The condominium where I live in Gurgaon was recently awarded a certificate of appreciation from the city’s municipal corporation for voluntarily promoting natural resource conservation by reusing, recycling and reducing solid waste; and taking steps to prevent pollution and to try to achieve a zero-waste goal. It certainly isn’t the only condo or community in that city or for that matter in any of the other big Indian cities where residents are doing things such as those. In otherwise dystopian Gurgaon — where the roads, public amenities, the law & order situation, water and power supply are in a shambles — it is the citizens groups that offer the rare glimmer of hope.
It’s a visible trend. Whether it is by trying to ease the traffic gridlock by designating a weekly car-free day; putting up rain and waste water recycling units inside their gated communities; or, solar power facilities that can take care of a condo’s need for electricity in common spaces, urban citizens are increasingly taking voluntary action to make things better. Up next could be farming. Yes. Urban farming. And here’s why you shouldn’t laugh that idea out the door. Urban farming is the practice of growing crops, vegetables, herbs and plants within and on the periphery of cities and, unlike rural farming, it can complement and be an integral part of a city and fit neatly into its ecological system. Such farming can use a city’s solid waste that is compostable; its treated effluent water that can be used for irrigation; provide self-sufficiency and, at a stretch, by integrating with local small retailers and transporters, even provide a viable small business model. Besides, it can make use of urban spaces that are commonly underutilised or unproductive in cities — think terraces and balconies of condominiums and other residential buildings; and rooftops of schools, office buildings and commercial complexes.
That it’s not entirely a mad-hatter concept is borne out by the fact that it’s really happening. In Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and other cities, small groups of citizens are increasingly taking to urban farming. There are organisations too that facilitate, guide and help city folk to start growing vegetables, herbs, fruit and plants organically — a trend that is well-established in many global cities and now taking root in India. There are many benefits of urban farming that can accrue to a city and its people and they span a spectrum of economic outcomes. Besides providing communities with control and self-reliance in their food needs, it can generate additional job opportunities to migrants, and provide a fillip to neighbourhood retail.
The benefits depend on which part of the (erm!) food chain you look at. At the top end, middle and upper middle-class urbanites are getting more discerning about what they eat: Is it organic and pesticide-free? Is it locally produced and fresh? Is it seasonal or not? And so on. Local community-driven farming gives more control over aspects such as those. But the real benefits could be at the lower end of the chain.
For a city’s poor who live in its slums and where there are yawning gaps between dietary needs and what is affordable. Converting dumps near slums into community farms that organically produce vegetables, fruit and even crops can transform the lives of slum-dwellers. Early this year, Worldwatch Institute, a research organisation, published an article on its website that described how a former dumping site in Mumbai’s Ambedkar Nagar slum has now been converted into a community garden. And of how some slum dwellers in Cuttack have begun relying on organic farming to grow their own vegetables and sell surplus to local markets.
Undoubtedly, there are challenges to urban farming. Chief among them is land, the most acutely finite resource in Indian cities that are typically densely populated. But there could be innovative solutions. And as the Mumbai slum example shows, it is possible to convert waste dumping sites into productive farms. Rooftops and unused institutional land — even universities and institutes inside Indian cities have sprawling campuses and are profligate when it comes to land — could be another opportunity to explore. There will be other challenges too — of getting people to see the benefits of urban farming; of getting communities to work together; and of co-opting local businesses. The good news from many Indian cities is that all of this has already started to happen.
Sanjoy Narayan is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times, he tweets as @sanjoynarayan.
The views expressed are personal.