Bharati Chaturvedi was born and brought up in Delhi and says she couldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Ten years ago she set up Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, an NGO that, in her words, “works to reduce ecological footprint and expand environmental justice”. As she puts it, the poor shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the consumption by the rich. In the course of their work, the people at Chintan realized that kabariwallas (or waste recyclers) were among the most marginalized as well as the most useful of Delhi’s citizens—as a result, they have become part of Chintan’s flagship efforts.
Chaturvedi has edited Finding Delhi, a collection of very readable essays—by experts, as well as by some of the marginalized and underprivileged citizens of Delhi—on how to make the city more green and equitable. These also shed light on how these two concerns are intertwined. “The book is for ‘people like us’ who are interested in having a larger conversation,” says Chaturvedi. “But who are usually not too curious and interested (in these issues).” Edited excerpts from an interview:
What is ‘Finding Delhi’ addressing?
The big challenge that we are posing to ourselves as a city—how do you become a city that is minimally wealthy (i.e., everyone here has a certain minimum basic standard of living), safe and green for everyone. Where even the least earning person has a basic standard of living and feels a sense of participation in the city. How do you make the city about the people? There are lots of opportunities in Delhi; instead of making it one kind of “world-class” city, let’s make it another kind of world-class city—one where people have proper housing, sewage facilities, clean drinking water, green spaces, and their children can go to a good school.
These aren’t the things that occur to you at first when you think ‘world class city’.
To constantly work to reduce your carbon footprint like, say, the New York metropolitan transit authority does—that is a world-class attribute. And the fact that the daily wager doesn’t have to trudge home 40km after work. Being world class is about citizenship and deepened democracy. By 2026, a generation from now, over half of India’s population will be living in urban areas.
What new solutions or insights did you and the writers gain in the course of writing this book?
I could point to three things. First, the idea that you should reduce your carbon footprint not because you want to be “green” and improve your karma, but to be more equitable a s a society. Second, the need to acknowledge and belong to the city. In course of talking with everyone for the book, we sensed a very strong undercurrent of this desire to belong. Inclusion and acknowledgement (of the citizenry) will change the character of the city fundamentally. Third, the fact that there are many possibilities of collaboration between the haves and have-nots, and not one of just (the have-nots) weeping and (the haves) ignoring them. There can be collaboration and support that is not antagonistic.
What is the attitude of the underprivileged towards the city?
They see themselves as entirely urban citizens. They retain their link with their village but their lives are propelled along because of the city. They often say how much they enjoy the raunak (the aura and glitter) of the city lights. They enjoy the urban texture. They face hardships but seek constructive solutions to those hardships. The dhobis (washermen) of Delhi took on the government and got their dhobi ghat.