Going Green! Housing Societies in Pune move towards Sustainability

The Rotary Club of Gandhi Bhavan organised a Green Societies competition inviting residential housing societies to participate and showcase all the small and large environmental initiatives that they have undertaken as responsible citizens of Pune. And it was a heartening response to see about 45 housing societies respond to this call. Over one weekend, a small group of environmental experts including officials of Rotary Club and Housing Federation, visited many of these housing societies in Pune to see the environmental initiatives actually hear from the residents their experience of Going Green.
Often as an Environmental consultant, I advise projects on setting up environmental infrastructure to tackle solid waste, waste water and energy. In our quest of installing technology, we technical consultants tend to forget that the residents are the ones who will be required to maintain and operate this infrastructure to really become Green. For technical consultants, this environmental infrastructure seems simple, logical and easy to operate, but for a collective group of citizens, maintaining these 4 – 5 pieces of environmental equipment can be quite daunting. The issue is not just the technical operation, but community infrastructure tends to get mired in the complexities of collective decision making and members disagreeing on bearing costs.
So the housing societies who are successfully maintaining and operating environmental infrastructure for more than five years are truly successful in a sense that they have not just overcome the technical challenges of operating complex equipment like the Sewage Treatment Plant, but they have also successfully negotiated the issues of collective decision making that a housing society has to undergo.
After visits to these housing complexes, some highlighting facets of how the urban middle class is looking at environmental conservation becomes very apparent.
1. The awareness of waste segregation and waste management is extremely high in Pune. Credit will have to be given to Pune Municipal Corporation officers and their staff for this. The issue of the Phursungi garbage depot really ensured that the city look at its waste differently. And citizens, particularly, urbane and aware middle class citizens of Pune, have taken it to their heart that their wet or organic waste cannot and should not go out of their premises. In almost all societies we went, waste management was immaculately done. Right from having vermicomposting pits to Organic Waste Converter machines, almost all societies are processing their organic waste fully.
It is also important to note that the infrastructure built by the Developer for waste management plays an important role. For new residential complexes where the Developers had given waste management locations which are inaccessible or too far away, residents found the waste management cumbersome and thereby lapses occur. So spatially, it is important for Developers and consequently Architects of projects to plan for environmental infrastructure in a location that is accessible for operation.
2. The Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) is the hardest nut to crack. Citizens find this piece of equipment new and relatively less understood, what with varying technologies of each vendor and equipment supplier. There is no conscious effort undertaken by the Developer to transfer information of installed equipment to the residents. Typically, we also found that paperwork related to STPs is not in order. So in many places, we had no way to understand if the capacity of the STP is correct. Despite a vendor managing the STP, we found that only in Societies where 1 or 2 citizens have taken a deep interest in understanding and monitoring the working of the STP, it works efficiently and without any apparent lapses like odour and high electrical consumption. Where residents have left the working to an agency, the agencies have invariably cut corners leading to the STP area being unclean.
Regarding installation of STPs below ground, we found that older societies had the STP below ground and accessing the pump room and STP chambers was unduly cumbersome and difficult. This led to residents ignoring vital aspects like ventilation. However, in one of the Societies, Kumar Sublime at Kondhwa, the super active and diligent citizens have converted their underground STP area into a model to be replicated. Having realised that the underground chambers need ventilation, the Society has invested into a skylight and turbo ventilator system. This has made a huge difference in the entire STP operation. Additionally, the walls have been painted by children of the society, making this otherwise “unclean” service area into a beautiful painted garden.

3. Since last 3 years there has been a tremendous interest of Housing societies in investing in Renewable energy, thanks to the reduced cost of solar PVs and the policy on net metering. We found that societies have successfully utilised their available terrace space and converted them into micro or mini energy generators. Right from 16 panels installed atop a small housing society to an array of 200 panels, we found some of the Green Societies in Pune have taken a giant leap towards Sustainability.

4. Interest in the types of trees around the premises of housing societies and looking at options to increase the tree cover also ranks quite high on the Societies’ priority list. In 2-3 societies, we found that women along with children have compiled a rudimentary ‘Ecological survey’ which lists types or trees, sighting of birds and record of some common fauna like bats, mongoose and an occasional rabbit for societies that are on the fringe of Pune. While looking at this, it will be of great value for the Municipal Corporation or elected corporators to appeal to housing societies to conduct such internal ecology surveys. These can then be compiled on Google maps to create an Ecological Survey of the city. There are numerous tree enthusiasts in Pun who can guide this voluntary and valuable work.
5. The Fire safety equipment and services remains an area that is still not on the priority for many housing societies, despite such active citizens in the three areas of waste management, waste water treatment and renewable energy. But in one Society, we found that the Society conducts a periodic Fire drill to train residents on proper evacuation procedures and even train children in putting out small household fires.
6. A few societies have gone a step further to invest in a stretcher and a wheelchair, which can be commonly used by residents in case of emergencies. One Society has invested in a ‘alarm’ system in toilets, to allow senior citizens to access emergency services during a fall in a toilet. Some societies have colour coded the chamber covers so that maintenance & repairs are easy and minimally disruptive. There is seen a systematic effort undertaken by most societies, for labelling of all downtake pipes, chamber covers etc so that repairmen find the correct place for carrying out repairs without accidentally disrupting other services. (Add photo)

Most of the residential societies in Pune seem to pay about Rs.2500/- per tenement or household (averagely) to be able to maintain and operate all of the above environmental & safety services, including landscaping services.

The most important aspect and learning that I gathered through this exercise is the way residents interact with each other when managing the affairs of the Society. In many housing societies, we found that the Developer has left some services unfinished, or the quality of services was not up to the mark. But even in such societies, where citizens have a positive attitude without the tendency to just make complaints, there is a transformation in their everyday lives. Residents have come together to find solutions and fill the gap which was left by the Developer. In such Societies I found that residents are happier, positive and ready to work together to ensure that their footprint on Mother Earth is minimised, despite many challenges. Negative and trouble making elements within the Society have been effectively isolated in most of these societies to create a forward looking and positive citizenry who are interested to work and not just complain. Mostly, the work of housing societies seems to have taken up by 1 or 2 senior citizens with women as their foot soldiers. This combination has worked the best such that senior citizens can afford to give time, while women offer to do actual physical work and get the community together to complete initiatives.
45 Societies is a very small number to really represent the cross section of housing societies in Pune. But I would like to think of these societies are flag bearers carrying forth the Green Movement. If we can tap into the energy of these societies and replicate it to others through cross exchanges, we will see many other societies overcome their challenges and begin their movement towards becoming Green. These flag bearing societies need to be appreciated and commended for their initiative and their work and these citizen Green pioneers should be made champions so that their work continues to inspire other citizens. The Housing Society Federation can use these champions to help other societies and set up their systems.

Pune always leads in transformation. Active citizenry is Pune’s legacy. Harnessing the positive active citizens can propel Pune in becoming a truly Responsible city towards Environment. Our city can show that positive action at everyone’s individual level will lead us to Sustainability.

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