Building Sustainable Cities in India – The power of positive, personal actions

Sustainability can be a complex and somewhat distant topic, so today I would like to share with you a more practical perspective on the challenges around sustainability especially in the context of our cities, and some personal experiences around solutions.

Let’s start with why sustainability is a topic all of us need to worry about and do something about.  A recent ranking of top cities in the world on sustainability ranked Frankfurt, London, Copenhagen and Amsterdam as the most sustainable cities in the world. Equally it rated high-growth cities in emerging countries like Jakarta, Manila, and our own Mumbai and Delhi at the absolute bottom of that list (Mumbai was 47th and Delhi was 49th out of 50 cities surveyed!!).   In a different survey, out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 13 are from India!!  On a related note, if you do a Google search on “building sustainable cities” the first article that pops up is a Harvard Business Review article by John Macomber, and the case study he mentions of how not to build a city is Gurgaon!!  These global studies are an eye opener but at some level we don’t need them to tell us what is wrong with our cities.  We face problems like traffic congestion and pollution every day.

Let’s take the example of Gurgaon, the city I live in and work in.  It has one of the highest air pollution levels in the world.  PM 2.5 levels are at 966 micrograms/cubic meter, which is 4 times the concentration levels marked as unhealthy.  Therefore children are developing respiratory problems and many households are forced to install air purifiers.  While air pollution is more apparent, the depletion of the water table is perhaps even a more serious existential issue.  Ground water levels are depleting in Gurgaon at 2-3 meters per year.  At this rate, ground water reserves will be all but extinguished by 2030.  That is only 15 years away!!

Our fast growing cities like Gurgaon are a magnet of economic opportunity; however, it is clear that if they continue growing in this crazy, unplanned, unsustainable way, this party is not going to last.  History is full of examples of great cities that died.  I give some of our fast growing cities like Gurgaon not more than 10-15 years in which they will become ungovernable and unlivable and will choke themselves to disaster.

I am sorry I have started off like a Cassandra and talked about doom and gloom!!  Let me now turn to the glass half full side and focus on solutions.  I have had the opportunity to be a part of NASSCOM Haryana over the past 5 years, initially as the Co-Chair and past 3 years as the Chairperson of the NASSCOM Regional Council.  We set ourselves the vision of making Gurgaon the “Silicon Valley of the East”, and looking at the city’s growth we believed the opportunity was real. However, as we assessed Gurgaon’s competitive position, it was clear before we talk about a fancy vision we had to solve the more basic problems and ensure that Gurgaon was a sustainable and livable city.  As we analyzed the root causes, we came to a conclusion that the greatest challenge the city faced was poor transportation infrastructure.  This resulted in the city getting clogged with traffic jams, dangerous levels of pollution, and a sense of frustration & despair for the citizens.

As we thought about solutions it became apparent that we have to reverse our fatal fascination with cars.  Cars are the most inefficient way of transportation in so many ways.  They occupy large volume for the number of passengers transported and have high pollution footprint.  Our roads are bad and need to be improved, but no amount of road construction can keep pace with the growth of vehicles.  There is no option but to embrace public transportation and multi-modal transportation in a very pervasive way.  I am reminded of a quote by Enrique Penelosa, the former Mayor of Bogota in Colombia, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars.  It is where the rich use public transport.”

As NASSCOM Haryana we have been focused on this topic for the past 4+ years. We have been lobbying with the state government to make the necessary investments into public transport infrastructure – simple things like a public bus service, walking & cycling paths, and integrated approach to planning & execution. However, after a while we realized that the response from the government was very slow. We then changed tracks and decided that instead of worrying just about the infrastructure/ supply side where we had little control, we should focus more on awareness building and personal change. We felt the demand side actions were more in our circle of influence. Over the past 2-3 years, we tried multiple initiatives from “CEOs walking to work” to producing a music video called “Walk On” along with Dr. Palash Sen and his band Euphoria to promote walking and cycling.

Many of our awareness building initiatives had only limited traction, but we finally struck gold with the CarFreeDay initiative. The idea came up in August/early September in partnership with Gurgaon Police to celebrate the World Car Free Day on September 22nd. Plan was to encourage users of private cars to not use their vehicles and instead use more sustainable modes of transportation like the metro, carpooling, shuttle services, cycling or walking. The entire concept was based on encouragement and not enforcement. The only enforcement was that 4 roads were identified where parking of private vehicles was not allowed. To cut a long story short, the first Car Free Day was a great success with both the print media and TV channels giving it massive coverage. This traction motivated us to celebrate CarFreeDay every Tuesday in Gurgaon and we have now done 16 consecutive Tuesdays without a break!!

We can’t claim that CarFreeDay has solved the traffic and pollution woes of Gurgaon, but I think it has been a very positive initiative on many counts. There are 6 positives that I want to call out:

1. Corporates stepping up. Corporates are often accused of being insensitive to the social context in which they operate. In this case the entire CarFreeDay adoption has been led by the IT/BPO companies who are a part of NASSCOM.   There are 35-40 companies from NASSCOM and other industries who have embraced CarFreeDay and are recording average of 20-30% reduction in number of private vehicles on Tuesdays. Corporates are not just encouraging their employees to go CarFree but are making more systemic changes in transport options they are offering to their employees (e.g., replacing cabs with shuttle buses). Recently corporates have also started experimenting with community based solutions.  For example, Nagarro, Incedo, Snapdeal and number of other companies have come together to launch an open database of employees to pool demand for shuttle bus services.

2. Awareness building. The debate of going beyond cars and using more sustainable forms of transportation like metro, buses, carpooling and cycling has become center stage. Media has picked up the theme and has been giving it coverage every week. It has become a common topic for dinner and party conversations. Most heartening, schools have been taking up the CarFreeDay topic enthusiastically and the message is going to thousands of school children. Visiting a few schools on CarFreeDay gives me hope that we are beginning to see something similar to the momentum school children created with the “Say no to crackers” drive.

3. Great people coming together. Perhaps the most inspiring and enjoyable aspect of the CarFreeDay initiative has been the opportunity to work with some truly outstanding people. A motley crew of CEOs, sustainability experts and social activists have come together united by their passion to make a difference to Gurgaon and to solve a complex problem that affects all of our lives. When I see such talented and senior individuals coming together as a team and dedicating themselves to this cause in a true labor of love, I feel there is hope not just for Gurgaon but for our country!!

4. P-P-C partnership. In our country we have a very negative view of all government agencies. In the case of CarFreeDay, the Gurgaon Police has led from the front and been a great sponsor and partner for this initiative. They have not only provided the enforcement of no-parking in the 4 corridors identified for CarFreeDay but have led the outreach to schools and other agencies including the Municipal Corporation. This partnership between the Police, Corporates (led by NASSCOM) and citizen groups is a great template for how many of the grave problems that our cities face can be solved. We have the beginnings of a Public-Private-Citizen (P-P-C) partnership model that can be a game changer for our country. Many of the problems we face are so complex that government alone can’t solve them. This partnership model could well be the answer.

5. Entrepreneurs stepping in. One of the fascinating features of the CarFreeDay has been that a number of entrepreneurs have stepped up to provide solutions. Gurgaon lacks a public bus service and we have been lobbying for it for years. Over the past 4-6 months private operators like Shuttl and Ola have stepped in providing app based shuttle bus services, which is proving to be quite a game changer. Cykul has come in providing cycle stations to corporates making cycling a more feasible option. There have been a host of carpooling start-ups. There has even been a start-up (Baxi) providing app based bike taxi service. That is the beauty of India we now live in. Where government fails to provide public services, we have entrepreneurs jumping in to provide solutions. And often these solutions are more innovative and efficient. This is another example of the expanding circle of influence as we now do not need to be only dependent on government action on key civic problems.

6. Snowball effect. The CarFreeDay initiative is now not just limited to Gurgaon. In a short time, it has been adopted by Delhi and also smaller towns like Karnal. After much hit n trial over a number of years we finally got success with CarFreeDay. But often when it rains it pours. CarFreeDay has become a trigger that is bringing the transportation and pollution topics to a tipping point. The discussion is now snowballing with even the judiciary stepping in and forcing center and state governments to act. We off course have had the odd-even decision by the Delhi government. I will not go into the merits/demerits of that decision, but it is clear that sustainable transportation and pollution are topics that have now captured the public imagination (a bit like anti-corruption a few years back) and this movement will only grow in force.

To conclude, I want to reiterate the power of bottom-up and personal action.  I have always been fascinated by top-down, big picture solutions.  However, CarFreeDay has taught me that ‘’small can be beautiful”.  We kept making big plans within the NASSCOM team for sustainable transportation but did not get real traction.  But when we worked on an idea that was more bottom-up and touched people’s lives in a real way we got more traction.  Personally for me it meant making cycling to work a daily routine.  This daily action made our mission of sustainable transportation more real for me and put the many challenges in perspective.  This helped generate more practical solutions and even more intense, personal passion.

And therein lies the key lesson about positivity that I want you to take away.  Big problems can seem unsurmountable.  The best we can do is to break down the problems and just focus on the actions we can take personally i.e., which are in our circle of influence.  Those personal experiences lead to more intimate learning allowing you to connect the dots more effectively and come up with more practical solutions.  Moreover, the personal actions can set in motion a chain reaction that can become an unstoppable force.  Truly, once you have the right intent and take personal action, universe conspires to make it happen!!

The battle to ensure our cities are sustainable has just begun. There is a long way to go to solve the problems we face. Much work needs to happen on both the infrastructure side and in changing well entrenched personal habits. However, 2015 gives me lot of hope. Positive initiative by a few well-meaning individuals gave us CarFreeDay, which is having such a positive snowball effect. Now just imagine if many more of us were to take such positive initiatives? The opportunity for impact is breathtakingly exciting and limitless!!

This blog has been slightly modified and published with permission from Nitin Seth. The original blog can be read here –

Share This Post

Leave a Reply