Over the past last few weeks, I’ve been closely following developments at the Aarey Milk Colony in Mumbai. One of the few remaining green zones in the city, it was reduced to a war zone of mechanical saws, bulldozers and tree stumps. Aarey has been the centre of a pitched battle between the state and citizens. The former were adamant about felling trees to build a metro car-shed, and the latter were protesting to protect it, asking instead that an alternate site be chosen for the metro car-shed. Matters came to a head earlier this month, with students, members of the local communities, parents and children coming out on the streets to protest. By October 11, the state had cut down 2,141 trees in two days.
What is also deeply troubling about the Aarey debacle is the false binary created between those pushing for the metro car-shed to be built in Aarey and those fighting to protect its ecosystem —the argument reduced to development versus sustainability. Those fighting to save Aarey were positioned as anti-development and therefore acting against the interests of the country. It’s an argument that has been used repeatedly and is dangerously myopic because it refuses to take into account the impact decisions like this will have for the future. Whose ‘greater good’ are decisions like these being taken for? Does it take into account the state of the city and its residents in 50 years, a 100?
These questions have been close at hand especially as the UN marked World Cities Day on October 31. This year, the United Nations had selected the theme “Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations” to discuss how urbanization can be used to achieve sustainable development. Aarey portends what is increasingly going to be an issue of confrontation as the world continues to rapidly urbanise. Half the world’s population now lives in cities and that number is expected to double by 2050. Material consumption in cities is due to grow from 40 billion tonnes in 2010 to 90 billion tonnes in 2050. That alone will bring in tow immense challenges to resources like water, housing, food security and safety.
In this context, what does a sustainable city look like and what does it include? These are questions that don’t have simple answers, but which require citizen engagement more than ever. What was heartening to see in Mumbai was that all kinds of people came out to protest the loss of its green lungs. The fight for what is critical to our collective well being has gone beyond well meaning NGOs and environmentalists. For me, despite what followed at Aarey, it brings hope for continued resistance.
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