The theme for this year’s World Environment Day, “Time for Nature”, which once again put the spotlight on biodiversity, was particularly relevant in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak. There is growing evidence that links the loss of biodiversity and forests to the rise of zoonotic diseases through a complex web of interactions. The origins of several such diseases, as well as that of the greatest risks, acknowledged in this year’s Global Risks Report such as extreme weather and climate action failure, are related to environmental degradation.
As Indian cities expand and urbanise, the land use pattern has been undergoing extensive changes. Agricultural land and green and open spaces are shrinking, while built-up areas and construction in low-lying areas are expanding. These changes in the land use pattern also impact the natural and socio-economic functions within a city. Such degraded natural environments lose their resilience, resulting in the increased incidence of flooding, heat islands, local air pollution and adverse health impacts. The present situation, thus, further underscores the need to actively take steps to mainstream biodiversity conservation into urban planning.
In the context of the current situation, ICLEI South Asia organised a series of activities to mark World Environment Day 2020. As an outreach strategy to convey the significance of biodiversity, an online photo contest was organised with the theme, ‘Celebrating the Biodiversity of India’. The contest was open to all Indian citizens, who were invited to send their original photos. The eminent jury of the contest comprised Mr Shakti Singh Choudhary, Mayor, Gangtok Municipal Corporation; Dr Rajan Chedambath., Head, Centre for Heritage, Environment and Development, Kochi; Mr V Krishna, DCF, Additional Commissioner, Urban Biodiversity, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation; Dr Pradip Sarmokadam, Member Secretary, Goa State Biodiversity Board; Mr Shreyas Yadav, adventure explorer, nature and wildlife photographer; Mr Enrico Fabian, award-winning German freelance photographer and a regular contributor to The Washington Post and Der Spiegel; and Mr Emani Kumar, Deputy Secretary-General, ICLEI, and Executive Director, ICLEI South Asia.
The jury members had the challenging task of shortlisting the best of the 175 photo entries that were received. It was a difficult decision, as there were several contenders who had captured extraordinary moments of natural beauty in a frame. On the basis of the votes of the jury members, Paritosh Sonawane won the first prize for his photo entitled “Predator vs Prey”; the two-second prizes were bagged by Ajay Hiremath and Soma Das for their photos entitled “Grass” and “A Secret Valley of Life,” respectively; while the third prize went to Shaguna Rajpurohit for her “Longing is the Essence of Love” photo. The five consolation prizes were won by Rajdeep Mitra, Vijay Goromba, Makrand Pardeshi, Guru Rana and Pranav Kaiprath. The jury members appreciated the effort undertaken to organise the photo contest and also the quality of the entries that showcased India’s biodiversity.
ICLEI South Asia also organised a webinar on the significance of biodiversity conservation in sustainable urban development to mark World Environment Day. The webinar aimed to draw attention to the importance of urban biodiversity and to showcase the efforts that government agencies are taking at various levels to mainstream biodiversity conservation. The distinguished panellists at the event included Mrs. Binaben J. Acharya, Mayor, Rajkot Municipal Corporation; Dr. Rajan Chedambath, Head, c-hed, Kochi; Mr. V. Krishna, DCF, Additional Commissioner, Urban Biodiversity, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation; Dr. Pradip Sarmokadam, Member Secretary, Goa State Biodiversity Board; and Mr. Emani Kumar, Deputy Secretary-General, ICLEI and Executive Director, ICLEI South Asia.
In his welcoming remarks, Mr Emani Kumar said, “Biodiversity is a solution to several issues that we are facing. Nature gives us solutions that cities should consider adopting.” The enriching discussion began with Dr V B Mathur, Chairperson, National Biodiversity Authority, making the introductory remarks and setting the tone for the panel by emphasising that coordination among all Union ministries was the key to mainstreaming biodiversity conservation. He said, “Maintaining the integrity of forest ecosystems is also the key to our future. This includes urban forests.” Mrs Binaben J. Acharya said, “Rajkot is committed to biodiversity conservation and has institutionalised a biodiversity management committee that is responsible for not just protection of biodiversity, but also native biodiversity monitoring, documentation and for generating local awareness.” Dr Rajan C. said that learning from this entire pandemic was that we must fundamentally reorient ourselves towards sustainable living and climate-smart development. Cities must consider biodiversity in their planning process, as it would help in moving towards the SDG goals of building sustainable cities.
Some of the panellists spoke about the initiatives being taken by the states in this context. Mr V Krishna described how 75 urban forest blocks have been developed within 30 km of Hyderabad city; some would be designated as visitor zones (25%), while the rest would be forest conservation zones. Dr Pradip Sarmokdam said a People’s Biodiversity Register could be a good instrument to help with the integration of biodiversity into economic relief packages, as is being done by the Economic Revival Committee of Goa.
The expert panel also highlighted the issues faced and the lessons learnt from their experiences. To summarise, the outcomes of the webinar were: mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into urban planning is the need of the hour; apart from other benefits, systematic economic valuation of biodiversity and ecosystem services can help in economic revival; detailed documentation of biodiversity (through the development of People’s Biodiversity Registers) needs to be carried out on a priority basis; our future lies in adopting nature-based solutions and in connecting with nature; people’s participation is crucial for mainstreaming biodiversity conservation, and cities need to undertake ecosystem service-based planning through the development of a Local Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan.
In an exit survey, the participants of the webinar said they found the discussion very useful. Ninety-five per cent of them found the issues discussed by the panellists relevant, and 99 per cent said that there was a need to have a series of such webinars that showcased the work being carried out by cities on biodiversity conservation.
A quiz was also organised for the staff of ICLEI South Asia in a very interactive online session, in which the participants delved deeply into issues on urban biodiversity.