Pedestrian Infrastructure in Urban India

I was born and brought up in Sangam Nagri, Allahabad (now Prayagraj). As a child, I didn’t have access to well-developed infrastructure. It was only when I moved to Chandigarh for my internship in Architecture, I realised what a city should look like. It started off with observing the streets, traffic, ways people commute, lush greenery, huge crossroads, and most importantly – the sectoral planning.

I was fortunate enough to work under the wings of Ar. Sangeet Sharma, partner architect at SD Sharma & Associates. Chandigarh was developed and designed by Le Corbusier and Ar. SD Sharma was one of the lead architects on the team. Being part of the firm which had been closely involved in development of the city was an enriching experience. I heard stories about Chandigarh and the process by which it was developed. It led me to undoubtedly appreciate many aspects of the city.

But one key factor made a significant impact. Pedestrian infrastructure and walkability. To some, it might seem trivial but to me, it was a big deal – to walk uninterrupted and safely. No wonder that the walkability index of Chandigarh is the highest in India. 

I never took an auto or vehicle. I just walked nearly a kilometre to the office, every single day. Ever since then, I prefer walking over motorised modes of transport. But one person’s experience isn’t enough. The availability of this pedestrian infrastructure is scarce.

Pedestrian Infrastructure in India

Pedestrians are often the most vulnerable and ignored users of roads in our country. They’re more prone to road crashes and mishaps. Unavailability of proper walking infrastructure adds to the woes. The concept of complete streets in our country still remains a dream. Congestion has increased tremendously, resulting in construction of wider roads and flyovers. 

While the above developments are seen as symbols of world-class cities, the scenario in India is far from it. 

Our roads are damaged. There are open manholes which result in deaths and some states are particularly affected. Footpaths, if they’re present, are occupied by street vendors, parked vehicles, stray animals or electricity poles. Their surfaces and heights are also uneven. Landscaping is absent. Crosswalks are missing. Speed of vehicles isn’t regulated. Traffic lights are missing. 

Figure 1: Missing crosswalks lead to jaywalking 

Pedestrians are expected to use foot-over bridges and while that government has invested heavily in them, they’re mostly unused. Moreover, needs of the elderly or specially-abled are dismayingly overlooked. 

All of the above factors lead to jaywalking. And not to forget, an increasing number of accidents. 

What can we do?

If we develop better pedestrian infrastructure, we can give people opportunities to be less dependent on motorised transport, thus, opting for Non-motorised Transportation (NMT). NMT is a sustainable way of transport, further helping to reduce carbon emissions. 

Improved walkability doesn’t just have environmental benefits but also health benefits. In an era where a sedentary lifestyle is the norm, people can opt to walk and stay active. Cost savings on transportation is the cherry on the cake. 

Use of NMT could also increase road capacity. Pedestrians and cyclists occupy less space than cars. Hence, better-laid footpaths and segregated bicycle lanes promote better use of existing roads. 

Figure 2: Encroachment of Footpath

The need of the hour is to strengthen our infrastructure and prevent accidents while promoting the use of NMT. Strong and evident transformations will make the ‘walking experience’ enhanced, smooth and more convenient.

After the pandemic hit us, a shift in road user patterns was observed. Commuters avoided public transport, opting to walk or cycle. Many cities adopted new approaches to make roads friendlier for people. 

The southern Indian city of Chennai developed more than 100 km (62 miles) of pedestrian-friendly streets. Chennai has drafted non-motorised transport policies to create footpaths along 80% of its streets. Alongside this, infrastructure for cycle lanes was made available, with the vision and commitment to prioritise people over vehicles. 

Haryana became the first city to embrace the Vision Zero method for road safety. Vision Zero by WRI India gives guidelines for a safe system approach. 

Wrapping it up

Considering the challenges of road safety in our country – from narrow unplanned streets to multiple governance authorities and decision-makers – this is definitely not a change that can be brought about overnight. But having a shift in focus and institutional coordination can be major gamechangers. 

In India, an experience as simple as pedestrian walking has the potential to be fatal. Luckily, there's one city that makes it safe and enjoyable. Want to know which one?

Read this article by Ria Kapoor on issues with Pedestrian Infrastructure in India and how NMT (Non-Motorised Transportation) can make it better.
Figure 3: A picture of a footpath in Chennai.

There are several pilot projects currently active in India. Scaling up these projects is crucial. City-level initiatives are much needed. And all of this is possible only with the help of the government. It’s high time that policymakers emphasise on ‘roads for people’ rather than ‘roads for vehicles’. It benefits not only the vulnerable NMT users and street vendors but also helps achieve goals of an inclusive and low-carbon future in India. 

Credits

Author

Ria Kapoor is an architect, planner, and entrepreneur.  She has expertise in Urban Planning. She did her Master’s from the School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi. She has worked as a consultant in Urban Development Projects. She has worked Assistant Professor and educated the students of Masters of Urban & Regional Planning. Currently, she is working as a freelance writer and researcher.
She believes in policies and interventions which are inclusive and promote sustainability. Her key interest has been designing for the less advantaged or often ignored section of the society like the elderly, the children, the specially-abled.

 Pictures

Unsplash, ITDP, RapidLeaks, Citizen Matters Chennai

Editor

Ayesha Tari

Lives in Flames

A Case Study on Sivakasi’s Fireworks Industry

Diwali, the popular festival of lights, signifies the victory of good over evil. The festival is celebrated across India, and the whole nation is lit up with beautiful Diyas, candles and lights for nearly two weeks. Families cook up traditional delicacies, and entire neighbourhoods come together and share in the celebrations. 

Diwali is celebrated not just by Hindus. People of various faiths participate in the festivities because of one major reason – FIREWORKS. Who doesn’t love to watch those lights in the sky and on the ground, lighting up the faces of children playing with them. While fireworks are used for several reasons, Diwali is a prominent festival when their consumption is incomparable.

Fireworks are produced by countries across the world. In India, the town of Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district, Tamil Nadu, is where the magic (or not) happens. The village is referred to as ‘Kutty Japan’ because it’s famous for three industries – matches, fireworks and printing. But there’s one another social phenomenon it’s known for — high prevalence of child labour.

Standard Fireworks Factory at Thiruthangal

In early 2009, my friends and I took a trip to Sivakasi to investigate this social issue. At that time, the fireworks industries in the village were worth between INR 800-1,000 crores.

As per official records, there were 10 major firework companies that owned close to 600 fireworks factories. But we found something else – Sivakasi and it’s neighbouring counties had hundreds of illegal factories.

Fireworks consumed during the 3 significant days of Diwali took 300 days to produce, with labourers working overtime throughout the year. China, the world’s largest fireworks manufacturer and supplier, was India’s largest competitor. But labour cost was cheaper in India, making it a popular choice.  And even though the cost of raw materials in India was about 50% higher, statistics predicted that the fireworks market would grow 10% annually, back in 2009. In 2021, the industry was worth nearly INR 6,000 crore.

Sivakasi’s fireworks production had a long-standing history spanning several decades. The town received low rainfall coupled with dry climate, therefore, rendering the land unproductive for agriculture. This left high dependence on manufacturing fireworks. In the time that the industry flourished, Sivakasi became infamous for various unacceptable practices — child labour being one of the most notable concerns. During 1991, it was reported that about 60,000 children aged 3 — 18 years worked in firework industries.

Low wages, lack of safety precautions, fire accidents, health and life hazards were considered usual, not significant issues. 

Since the 1990s, several NGOs, activist groups and individuals lobbied against these unfair practices but that only worsened the situation. The results of these interventions were continuous checks on child labour and safety measures. But the factory owners found a way around these checks, too. What happened next? 

We got in touch with NEWS

In 2009, through a few contacts, we enlisted the help of Navajeevan Educational Welfare Society (NEWS), located in Thiruthangal and founded by Devaramani Lysabai. Its parent organisation was Paul Foundation. NEWS worked around issues of education and literacy. Some of its major achievements and activities focused on reducing child labour, helping poor pupils to continue education steadily through financial help, taking action against child labour and Dalit discrimination with the Government’s help, and creating institutions for education in backward areas. 

NEWS SCNIC Office

For a few days, we worked with the NEWS staff – Mr. Rajesh, Mr. Pal Pandiyan, Mr. Arul Raj and Mrs. Muthumari. Through them and our own research, we gathered deeper insights on the child labour scenario, taking exposure visits and interacting with residents in Sivakasi and its neighbouring villages.

As per Reports gathered

In 2009, due to increased lobbying and activism, the incidence of child labour reduced drastically – from thousands to hundreds. In large companies, finding a child labourer below 14 years of age was difficult but in the small ones, children were rescued throughout the year. 

Campaign by NEWS SCNIC & the Children of Thiruthangal demanding the Right to Education & Abolishment of Child Labour Practices

However, a quick Google search today will show that not much has changed in the town of Sivakasi. 

Here are the main reasons why child labour continued.

Corruption

Government officials raided these factories but they warned factory owners beforehand. With this tacit agreement in place, the factory bribed the Government workers to avoid prison. 

If the factory owners paid these bribes, children could continue working in the firework factories without the Government’s intrusion. The officials signed fake certificates stating that there were no child labourers in those respective factories. Factory owners also bribed Government doctors to procure false attestations of these children’s ages and showing that they were actually above 14 years of age.

Decentralisation

Since factories were constantly raided, the factories in Sivakasi and surrounding areas supplied raw materials to the workers’ houses. Therefore, families worked from their homes.

Nearly every household undertook production of pipes. Children either worked full time at home (age no bar) or part time after school. When it came to fireworks, they dyed the outer paper, rolled gunpowder, dipped the material into chemicals, and packed the final products. Children engaged in these activities for three to twelve hours every day. 

Fireworks Made at Homes

We also found a few girls who didn’t attend school and were under the threat of being married before 18 years of age. Children lived in dysfunctional families who moved houses due to fights in their neighbourhoods. Their financial situation wasn’t conducive for education either. So, they stayed at home making pipes and firecrackers. Children made close to 10 pipes which yielded INR 45 per day. The money was used by the parents whereas children got only INR 2 per day for their expenses. We interviewed a girl, 12 years old, who stated that her two elder brothers (18 and 15 years old) worked in a rice mill and college mess respectively. Thus, child labour was prevalent in other ways, too.  

Poverty, Lack of Proper Employment and School Drop-outs

Several children dropped out of school at the age of 14 and started working for wages. The reason: no scope for better employment after studies compared to the work already available. 

After studying until the tenth grade, the youth lost interest in studies. They complained that their relatives were either unemployed or working for INR 1,500 per month even after being educated. Eventually, children felt that education was a waste of time. Even if a person got a diploma or degree, they could undertake a desk or accounting job in the factories. So, while children worked as labourers in the factory, educated kids landed up in the same factories with slightly better jobs. 

Opportunities majorly available were production of matches, fireworks or the offset printing press. 

Although 40% of the families sent their kids to Government schools, their education was stopped short in the 7th grade. Several children’s rights were violated, there’s no doubt about that. But their conditions at home were so dire that earning money assumed priority. This was especially worse when a family member or parent died. Often, these households lived hand-to-mouth and children didn’t have any other option but to add to the family income. 

High school annual fees ranged between INR 4,000 and INR 25,000. There were several private schools as compared to Government ones. Generally, private schools were preferred as parents wanted their children to learn English. In Government schools, teachers were incompetent and irregular. Even Government school headmasters sent their kids to private schools because of better standards.

In families with low socioeconomic status, children watched their parents struggle and, therefore, decided to work after school and during summer vacation to fund their studies. Low family income, high cost of living, house rent were some of the key reasons children preferred to work. After all, they get nearly INR 100 per day for making fireworks, which is a significant amount for them.  

Some children used the money to indulge in activities like smoking, drinking or going to the movies. Since they experienced financial independence, they felt investing time in earning money was better than studying at school. As a result, they weren’t dedicated to learning, were unable to stay disciplined and on their own when they’re out of school. 

Another significant issue was dowry. Parents paid about a lakh (or 80 grams of gold) for each daughter’s marriage into good families. Because they’re unable to earn that amount of money, children were sent to work for more income.

Lack of Government Intervention

As already mentioned earlier, Government officials were bribed to cover up child labour and hazardous working conditions. But the Government also failed to provide substantial opportunities for alternative jobs. 

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was launched in 2005. But the scheme failed to provide meaningful employment in Tamil Nadu. Unskilled labourers found work for just 3 months (100 days) in a year. Even then, they had to travel far and wide for these jobs. Compared to the ease of working in their hometown and earning comfortably, this scheme didn’t attract labourers. And while the Government put committees and teams in place to monitor the implementation of the scheme, little success came out of it. 

There’s no dearth of regulations against child labour. The problem lay in seeing through their execution and that’s where the Government failed. As per official sources, the number of child workers in India stands at 20 million. But unofficial numbers portray a dark reality. The number is more than double – at least 50 million if not more, are child labourers. Girls are the worst affected. As seen in the film Kutty Japanin Kuzhandaigal, 70% of children working in Sivakasi, and putting their life on the line, are girls. 

Health Hazards

Except for a handful of big companies, none of the factories employed sound safety measures. More than 10 major accidents were reported in 2007, claiming several lives. As of March 2021, over 145 accidents were reported between 2011 and 2021.

The fireworks factory workers were to be given hand gloves and safety shoes but that didn’t happen. The existing safety rules were scarce and even those weren’t followed. Occupational hazards were frequent but no social research was available to establish a cause and effect relationship. Workers were made to work long hours without fair compensation.

Children reportedly suffered from chronic bronchitis, broncho-pneumonia, tuberculosis, malnutrition, gastrointestinal disorders, skin disorders, over-exhaustion, burns and  water-borne diseases. Not just that. They also lived in hazardous conditions at home, chronically exposed to toxic chemicals and working with them.

Children Exposed to Toxic Chemicals at a Decentralised Fireworks Manufacturing Facility at Thiruthangal, Sivakasi

Possibly the worst thing about this whole scenario is children didn’t have a labour union and they were working in an ‘unorganised’ sector. This meant that they could never fight for their rights. Even adults didn’t have protection against occupational hazards and toxic chemicals. Although insurance is a prerequisite as per the law, workers had none. 

Just think about it – 175 pipes made one unit fetching INR 1.7 per unit. One child could make only 20-25 units in a day and this fetched them 43 rupees to make about 4375 pipes approximately. There were no salary perks and the only payment method followed was a ‘piece rate system’. Plus, they didn’t have any insurance or job security.

Impact of Covid-19

The pandemic only added to Sivakasi’s woes. 

Since schools shut down, children resorted to working, to help their parents earn more money. In a recent report, the number of child labourers increased drastically from 28% to nearly 80% in Tamil Nadu during the lockdown. Kids also worked long hours ranging anywhere from 4 to 18 hours a day.

Not just that. 18% of child labourers also faced physical, mental and verbal abuse from their employers. One of the significant reasons for this shift was family and economic pressure. But children also couldn’t afford smartphones to continue learning online or for entertainment. Therefore, boredom and lack of interest in education were contributing factors. In addition to all of the above, if a parent fell sick or died of Covid-19, a child had no choice but to take up financial responsibilities. 

What’s even worse, as much as 81% of these children said they wanted to go back to school. But when will they? – is the bigger question. Even new, sophisticated technologies couldn’t stop the crisis from reversing all the progress made in recent years.

Explicit focus on ‘Environmental’ Sustainability

In our previous article, we discussed the different facets of sustainability: employees, society, profit, and planet. We’re all a part of this ecosystem, and better human lives means a better planet. Yet, when it came to the fireworks industry, the attention swivelled towards environmental sustainability. Amongst this, the importance of lives was lost. 

A worker at Who Had Faced an Injury in 2008 While Working at a Decentralised Factory in ThiruThangal, Sivakasi

Green crackers aren’t the only sustainable solution. The environment plaguing these families is much more toxic. Every day, they are waking up and going to work, putting their lives in danger. They may die today because of an explosion, having their bodies charred to death. Or, they may die years from now, owing to inhalation of chemicals and hazardous substances. In fact, they won’t be the sole victims of this profession. Toxicity would be embedded in their DNA for generations to come. Their children and children’s children could face life-long illnesses and multiple physical or mental deformities.

Then there are other issues like abuse and mental health. Children are also trafficked and put to work in unfair conditions. Particularly, girls face the worst challenges. Lack of education and vocation opportunities has given the people in Sivakasi no option but to bet on their lives by working in firecracker and matchstick factories.

Women Making Matches in a Decentralised Manufacturing Facility Near Their Homes

Cultural identity is also a deep-rooted issue. Sivakasi is known as the fireworks capital of India because that’s the occupation most people have in the region. The label Kutty Japan places pride in their minds for supplying fireworks across India and the world. Even if the industry is abolished, addressing this cultural identity is a challenge. 

The Possible Way Forward

Shunning these fireworks factory labourers wasn’t the right way to go about it. Banning the use of firecrackers or boycotting fireworks factories posed a threat to their livelihoods. 

The Government didn’t initiate any vocational training programs either, meaning these workers couldn’t transition to other occupations. While NEWS was providing a few after-school complementary education programs for children, there weren’t any other such programs by the Government.

After-school Education Programs for hildren of Thiruthangal

Subsequently, what was predicted years ago became reality in 2020 when firecrackers were banned. With several states across India banning the use of fireworks during Diwali 2020, factories couldn’t sell their products leaving labourers high and dry. Several units shut down and workers’ wages fell drastically. Initially in 2018, the Government banned non-green firecrackers. Units in Sivakasi then switched to green crackers manufacturing. However, 2020 came as a big blow with a complete ban.

To see this in numbers — there were 1.5 lakh people directly employed with fireworks factories and several lakhs indirectly. The production was slashed by 35% in 2021 since previous year’s stock wasn’t sold. This was a huge blow to Sivakasi.

Other associated businesses, organisations, and activities also took a hit. Most of the educational institutes in the town belonged to fireworks factory owners. If they suffered losses, the fate of education in this district suffered, too. Plus, if parents didn’t earn wages, children couldn’t attend school either. 

However, local efforts were being made to keep the industry alive through alternatives. The industry had sustained itself by constantly adapting to changing rules. And with India’s new movement – Local goes Global – the firecrackers industry has immense potential.

Change the Narrative

For starters, China is a leading exporter of firecrackers and countries like the US haven’t banned fireworks. India’s firecracker industry could be put on the map, too, if the Government provided adequate support. Currently, the narrative focuses solely on the negative side of firecrackers – pollution, child labour, accidents and more. But instead of making the industry a scapegoat to attain political goodwill and Green branding goals, it’s better to groom Sivakasi into becoming a global fireworks hub while strictly following labour rules (and ethics).

NEWS , in 2009, stated that Government organisations could build factories in bare lands, giving a salary of INR 3,000 per month with 4 days of rest every month for these workers. In that scenario, at least their labour rights violation could be prevented to a certain extent. The Government could also organise vocational training for educated youth, encouraging them to take up jobs as Government staff with reasonable salaries. In this way, the youth will be inspired to continue education, too. 

More importantly, the Government needs to tighten the noose around child labour and workers’ health violations. It’s a long, continuous process but it has the potential to improve the lives of at least three lakh people and children.

At the end of it all, I realised that these men, women and children barely realised they were being exploited. In fact, they were scarcely aware that they had rights to a meaningful life. A chance at livelihood sustained by the fireworks industry and associated activities, along with education and fulfilment of basic necessities will work in their favour. 

Credits

The featured photos were shot at Thiruthangal, Sivakasi and belong to ecoHQ.

The article has been written by Deepa Sai is the founder of ecoHQ and Quill Ink. And, the content has been edited by Ayesha Tari.

What are you getting wrong about sustainability?

For many, ‘sustainability’ is often used in conjunction with environment-friendly initiatives. True, businesses and individuals must make optimal use of resources to be sustainable. But the environment is not all the term envelopes.

The Brundtland Commission, sponsored by the UN, introduced the term ‘sustainable development’. It surmised that sustainable development is meeting present generations‘ needs without adversely affecting the future generations’ capabilities and needs.

Amidst all the hype surrounding global initiatives thereafter, the general population is swayed by their environmental impact rather than seeing the whole picture. In reality, there’s a lot you’re getting wrong about the concept. 

Sustainability is not this

If you’re creating eco-friendly clothes using lowly paid workers or, even worse, children, you’re not sustainable. Likewise, if you’re producing electric cars but mining for lithium above specified limits, you’re not sustainable. Plus, if you don’t possess the capability to recycle all or most car parts, you’re not sustainable. Similarly, if you’re manufacturing green products consistently at a loss, you’re not sustainable.

You may be doing the current generation a favour, but the future won’t look so bright. 

Here’s what Sustainability really is

Traditional sustainability models will show you three pillars. However, when researching, we found that one of the pillars – people – can be broken down into employees and society, which deserve individual spotlights. 

Pillars of Sustainable Development

Employees = Ownership & Engagement

Sustainable development in an organisation is not the upper management or CSR department’s responsibility alone. To succeed at it, employees at different levels of hierarchy need different persuasion methods.

Organising awareness programs gives employees a holistic perspective about sustainability (an appeal to the heart). Companies can then equip them with skills to monitor, streamline and improve processes. On the other hand, C-suite employees and line managers need convincing via profitable ROI projections through sustainable strategies (an appeal to the head).

Society = Social Equity & Responsibility

Social sustainability focuses on creating a community that supports social equity to empower whole communities. Social equity shouldn’t be confused with equality, though. Equality provides the same resources to each group. But equity understands different backgrounds and, therefore, allocates resources accordingly to reach an equal outcome.

Sustainable supply chains are also a part of this pillar. For example, building a close-ended system for waste recycling, rewarding labourers for undertaking eco-friendly work, passing on all-encompassing knowledge of sustainable practices to vendors, and more – constitute a socially responsible supply chain network.  

Profit = Long-term Success

According to Jeffrey Hollender, professor of corporate sustainability at NYU Stern, being sustainable isn’t a drag on profits. On the contrary, it improves profitability.

Using resources responsibly and finding alternative solutions ensure that your business is more than ready for a better future. Practices that work include – 

  • Rewarding investors for long-term investments in sustainable options
  • Not blindly focusing on output as an economic growth indicator
  • Taking note of your ecological footprint to set new standards

Planet = Environmental Progress

Much has been spoken about environmental sustainability. So much that we don’t need to write any further about it, but for the sake of clarity, let’s get the concept right.

What does this pillar include? Nature.

This involves restoring all the damages we have done to the natural habitats. Then, comes bio-conservation where we will have to use natural resources fairly and prevent any more damage to these ecosystems. 

To preserve the existing habitats, we will have to constantly monitor the soil, air and water quality. Not just that, but we will have to analyse our carbon footprint as well and do everything in our power to reduce it or offset it. This will obviously lead us to one inevitable concept: waste management. 

We can go a step further and promote biodiversity by protecting endangered species and helping them thrive in their local habitats, engaging in afforestation activities,  giving a better quality of life to indigenous tribes and marginalised communities and so forth. 

Follow all of the above, and you’re good for the environment. Just don’t fall for greenwashing.

The Sins of Greenwashing may blind you

Some brands put across sustainable claims but don’t have research or certifications to back them. This practice of propagating false or misleading green marketing claims is ‘Greenwashing’.

Owing to greenwashing, your efforts to support the environment may be having the opposite effect. So how can you check yourself? Terrachoice in 2007 suggested avoiding the below six sins of greenwashing that erode your faith in genuinely sustainable practices. 

  1. Sin of Hidden Trade-off

When a brand markets a product as ‘green’ based on a single sustainable attribute or a small group of features, it’s committing the sin of a hidden trade-off. The brand ignores other important (and in some cases, significant) attributes harmful to the user and planet.

For example, selling eco-friendly clothes that are made using child labour. Or promoting paper as biodegradable, knowing that not all forms of paper are as such.

  1. Sin of No Proof

Often, companies market claims of a product or service being eco-friendly. However, such claims aren’t supported by valid and objective third-party certifications or easily accessible information about their manufacturing process.

Instances of this sin are commonly found. Personal care products claim not to have been tested on animals, but no research backs this. Or articles made from hemp and bamboo don’t provide valid certifications for chemical-free processes.   

  1. Sin of Vagueness

Brands commit this sin when their claim is so terribly defined that the real meaning is confusing for the end consumer.

Consider beeswax packaging papers that are labelled green but don’t specify how the product is made. Or 100% natural soaps or bathroom cleaners that don’t list all their ingredients. 

  1. Sin of Lesser Two Evils

If you had to choose between using paper and going paperless, which option would you consider? Did you say option B? Then you may have just fallen for the sin of lesser two evils. 

Sometimes, businesses choose to spotlight specific green claims that may distract consumers from the more significant negative impact of the product. In the above example, e-products are backed by servers, electricity grids, and the internet, all of which consume energy (oil, gas, and coal). Plus, all our gadgets are difficult to dismantle — especially the circuit boards that have a combination of metals fused with each other — are near-impossible to recycle, surviving in landfills for decades.

  1. Sin of Irrelevance

Brands may have truthful claims to make, but what if they’re unimportant and irrelevant to the issue at hand? They end up deflecting consumer attention from real problems. 

Take the example of sanitary pads. Traditional sanitary pads are labelled as polluters and drain-cloggers. However, based on reports, menstrual waste comprises only 3% of the annual waste India generates. On the other hand, 66% comes from plastic bags and food packaging. Promoting eco-friendly pads undermines the fundamental issue of plastic waste from other significant sources.

  1. Sin of Fibbing

Sometimes, brands make outrightly false claims. 

For instance, promoting farmers’ welfare is a promotional tactic some brands use. They claim they’re providing farmers with livelihood-sustaining jobs. But the same brands import materials and products from abroad, selling them in India labelled as ‘Made in India.’

All of these sins play a role in inhibiting sustainable development. But wait, there’s more.

Why are we not sustainable yet?

Economic failures stemming from environment-harming activities aren’t punishable offences. For example, FMCG manufacturers use legal loopholes to find their way out of paying fees for unsustainable processes. Similarly, subsidising unsound practices in agriculture, energy, transport, and water harms the environment.

Political failures are a result of inaction. Governments don’t want to implement sustainable policies because they interfere with dominant industries in the economy. Then there’s harmful action wherein they clear forests to build commercial infrastructure. As a result, sectors like construction, mining, oil and gas go unregulated to serve political interests.

Communication failures happen when substantial efforts aren’t made to educate the general population. Even sustainable companies hard sell their products and promote more consumerism but forget the essence: the ‘conscious’ bit of ‘conscious consumerism’. They are not transparent about how these products are made and how much ecological footprint the products hold. However, the most important problem is that even such ‘ethical’ companies don’t share enough information on how to discard or recycle their products responsibly or help with reverse logistics to ensure that the customers are able to give back the products once used. Poor community involvement, mistrust, and misleading information – all contribute.

However, there’s room to improve and be better, green citizens of this planet. Wondering how? Well, when in doubt…

…follow these Global Yardsticks

In 2015, the world came together to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These yardsticks help develop the right and complete sustainable approach.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals as set forth by the United Nations are:

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life below Water
  15. Life on Land
  16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals

Notice that most of the goals focus on uplifting human quality of life. However, in mainstream media, only a few of these goals ever get noticed – the environment-related ones. Each SDG deserves equal, if not more attention than the other, for our planet to be fully sustainable.

To sum it up

Sustainable development doesn’t just involve the environment, flora, and fauna alone. It includes us, humans, too!

Often, sustainable enthusiasts or businesses take humans out of the equation and point fingers at them for having destroyed habitats, not realising that humans a part of that too. When habitats are torn down, we humans, especially the disadvantaged ones, end up dealing with the consequences of our actions.

Individuals, businesses and governments need to take up sustainable responsibilities actively. It won’t happen in a day or year. Sustainability is complex but achievable. Each little step you take towards incorporating sustainable practices in everyday life saves the world from years of regression.

On your part, educate yourself about what’s sustainable and what’s not. Plus, vet the brands you purchase. There are several criteria to make a note of, which we’ll be covering in one of our upcoming articles. In addition to that, we’ll show you some good sustainable brands that are talking the talk and walking the walk.

Stay tuned for more from ecoHQ!

Authors

Deepa Sai is the founder of ecoHQ and Quill Ink.

Ayesha Tari is a content writer and editor with a keen, developing interest in sustainability. In a marketing career spanning five years, she has helped build brands across industries.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash