Rising temperatures have started hitting the poor the hardest. According to The Nature Volunteers, the maximum temperatures recorded recently in some Indian cities were (in degrees celsius) Lucknow 47, Delhi 47, Agra 45, Nagpur 49, Kota 48, Hyderabad 45, Pune 42, Ahmedabad 46, Mumbai 42, Nashik 40, Bangalore 40 and Indore 46. It is feared that soon most of these cities may cross 50 degrees celsius. To illustrate this with an example - a geyser in homes to heat water during winters has a thermostat adjusted at 50 degrees.
We all know what these rising temperatures mean. People living in these cities are virtually living in an oven. The situation is worsening. Another study revealed that nearly a third of South Asia's population depends on outdoor work. With rising temperatures, it will be tough even to meet their bare minimum requirements for survival.
In a warning issued by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) on May 7, there will be another spell of the heatwave in northern India. In a tweet on the same day, the news agency ANI pointed out the continuous fire at the Bhalswa solid waste landfill site in Delhi. There are three such sites in the capital city, and there were fires in all these sites. Recently, the Supreme Court observed that these sites are turning out to be minarets of modern India and shall soon surpass the height of the Qutb Minar. Most waste the city generates is dumped without treatment, and this continues to be a permanent source of methane responsible for such fires.
Invest in adaptation strategies
Rising temperatures will soon have a cascading effect, including more heat-related deaths and a worsening water crisis. Already, many cities are finding it challenging to provide a minimum of 135 LPCD (litres per capita, per day), the minimum prescribed norm, to their people. Some towns provide water twice a week. This will hit the health services in the cities and would mount more burden on them. Forest fires are continuing in the hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These have not stopped. The loss of biodiversity is phenomenal.
We need significant disruption to break the inertia. Therefore, it cannot be business as usual. The focus must be on adaptive strategies. Simultaneously efforts must be made to ensure mitigation strategies landmarks. The following areas must be prioritised.
The city mobility plans need to be completely inverted. Instead of building more flyovers, we should strengthen rather than encroach on the spaces of pedestrians and cyclists. Various studies across the country suggest that nearly 80 per cent of the commute in urban India is less than six km. There must be more focus on cycle tracks, public transport, and pedestrianisation if that is the case. In a recent cycle exhibition in Delhi, cycle manufacturers were requested to form a consortium to help cities prepare their mobility plans and focus on bicycle tracks. The current model is not sustainable because it increases fossil fuel intake, carbon emissions, and pollution.
Housing and building plans
The other major factor contributing to 'heat island' effects is the unscientific construction of houses. Instead of designs that consume less energy for cooling and heating homes, most construction materials enhance the heat island effect. Glass typologies dominated the last few decades of construction patterns. Now we realise the amount of energy required to cool houses made with glass walls. There is no competitive design mechanism that encourages planners and designers to prepare energy-efficient designs. The use of indigenous materials and timber should be promoted.
Solid waste management
There are different reports on the total waste generation in the country and in urban India. According to a report, nearly 1.50 lakh MTPD (metric tonnes per day) of solid waste is generated daily. Almost 15,000 MT remains exposed every day. Of the total waste collected, just twenty per cent (27,000 MT per day) is processed, and the rest 80 per cent (1,08,000 MT) is dumped at landfill sites. According to another paper published in the Royal Society Open Science, urban areas generate 1,70,00 metric tonnes of waste per day. These are completely unsustainable ways of meeting the challenge.
The push from the Swachh Bharat Mission 1.0, and even 2.0, is for waste to energy plants. Rather than solving the problem, it compounds it. The effort in the cities to collect all the waste and then run vehicles carrying waste to these energy plants further increases the carbon footprint. And none of these waste to energy plants is functional in the country. What is required is to revisit the 'five Rs' - reduce, recycle, refuse, reuse and repurpose. Segregation and treatment at the source must be the guiding principle.
Recent decades have seen massive plunder of urban commons in developmental projects under JNNURM, SCP (Smart City Plan), real estate development, construction, and widening roads and flyovers. This exercise has encroached upon the urban commons that existed for a long period. A few examples of this include the vanishing water bodies in Gorakhpur and Gurgaon, the proposed developmental projects in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep; the Delhi Master Plan 2041, the envisioning of land pooling and forcing farmers to part with their agricultural land for housing and real estate development; denuding forest cover for the construction of hydropower projects and dams for providing water to large cities from a distance of hundreds of miles away from Renuka in Himachal Pradesh to Delhi, etc. The urban commons comprise not just water bodies but also parks and playgrounds. The pace at which playgrounds are termed useless and usurped for real estate development is alarming.
Ensure more green spaces
Plant more trees and ensure that green spaces are not taken over. Cutting trees for various developmental projects further enhances the heat island effect. On a personal note, in Delhi, I cycle from Green Park via AIIMS to Ashoka Road. The temperature difference is easily felt. Green Park and AIIMS are relatively warmer, whereas the stretch from INA to Sunehri Bagh is cooler. But as one reaches the Central Vista region where trees were chopped down, one can feel the heat. Urban forestry must be revisited, and more trees planted in cities.
There are other reasons for the rise in temperatures in Indian cities. However, the above four areas require immediate intervention. June 5 is World Environment Day. This year the theme is "only one Earth". The people and the planet have coexisted for a long time. We need restitution and not just rehabilitation of Earth, ensuring a liveable future for all.
(The writer is a former deputy mayor of Shimla)
(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.)