Future Cities

Changing Cities

Driving around the city with my dad is like going back in time. Mumbai back then wasn’t like this, he’ll say and then I know what’s coming next……

How trains only went up to Andheri and they had to walk to their Kandivili office, through thick forest cover, no less…..

Or, how the building that now joins our house, was once a jungle where they would go once a week to have a family picnic and chase wild snakes….

Would you believe it?!…. Juhu beach was in the backyard and the sea lapped against the garden gate…. now it’s an hour’s walk to even reach the waterfront….. land reclamation continues on….

Seems unbelievable nah? But when my grandmother starts sharing stories of her time…. it seems like another planet altogether.

How their horse carriage met with an accident on Christmas eve (horses?)

And, how steam engine trains rolled into Victoria Terminus station (now CST) all shiny and black! (chew-chew-chew on it)

And, it leaves me wondering…. wondering …. chewing…..worrying…. what stories will I have to share with coming generations?

What after thirty odd years will be obsolete, old news, …. ancient ….. but yet interesting!?

My beloved Mumbai, is changing its persona daily, blending the old and new, fusing traditional with modern… and becoming more and more unrecognizable. Bandra sprouts a new restaurant every weekend, it seems!

So, where is this city heading, I wonder? What will the face of Mumbai be like, for the next generation?

Times of India, is running a series of articles every Sunday on the need for creating new future cities, given the growth rate of current ones. Read about how – we need 300 to 400 new cities – in the near future to meet population demands.

And what about current ones? Well, they’re not going to get any better if we only complain…. according to this Future cities article ” as citizens’ groups and infrastructure experts debate any city’s upcoming development plan with municipal authorities, they argue that a long-term proposal for a city can hardly succeed unless it involves local participation at each level. In other words, it’s the people whose active participation defines the pulse of a city, not just urban planners and government bodies.”

Interested, in getting involved in this debate? Read more Vibrant metropolis needs citizens’ help

So, I’m starting to feel… that the stories I tell, when I’m old and grey … may just be the fruit of some action taken in the present moment.


em Mumbai city blues!

It is precisely in moments like this, right here in the midst of my daily commute, two hours of a backbreaking, toxic inhaling, brain numbing, half-deafening bus ride home– right here and now –  sigh! – that I start to wonder about life’s purpose.

I mean – not to get all spiritual – but is this really what I came to the planet for? To spend four hours of every beautiful day in a jam packed, groaning bus, shoving its way through miles and miles of traffic inch by inch.

Is this how life was meant to be lived? Is this it?

In the midst of such earnest contemplation, I’m distracted by the guy in the seat ahead of me chewing on his tobacco and spitting out chucks of red slob at the window grills, splattering oblivious passerby’s with the remnants of his hourly chew. Arrggghh! I scream in my head – if one of those chucks even remotely lands on my arm or sleeve – I’m going to…….. to…. and here I go, imagining a whole range of vengeful acts that I will commit on this tobacco chewing chap.

Enjoying this fantasy thoroughly, I’m yet again distracted –  this time it’s the bus driver, who’s attempting to set a record for multitasking by screaming his head off at a rickshaw driver, while standing upright in his seat with his torso handing out the window, gesturing wilding at the conductor to ***the rickshawala and all the while changing gears, lanes and overtaking a lorry.

How is this possible, you might ask? But then again, if you’re a Mumbai-ker, you know what I mean. It’s pure madness out here, every driver for himself!

Again, the question arises – and now I’m asking everyone on the bus this (In my head of course) – “Is this what we came to planet earth for people? Is this it”?

I mean, seriously, it’s a Saturday night, Wohoo! The weekend’s here! Most of which, I’m spending on this freaking bus!

There’s a young college looking guy in the seat at the side of mine. I’m asking him the same question – sending it telepathically, that is – “dude! Is this all life’s cracked up to be? His tired face says it all!

No way! No way! Hell no!

The woman who’s doing a balancing act at the front end of the bus with two kids and luggage – she seconds us on this one. I bet half the people on the bus would agree with me. If we took a poll right now, they’d be saying “No way! Four hours a day spent simply on commuting? That’s criminal.”

“How about speeding this traffic up? How about a nice shinny bus with no paan stains? How about a scenic drive with lots of trees and tweeting birds? How about a view of the sunset, please? How about some clean fresh air to breathe (make that a double)? And for a change, how about a five minute daily commute?

How about an alternative to this bursting, exhausted, mind-numbing, maddening city?

How about it? …..


Lessons from an earthworm

Sipping on my tea this morning, I spotted a slippery, skinny earthworm making its way in an out of the mud-bank of a flower pot. It got me thinking. Thinking about how my money plant and the earthworm are sharing this tiny space in total harmony – each helping the other. The earthworm aerates the soil simply through its morning stroll around the pot, effortlessly. The plant provides soil nutrients simply by putting back what it doesn’t require, again an effortless endeavour.

The outcome?  Harmony!

What about us humans? We spend a lifetime debating climate protocols, formulating mutually agreeable treaties, painstakingly carving boundary lines and bringing these invisible barriers to life with armed reinforcements. Could we take notes from Mother Nature? Could we learn a thing or two from a tiny earthworm?

Bio-mimicry is a relatively new environmental science field that encourages us to do just that. Learn from nature. The base philosophy behind bio-mimicry is the acknowledgement that we, humans, are surrounded by genius, that has existed much before us and therefore we must take advice from earth’s many creatures. Janine Benyus, an expert in the field, urges that if we are to live gracefully on the planet (and by no stretch of the imagination are we anywhere close to living gracefully) – then we must learn from these ‘elders’ (by this she means nature’s creatures) that have been here much longer than we have. In her own words, “we aren’t the first creatures on the planet to build something, to water proof, to insulate, heat/cool, a structure, build houses for our young – and people are finally beginning to remember this”.

Bio-mimics are therefore nature’s apprentices who look at how it functions and when stuck with a problem, always ask themselves – how does nature solve this? Examples of this process blew me away – here are a few for you to chew on:

  • JR West’s bullet train took lessons from a humming bird and designed the front of their trains like the bird’s beak. This reduced the pressure wave created whenever the train entered two different mediums (example; a tunnel) and the resultant sonic boom – thus rendering it soundless and faster.
  • Sharklet developed hospital building structures on the same pattern as Galapagos sharks have on their backs. This, in the case of both the sharks and the buildings, prevents bacteria from landing and thus prevents the spread of diseases within a hospital setting.
  • Cement building companies are learning from our Coral friends how to build cement from CO2 and use it as a building block instead of emitting it as waste product.
  • Infrastructural companies like HOK are looking to build cities like ecosystems and make them as efficient as the traditional eco-systems they replaced. This has resulted in the creation of ecological performance standards for cities.Lavasa is the first such city in India that is being built in accordance with these ecological performance standards

If this peaked your interest, I urge you to check out more examples of bio-mimicry on www.asknature.org. I for one, hope that this eventually leads us to develop new ideas on how to live more gracefully on this planet “that is our but not ours alone”.




Development Mantras

As a social work post-graduate, I’ve memorised certain mantras and internalised many assumptions. Some of these you may relate to:

1) Those in power, have bullied their way to the top.

2) If it’s a big developmental project, the small guy definitely got squished.

3) If it’s a government scheme, it must be infested with red tape, loopholes and inefficiency.

4) If it’s a multinational company, they’re definitely cheating someone out of something, besides evading taxes.

You get the point.

So, it’s ironic then that here I am – at Lavasa– in the midst of a profoundly large scale development project (by Indian standards) and surprisingly, thinking just the opposite. I’m not recollecting any of these mantras, no pat responses for the cheerful sales representative who’s showing us around. No – “what about the locals?” or “how many trees have been cut?” – not even the standard “so where are the government owned villas, the ones you’ll gave out as bribes?”.

There’s just no scope for these questions. No room for such assumptions.

It’s all in plain view.

To start off with, the place is lush green. Everywhere you look – trees, trees, trees! As far as the eye can see. They’ve even got records of every tree cut and replaced for doubting activists, such as myself. It’s available, you just need to ask.

Furthermore, they’ve got drawings and plans for each of the five Goathan’s (villages) that were created to accommodate project displaced locals. Complete with basic facilities of electricity, water supply, garbage collection, health centres, schools and even a village Mandir. What more could I question here? Again, for those who doubt, they’re happy to point you in the right direction and you can visit these sites and see for yourself.

But more than these examples, it’s the beauty of the place that really silences the activist, doubting voice within me. For miles, and I mean miles, you can actually hear birds, the wind and an occasional squirrel crunching away. The silence here is profound.

So, a new mantra is forming in my mind…. it’s not quite complete but goes something like this….

If they built it and it harms no one and instead benefits many – then why not?

Why not?


Lavasa’s Nature Trail

It’s five o’clock on a Saturday morning and I’m buzzing with energy. I’m packed, pumped up and ready to hit the road. Lavasa, here I come!

As we pass through the city, I watch it slowly waking up, stretching itself for another round of stressful living. I do a little jiggle within…. because today, I get to escape all this and head out to some place beautiful. Or at least that’s what the pictures indicate, so let’s see.


Five hours into the journey and I’m already sober. We hit Pune traffic about two hours back, and it transformed the singing, high-spirited bunch of us, into zombie like beings who stare mindlessly out of the car windows. (This is exactly how people get in traffic). We’re on some bumpy back road that requires us to go at five km/hr. Everyone’s on edge. I’m starting to forget what those pictures of Lavasa’s nature trail look like…… maybe this wasn’t such a good idea…..

A local cheerfully informs us that we’ve gone about two hours off course and directs us back on track. This bit of news actually makes us all laugh and cheers us up a bit. We’re coming, Lavasa, we’re almost there! (My suggestion to those of you who make this journey is to follow the blue sign posts that scream out LAVASA every few miles, they’ll lead you right up to the gate)

As usual, I fall asleep and miss the grand entrance. But the oooing and ahhhing  in the car wakes me out of my slumber and I catch a glimpse of the beautiful stone arch welcoming travellers to Lavasa.

Wow! I’m definitely awake now. There are trees everywhere, blue sky (no smog), fresh air (take in as much as you can) and the LAKE! – miles of beautiful shimmering blue, sitting pretty amidst seven cloud covered hills, the fog rolling in and around and through the car…… have I died and gone to heaven?

Our first stop is the Nature Trail we’ve read so much about. Its right behind Ekaant Retreat which is also a must see for first timers. The trail is around three kilometres of dense green, in your face, beauty. In many places the trees and surrounding grass simulate a cave like experience and if you’re not chatting or yakking away like Maya over here, you’re bound to experience something profound.

The entire trail has been rendered bio-degradable, for those of you that don’t know – this means, no plastic, no metal, none of those human made materials. Just purely nature’s goodness. So, there are playing pens for kids made entirely out of bamboo and rope, seats make of dung and the entire structure is kept in place through sheets of woven fibre.

If you make it this far, and I really hope you do because it’s worth it. Take a moment to pause by the waterfall lookout. It has a great view and the gushing water below your feet might just etch itself in your memory permanently. Like it did in my case.

I’m hooked. Coming back for seconds next weekend ……. and this time with a proper camera.


Living on a lakefront

Lakeside living…

Wake up at five to birds chirping

Take my morning stroll down the edge of a lake

Pause to stretch at the waterfront

It’s great, ‘cause I’m living by a lake

No honking cars, no traffic buzz

No yelling neighbours, or rush, rush, rush

Our here, I stroll, I take my time

It’s ok, ‘cause my office is nearby

I eat a pear and taste every bite

I’m not thinking or planning or worrying

Not in a rush to catch a bus

It’s so hard to not be peaceful here

The air is clean, I feel refreshed

I’m looking forward to work today

‘cause guess what view my desk has?

Yup! A lake, a lake, a blue wide lake.

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