The following essay is based on Philbrick and Garzoli’s experience in the Harvard Graduate School of Design studio ‘Extreme Urbanism III: Planning for Conservation,’ taught by Rahul Mehrotra, which explores interventions at the intersection between critical conservation and urban planning and design for Agra, India, an exemplar of contemporary urban challenges.
A brutally frank, recently published New York Times Op-Ed, “Holding Your Breath in India,” gives the authors of this text pause. How to persist in matters as rarified as Imperial Mughal-era cultural heritage amidst the escalating crisis of India’s toxic urban centers? Now-former Times South East Asia correspondent Gardiner Harris recounts the chilling physical toll exacted on India’s youngest city dwellers, children whose physical capacities are stunted, lungs wasted by polluted air, life expectancies cut by the poisons they live with day after day. Medical facts: a child raised in one of India’s 14 of the world’s 25 most-polluted cities[i] will suffer respiratory impairment; diminished IQ; chronic gastro-intestinal illness from exposed, pestilent street-level gutters conveying human and animal effluence and industrial waste, prevalent open defecation, and bathing in and drinking from the slow coursing sewer drain that the magnificent Yamuna River becomes in the nine non-monsoon months of the year, into which spews raw sewage and waste, measured in terms of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), at a rate escalating from 117 tonnes per day (tpd) in 1980 to 276 tpd in 2005.[ii] Offering anecdotal evidence that underscores how endemic and systemic the crisis has become — the rule, not the exception — Harris reports discovering that the water tanks of his four-year-old Delhi apartment complex had been contaminated by sewage channels illegally dug by the developer. Prising the floor tiles to investigate the source of foul odors emanating from his sink and shower taps, “brown sludge,” he writes, “seemed to be everywhere.”[iii]