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Environment Protection: Lessons from Past

While environmental catastrophe is starkly facing us, solutions are also in sight, some from our past too. — Dr. Jaya Kakkar


Environmental resources are indeed precious, and yet are in perilous state. Rampaging marauders have little concern, giving birth to Dominic Greens, the fake environmentalists (Remember, Quantum of Solace, the Bond Movie?). Emissions are continuously rising, earth temperature is scaling up dangerously, people are dying because of the toxic air they are forced to breath, life spans are being cut short, and each new generation is afflicted by more and newer diseases than the previous one. According to a recent survey air pollution is the most prevalent risk factor (76%) among the surveyed population. Even if all the promises of emission cut made in the Paris Accord are honoured – highly unlikely – the world would still be warmer by over 3 degree Celsius. Emission of CO2 – an externality – cannot be left to the vagaries of an unregulated market, since it will produce excessive harmful gases. Global warming is a particularly scary externality. So, we need to levy penal charges against unsustainable living. But more importantly, we need to incentivize sustainable living practices. Everyone needs to contribute – citizens, business, consumers, managers, and of course the ruling dispensation. In a competitive and global setting businesses have begun to feel the need to incorporate environmental care itself as an integral part of their pursuit of competitive advantage. Enlightened businesses realize that there is no conflict between meeting the needs of the planet and attaining the goal of commercial profit; indeed, green practices are self repaying in a short time horizon for business.

Take ITC as an example. The company has over the years built a robust portfolio of environmentally sustainable businesses. It is the only enterprise in the world of comparable dimensions which is carbon negative, water positive, and solid waste recycling positive for more than a decade now. ITC has been ranked number one globally among its peers and number three overall on Environmentally Sustainable Goals (ESG) performance in the food products industry. The company even designs its own buildings paying homage to good environmental practices. It draws inspiration from even our past as we have illustrated later in this article. All stakeholders must realize that in long run sustainability is possible only if we become sensitive to the needs of the Planet. Take the example of building architecture.

The Indian architect of today has multiple choices ranging from the ancient Hindu temple style to the latest in reinforced concrete glass, and stainless steel. Of course India can evolve some new formula, not necessarily based on European precedent, but to meet the changed economic conditions and social habits of the day.

While all problems relating to water scarcity and climate catastrophe may not lie in the methods and practices of our past, certainly some inspiration may be drawn from the old practices. And we can reduce the present state of collective recklessness and unaccountability towards our environment for example rain water harvesting has been a traditional practice in our past. Storage reservoirs, ponds, lakes, irrigation, canals, step wells, etc. were constructed, maintained, and preserved. Various water bodies were built by kings and emperors who also encouraged village communities and individuals to build and maintain these on their own. 

In contemporary times technology offers many easy, even if expensive, ways to ensure amenities like water, light, cooling and heating. So the desire to consider and respect natural elements like climate, topography and orientation towards naturally environment friendly projects has become a matter of discretion. But buildings can be made more eco friendly in a self financing way. Ideally the health of planet should not be compromised in face of lure for the lolly. If mind is applied conflict between planet and profit will vanish. During the ancient and medieval times the architects had to be far more imaginative and focused since they had to meet the limitations for the locale and yet address the aspirations of their royal patrons. For example, Golconda fort and the Qutb Shahi necropolis were constructed so as not to conflict with nature supplied water to the fort using an indigenous system of underground pipes and gravity. The Qutb Shahis devised a five tiered system to ensure water supply. From the bund at Durgam Cheruru water flowed via pipes and aquaduct.

The Qutb Shahi tombs complex was aligned in such a manner as the rain water would flow into pits which in turn would carry it to custom built baolis. Not a drop was wasted. Seven baolis had systems to draw water out using oxen so that the complex always remained clean and verdant. The fort chambers were also so aligned that the winds naturally cooled the interiors. The human had a stone floor with hollow channels underneath, through which boiling water was passed to create steam even as several cold plunge pools offered a respite. 

The hotel property ITC Kohenur (Hyderabad) has drawn inspiration from such model of architecture. It has used technology to cooperate with environment, and not attempted to conquer it. The hotel has a narrow Z shape with the building appearing to lean forward at 93 degree N angle. The architect found that such an angle would be the best for lighting and cooling all year round. But since the plot was very narrow on that axis to accommodate a straight building, the edges were angled to a Z. Additionally there are strategically located louvered sections and balcony which enable the building to get sunlight on one hand, as also with shades for segments with tall windows. The tapered shape building reduces the direct blast of the sun on the east-west axis, so that the guests can enjoy sunrises and sunsets without the need for excessive air conditioning to offset the heat. Moreover, wooden louvers and balconies make sure that a low sun will also not cause overheating. The edges of the building are rounded for airflow, and are an ode to the wind smothered boulders, integral to the rocky landscape of this part of the Deccan, which have withstood the long onslaught of the time. The hotel has done well to adopt this.

As Qutb Shahi royalty used to relax in verdant charbaghs, likewise on similar lines sky gardens have been added at various levels to green the hotel as also to allow natural ventilation and fire breaks. The vertical gardens along the entrance, inspired from medieval architects and landscape planners, help cool the building. Indeed sheer wealth of a bygone era’s architectural ingenuity must inspire us in modern times to draw lessons in aesthetics and best environmental practices while we design our buildings now. All the architectural devices used by ITC have an impeccable rationale. Medieval rulers created manmade water bodies and naturally cool and airy buildings. But now technology has made us lazy, arrogant and inured to environmental needs. We have a glorious past to look up to, but we tend to run towards West to draw inspiration. Partly because our architects have been fed on a diet of western ‘developed world’ precepts and practices. Recently we have initiated the mammoth task of constructing the central vista in Delhi. While little is known, indeed remains undisclosed, about the architectural foundations of the project beyond the rudimentary, it may still not be late if the political potentates draw appropriate lessons from our glorious past and pay their obeisance to environment preservation.              


Dr Jaya Kakkar teaches History, Culture, and Environmental Studies at Shyam Lal College, Delhi University.

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