Adaptation of communities with their natural ecosystems involves a balancing act between development and conservation. That is, a balance between developing land to address growth of communities, with measures such as conservation of vital ecological processes, to deter any ill effects. A strategic framework of adaptation to aid this balance is driven by two factors: an effective planning strategy and innovative partnerships between the various stakeholders that can sustain over time. In this way, communities empowered with knowledge and skills can engage with the planning strategy to drive positive change.
The significant increase in rural to urban migration in India between the census of 2001 and 2011 indicated that processes of urbanisation fuelled the move of people to cities. However, due to the unaffordable cost of living and long commute to workplaces, residents have relocated from metropolitan Indian cities to peri-urban or rural areas. For this populace that resides outside metro areas, the need to encourage conservation of the environment among peri urban communities and to secure the livelihood of those dependent on the environment in village communities, highlights the importance of ecologically adaptive planning.
Permaculture practice in the peri-urban context
Residents, such as information technology professionals, who previously lived in the city of Bengaluru moved into the TI Ecovillage when it was set up in the mid-1990s; it is located 25 kilometres from the Bengaluru City Railway Station. The TI (Trans Indus) community found it prudent to promote self-sufficiency through a set of site development and planning strategies. With less than a third of its site as built area, the practice of permaculture in the community was manifested through a suite of ecological initiatives observed within the remaining twothirds of the area including the lake. In the late1990s, shortly after TI was set up, the community undertook serious afforestation exercises to plant trees of native species. A water conservation effort that was initiated two decades ago, has seen an increased number of recharge wells to harvest rainwater and recharge the groundwater table to benefit TI as well as the neighbouring villages.
Besides coffee, banana and coconut plantations, there is a plant nursery for organic farming of seasonal vegetables. The saplings for vegetative trees and plants are grown here and then shared within the community to grow in individual kitchen gardens. The community is committed to practices of waste treatment such as wet waste in compost pits at individual homes, harder bio-materials using an electric shredder and upcycling of plastic, paper and electronic waste through agencies specialised in their disposal. Furthermore, the residents use greywater from kitchens and home appliances for planted areas. Through this comprehensive set of permaculture practices, the TI community has maintained a sustainable mode of coexistence with its natural context.
Design-It-Yourself (DIY) approach for adaptive site planning
The innovative ecological practices performed by the TI community make it a rare example among peri-urban housing developments in India. Constrained by the regulatory framework, they are typically developer-driven and therefore focused on being efficient and duplicable with the configuration of ‘bedroom, hall and kitchen’ of housing units. The spirit of participation required from a community to influence the design of their homes and open spaces is absent in this format of development. This spirit was ushered in by a project based in Lonavala, 40 kilometres from the city of Pune in the state of Maharashtra in India. Shilpa and Pinkish Shah of S+PS Architects designed a contextual sophistication of the universal ideas of ‘do-ityourself’ and ‘mass customisation’. The resultant Design-It-Yourself (Design.I.Y.) process enabled potential homeowners to participate in the design of their homes within the framework set up by the architects.
The Design.I.Y. process circumvented the limitations of the floor space index (FSI), by devising the metric of housing development to be a unit of ‘an open adaptable space with good height, a veranda and a patch of green with the open sky above.’ By choosing the configuration of their private garden spaces, it helped homeowners adapt their private open space with a spill-over of domestic activities, into the shared open spaces on the site such as the central street, the central garden and the green buffer areas complemented by an existing site landscape of large mature trees. The ‘central street’ was crossed by pedestrian paths to create pocket parks and play areas with the architects ultimately hoping for the natural context around the Indrayani River flowing close to the site ‘to take over through these green spaces.
Top: Longitudinal street section of Design.I.Y housing showing the types of open spaces Bottom: Design-It-Yourself component matrix for residents to choose their garden+house unit configuration
Besides the choice in range of sizes and configurations, homeowners were guided by the ‘component-matrix’ to select the building elements that formed the design of their house, including stairs, railings, screens, windows and tiles. The offer of choice motivated residents to take a deep dive into how these materials may respond over time as they age, get used and are impacted by weather events. This prompted a shift from choosing a finished unit preconceived by the developer, towards having influence over the design of their community open spaces, as well as sustainable use and upcycling parts of their individual housing unit.
The Design.I.Y. housing and TI eco-village make an argument for communities that emerge in peri-urban areas of India. Environmental protection without the infrastructure to sustain it, is equivalent to a cause without a controlled effect; and development without an environmental responsibility is an effect without a cause to structure it. While these peri-urban developments demonstrated adaptive arrangements that empowered the residents, they are especially relevant in rural contexts wherein entire village communities are dependent on the natural ecosystems for their livelihood.
Conservation of nature for livelihood
These communities are designated as ICCAs or Territories and Areas Conserved by Indigenous People and Local Communities, known as Community Conserved Areas (CCAs) in India. The definition of CCAs is “natural ecosystems, including those with minimum to substantial human influence, containing significant wildlife and biodiversity value, being conserved by communities for cultural, religious, livelihood, or political purposes, using customary laws or other
effective means,” as adopted by Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, based in Pune. While this definition gives a general understanding for all CCAs across India, the conservation practices documented in the Directory of CCAs published by Kalpavriksh, range from ‘strict protection to regulated multiple-use,’ as demonstrated in the following CCA
In the coastal backwaters of the Ashtamudi Estuary in the state of Kerala, the fishing communities are engaged in clam-picking and selling domestically. With the Fisheries Department initiating clam fisheries for exports, the surge in clam-picking by fisherfolk and the shell mining lobby polluted the Ashtamudi Lake due to more boats and excessive exploitation of marine resources. The increased salinity of the lake due to stoppage of freshwater inflow from Kallada River, destroyed the spawning grounds of the fish in Ashtamudi Lake. To expedite ecological regeneration of its polluted waters, Ashtamudi Lake was designated by the Ramsar Convention as an internationally important wetland ecosystem site in 2012. Despite recurrent violation
of coastal regulatory zone norms for development, the village communities dependent on the lake for yields from clam picking have remained persistent in trying to regenerate the wetland ecosystem and secure their livelihood.
The management of natural resources like forests that stretch over large areas common to many villages, is important in order to protect regional biodiversity and wildlife corridors. This collective effort to preserve and restore contiguous forest cover, and in turn aid the livelihoods of many village communities, was steered by a non-governmental organisation called the Timbaktu Collective at Kalpavalli Forests in the state of Andhra Pradesh. This forest area that traditionally existed as a village commons for centuries, came to be governed in the early 1990s by the Kalpavalli Tree Growers’ Cooperative, structured as ‘a federation of 10 village-level committees’ centred around forest protection. These large-scale conservation efforts are delegated between individual committees and collective committees, to undertake fire control, seed dibbling, soil and water conservation works, protection and monitoring of forest areas, and planning decisions around orchard plantations.
Beyond skillful management of land and natural resources, the village forest panchayat (elected council) (VFP) in Halkar Village near Uttara Kannada district in the state of Karnataka, managed ownership and access for a democratic system of resource sharing. The democratic accessibility to the forest resources for conservation of the ecosystem, soil and streams found support from the Forests Department to let the VFP have virtual control over the forest to the village community, although the land is still legally under the forest department. The community in Halkar evolved a sustainable process of rice cultivation and fishing. The shallow parts of estuaries were made suitable for rice cultivation as the farmers built earthen embankments to control the flow of water. Mangrove plantations along earthen dams held the soil firmly, which aided pisciculture in the estuarine area. However, the regeneration through these natural means proved insufficient in the face of increased demand. The case of Halkar Village illustrated the need for greater connectivity to markets and for education of farmers to grow various tree species and participate in decision making processes with all stakeholders.
Learning from the experience of these CCAs, their role and participation in the development trajectory of India can be strengthened by identifying opportunities for conservation-based livelihood through a suitability mapping of the ecosystem for agriculture, biodiversity protection and ecosystem management as well as sharing of knowledge and skills around creative upcycling, recycling of waste, creation of edible landscapes and rejuvenation of ecological processes. Finally, strategic adaptation of communities in any natural landscape can thrive only if they are founded on an establishment of trust between the community residents with governments, international organisations or other stakeholder interests.
Note: The CCAs described in the essay and map illustration are based on the CCA Map and Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The references for the CCAs mentioned in this essay per the Directory, are as follows. For Kalpavalli Forests, all information has been extracted from the annual report (2003-2004) of the Timbaktu Collective, titled ‘In Celebration of Life’. For Halkar Village, the Directory acknowledged M.D. Subhash Chandran (Department of Botany, A. V. Baliga College, Kumta) and Yogesh Gokhale (TERI, New Delhi). For Ashtamudi Lake, it was contributed by John Swamy, independent researcher, Kerala in 2001.