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Addressing Eco-Disparity in India

By Amar Sawhney and Jessica R. Barnes

Visitors to Humayun's Tomb relax amid the 30-acre Charbagh, Persian-Mughal style garden, and enjoy this beautiful green space in the megacity of Delhi, India. Photo by Jessica R. Barnes.

Amar Sawhney, Professor of Architecture, Building Construction and Interior Design at Miami-Dade College, and Jessica Barnes, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation at Northern Arizona University, were participants in the 2019-2020 CAORC-AIIS Faculty Development Seminar to India. In this joint essay, they highlight the importance of ensuring adequate green space in India’s largest and most developed cities, especially for those most in need.

Access to green space improves health, can reduce exposure to pollution, and increases physical activity. With rapid urbanization increasing the global population and intensifying land use in cities around the world, green space is often lost. In New Delhi, a sprawling mega city of 20 million people in northern India, existing green spaces stand out like oases amid the noise of traffic and the stifling air pollution.

A beautiful example is Humayun’s Tomb at the center of the 30-acre Chahar Bagh, a Persian-Mughal style garden complex. The Charbagh was brought to India by the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur. The enclosed garden is laid out with perfect symmetry. Four quarters, based on the four gardens of Paradise described in the Qur’an, are divided by walkways and channels with flowing water. Flowers such as narcissus and roses grow along the borders.

This display at the Sunder Nursery shows the layout of the gardens at Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage Site in New Delhi. Photo by Jessica R. Barnes.

The World Health Organization prescribes 9 square meters of green space per person for cities and suggests all residents live within a 15-minute walk of an open space. Through its City Liveability Index, the Indian Urban Development Ministry proposes 10 square meters of open space per person, such as forest-covered areas and planned green or recreational spaces, like botanical gardens and neighborhood parks. New Delhi ranks fairly high for per capita open space, with about 22 square meters per person. Access to these spaces varies dramatically across the city, however. A report by TERI university found that in the northeast and eastern districts of the city, per capita access to green space shrinks to about 3 square meters. Eco-disparity is particularly acute in informal urban settlements (or slums), which house about one-third of Delhi’s residents. These communities develop in areas where land is unutilized, such as along river banks and rail lines and are characterized by lack of rights to land, limited access to clean water, and poor sanitation. The houses are often densely packed in ways that can reduce sunlight and air flow, with little space or resources available for developing common green spaces so vital to health.

This eco-disparity should be addressed as the Indian government rolls out its new program, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY), Housing for All, which offers housing for the poor through redevelopment of informal settlements. Including public gardens in community planning is essential to offer equal access to the psychological and health benefits of green space. There is also potential to use community gardens to produce food for consumption or to sell for additional income. These gardens could be cooperatively managed by community organizations and may offer livelihood opportunities to community residents. Becoming stakeholders in these spaces may increase awareness of environmental issues and participation in social security and safety schemes promoted by the government. With the WHO and Urban Development Index guidelines in mind, flats developed for urban, high-density housing should include ample green space that could include gardens for both recreation and functional use. Access to green space should not be a luxury available only to the wealthy, but should be understood as a right and a key component of sustainable communities.


CAORC’s 2019-2020 faculty development seminar to India was organized with the American Institute of Indian Studies and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in South Asian Studies: Columbia University, Cornell University, Syracuse University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


About the Authors

Amar Sawhney (left) is Professor of Architecture, Building Construction and Interior Design at Miami-Dade College. Jessica Barnes (right) is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation at Northern Arizona University. The two were among 16 faculty participants in the seminar “Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities,” and intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held in India from December 26, 2019–January 10, 2020.


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