How guilty are we for the mess we live in today, asks Chandrashekar Hariharan.

Lessons from the past

At a recent meeting of green business leaders the new Minister for Agriculture in Karnataka, the articulate Krishna Byre Gowda, offered a very simple yet eloquent message that needs to be shared.

Development, he said, is a process of creative destruction. What the government can do and people can do to make it sustainable is up to both the stakeholders. Sustainability and subsistence living, he said, was what marked all things for all time, except perhaps for the last 50 years or so. Aspirations of the world, whether they are from the young or from the old, in terms of prosperity for themselves and, therefore, for the greater common people, are legitimate. They are accepted as legitimate that must be addressed by those elected, and by the people who choose to run businesses that offer products and services. As policy makers, he said, we can only seek to bridge the chasm between what is sustainable and what is aspirational. He drove a fine distinction between what is modern, what is modernity, and what is modernisation.

It led me to reflect on what lies ahead for us in urban India. If you look back at the Indus Valley Civilisation, although it supported no more than roughly 20 million people across what was about two-thirds of India’s landmass today, you can see how a carefully managed set of cities began to disintegrate with the lack of water. We have today a similar situation. Scholars suggest that the weather and the drying river beds of Saraswathi and the entire delta that supported the Indus Valley Civilisation created a climatic sweet spot that allowed the urbanisation to flourish. There was a dense concentration of cities around the river valleys and basins; until they started the slow decline. Unfortunately, conditions today suggest a similar turn for the worse over the last 50 years. Only this time, the impact is global – not confined to one region as in those ancient times.

Every Indian city today has groundwater levels receding below the 700 feet mark. The Hindu Habitat carried a story recently on how the quality and approach to treatment of water imported by tankers has to be different, depending on the aquifer from which the water is drawn. This means that groundwater from tankers can’t simply be viewed as water from just any source. The basic parameters of the treatment depend on where the water has been drawn from. This is a new dimension, unheard of in the past!

This is only one alarming signal of what lies ahead. What could perhaps happen over the next 50 years is a degree of cultural continuity that will show a clear shift towards smaller settlements. Urban sophistication of the kind that we have seen in the last century has clearly broken down. India’s experience of urbanisation over the next 20 years will not be quite the same as it was in the last 30-40 years.

The green conference revolved essentially around good governance. How do we manage the air in our cities? How do we make water, energy, and waste sustainable in urban pockets? How much of it has to devolve at the ward and neighbourhood levels? How much of it will have to be owned by the city municipal corporations?

If you went back 2,300 years to the Mauryan cities, what was it like to live in such cities? Kautilya’s Arthashastra has a long list of municipal laws that give us an insight into the civic concerns of the times. There were traffic rules stating that bullock carts were not allowed to move without a driver. A child could only drive a cart if accompanied by an adult. Reckless driving was punished except when the nose-ring of the bullock broke accidentally or if the animal had panicked.

The Arthashastra has instructions for waste disposal, building codes, maintenance of public spaces like parks, and rules against encroachment into a neighbour’s property. It even has a rule against interfering in the affairs of the man next door! Interestingly, there are specific injunctions against urinating and defecating in public spaces. The Arthashastra specifies fines for urinating near a water reservoir, a temple, or a public building.

One wonders why our cities don’t enforce these ancient examples. Our ancient laws reflect a society that had a sophisticated understanding of urban life. Our implementation today is completely devoid of any such understanding. What will make us behave?

No government, however earnest and meaningful, can help if we can’t help ourselves. Till then, efforts of all organisations that serve urban planning needs can only be band-aids to the larger problem that needs to be fixed.

The writer is Executive Chairman and Co-founder of BCIL, Zed Homes