We’ve gotten off to what feels like a pretty slow start given our short time for work (as is to be expected when landing in a new country with very few contacts) but today we took a leap forward with our two interviews. The first was with Sunny Verma of Swechha Foundation (“a youth-run, youth-focused NGO operating from Delhi, India, engaged in the issues of environment and social development” [http://www.swechha.in/]) who was recommended to us by Ashish Rao of ICLEI. While they are not involved in urban agriculture (almost no one is), being involved with the river as an environmental issue in their curriculum means they interface with the urban agriculturists along the river. One of his key points was that agriculture in the peri-urban areas is under threat arising from the government’s policy to encourage and facilitate industrial development over agriculture. Broad swaths of farm land are condemned under a British era law known as the Land Acquisition Act which states loosely that the government has the right to take land that could be used for more productive purposes (theoretically compensating land owners) and transferring it to those who will develop that higher value enterprise. Some of that development is infrastructure (Delhi Metro, expressways) and some of it is private enterprise. In consequence, the Yamuna River, one of the most sacred rivers in India is a “black water” river; it is devoid of life.
Our second interview was with Biraj Patnaik of the Office of the Commissioners of the Supreme Court (http://www.sccommissioners.org/). The folks in this particular office are charged with overseeing the government’s compliance with a 2005 Supreme Court ruling stating that the government was not complying with its constitutional requirements to ensure the well-being of its population. This resulted in what has effectively become a “right to food” mandate requiring the government to ensure that everyone has sufficient food; a hugely challenging task in a country as populous and complex as India. He broadened our definition of UA a bit by arguing that, in a sense, it is everywhere because a lot of people engage in some form of food production, whether it is small pots of cooking herbs or flowers for religious ceremonies, or keeping of food animals; what he described was something like a “patchwork” of efforts, few of which are UA in the sense we are thinking of it in the US; there does not seem to be a “movement” around urban food production as is emerging in the US; rather it is simply what people do in the course of their daily efforts at provisioning their households. The only “urban agriculture” of consequence is along the flood plain of the Yamuna river which flows through the middle of Delhi. This is where we’ll be concentrating our efforts over the next several weeks. Although urbanization is encroaching dramatically on the flood plain, our initial impression is that there is still a great deal of farming activity along the river. On Sunday, we’ll visit a farm of a family that has a 150 year lease from the government to farm on the flood plain which will be our first foray into the field. We have identified a translator so Monday will all find us beginning our interviews and documentation of UA in Delhi.
An important discussion we are having among ourselves concerns the role of UA in megacities like Delhi. Our best estimates at present suggest there are perhaps 1000 farming families along the river as it passes through Delhi (we’ll be trying to confirm that number); what we’ve seen of the plots so far is that they appear quite small, less than a hectare: How much food can they produce against the needs of a city of 17.5 million people? We’re finding ourselves wondering about the reality of UA as a significant contributor of food to large populations. Much of the literature and much of the attitude in the US holds out UA as a major effort in the sustainability of cities; in a city as densely populated as Delhi where each person has an average of 100 square feet, most of it paved where can they realistically produce the quantities of food necessary? We’ll be thinking hard about this question over the next several weeks.