A standard, and widely accepted, definition of ecology states that it is the relationship between organisms and their environment. The term urban ecology then, invokes a two-sided picture, representing the age-old dichotomy of nature and culture. One side comprises trees and water bodies and soils and rocks. The other, bears people and their buildings and roads. But take a walk onto Chadarghat Bridge and look down at the remains of the river Musi and you will almost agree with the eccentric philosopher who said “nature doesn’t exist”… at least not in the conventionally accepted sense as distinct from human culture or civilization. There is a school of geography that believes there is no such thing as urban ecology. Its votaries would look at the Musi today and say, “what part did ‘nature’ play in this?”
The discourse of urban ecology arises out of some well-founded concerns about the sustainability of “development” in our cities. As larger numbers of people get concentrated into cities, where will they find the resources to meet their basic need for water, for instance? But the danger with the ecological view is that in its zealous pursuit for sustainability, it turns a blind eye to concerns of equity. Where do the concerns for protecting lakes and providing access to water intersect? Analyses of the mainstream discourse of environmentalism in Indian cities reveal deep biases against the poor inhabitants of cities. This perhaps, stems from an over-emphasis on an aesthetical view of ecology, rather than an ethical one. The aesthetical view is marked by a deep moral outrage against the pollution of the “natural” environment, but this is a tad misguided. Organisms produce waste and that waste needs to be put somewhere. We have 3 sinks for our waste, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the geosphere, i.e. the exhaustive components of what we call our “natural” environment. Patrick Geddes aptly remarked that modern civilization’s greatest flaw is that it lacks an understanding of waste. This aesthetical view of urban ecology, in fact, mis-understands the dynamics of waste. Its concern is to get rid of waste, but the only options are dumping it or recycling it. Indian cities are known for having the highest rate of recovery from waste, but this process is not carried out by the environmentalists or the governing authorities. It predominantly occurs in the bastis and in the “shadow economy” through the entrepreneurial ingenuity of those citizens of our cities that are part of its “informal” production and service systems.
The discussion on Water & Waste at Do Din broke away from some of the problematic tropes of ecology that are mentioned above. Firstly, attempts were made to understand the hydrological system associated with the city in a holistic manner, the interconnections between water-bodies and also the points where the water is consumed. Secondly, concern for Hyderabad’s lakes went visibly beyond concerns about pollution to understanding the politics of lake encroachment. Thirdly, a dynamic picture of the circuitous paths on which waste travels through the city and the hands it goes through was presented.
II. The Panel:
Nisha Thompson has a background in online community organisation. She was at the time of Do Din, Data Project Manager at Arghyam – India Water Portal. Earlier she worked for the Sunlight Foundation in Washington DC. that enables online communities to use US government data to hold elected officials accountable.
Thakur Rajkumar Singh is a founder member of Human Rights & Consumer Protection Cell (BMRWS) a registered NGO which was formed in the year 2004. He is presently a convener for Save Our Urban Lakes (SOUL). He has a good knowledge of how to use legal processes by filing complaints for effective solutions. He is known for his aggressive approach in taking issues head-on.
Abrar Hussain Azad is one of the bigger traders in Bholakpur. He now trades scrap and also has a small furniture recycling and manufacturing unit where he makes school and office furniture. He has worked in a tanning centre, starting out as a helper and then becoming a manager before he shifted to trading scrap.
1. Data on Water:
India Water Portal is an online entity which tries to aggregate water information from across India. The aim is to look for sources of water data and put it all in one place so that it can be worked upon. Nisha Thompson, their representative at Do Din began with her experiences in aggregating this data. The pressing concern, according to her, is the lack of consistency both in the availability of data across cities and the methodology for data. She then spoke about a study on water quality in 33 Indian cities that was undertaken in 2005. The resulting aggregate data-sets provided unprecedented detail about the water system from reservoir to consumer point. This broad picture finally allowed the creation of a map on water flows through the city. It consisted of information regarding reservoirs, rivers, groundwater sources, water treatment plants and consumer points. It was a schematic map and not a geographically precise one. But despite the limitations it provided new information. The next objective was to present the relationship between the quality of water and the flow of water in the system. Therefore, information on the quality of water at different points, in terms of volume, distance travelled and total fecal coliform (TFC), was laid on top of the map. This revealed huge gaps in the general understanding of urban water supply systems.
These gaps were different for different cities. Some cities like Chennai had a significantly large amount of information, while other cities like Ahmedabad and Jaipur had very sparse information. Some major gaps identified in most of the cities were a lack of information connecting distribution zones to consumer points. Also, the water quality at consumer points was not well known. So this study served as a base which helped identify what data is and isn’t available.
2. It’s so Easy to Kill a Lake:
SOUL started off as an association constituted by many old lake and biodiversity conservation activists. Then, a large number of young people began to join in. It is noteworthy that SOUL’s efforts are concentrated around the Serilingampally area in Hyderabad where maximum real estate development has happened. In the process what has also happened is that a “world class” city without an underground sewage system has emerged. So we dump sewage into storm water drains which eventually dumps it into a local water body. Therefore, lakes have become cesspools. But interestingly lakes have also become sites of real estate conflicts. SOUL has driven several litigations against this reckless encroachment.
Rajkumar Singh, co-convener of SOUL, started his presentation with a history of lakes in Hyderabad. He remarked how lakes that were centuries old have vanished in the past 10 years. These lakes were once icons of Hyderabad, but today they are replaced by sewage and drainage kuntas. His presentation then moved to an exposition of a series of encroachments over lakes across Hyderabad. These ranged from apartment complexes and bungalows on foreshores, to GHMC-built Sewage treatment plants (STPs) in the middle of the lakes. He lamented how nobody in the government was interested in the lakes and how everybody was in fact directly involved in facilitating encroachment. He finally listed the chief dangers faced by these local water bodies, viz. Encroachment, pollution and exploitation.
Anant Maringanti took the discussion forward by suggesting that the case of water bodies in Hyderabad is an excellent opportunity to figure out how to repurpose the resources we have as commons. Ownership over the lakes and land associated with them is less important than the uses they were put to, which have traditionally been multiple. But these multiple uses and users have been marginalized by the discourse that relies heavily on marking Full Tank Levels and by the government’s unwillingness to formally get involved in property disputes. Thus, the customary rights to access the lake and its lands have been uprooted by social negotiations relying on political power, not bourgeois liberal property rules. These social processes are turning the lakes over to capital accumulation. In this scenario, perhaps the struggle can be pushed in the new direction of “commoning” these lakes. Such a direction would pose new challenges for mapping and data sourcing but also present great possibility for conceptual work. If the hydrological system is understood as a circulatory system that flows through the city, we need to understand how different groups tap into this system at various points.
One of the preliminary challenges would be to identify the department responsible for water bodies in the city. In fact, there is no such body. The Lake Protection Committee in Hyderabad is an advisory body to another adivsory body and anyway has very poor data. So either, we can appeal for a new institution that will possess and publish comprehensive data or, we could undertake collaborative projects to generate new knowledges about urban resources and create new commoning practices. Ideally, it should be both.
3. Bholakpur – A Command Centre for the Waste Cycle in Hyderabad
As mentioned earlier, Indian cities have the highest rate of recovery from waste. This is so because of the survival needs of a sizeable portion of the urban population. Bholakpur started off as a tanning centre in the mid-19th century. The Nizam brought skilled workers from Madras and slowly the industry established itself. It used to export finished leather through Madras into the colonial economy. This industry brought several people from different parts of the Nizam state and gradually the place congealed into a coherent unit with a strong sense of community. In the 1990s, this industry took a big hit because leather exports from Bholakpur suffered as a result of competition from China combined with an unsupportive national policy, expanding families and diversification of enterprise among workers. Thus, Bholakpur lost its share of leather market. Yet, it rediscovered itself in the urban economy by collecting, segregating and recycling waste, and through this activity, continues to have global connections.
Azad, a trader from Bholakpur, after presenting the history of the place spoke of its representation by the media in the past couple of decades as an unhygienic and polluting area. This was exacerbated by an incident in 1998 when contaminated drinking water led to a massive public health disaster there. The local media blamed the leather tanneries for polluting the groundwater. Residents of Bholakpur insist that tanning water has never mixed with groundwater. Reasons being that by 1998, only a handful of tanneries remained in Bholakpur and their waste was disposed in over ground drains, exclusively built for that purpose.
Today, the former leather workers have moved to collecting metal, wood and plastic scrap. There are trolleys which collect waste from pickers across the city and bring it to Bholakpur. 6000 men and women are involved in this complex process. Over time, the people here have developed specialized vocabularies and also highly sophisticated skills for recognizing quality and value (price) of scrap items. The phenomenal productivity of Bholakpur is evidenced by the numbers lining up each morning to procure material. People who buy a whole range from antique to scrap, from here sell them elsewhere without revealing the source. This allows contractors to earn higher profit margins. Bholakpur thus, contrary to media portrayals, is actually a teeming site of economic activity and home to several tax-paying citizens. In fact, Azad argued that Bholakpur was providing a massive economic and ecological subsidy to the city by undertaking the process of recycling waste. The middle-class population, who claim much concern for the environment, actually cause severe damage to it by recklessly dumping plastic, electronic devices, wood and other matter. The MCH collects this waste but does not segregate it. It is in Bholakpur, that this waste is processed, segregated, recycled and turned into revenue.
Dr. Maringanti wrapped up the session by pointing out the network of relations that sustain Bholakpur. The place he claims is what it is because of connections to other cities and to other parts of Hyderabad. If we don’t understand the sensibilities of these people handling and touching this waste, we are actually committing a huge violence. We are failing to acknowledge their essential contributions to the formal economy. The challenge in such a situation is how do we present such data to the government? How can we intervene to challenge the dominant discourse pedalled by the mainstream media? Unless this is done, the threats of dislocation and disruption will continue to loom over the workers and residents that man this thriving economy.