In June 2010, on my way back to India, I flew to Delhi from Chicago. While looking down from the airplane, I realized that I couldn’t see anything clearly at all from the window.
Part of it could have been because most of the city was dusty by being dug up for Commonwealth Games, and maybe it was also due to scorching summer and lack of humidity in the air. But a major role was simply played by the pollution in the air.
That made me wonder, if there was so much dust in the atmosphere, wouldn’t everyone be inhaling it all the time?
And with improper enforcement of anti-pollution laws (state of Yamuna clearly shows the lack of it), there are bound to be many hazardous pollutants in the air too. And all of them simply, pretty much forcibly, just thrust into our lungs.
So why are people not doing anything about it? I think that’s primarily because it does not really have a political will behind it, and that’s because it difficult for people to tangibly notice the impact of the polluted environment on them on a daily basis. If one entirely lives ‘in’ a polluted city with nothing to compare to, that becomes the ‘default setting’ and the ‘new normal’.
One of the most obvious solutions is to plant more trees. It only commonsensical that trees will help keep the air a little cleaner with absorbing Carbon Dioxide and release Oxygen (Yes we learned that in 3rd standard).
Here is an article written about the benefits of having a green city. But whether we need to plant more trees is not the question, because that is already widely accepted.
The question is whether we are planting enough, and whether we are planting them appropriately. To answer these questions, I thought it best to compare cities in India with cities in Western Europe and US.
Thanks to Google maps and Jing technologies, I was able to put the following pictures here. I have tried to compare apples with apples by comparing smaller cities and the suburbs of bigger cities (where real estate is not super expensive and rare) and by keeping the same map zoom-in level.
In other words, I considered on those places where people do have the resources to plant more trees, and tried to compare number of trees per unit area.
Here are the Indian cities and suburbs:
Hyderabad suburbs, India
Notice how in our Indian cities and suburbs, buildings are almost completely stacked together. With no breathing space at all!
Such densely populated places provide absolutely no respite from pollution, desalination of soil, and hotter temperatures. It also provides almost negligible rainwater retention (and contributes to dropping water tables and water scarcity).
I could also notice a significant divide between East Delhi suburbs (commonly known as Trans-Yamuna) and Central and South Delhi. Central and South Delhi areas were significantly greener, making me wonder if there such a huge difference in living conditions should be acceptable by people! But then again, it is not everyday that you compare how many trees you have (or can afford to have) in your locality versus another locality.
Here are cities from US and Europe:
The first picture is of a Chicago suburb called Scahumburg. It has a similar profile to that of Noida in the sense that many people live in Schaumburg and work in Chicago.
Tooting, London, UK
What is clearly visible is that greenery in the captured areas is far less for Indian cities, no matter where they are, when compared to suburbs and cities in US or Europe.
This is not a research study, so I am sure the sample data I am looking at is flawed after a point. But I definitely wanted to put up some comparison between what Indian cities are doing versus the ‘better’ cities of developed world of US and Europe.
Given this, I wanted to address at least one problem: That of level of awareness in India about the shoddy state of the green cover in Indian cities.
Here is a great report on a comparative study on Asian cities on many factors, including environmental governance. In most parameters, Indian cities fared as average or below average in comparison to other comparable Asian cities. Keep in mind that this comparison did not consider other American and European cities.
Green City Index
Delhi, by various accounts (click here) has been bragging about being one of the greenest capitals in the world. I could not find any proper research report confirming this fact, so I am at least unconvinced that this is entirely true.
At any rate, even if that is the case, the distribution of green cover is very, very lopsided. This leaves a huge chunk of population deprived of greenery and exposes them to pollutants, less water and puts their health at tremendous risk.
On the national level, only about 20% of land mass in India is covered with forests, as compared to 33% in the US, 30% over the world, 34% in Canada, and 22% in China.
There are causes of tremendous concern about overall forest cover too, as shown by this report in nature.com, which says that illegal deforestation are causing significant harm to Indian forests. The Hindu also noted in this report that India’s forest cover has declined since 2009. Deforestation in the Gangetic plane resulted in a loss of $2 Billion according to this report.
For further reading, have a look at this report from Forest Survey of India
I think the green cover is especially critical in city areas given the concentration of pollutants, and the concentration of population (Mumbai has 20000+ people living per square kilometer!). Maybe we should start from where we do have control: Our backyard, and then move up from there.
I think all residential societies must work together to provide as much greenery as possible. Otherwise the average life expectancy in our cities will continue to be low and maybe drop lower with new industrialization and growth happening…