Climate Change, Well-Being and Agriculture in Indian Cities
Like cities throughout India, Bengaluru and Pune are experiencing rapid urbanisation as populations and cities expand together. The population of metro Bengaluru is 12 million; in the Pune district it is over 5 million; putting India — with a population of 1.3 billion — on track to exceed China’s 1.4 billion imminently. In these circumstances, a mix of factors provide good reasons for India’s raised greenhouse gas emissions, making reduction and sustainability an urgent political priority, as well as a much-needed response to shifting local weather patterns resulting in rising temperatures, rains and flooding. Cities expand at the expense of vegetation cover. It need not be so. In cities across India there are active urban and peri urban agriculture — farming and gardening — networks in and around cities that can be further expanded. It is estimated that Bengaluru alone has 30,000 active urban farmers. And yet, urban and peri urban farming is not considered part of the mainstream sustainability agenda in India.
A new research project funded by the British Academy as part of its Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme, led by Nitya Rao at the University of East Anglia[i], is exploring what form gardening and agriculture takes in these two cities, who is involved in it, and what they understand to be its environmental and well-being benefits. In addition to backyard vegetable plots, researchers discovered that balconies, terraces, spare plots of land and community gardens of different sizes are all part of these citizen-led greening initiatives. A combination of the technology for which the cities are known, and agriculture, is discovered in and around Bengaluru and Pune, where examples of vertical farming in containers and aquaponics growing microgreens for restaurants are to be found.
These large-scale enterprises are important in food production. But some of their spin-offs are equally influential in shifting the everyday lives of local communities in greener and more sustainable directions. Composting, recycling, plant and seed exchanges, are often a part of gardening enterprises, providing solid, meaningful, material links in community building, while spreading environmental consciousness and shifting attitudes towards sustainability, one garden and neighbourhood at a time. While many of these practices are readily adopted in wealthier neighbourhoods where people have more time and space, researchers discovered low-income neighbourhoods growing flowers in pots for aesthetic reasons. These are often used in temples and religious celebrations, while medicinal herbs and vegetables are grown to support health and well-being in low-income communities. Gardening provides employment too. Social enterprises such as ‘Urban Mali’ in Bengaluru and ‘ikhiti’ in Pune retrain rural to urban migrant farmers so that they can work as gardeners and so improve their incomes and family circumstances.
Researchers discovered that urban and peri-urban gardeners and farmers are often women over 40-years-old who are responsible for domestic life and family sustenance. Many of those surveyed identified gardening’s well-being benefits, associating it with exercise and health. They noted other benefits too, such as increased environmental awareness, reduced indoor temperatures, better dietary diversity, and bonding between generations as a result of gardening routines. But a lack of time and space, especially among low-income communities, imposes its own restrictions.
The research team has also collected quantitative data mapping important land use changes accompanying urbanisation. From these maps, it is possible to model and project the growth of urban and peri-urban agriculture, the built environment and vegetation between 2030 and 2050 as urbanisation gathers momentum. This data will be vital in thinking about carbon capture and land temperature rises — heat islands — and cities’ abilities to mitigate them through urban and peri-urban agriculture. Mapping has also allowed the team to calculate the carbon footprint of different supply chains. This proves that seasonal food grown as close as possible to cities is the most sustainable option, provided sustainable energy sources are also added to the mix. This innovative project is a welcome addition to existing research on urban and peri-urban agriculture, which remains dominated by the global north and usually describes current patterns rather than project future dynamics.
Urban and peri-urban agriculture seems an obvious way to counteract some of the impacts of climate changes associated with rapid urbanisation. Farming and gardening are practical, healthy, and support individual and community well-being. The research team have also discovered something fundamental we are only just beginning to understand — what people in cities in the global south consider well-being to be and how they value connections with nature. There are compelling reasons to include urban and peri-urban agriculture in India’s climate change and sustainability agenda. Urban and peri-urban agriculture is a bottom-up initiative that supports people seeking better, healthier lives. In this, it is distinctive from the lofty targets set in international climate change gatherings that struggle to find their footing on the ground.
[i] In India the team comprises researchers from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements — Amruth Kiran, Dhananjayal Mayavel, Chadni Singh, Maitreyi Koduganti, Prathinga Poonacha, Teja Malladi, and Swarnika Sharma. Sheetal Patil is a researcher based at Azim Premji University. Ashwin Mahalingam and Parma Roy are faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-Madras).
Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul. Her most recent book, Serious Money: walking plutocratic London, is published by Penguin 2022.