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City Conscious

By Nidhi Batra – Sehreeti

How many of us do really think of cities – as if it is of our own, as if it is something that we shape and how it really shapes us. Coming from the field of ‘urban’, it comes easy for me to root myself back into cities with every ‘occurrence’. However, most of the ‘citizens’ are not trained to have an eye to view cities. Just like beauty may lay in the eyes of the beholder, cities and their role also lies in the acts of its citizens. Many developmental schemes across the world – be it in situations of urban sanitation, health, education or environment keep talking about ‘behavioral change’ to address many latent issues in this part of the world which seem stuck even when large impetus of funding year after year are directed towards them. Toilets keep getting build – yet people don’t use them. The aid agencies then blame the ‘behavior’ of open defecation – as if it is something that is culturally rooted in the developing nations. People have no civic sense; they are too used to taking their lotta every morning and going for a stroll, and doing their job! People coming from rural context, have no understanding of sanitation! I really wonder if all of that is true.

Recently I was part of a closed discussion on a research under the PUSH project of USAID with CURE and Finalmile. They had an interesting approach to understand the ‘defecation’ issues in respect to public community toilets. They mapped ‘emotions’ of people while using public toilets and pointed out how various aspects of safety, security, cleanliness, time etc play a very pivotal role in pushing people back to open defecation rather than utilizing public toilets. Design and management of these utilities emerged an issue in itself. What that pointed was that it wasn’t the ‘behavior of people that was the issue, rather the behavior of the planner and management’ which was an issue. Programs of behavioral change never work. They assume that ‘people do not know’ and need to be ‘educated’. Instead probably it is time the planners and governing bodies need to educate towards the needs and desires of the community. People knowingly or unknowingly behave the way they do in cities – and it is not just their past ‘rural’ background that should be blamed.

I also had an opportunity to give a lecture in Delhi University to students of ‘non-urban’ background on cities and environment . Before the lecture I was wondering how do you start talking about cities to people who are not from this field or who have not directly ever engaged with the cities. However, to my pleasant surprise – all it took was driving the discussion from the experiences each one of  them had in their own small towns and the metropolitan city of Delhi. Knowingly or unknowingly they were participating in the process of ‘city making’. They just never sat down to ‘think about it’. The lecture was to orient them to environmental issues in the city. And it was a success – atleast for me and hoping for them. They were amazed at certain aspects such as the ‘concept of grey water’ and they were in resonance to other aspects ‘ such as making buildings that are in sync with climate’. Depending on the location where they came from they were able to site examples how their own home may have large windows to allow air – or how their houses are packed together if coming from an arid climate. Some aspects finally made sense to them –such as disasters of Chennai flooding is as man-induced as natural. On issues of ‘ganda nala’ of the city – and how it is not really ‘ganda’- atleast wasn’t supposed to be. They were excited to see examples of cities which have successfully reviatlised their dying rivers and wanted the same for our own Yamuna. At the end – they had many many questions – which is the best that you can expect! The seed of urban thinking was planted!!

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Environmental education is becoming a subject that is slowly being offered in colleges and is even infiltrating school education. Various schools are taking initiative to encourage students to know about various natural disasters that could occur in their own area or how they really could do rain water harvesting. This is a great start. However, learning from my experience in various participatory planning exercises and the zest of students from non-urban fields, I do feel that ‘Cites’ need to be introduced to all – from early on. Cities are part of the everyday experience and it should not be left to the ‘trained’ to enjoy, question and ideate on its making. Students from across various fields – will be in the positions of making decision on cities later in life- being part of the governance, bureaucracy or citizenry. They need to know and appreciate the cities. They need to know how to express their concerns and they need to know how to participate in cities.

In our traditional settlements, there existed a lineage of oral history, customs and practices that revolved around the settlement. A tribe in Chhattisgarh never makes permanent houses- jst rounds up some twigs makes a hut for the night and move on – because they respect the ‘forest’ as a resource, and sacred. Sustainable living therefore to them is not a grand new idea – instead is part of their everyday. Various settlements of Delhi were build around practices of rain water harvesting – be it step wells of tanks. Most traditional settlements had ‘pit toilets’ in their homes or at community level to dispose sewage. They never disposed it in the river.  These traditional settlements, some might say were not ‘urban’. However it is only in this modern process of urbanization, that we may have lost our urban civic sense – and now demands a behavioral change from the people.

Cities are our collective lived experience. We should permit all to engage in it. We need to value people and their behavior. We need to root our cities back into the resource of commons. We need to celebrate that each one of us is shaped by the city and each one of us shapes it.

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