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Verve People
September 11, 2020

Lady In Green

Text by Sharanya Deepak

A co-founder of the citizen-led organisation IAmGurgaon, she left a career in banking to focus on transforming the privately developed North Indian city from an inefficiently run eyesore into a residential oasis. Latika Thukral tells us about the various environmental efforts she has been spearheading for over a decade.

When driving through Gurgaon (now Gurugram), tall glass skyscrapers and dense corporate conclaves capture all the attention. The city, one of the fastest-growing in India, is part of Delhi’s National Capital Region and home to more than 2.7 million residents. It has seen rapid growth in population and urbanisation in the last twenty years, and professional workers from the capital and other parts of India have come to work in the city’s burgeoning corporate parks. Accelerated and unplanned building had led to felled trees and compromised green spaces as well as an unsystematic waste disposal system, creating a city that appears to gather economic gain but remains unsustainable to live in. IAmGurgaon, a citizen-led initiative made up entirely of Gurgaon residents, decided to deal with these problems first-hand. In the last decade, they have reforested an Aravalli forest, built green corridors, planted trees, encouraged no-plastic initiatives and created belts in the city friendly to children and the elderly. The organisation works voluntarily, liaising with the government when required and raising funds from citizens like themselves. We speak to Latika Thukral, one of IAmGurgaon’s founders on what it takes to change the mechanisms of the city that is her home.

 How did you get started with IAmGurgaon?
It was around 11 years ago that IAmGurgaon came to be. I used to work for Citibank as a Senior Vice President. Back then, my kids were 10- and 12-years-old, and I took a sabbatical to spend time with them. It’s quite a delicate age, the pre-teenage. Also, work had tired me out, and I realised I wasn’t spending any time at home. I found I was stressed too – a lot of it had to do with work, but also because there was no real place in our neighbourhoods to wind down. There wasn’t a lot of space in Gurgaon to exist without spending money. Nor were there any accessible open spaces for walking, for the elderly to take a breath. Gurgaon was all malls and fancy things, and we had become attuned to that life, but it didn’t make me happy. I wanted my kids, and others in Gurgaon, to have a green space to grow in.

Did you imagine it to go this way since, now, IAmGurgaon works on so many large-scale projects? How did you come this far?
Well, no! I just had a vision. I wanted to change things; I had a kink in my brain to get some things going. We started working with the local authorities, which has been supportive and helped us win these massive projects. We were very clear that we would not crib and try our best to achieve what we set out to do. But also, we didn’t really know exactly what that was, so all the guidance from the government, local authorities, residents and local visionaries was valuable. We hired a consultant, got volunteers and expanded our vision. It’s now been more than a decade since that initial thought. When we founded IAmGurgaon, there were three of us – Ambika Agarwal, Swanzal Kak Kapoor and myself – but now our team is much larger and spread over many fields. Today, we are very proud to say that we have reforested more than 380 acres of forest and created scores of green spaces for the people of Gurgaon.

Can you tell me about some of these green spaces?
So far we have reforested all of Aravali Biodiversity Park and worked on the Badshahpur Forest corridor, an area that had been encroached upon and was leading to health hazards for the people that live around it. We also turned Chakkarpur Wazirabad Bundh from a garbage-dumping site to the city’s first linear park with cycling tracks. We are working on cleaning up Sikanderpur forest, which has become a dump yard, unclogging drains and creating small water bodies and channels. Going into it, I remember wanting to make just a few changes since we started on a small scale. I wanted this “urban jungle” to seem welcoming to other species and to make spaces more relaxing because people are wired to believe that living in Gurgaon is stressful! We started with a market, with a roundabout – we moved from one thing to another. Now, the work is large-scale, but we manage. I learned a lot along the way.

That sounds great. And like a lot of work! How do you work out plans for these projects?
Well, we have come a long way. Initially, I would dive headfirst into everything, armed with an abstract vision and some tools. But these days, we do have plans. We work in large teams; obviously, it’s not just me or my partners. We also have lots of volunteers and project-based experts. In the beginning, I knew there was unused space and that we wanted to transform it. But did we know how? Not really! It is crazy how much there is to learn. But this has made one thing clear to me – anybody can learn anything at any age. I wasn’t a young person when I began learning about forestry and urban spaces. It has been important to know what native species are and how our notions of beauty have been attuned to seeing manicured lawns. But that’s not what a green space is. The point is to reforest in a way that is friendly to all species, plants, birds, animals and not only to people, or let me be more precise — middle-class people. If we are to make cities accessible, they should be for everyone.

So, what are some of these native species?
I remember when we were reforesting Aravalli, we first had to identify the native plants and then grow them in nurseries so that the forest would retain its native species. We identified 20 out of the 200 to begin with and grew them in nurseries. You see, most native species in both Delhi and Gurgaon are in decline. The forest was full of vilayati kikar, a tree native to Mexico that the British brought to Delhi, which creates a dry atmosphere around it. It is extremely invasive and kills flourishing plants around it, harming the soil. Native Aravalli species are dhau, dhak, salai. These are just some; there are hundreds. While indigenous species will retain moisture in the soil and help each other grow, the kikar doesn’t do that. The plan was not to achieve some kind of superficial progress – plant a few trees, make a bench, make a billboard; we really wanted to develop this land and restore its worth. And for us, it is crucial to use native species, create a green space and always use whatever materials are available so as not to create more waste. That is not something we compromise on.

So when you clean spaces, you reuse those materials? Is that always possible?
Yes, we do, and yes, it is. We use everything we find. When we cleaned up the Sikanderpur forest, we used sewage water and segregated waste to build on it. We dredged 70 truckloads of garbage – which amounts to 750 tons of junk – out of the drain, which we couldn’t even find at first. The sewage is dried and segregated, and the recovered plastics, stones and brick are used to make the planned city park’s infrastructure. These are also sent to make roads; they’re turned into pellets to build with. We find ways of reusing everything.

In terms of Gurgaon, you speak of “haphazard growth”, why do you think that is?
When I moved to Gurgaon, almost 26 years ago, it wasn’t like this. We actually thought we were moving somewhere peaceful, somewhere away from the city. When the corporate boom in Gurgaon began, offices and [corporate] parks were built, but the way it was done was very haphazard. Farmland was bought and converted without much thought, fertile and green spaces were destroyed and no trash management systems were made. It is possible to have an economically flourishing city that is also clean and has pockets of green. But Gurgaon was done in such a real estate frenzy, that there was no planning. Think of how much concrete there is, and therefore how much building waste. Think of the pollution also, especially in those horrible three months when it gets very bad. Everyone is zipping around in cars, busy rushing to work. Nobody is thinking about what is outside their car windows.

What bothers me the most is that I cannot go from point A to point B without walking through filth. That is because the city is not walkable. So, it is okay for the wealthy to ignore, but what about the people who have to walk? It may look like it is thriving, but Gurgaon is not a sustainable city or one with accessible, equal spaces. It is up to us to make it one.

What are some of the challenges you have faced during this work? Have there been many roadblocks?
There have been a fair amount of challenges. But this is India – changing people’s mindset is no easy feat. I think the hardest part was to gain momentum – learn how to bring people together, create a world in which collaboration was key, and there was no profit except the end result. This is harder than it seems. To give incentive to people to keep working through literal trash, in our case, is not always easy. I worked in a corporate world for so long, that I must admit I was a little blinded at first too, but my mind has opened to so much over the years. Family kept me going. As did colleagues. There is one thing that helped me in the early years: someone told me, “Just because you have decided to change things and take a stand, that doesn’t mean everybody has.” This helped me not judge others and patiently introduce our vision to them instead of demanding their time. This is important to me. It has helped me be less angry and more productive over time.

How is it working as a woman on such projects? Has that been difficult?
Of course. But you know, from the start, I have not gone into this as some kind of know-it-all. Especially when I am aware that I am working on other people’s land. I make sure to respect them, their opinions and even their negligence. Yes, people don’t like taking orders or instructions from a woman. But I persist. I don’t let it get to me and just keep on badgering people. If someone doesn’t take my calls, I call again and again. If they ignore my perspective, I find proof. It is often exhausting – I won’t lie. But I have to remember that this work is not for me but for the city. So I don’t take it personally. One thing is there, though. I hate people giving me gyan (tips) for no reason! And I’m sure this happens to women more than men. Like there will be men who will give me advice on something I have been working on for years. What sense does that make? I don’t really stand for that. I am a 54-year-old woman, and I work with other women, and this is my city. I am taking responsibility for it. Let us do our jobs, and we will show you results.

So what keeps you going when things do get hard?
I remember when we started putting together IAmGurgaon, I thought it would be relaxing, compared to my day job. But I work 24 hours a day. Sometimes, it is stifling; some days are very hard. But like I said – and I believe this and am not just saying it – it is up to us to find solutions and make our cities livable, to not use them only as breeding grounds for opportunities. If you’re asking why I don’t leave, well, that seems too easy, doesn’t it? People think that they want a “better life” and leave for nicer cities in India or the United States. We had that option too – we still do, maybe. But what happens if everyone leaves? I don’t have any big, noble answer except that this is my home. This is where I raised my children. I want to live here, in Gurgaon, in India and give back as I do. I’m just strong-willed that way.

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