Sociology of Environment: Urban Nature: An attempt at a reflective commentary

 

The module on Sociology of Environment was amongst the most thought provoking experiences I have had at the Young India Fellowship. Under the guidance of Dr. Amita Baviskar we explored a variety of concepts that are prevelant in the society, Urban Nature being one amongst them.

We were specified two readings for the purpose and here is a commentary I made on them:

Commentary: Urban Nature

Poornima Sardana

The two readings on Urban Nature, “Bourgeois Environmentalists and the Battle for Delhi’s Streets”as well as “Remaking urban environments: the political ecology of air pollution in Delhi”enabled me to put into perspective some of the Middle Class’ discourse on urban cityscapes and nature that one comes across in every day media communication, in this case, the newspaper (Times of India, Gurgaon). In this commentary therefore I have attempted at understanding some of the elements in recent news articles and advertisements through the lens of these readings.

These readings locate the environment as “socially and politically” produced “under the current system of capitalism”1. In the context of globalization, neo-liberalism and consumption, they throw light on the Middle- Class perspectives of urbanization and the global space:  “Book a Home in Faridabad’s own Singapore” 3 ( bptp cultural movement) or awaken “the Soul of Urban Living” with Satya Groups’ ‘The Hermitage’3; These advertisements in Gurgaon’s edition of Times of India, speaking in the “language of modernity” 2 resonate with their neighbours’ desire of making Delhi a ‘world-class city’2.

The conspicuous drive for “city-beautification”2 runs the risk of assuming nature to be that which can be ordered, consumed, commoditized, and privatized.  Many of these projects occur at the expense of the natural wilderness or growth in those regions which are not aligned with “nature’s government” 2, trees that are felled and ground water that is extracted in huge volumes. Advertisements selling “artificial grass” with which “Even nature gets confused” 4 or the option to “explore the Heaven” which is “now a place on Earth”as a “1.4 km long landscaped terrace at the seventh level”, connecting through seven towers in “perhaps the largest residential skywalk in Asia, set amidst exotic flora” 5 certainly do not address the society at large, but such structures could be at the expense of the slums and colonies that must have been demolished or re-habilitated.   

The readings while exploring the bourgeois concept of private-public division, threw light on the issue of Commons 2. Resources such as land, water and less acknowledged air, used by a community for their common needs are now subject to boundaries and litigations with a bias towards addressing the needs of a particular section of society (Middle class) while dictating the norms for another. Dr. Amita Baviskar hence coins the term “Bourgeois Environmentalism” 2 and excerpts from a newspaper article help in illustrating the same:

In an article titled “Fast-track development in villages to improve life in sectors” 8 a resident of Gurgaon, exemplifying the NGO’s 2, campaigners2 and “local actors” 1 as mentioned in the readings, uses not the painful bureaucratic path but expresses in the media her discontentment with the HUDA city developers at not having maintained the exclusivity (privatization) of their residential space even after having paid for all external facilities. This, she mentions, is due to inadequate facilities in neighbouring villages. As a result the roads are used not just by the “village youth” but also their “cattle” which causes much grievance to the society’s “health, hygiene” and “safety”.  This is also  reflective of how those in the position to influence and have the State Apparatus at their discretion (PILs) would engage in similar “environmental and judicial activism.” 1

Her inclusive solution in “public-interest” 2 offers to “re-build the villages, giving them a facelift matching with the modern city of Gurgaon” addressing their loss as that of “the open spaces in which they grazed their cattle, the fields where their children played gulli danda, and the open sunlight under which the village women dried their cow dung cakes”. As mentioned in the reading, the health and deeper invisible concerns of the other are not a part of this environmental concern and “management”, this “city purification” ,which lies within “wider institutional and structural contexts” 1

This “coproduction of society and the environment” 1 reflects not just the Middle Class influence on the aesthetics of that which is visible in their “proximity” 2, but most importantly the existent “power relations” 1 political, social and economical, transformed into ecological conflicts. “unequal power relations are as likely to be ‘inscribed’ in the air…as they are to be ‘embedded’ in the land” (Bryant, 1998, page 89) 1Be it the banning of rickshaws in Chandni Chowk2 or the recent E-rickshaws to roll out in Greater Noida7 they make one question not just this notion of control, but whose control and on whom? “Authority officials say the new battery operated rickshaws will not just provide an environment friendly and speedy option for commuting, they will also help in reducing the menace of the shared autos crowding busy junctions across Greater Noida. The officials say most of these shared autos run illegally without valid permits.” 6 Are those the only cause of pollution and menace? Why are they then “normalized” 2?What about the pollution and frequent deaths that take place in accidents on the Yamuna Expressway (“completely safe”) 7 caused by private vehicles? These fly-over and expressways are built in the first place to enable middle class’ migration to nearby areas of lesser pollution and satisfy the “fetish”2 of personally owned vehicles and mobility. (32 new parking sites are to be allotted in Gurgaon) 8 The effects of these on slums on the way, hidden underneath, the ill-health of the habitants does not find an active mention in bourgeois influenced media.

The Master-Plans and designed cityscapes hence seem to run on a planned “universalized” 2 way of life, a mechanical activity planning as opposed to how life organically is, the implications of which are then screened or avoided altogether, in what amounts to be a mere diversion from the reality. One can “migrate to future” 7 as Jaypee Group claims (their advertisement for Yamuna Expressway and the report on “four incidents in a month” 7 get published on the same day) . Therefore to avoid air pollution, caused presumably by the practices of urban poor, or the shared autos, unfit for bourgeoisie consumption, one could move to “Destination Bhiwadi: A City With great Potential: Bhiwadi’s great infrastructure and pollution-free environment is surely going to make it the choicest address on the higher preference list of both developers and investors.” 9Or maybe one could move to Palm Greens, to lay back in the grass (artificial?) and watch the sky9, while the media can promote E-Rickshaws and new environment friendly techniques in Metro’s cooling systems. Incidentally the day the advertisement for Bhiwadi found its place in erstwhile newspaper, an article stating report of India having fallen on the Human Rights Index was also published in the same.

 

Works Cited:

  1. Veron, Rene ‘Remaking urban environments: the political ecology of air pollution in Delhi’, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, pages 2093-2109
  2. Baviskar, Amita ‘Cows, Cars and Rickshaws: Bourgeois Environmentalist and the Battle for Delhi’s Streets‘, 2011
  3. Times of India (Gurgaon), Saturday , February 2, 2013
  4. Elen Blossoms & Greens Limited, Times of India (Gurgaon), Saturday , February 2, 2013
  5. Times of India (Gurgaon), Saturday , February 2, 2013
  6. Times of India (Gurgaon), Tuesday , January 29, 2013
  7. Times of India (Gurgaon), Saturday , February 2, 2013
  8. Times of India (Gurgaon), Friday, January 11, 2012
  9. Times of India (Gurgaon), Saturday , February 2, 2013

 

 

Urban Nature? : Gurgaon: Photograph: Poornima Sardana

Urban Nature? : Gurgaon: Photograph: Poornima Sardana

 

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About poornimasardana

Travel and Observations acquaint me with the Existent Pluralities around us and I wish to share those. I indulge in narratives (illustrations, words and pictures), it being my most cherished pursuit.
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