India is hurtling at breakneck speed down the road to urbanisation. From a country where only 17 per cent lived in cities in 1950, projections now indicate that we will be more than 50 per cent urban by 2050. India not only contains three of the world’s 10 largest cities — Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata — but also has three of the world’s 10 fastest-growing cities: Ghaziabad, Surat, and Faridabad. Over the past 20 years, Indian cities have grown to 2.5 times their original size, occupying an additional 5,000 sq. km in area.
This may seem like a small expansion, given the large area of the country. Yet urban areas have a footprint well beyond their physical cover. Cities draw food, water and energy from distant corners of the country and send their pollution and waste to rural countrysides. Thus, ecological and environmental footprints of cities are much larger than the physical area they cover, impacting the health of distant communities.
Cities are also extremely challenging environments to live in. Indian cities have the dubious distinction of being amongst the most polluted in the world. And largely supplied by ground water, Indian cities are also running dry, leading to the unfortunate consequence of water being diverted from fertile agricultural areas to provide for urban residents.
The Indian government is currently focused on “Smart cities”, which they believe have the potential to solve many major challenges of urban sustainability via a more efficient use of technology and planning. Yet, what we need are ecologically smart cities. Parks, lakes, wetlands, coastal mangroves and remnant forests reduce air pollution, cool down urban heat islands, clean up waste water and solve a host of other urban environmental challenges. They also provide very important services for the urban poor who depend on these resources for water and vegetables.
Protecting and restoring crucial urban ecosystems involves understanding the importance of ancient wisdom — nature’s wisdom — to solve many of the challenges that we short-sightedly attempt to fix with technology.
Thus, it remains that an ecologically-smart city may be the smartest city one can now envisage. Planting the right kinds of trees and restoring wetlands are low-cost, yet adaptive and efficient ways to clean up polluted air and water, and provide healthy, nutritive, locally grown food for the vast numbers of people in cities. If Indian cities stopped planting ornamental trees and instead focused on growing fruiting trees — something that our medieval city planners knew very well — we could provide livelihoods for local residents and deal with urban heat islands and air pollution. Yet, instead of making any steps in this direction, our cities are building over mangroves, and cutting down trees in the lakhs, to create conditions conducive for wired cities. Technologically smart, but ecologically? Stupid.