Monday, August 17, 2009

Booming Bangalore’s environment needs urgent attention

Booming Bangalore’s environment needs urgent attention
R Srinivas


The draft Bangalore Region Governance Bill, 2009, aims to consolidate and amend laws relating to establishing a municipal corporation for Bangalore and other civic bodies of the Greater Bangalore region. Some of the changes introduced in the draft Bill are a directly elected mayor, the creation of neighbourhood area committees, and greater citizen involvement in the development and implementation of programmes. While the focus of the new Act has been on amending BBMP power structures, not much attention has been paid to the functional aspects of municipal administration.
One of the functional areas that needs to be addressed for a fast-growing city like Bangalore is environment. No longer can the term environment be synonymous with tree-planting and creation and maintenance of parks. Urban environment has a wider connotation and encompasses issues such as air, water and noise pollution, preservation of lakes and water bodies, integrated waste management and eco-friendly construction. Global environmental issues such as climate change and ozone depletion are also closely linked to the protection of the urban environment. The high concentration of people makes cities major contributors to local, regional and global environmental change.
The European Commission is facilitating the local Agenda 21 process by assisting local authorities in developing policy tools and instruments and by creating awareness. The commission launched the Sustainable Cities project in 1993, as a follow-up to the discussion that flowed from the 1990 green paper on urban environment. The charter calls for increased inter-local authority cooperation and commits its signatories to drawing up long-term action plans for sustainable development, with those involved at the local level.
In India, protecting the urban environment has not been a priority with the local authorities. The draft Bill has proposed eight standing committees, but there is no exclusive committee for environment protection. The functions of ward committees related to environment are restricted to assisting the corporation in solid waste management in the ward, supervision of sanitation work and maintenance of parks. Burning issues such as air, water and noise pollution and promoting eco-friendly constructions have not been addressed. Solving urban environmental problems requires strengthening inter-sectoral development between local and state agencies, particularly the municipal administration and State Pollution Control Board. One of the main reasons why the city corporation has neglected environmental problems is the overlapping role of the State Pollution Control Board. With a plethora of laws enacted in the past decade or more to protect our environment, the SPCBs have become very powerful and also overburdened. Their attention has been mostly on regulating industrial pollution and projects with huge capital investments. They have neglected urban environmental problems.
Some of the complex environmental problems a city faces are proper waste management, streamlining the use of potable and non-potable water, reducing per capita energy consumption, assessing the environmental impact of highrise buildings and identifying inter-relationships between environment and poverty.
To resolve these problems, the municipal corporation must coordinate with the SPCB, urban development ministry, health ministry, etc.
The S M Krishna government had set up the Bangalore Agenda Task Force to address issues related to Bangalore through public-private partnership. The BATF concentrated on infrastructure development, but hardly took cognizance of environmental problems. The present government has also set up a similar task force called ABIDe, which plans to bring out sectoral plans for improving Bangalore, including one on environment. Such bodies serve a limited purpose of bringing together different urban development agencies and providing an integrated plan, but lack the teeth to ensure effective coordination.
Citizens, too, have an important role to play in ensuring a better environment for themselves. This is where the new Act has something positive to offer. The proposed neigbourhood area committee could be a powerful citizen group which can exert influence on the ward committee as well as municipal authorities. For the first time, a citizen committee will not merely be a recommendatory body but one which is vested with a regulatory responsibility of giving a no-objection certificate before any activity is undertaken by the municipal corporation.
A neigbourhood area committee can be an effective body to address environment problems at the local level. One of the serious challenges for NACs is to control adverse environmental impact of commercial buildings and establishments in residential areas. In the past 15 years, Bangalore’s residential localities have become hotbeds of business activities. From restaurants and coffee shops to showrooms and office buildings, these establishments can have grave environmental consequences, if they are allowed to mushroom.
Delhi is a good example of how commercial activities are separated from residential areas. The Supreme Court had taken a serious view of the transformation of residential areas for commercial activities and directed the municipal corporation of Delhi to take stringent action. The initiative came from resident welfare associations in Delhi, who approached the Delhi High Court. Bangalore could well learn from the Delhi experience.
(The writer is project coodinator, Ozone cell, ministry of environment and forests)

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