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Urban Water, Food and Waste Cycling, and Socio-economic Equity



We are living in a state where the most basic needs like food and water are not assured to the people residing in the urban areas, while these urban areas account for the biggest source of food and water wastage at the same time. Socio-economic inequality in society which is pervasive in urban societies is one of the main reasons for this. To highlight more on this critical issue, the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, organized a #WebPolicyTalk, The State of Cities – #CityConversations on “Urban Water, Food and Waste Cycling, and Socio-economic Equity.”

Urban Water, Food and Waste Cycling, and Socio-economic Equity


The esteemed speaker for the session was Ms. Suhasini Ayer, Architect and Urban Planner; Co-founder of the Auroville Centre for Scientific Research (CSR) Trust; Head the Auroville Design Consultants.  


The chair for the session was Dr. Shyamala Mani, Professor (Retd.) National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), New Delhi, Senior Advisor, Centre for Environmental Health, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Gurugram. She spoke about the major difficulties with food and water accessibility in urban areas and how water is exploited and polluted by some communities in the urban areas themselves. After which, she enlisted the problems of waste management and the key issues with them. Further, she also brought the recent problems in the field of waste management like proper management of plastic and electronic devices.

A Case Study

Ms. Suhasini Ayer started the talk with a case study of Chennai to discuss the issue of water, food, and waste recycling, which acted as a source for her talk on the paradox called urban India. She discussed the water and sewage situation in the city of Chennai. She mentioned that the projected sewage in the city is in deficit and the ability of the sewage treatment facility is abysmal compared to the level of waste. The remarkable growth in the population in the city between 1997-2006 is one of the reasons for it. Since the sewage capacity is the same as it was in 1997, it largely affects the city by degrading the water bodies in the city. This has affected the marshlands and the forest near the city.

She also reviewed the policy decisions taken by the government of Tamil Nadu and highlighted the project “sponge park” in Chennai. She then directed attention towards the issue associated with the degradation of water resources near the city because they are treated as dump lands. This had led to degradation of health and quality of life. Keeping the deprived section of society in mind, the main stakeholders have affected them more than anyone. Their way of living has been deeply affected by it.

Further, the growing city with a huge labor population sees that there are no new formal established slums in Chennai. The transformation of Chennai’s area where the marshlands and the greens are occupied and changed into either residential or commercial use has distorted the whole water cycle of the city.

She then reviewed the various projects concerning urban infrastructure and governance for water infrastructure in Chennai in the past 25 years. She noticed that 40% went for stormwater management projects, which also included rainwater management leads to the mixing of sewage and drainage water, wasting the massive amounts of decent quality rainwater and releasing all of it in the water bodies, which pollutes it. Other projects do not have a proper implementation system, leaving some of the critical issues behind. Then, she highlighted the agencies which manage these issues in Chennai, primarily Chennai Corporation, TWAD and CMWSSB

Food and Waste Management in Chennai

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First, she enlightened us about the distribution of the sources of food for the city Chennai. It comes from various nearby cities like Hyderabad, Bengaluru, and Coimbatore. The food is being distributed in Chennai via various wholesale markets and private holders. One of the largest food wholesale markets near Chennai, in Coimbatore, is one of the major hubs for food waste. This food waste is not only impacting the shortage of food, but also the nutritional cycle of the people in the city.  

In the terms of waste production, Chennai accounts for one of the highest in the nation. Its waste management budget is continually increasing but is it managed properly? No, it is not, it is dumped in various fields like Perungudi and Kondungaiyur. The city of Chennai has no issues in existing groups and policy formulation agencies, they all have recognized these issues of waste and food management, they have even looked for the policy outlook for the same.

Then where is the issue? It is believed that there is a lack of cooperation between different agencies and stakeholders like citizens. Initiatives are far less on several issues which need immediate attention. The project Singra Chennai brings hope to develop a good civic infrastructure in the city of Chennai, which would be centered towards preventing floods.

Approach towards Development

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Dr. Fawzia TarannumAssistant Professor, Department of Regional Water Studies, TERI School of Advanced Studies (TERI SAS), New Delhi, brought the importance of the citizens’ active role in the development actives. The lack of accountability and awareness is one of the central issues. She then highlighted the importance of the city dwellers and how they face the most issues in a city. She enlighted basic problems in civic and water infrastructure, which she has dealt with as a researcher in various projects. She seemly appreciated the concentration of problems brought by the speaker. She suggested for an integrated approach to be taken for any kind of development.  

Ms. Suhasini Ayer brought the problem from the Indian administrators’ perspective, and how it affects the lives of the people Some of the key issues like climate change among many problems are ignored during the implementation. Rather, the method of solving a problem is to streamline. The same approach often fails, a different approach should be taken which is more compared to the issue. 

Question and Answer

The first question posed was “will the third world war be because of water?”. It is not improbable if the climate change problems escalate like in the current status quo, but politically speaking if water won’t be a single issue, it would be watered with many. Rather than for a bigger change, we should treat that we are in the war with climate change. Rather, she asked a question from the attendees “where do you think people indulged in making the problem statement, and how the local can help identify the problem. She also talked about her experience and her readings about the projects in Chennai.

Answering the question on Jal Jevan, she highlighted the issues like the lack of information and research on the cruces of the problems,  a different approach is needed. Answering the question on the expansion of cities and inclusion of various areas and marshlands in the cities, she said that this would disconnect the city, make the issues larger. She then talked about city planning, which is not only about design, but a comprehensive subject, being inclusive of the subject’s economics, sociology, and politics. 


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The chair, Dr. Shyamala Mani proposed her views on the talk. She reviewed the water harvesting and salination activates in Chennai, the unplanned development of which has led to the inaccessibility of public transport in the city, which used to be great.  The vegetation of the city has been reduced dramatically and increased air pollution.

She also talked about what could be the result of the lack of planning like the flood of 2015 in Chennai, while the policymakers do not consider the upcoming issues in planning their policies. She explicitly says that the root cause of these issues in the lack of development despite projects is corruption, which is the biggest issue in the public policy domain.

Additionally, she also presented a critique of various arguments: about the position of the middle class in the maintenance in the city,  the responsibility in maintaining water resources, and how should they accommodate themselves. Showing her concern about the situation in various cities and the inadequate consideration of issues, the talk was concluded with a general vote of thanks. 

Acknowledgment: Ayush Aggarwal is a Research Intern at IMPRI

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