedestrian load, but heavy vehicular traffic. It makes little sense to have concrete pavements on Motilal Nehru Marg, Akbar Road, Aurangazeb Road, Tughlak Road and Krishna Menon Marg.

Further, to cover pavement with concrete, top-soil is removed to make space for the asphalt mixture. Top-soil formation, a slow natural process, is the most fertile part of the soil. In the process of the removal of top-soil, lateral roots of trees are damaged. It is also mixed with other debris and wasted as landfill material. In the space created by the removal of topsoil, a mixture of stones/ brick pieces and cement is laid, and covered with cement slabs, kota stone slabs, chequered tiles or interlocking tiles. It seals off the soil and prevents root aeration and water percolation.

On most of Delhi's roads, this design is totally unnecessary, and the municipality can save crores of rupees that can be used for other public activities. The use of eco-degrading materials can be minimised.

No construction activity should be allowed on roadsides that do not have a pedestrian load. There are roads like this that work well for both the natural environment as well as for a manmade environment. Shanti Path near the American Embassy, for example, is a road without a concrete pavement.

Buses use this road and there are bus shelters on the way. But no concrete work has been done. Even the central verges have no tiles. Instead, there is a running row of hedges that cuts the glare from the headlights of oncoming vehicles at night. Another example of good design and planning is Raj Path, which has no concrete footpaths. Even kerb stones have not been used. There is no central verge, though pedestrian and vehicular traffic are heavy especially during evenings. Similarly, the Andheria mode - Mahipalpur Road and the Dhaula Kuan — Gurgaon National Highway have no concrete pavements or kerb stones though traffic is so heavy. So the argument that concrete pavements are a must holds no weight.

Yes, Chandni Chowk, Nehru Place and Connaught Place with heavy pedestrian movement may require footpaths where porous tiles can be used.

Though there is unanimity in the view that the indiscriminate use of concrete and other construction activities should not be done in the vicinity of greenery, the activity continues unabated. The horticultural chiefs of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation have repeatedly said that concrete pavements and greenery cannot co-exist. The forest department has issued notice to the engineering wings of municipalities. Yet the situation persists. Why? What does it cost to tile a kilometre length of pavement? It is also seen that parliamentary and assembly funds are being used in the erection of grills, paving of colony parks, raising of boundary walls, and providing extra lighting, in parks, and fountains. Do any of these works solve civic problems? All Central Government colonies are being provided with boundary walls. Is this priority expenditure? What is the amount earmarked for such boundary walls in just R.K. Puram for example? Imagine the funds for all Central Government colonies thus walled! For example, assembly allocated funds to the tune of Rs. 7 lakhs have been spent in erection of iron grills on Archbishop Makarios Marg. A visit to the site would show that this was totally uncalled for.

There are numerous examples like this. Delhi's summer is getting prolonged and temperatures are soaring to new levels for extended periods. The "heat island effect" is so evident that avoidable construction is downright absurd. On the Ring Road, the modern bus shelters were erected by uprooting the green belt and paving the ground. These "Z" shaped shelters provide no shade. If there was a tree nearby, people prefer to stand under it, thus creating traffic chaos.

Public parks are another place where nature can be allowed to perform its functions. But a visit to the "millennium" Indraprastha Park by the DDA reveals it to be a concrete jungle with fountains, that uses conventional power. It makes little sense in using power for such fancy purposes when the city is facing a power crisis.

Delhi's bird diversity is truly amazing. But when parks are created, the wilderness is transformed into landscaped gardens that require external inputs. Birds are thus deprived of their nesting sites. No patch of greenery, however small, can be treated as irrelevant.

Even trees standing on different patches are made "interactive" by birds that visit different patches. Engineers can help in making the patches "interactive" by providing a connecting row of hedges or bushes wherever possible. But if every patch is to be filled with concrete, then the slogan of Green Delhi can only be achieved through signboards painted green. Where have all the butterflies, moths and bees gone? Where are the once numerous green pigeons, the yellow vented bulbuls and brahminy mynas? Wetlands near the Sarai Kale Khan bus terminal have recently been reclaimed for development. Wetlands are waterlogged wealth. Yet they are treated as areas that harbour disease and mosquitoes. This results in large-scale draining of wetlands and developing them commercially. Isn't it ironic that a city, which has a snow-fed river passing through it, has a water crisis?

A river is supposed to have a minimum flow but the stretch of the Yamuna in Delhi has no flow! And engineers have plans to develop commercial complexes on the river bank and to operate a ferry service! The stench from the river is so overpowering that even those desperate for water would shun it.

Sustainability demands that city designs cannot be left to engineers alone. At stake are factors like the soil medium, the bird diversity, the micro-climate, microbial processes, groundwater recharge, air pollution sinks, aesthetic and other considerations. Beautification cannot be undertaken at the cost of ruining the ecological health of the city. It boils down to a simple question. Does a person suffering from cancer go to a doctor or to a beautician? The choice is clear.

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