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May 7, 2009 / zanzi

Day Four

Day Four, the 7th of May, saw the first of our field visits. The excursion was prefaced by a planning session the previous evening, subsequent to which we had our daily group session. That’s going to be documented by each of the groups as a concrete outcome of the summer school and will not be featured in this space. But our group dynamics and discussion do make for some interesting observations and it is tough resisting the urge to reflect on them here. However, as Dr Regine said, this is not a psychology seminar, so it must be so.

First up, we visited Sanjeevaiah Park, a hundred acre expanse surrounded on three sides by Hussain Sagar lake. A morning of ornithology and general observation of the park revealed botanical sections on succulents, spices, aquatic plants and general greenery – nothing too spectacular but a change from the established routine. The interesting aspect is that this is an attempt at beautification along the lake periphery as part of the restoration process. Under supervision by the Hyderabad Municipal Development Authority, it uses part of a 300 crore rupee easy loan from Japan, which also funds other linked operations. We visited one of these later, a sewage treatment plant with a 20 MLD capacity under the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority.

A brief visit to a 50 year old slum called Ambedkar Colony, populated by migrants turned residents, was undertaken as a study of work done over the past 15 years by the Association for Promoting Social Action. Their main work having been raising awareness in health and education, they claimed to also have been engaged in promoting livelihood generating activities, and helping institute a door-to-door solid waste management system. Their remarks on drastic improvements in water supply were undercut by the dwellers’ own complaints of erratic supply and frequent breakdowns. Electric provision, however, does seem to be regular.

It is worth putting down the impressions in some detail, since this is the story of many an Indian slum. This one seemed fairly well off, but there were disparities within the settlement; some houses had refrigerators and oil stoves, but matters deteriorated as we went further in. An open drain ran adjacent to houses, with a wall having been put up in between to prevent flooding, and claims were made of the Road Transport Corporation engaging in illicit dumping. The question of who contributes to what extent to sewage and monitoring problems came up in a different context while at the sewage treatment plant later. A particularly touching encounter was with a recent widow, whose alcoholic husband died of liver failure and who currently survives on 200 rupees monthly from the government as well as 500 from working at a small shop. Pretty much no one has government employment, though some of the younger generation have picked up work that uses machines.

The inevitable questions for an ethnographic researcher surface easily in this context, faced with a grown woman breaking into tears – the appeal of a presented reality versus the cold rationality of doubt and scepticism. Government officials call public hearings, but at venues that cater to their convenience rather than that of the dwellers. Not that there was a public hall-like space available anyway, but these details count. The NGO definitely did not seem to have connected at a deep empathic level with the community.

The Hussain Sagar lake is a 445 year old one, and was used as a drinking water source till 1932, since when the contamination has rendered it fit only for tourist outings on the waters. In 1956, Hyderabad became the state capital, and with consequent industrialization and settlement, the lake became a dead one by 1990, its hydrology ruined. The approach adopted was to stop entry of sewage, beautify the periphery and flush it with cleaner water. Towards this last, pollution abatement has been on since 1997, using a currently operating 20 MLD sewage treatment plant that purifies and oxidizes it to domestic use levels, then pumps it back into the lake, treating the sewage with microbes, composting or dewatering till it is cake-like and then using it in value-added products like fertilizers. A second facility is in the piping, 10 MLD in size and delivering drinking quality water fit for industrial use, using a Membrane Bioreactor. The whole process is aerobic and energy intensive. Expenses amount to 6 lakh a month in electricity bills, compared to 2 lakh in maintenance costs.

But the real can of worms was indicated by the stray comment an official made at the facility. This concerns the externalization of water purification and provision costs to the government, with industry getting preferential access over suffering communities. While consumer responsibility needs to be emphasized, illegal industrial effluent dumping constitutes a considerably higher portion of total pollutants in the sewage. The official presented the idea of a new 10 MLD facility providing water at high rates to industry (rates still lower than what they currently pay) as a way of recovering costs to repay the Japanese loan for even the current 20 MLD plant that provides water a grade lower in quality. This ignores the capital investment, which will be huge, and directed primarily towards the benefit of industry. Does people’s suffering not need prioritization in government spending? The counter-argument perceives this as an elegant business solution and a best practice in public-private partnership. So much for political economy. But phrases like “sociologically a change has to come”, “onus of responsibility lies on government” and “individual responsibility” being thrust forward as an argument were simply amusing.

We managed to get back after lunch, substituting soft beds for lush grass and air-conditioning for bright sunlight. After some rest and tea (which is now homemade), the Indian Youth Climate Network was presented. This covered an introduction to the organization, its structural breakup and functioning, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Conference of Parties 15 coming up this December, as well as a summing up of major activities such as the Indian Youth Summit on Climate Change 2008, the Agents of Change program, the Climate Solutions Road Tour, the Rural Energy Project, Campus Climate Challengers and Climate leadership trainings. Some discussion on innovative environmental solutions followed, prior to moving into preparation mode for the upcoming excursion to Tarnaka tomorrow.

We will be visiting the Tarnaka residents’ welfare association, a best practice in local self-governance, the police station there to study the linkages between community and municipal authorities, as well as an old age home and a women-in-danger shelter. Subsequent to this, each group went into its internal discussions, and there seems to be a general sense of arriving at the beginnings of some structure. The broad approach within urban sustainability is to develop a report divided into four sections – explaining the overall context, developing an operating framework, delivering empirical analysis informed by theoretical inputs, and proposing a workable future model. To put in place functional restrictions to the topics considered under such a broad theme remains to be done. But it’s more than a start this first week.

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