Bridging the Dichotomy: Exploring Linkages between Urban Environmental Challenges and Local Development Practices in the Neighbourhoods of Kolkata, India
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The dogma of ‘sustainability’ in the context of urban development is, theoretically, well established through finding balanced planning strategies between the three critical pillars of ‘economy’, ‘society’ and ‘environment’. Over time, diverse literature on liberalisation of economy and empowerment of society has led to various paradigmatic approaches, all essentially agreeing on a course that should allow the market to correct and clean, within a decentralised societal framework where local urban bodies become the most decisive. Incidentally, the notion of ‘urban environment’ and the manner in which it needs to be tackled remains relatively obscure and formative. In matters of urban environment, the reliance is rhetorically observed to be on instrumental rationality. Subsequently, technical innovation and urban environmental management often emerges as the core strategies for practise. However, the large cities of the developing world continue to have pockets of environmental concerns, health hazards, and deplorable living conditions despite having ‘a liberally enabled economic growth’, ‘instrumental environmental management practices’, and a ‘decentralised planning milieu’. Moreover, these pockets of deplorable living conditions and their habitants continue to remain out of focus. For example, the city of Kolkata faces urban floods every monsoon in different parts of the city. While most of the privileged citizens remain unaffected, such floods impinge on the livelihoods of thousands of marginalised communities living in slums or the low lying areas. Many cases of illness and death occur, the magnitude of which remains unrecorded and unknown. Certain fundamental questions emerge in such a backdrop. Should we continue to consider such floods as natural phenomena? Should we keep assuming that engineering blueprints would react to the natural hazards? Should we assume that the markets will correct the developmental deficiencies? Also, should we abstain from acting and assume that the heterogeneous local actors shall act freely and in communal tandem to indigenously evolve long term coping methods? In contemporary time, development practice is intrinsically guided by the contextual urban planning milieu. Globally, most urban planning techniques at the municipal level and below approach issues of urban environment from the perspective of certain dominant paradigms. Such paradigms are based on two primary theoretical frameworks - ecological modernisation and new public management (NPM). The thesis showcases that the urban environmental reality in the context of developing countries and at a local scale necessitates revisiting these dominant theoretical frameworks. Ecological modernisation, which relies on technocentricism and instrumental rationality, calls for industrial innovation to solve environmental problems. NPM argues for a decentralised and collaborative power structure, and an enhanced role for all the grassroots stakeholders in the development process. It holds that economic growth takes care of livelihood issues, and therefore the environment. This thesis showcases evidence that cities can continue to have declining environmental conditions despite embarking upon practices that adhere to these two theoretical frameworks. In this backdrop, this thesis sets its aim and purpose. It assumes that understanding the linkages between local development patterns and local environmental challenges in the context of a developing country can throw critical light on the core anomalies between the theoretical suppositions in planning and the reality. Hence, it sets three purposes of the research (as research questions) -- to understand the process of local urban change and its implications on environmental conditions; to understand the formal planning and development practices and their responses to the environmental challenges; and, to understand the role of participation among local stakeholders in addressing core local issues. It takes up the case of Kolkata and chooses two residential neighbourhoods for the detailed analysis of development pattern and the environmental challenge of local flooding, over a period 25 years. To put forth the core arguments, the thesis is structured in four sections and nine chapters. The first section sets the research agenda over the two chapters. The first chapter (Introduction: Setting the Stage) discusses the two main rationales behind doing this research – the thematic and the contextual rationale – thereby establishing the overall relevance and validity of the research. Chapter 1 establishes the three main research questions, the scope, and the overall perspective of the research. Chapter 2 (Research Method) develops and presents the research design. The case study method is argued to be aptly suited to the purpose of the study. This chapter also details the selection of the two case neighbourhoods in Kolkata for detailed analysis. The second section is about reviewing theory and comprises of one chapter. Chapter 3 (Theoretical Frameworks) embarks on discussing four bodies of theory relevant to environmental planning. Firstly, it discusses the evolution of environmentalism globally as well as in India. This leads to discussing ‘ecological modernisation’ as a core theoretical framework in environmental planning that encompasses most other contemporary techniques and approaches. Secondly, it discusses the concepts of neoliberal planning, new public management (NPM), and communicative planning as the contemporary dominant urban planning paradigm that claim to address environmental issues. Thirdly, the chapter discusses ‘sustainability’ and establishes the strong linkages of the earlier two bodies of discussion with it. Fourthly, the chapter embarks on the concepts of ‘livelihoods’ and ‘coherence critique’ in order to understand the dimension of relating people’s activities and shortcomings to environmental conditions. The third section of the thesis elaborately puts forth two cases and the evidence. The section is divided into four chapters (4, 5, 6 and 7). Chapter 4 (Introducing Kolkata) briefly acquaints the reader with the overall context of Kolkata in an historical perspective. Chapter 5 (Case Study Neighbourhood - Kustia) and Chapter 6 (Case Study Neighbourhood - Kustia) put forth the evidence from the field surveys and form the primary spine of data for the research. Both the case neighbourhoods are presented in terms of – a) the physical transformation over the period 1981-2008; b) local stakeholders’ changing profile and activities; and c) the rising environmental impacts (particularly that of local urban water-logging). The discussions in these chapters interlay qualitative research findings from the interviews of the six main local stakeholder categories in each neighbourhood, with quantitative findings from a GIS based map analysis. Primary data from staying in the locality, on-site reconnaissance mapping, semi-structured interviews, narratives, and direct observation was triangulated with secondary source data, satellite imageries, published maps, and documents. Map based analysis were mainly on temporal changes in land use, urban growth pattern, building density distribution, location of commercial and industrial units, etc. Parallel socioeconomic analysis from the interviews brought out livelihood issues of security of jobs and shelter, asset profiles, levels of participation, awareness, and prioritisation of issues. Chapter 7 (Institutional Arrangements) discusses the case neighbourhoods in the larger context of the city and relates the institutional framework present in the regional level with that of the local (ward) level. The fourth section, over the last two chapters of the thesis (8 and 9), derives the main inferences of the research and suggests recommendations. Chapter 7 (Consolidating Findings) brings together the raw evidence from Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 into synthesised bodies of analysis. These are presented in three factions. Firstly, the chapter demonstrates ‘stakeholder analysis’, where the differences in capabilities, capital profiles and livelihoods based activities within the different local stakeholders bring out unique conditions of heterogeneity, insecurity, power dynamics, and conflicts of prioritisation - each discussed separately. The second faction discusses the neighbourhood transformation pattern analysis of each case leading to two transformation typologies. These two typologies suggest a unique mode of development, which is a reversal of the orthodox and commonly presumed format of development. The third faction takes up the issue of water-logging. Calculations of increased surface run-off and decreased ground water recharge are collated with the changing land use pattern. The onset of water-logging is analysed causally both in the instrumental and an inclusionary manner. Finally, this section also portrays the difference of perceptions and coping methods within the different stakeholders regarding the phenomenon of flooding. The final Chapter 9 (Conclusions and Recommendations) attempts to critically reflect on the three research questions raised in the thesis. Firstly, it enlists and explains the four main local determining factors behind local urban change having implications on deteriorating urban environmental conditions. It considers ‘unaided livelihoods activities’ as one of the primary factors of adverse change, the others being ‘fragmentations akin to tragedy of commons’, ‘deficiency factors of inaction and relaxation’, and ‘overlap and condoning tendencies’. Secondly, the chapter demonstrates that ecological modernisation as an technocentric environmental planning approach has failed to address the local environmental issues, owing to certain identified system deficiencies. The environmental planning remedies are observed to be largely reactive, instrumental, and engineering in its nature, where a dominance of logic and objectivity reduces the scope of diversity, tradition, uncertainty, and subjectivity commonly found at a local level. Evidence showcase that a much larger number of development factors are at play in the aspect of water-logging than merely the deficiency of drains. A concept of ecological diversification is proposed and elaborated. Thirdly, the chapter argues that there are serious limitations of any liberal planning approach that bases itself on assumptions of discourse based consensus, in addressing ‘Brown Agenda’ environmental concerns at the local scale. Findings showcase that the local stakeholders in the Southern cities have livelihoods, awareness levels, priorities, and power dynamics that directly affect their levels of participation and role in decision-making. The assumption that the local stakeholders are adequately equipped, aware and informed to prioritise environmental issues and arrive at consensus of communal environmental values can be debated. A concept of disjointed representative communication strategy is suggested. The paper culminates with the recommendation of a planning process model, called PRETAB planning and a 7-point task for immediate actions. Planning based on a local information infrastructure (LII) that attends to the two main theoretical suggestions and attempts to be inclusionary and adaptive is proposed within the PRETAB planning framework. The rationale recommended is not only aligned to the urban sustainability discourse but also capable of approaching habitats and environment in a more humane and proactive manner at the local level.
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