Building green islands in Bombay

Posted: 12 June 2001

Author: Charlie Pye-Smith

Bombay is the fifth most polluted city in the world, with a minimum of green space. Yet it is the site of two of the most imaginative clean-up projects to be found in India, as Charlie Pye-Smith reports.

When I arrived at Mahim Nature Park, towards the end of a typically sweaty Bombay day, a group of 20 street children were playing games, laughing and shouting, beside the environmental education centre. street childrenStreet children at Mahim Park© Charlie Pye-SmithEarly that morning they had been picked up off the streets where they live, hustle, eat and sleep. Soon they would be dropped back on the streets again, but at least, for this one day, they had been given a taste of the natural world. For many of them, this was the first time they had ever ventured away from the grime of poverty of the slums.

Less than 15 years ago the 37-acre Mahim Nature Park was a treeless garbage dump, with sprawling slums to one side and a polluted creek to the other. Today it provides a rare oasis of green and an important educational resource, not just for the urban poor, but for school children and college students throughout Bombay.

When the local authority called for ideas to develop and improve this part of the city in 1977, the World Wildlife Fund(WWF) promoted an ambitious scheme which would tackle pollution in Mahim Creek, clean up the garbage dump and create a much needed green lung.

"Bombay is not only one of the most polluted cities in India," explained Mrs Shanta Chatterji, the key inspiration behind the Nature Park, "it's also one of the most overcrowded. In London you have seven acres of green space for every 1,000 inhabitants. Delhi has four acres. Here we have just 0.03 acres."

I first met Shanta in 1992 when the Park was still in the process of creation. The garbage had been levelled, covered with topsoil, contoured and planted, but the trees and shrubs - some 12,000 in all - were barely above chest height, and the education centre had yet to be completed. Now the woodlands are semi-mature, over 60 species of bird have taken up residence and for five days each week the Park and the Education Centre are host to parties of school children, as well as adult groups from industry, the police force, the hotel business and other walks of life. Between April 1994, when the Park opened, and September 1995 over 9,000 people visited the Centre.

Outdoor laboratory

One of the things that impresses the visitor most is the thought and care which has gone into the planning of the Park. It is much more than a green space. It has been designed as an outdoor laboratory with trails which traverse a broad spectrum of habitats, microcosms of the ones found in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra.

"We are also very keen to stress the importance which nature has in Indian culture," explained Dhiren Pania, the Park's Programme Officer, as he led me through a shady area of woodland. "We teach the children about the reverence for nature which is found in Hinduism and other religions." So the children learn not only about ecological functions of particular species, but about the part they have played in myths and rituals, in astrology and medicine.

Western-style health care, with its heavy reliance on synthetic pills and potions, now threatens to displace the ancient tradition of herbal medicine, but here, a WWF botanist has bucked the trend by establishing, at the heart of the Park, a garden with over 105 species of ayurvedic plant.

Herb gardenMedicinal herb garden© Charlie Pye-Smith

As we walked along the neat herb beds, Pania explained their curative properties: plumbago for fever; tumeric as a blood purifier; periwinkle for cancer; asparagus and mother-in-law's tongue for gynaecological problems. Visitors can buy seedlings to plant in their window boxes and dried herbs with which they can prepare their own infusions. They can also take saplings from the nursery to plant at home.

One of the messages of Mahim is that individuals - as well as governments, organisations and businesses - have a role to play in improving the urban environment, and it is a belief in the importance of joint action which has led Shanta Chatterji to initiate another project, which has become one of the most radical clean-up operations ever seen in a Third World city. Bombay's commercial heartland is about to be transformed into 'Clean Air Island'.

Fighting pollution

Clean Air Island covers five square kilometres of downtown Bombay: roughly rectangular in shape, three sides are surrounded by the sea, while the other - not much more than a kilometre across - separates the business district from suburban Bombay. Some 200,000 people live here, but every day a million more commute into work at the 25,000 business establishments. Virtually every major company in India has offices here, and the area also has two major railway stations, the vast Bombay port, a variety of government institutions and industrial concerns, the Stock Market and over 20 colleges and schools. Like the rest of downtown Bombay, the area suffers from smog for over 120 days a year. "Up to 70 per cent of pollution comes from vehicles," explained Shanta, "and our main aim is to reduce this pollution by significant amounts."

The war against pollution is being waged on three fronts. First - and this is where individuals can get involved - a programme to green the city has been launched. "This means planting trees wherever we can," said Shanta, "but we have also got to think vertically, and we are encouraging people in flats to plant pots on balconies and windowsills." Port Gardens, BombayPort Gardens, Bombay© Charlie Pye-SmithAt ground level, the Bombay Port Trust has already transformed 11 acres of wasteland into a public park and the Navy has set up tree and plant nurseries on islands in the Bay. These nurseries will provide plants, free of cost, for householders and office workers. "This will help increase oxygen levels and reduce particulate pollution." explained Shanta. "It will also improve the appearance of the city."

Recycling programme

The project is also tackling the refuse problem. Householders and businesses are being encouraged to separate their waste into its various constituents - paper, plastic, organic matter and so forth. The rag pickers will recycle the paper, while organic waste is already being despatched to three collection points where it is broken down by vermiculture.

Under this last process, worms create an aerated atmosphere which enables bacteria to flourish and devour the refuse. The end result is a compost which is ideal as a planting medium. To prove the point, Shanta showed me the pots on her balcony, each with its own community of worms: "All our organic waste goes into these pots - vegetable peelings, fat, leftovers from meat dishes, whatever. This is just one of the ways we are getting people involved in the project."

At present 40 lorry-loads of refuse leave downtown Bombay each day. Within a few years, thanks to the vermiculture and recycling programme, all refuse will be dealt with in Clean Air Island itself. This will undoubtedly help to reduce vehicle pollution.

Electric future

The third line of action against dirty air is the most ambitious. Sixty per cent of all vehicles in India are government-owned. They are often the worst maintained and the most polluting. Clean Air Island's organizing committee hopes to wean public agencies and utilities off petrol and diesel vehicles. The future will be electric.

Shanta Chatterji has a vested interest here, for she and her husband run India's foremost electric vehicle manufacturer. However, there is no denying that the introduction of 350 electric buses, taxis, dust carts and transport buggies - this being the target for Clean Air Island - would transform Bombay's air. Emission of gases, such as carbon dioxide, would be significantly less.

But is this a pipe dream? No, insists Shanta. The greening of Clean Air Island is well under way. Finance is still being sought for the electric vehicles, but the plan had received widespread support from the relevant authorities. Indeed, central government is thinking of setting up similar schemes in other Indian cities.

A quick glance of the members of Clean Air Island's organizing committee suggest that this is an idea whose time has come. The list reads like a 'Who's-Who' of Bombay and includes the Chairman of the Port Trust, the Inspector General of the Police, the Municipal Commissioner for Waste Management, the President of the Indian Institute of Engineers and half a dozen Managing Directors of major industrial concerns. With this sort of backing, Clean Air Island should become just that.

However, as Shanta Chatterji stresses, environmental programmes such as Mahim Nature Park and Clean Air Island are joint ventures. Governments cannot go it alone; nor can individuals. It is for this reason that Shanta attaches as much importance to encouraging flat owners to practise vermiculture on their balconies - she has even designed a three-tier medicinal herb garden to house the worms - as she does to getting the local utilities to switch from diesel to electric vehicles.

Charlie Pye-Smith is a writer on environmental issues and co-author of The Wealth of Communities, Earthscan, 1994.