The Future of Resilience

India’s New “Green Cities” Are Devoid of All Street Life

Solar panels abound, but there’s no mass transit and pedestrians are non-existent.

Rabi Rashmi Abasan (Solar Housing Complex) in the city of Rajarhat.

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“I feel proud of my house,” says Debabrata Dutta of his little red-and-yellow bungalow in Rajarhat township, a new satellite city being built on the northeastern edge of Kolkata. As a technical manager who is working on an initiative on ecological sustainability, it’s a home that appears perfectly suited to him. The bungalow part of a complex of 25 two-story houses built for India’s increasingly comfort-oriented middle-class, and is being billed as the country’s first fully integrated solar housing project. “The building cost was little high,” admits Dutta, “but we have energy security and we save on power consumption in the long run.”

While energy-hungry India aims to have nuclear power fulfilling five to seven percent of its total demand by 2030, it’s also making a push for greater use of renewables. The apartment complex in Rajarhat is a symbol of that effort. Christened Rabi Rashmi Abasan (Solar Housing Complex), it is one of a growing number of developments in Rajarhat that aim to be 100 percent green. Ultimately, the plan is to make all of Rajarhat township just like Rabi Rashmi Abasan – an entire city run solely on renewable power. The paths to this goal are ambitious: floating the city’s canals with solar panels, for instance, and generating energy from solid waste. Streetlights are being converted to LEDs, and electric vehicles have been introduced. It’s a crucial effort in a nation whose energy needs are set to grow exponentially in the coming decades. As of today, nearly a third of Indians have no access to electricity at all, according to the World Bank, giving the country one of the lowest rates of per capita electricity consumption in the world, and leaving room for a phenomenal increase in demand to occur in the coming years.

A thoroughfare in Rajarhat lined with solar-powered streetlights.

Rabi Rashmi Abasan was conceived by the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Authority (WBREDA) on a plot of just under two acres of land. Each home here generates two kilowatts of power from solar tiles on its roof for its own consumption. Anything beyond that is fed back into the grid, and the owner can draw power from the grid when necessary – the utility then pays the homeowner, or vice-versa, depending on net usage each month. Ultimately, the complex uses net zero energy from the grid or less.

“This housing dazzles as a milestone and a trend-setter,” says S P Gon Chaudhuri, former managing director of the West Bengal Green Energy Development Corporation and winner of the international Green Oscar award in 2003 for spearheading solar projects on the remote Bay of Bengal islands. “We rate the success of such a project by its carbon neutrality. We indeed can fight global warming with such buildings.”

And, just maybe, change human behavior, too. Gon Chaudhuri credits the project with fostering a new culture of conservation that wasn’t there before. “[The residents of Rajarhat] are using intelligent lamps and star-rated air conditioners,” he says. “There is a kind of environment… that’s driving people to use energy efficient means.”

But while the authorities tom-tom Rajarhat as a city of the future, a closer look reveals flaws in its design that could cancel out much of its green appeal.

Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director of Research and Advocacy at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), which is engaging the civic authorities in Rajarhat on sustainable development of the new township, says the new buildings, while technically “green,” betray the architectural legacy of Kolkata, which uses natural methods to keep buildings cool during extremely hot and humid summers.

Though Rajarhat aspires to be a completely green city, some have criticized its urban design.

“Old Kolkata building architecture allows more space to breathe,” she says. “Old buildings had open balconies and large windows. But the new buildings that are coming up are all glass-fronted and oriented towards high use of air-conditioning. Glass absorbs more heat, so by design you are pushing up the energy need and you are not leveraging your own strength. I think old Kolkata is still much more sustainable.”

To Roy Chowdhury, what’s missing is a soup-to-nuts evaluation of the township’s energy savings. She says regulations for energy efficiency are new, and it is for the state governments to implement them, many of which haven’t yet done so. “There is a need for environment impact assessment of the large commercial buildings. While many of these buildings are going for green ratings voluntarily, no energy audit is carried out.”

And unlike Kolkata proper, the urban plan of Rajarhat doesn’t prioritize density. “Rajarhat has a gated-community design. It is the wrong urban design and it will lead to more motorized transport. By design you are making people captive users of the car.” Roy Chowdhury adds that the area’s tall walls make the streets more crime-prone than those in Kolkata. “Look at the downtown Chowringhee area of old Kolkata. It has more street-level activities. Someone will always be watching you.”

Gon Chaudhuri agrees that Rajarhat should be more mass-transit oriented. While pointing out that “the solar city will have battery-driven cars for internal roads,” he adds, “I think the more we have public transport in Rajarhat, the more the city will be green.”

Apartment complexes in Rajarhat.

But the civic authorities of Rajarhat claim the city will set global trends. According to Debasish Sen, chairman of Newtown Kolkata Development Authority (NKDA) and managing director-cum-chairman of the Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO), Rajarhat is not only in sync with global benchmarks, but also with best practices for new cities. “This is a solar city. Every rooftop has solar system,” he says. “There are provisions for rainwater harvesting, and we have a 480-acre eco-park amid the prime property area.”

He adds that, besides adapting to climate change, the city has been designed to draw investment. “Many builders here voluntarily chose and got LEED ratings… As a policy measure it is a solar city and as per our master plan we are encouraging people to go for energy efficient methods.”

But whether Rajarhat meets its goal of carbon neutrality is a matter entirely separate from its questionable urban design. Should the new satellite city inspire dozens of others like it, it will be a mixed blessing – a new urban age for a country that’s looking to the future for more energy, but is in danger of forgetting its past.

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Tags: affordable housingresilient citiesenergysolar powerindiakolkata

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