In Conversation with Latika Thukral, Gurgaon’s Environmental Warrior
In honour of International Women’s Day, we at Saevus celebrate all the women at the frontlines advocating for the environmental cause. For this feature, Saevus is honoured to converse with Latika Thukral, a recipient of the President’s Nari Shakti award, a Sanctuary Asia award, and a pioneer of the environmental movement in the booming metropolis of Gurgaon. She is at the helm of iAmGurgaon, a citizen-led initiative; she has been referred to as Gurgaon’s ‘Lady in Green’; her name is synonymous with the Aravali Biodiversity Park; and her tireless forest restoration and rehabilitation work is an inspiration to all of us. We hope you enjoy reading our conversation with Latika as much as we enjoyed having it.
Saevus: It’s a pleasure and an honour to have you here with us today, Latika. You are known as one of the pioneers of the biodiversity conservation movement in Gurgaon, but we know personally that you didn’t quite start out in this space. Your journey has been quite dynamic. Please tell us where you started, how you came to be where you are today, and what that entire process has looked like.
Latika: You’re absolutely right, I don’t come from this background, I could not differentiate one tree from the other. I’m a banker by profession who worked with Citibank for 18 years. I took a sabbatical 12 years ago to spend more time with my sons, and never went back to work afterwards. I decided during this time off that I wanted to do something for Gurgaon. My family moved here 25 years ago, and at the time we felt like we were moving to a quiet place in a suburb with our children. As we all know today, this didn’t really translate in the same way. Before our own eyes, we saw a huge transformation taking place in Gurgaon as the city grew rapidly in a haphazard manner. We felt there was a need to intervene to make a difference in our city. We felt a need to work with the local administration, to help in any way we can. This got a group of people together and that’s how iAmGurgaon started.
In the beginning, I thought this would take a few hours a week, but it has consumed me totally and even 24 hours are not enough. Every day we feel privileged that we got this opportunity. I don’t know how many people can say that they were able to work on 380 acres of land which used to be a mining site, and has now been converted into a forest. Today we are working on 3-4 more projects in Gurgaon, and every one of our projects is on creating public spaces for people from all walks of life.
Saevus: The Aravali Biodiversity Park is a 380-acre city forest – many people refer to it as the lungs of Gurgaon and say that the level of air quality would have been much worse if it wasn’t for this site that you painstakingly restored over the years. Tell us a little bit about how the project started. How did you identify the site? Did you envision that let alone in 10 years, that within your lifetime you would see it restored in the way that it has been?
Latika: When we decided to work with the government agencies and said we want to help, our vision was very limited. We started by beautifying roundabouts and cleaning markets in Gurgaon. Soon after, however, our entire team decided that we needed to work on a project that would have a bigger impact. We had all seen this area next to the border but had no idea what it was or what to do with it, except that we wanted to restore it in some way. When we reached out to the erstwhile Municipal Commissioner, Mr. Khullar with an initial proposal, he got very excited and offered us his support. Along the way, we shelved our initial ideas of creating a butterfly park and decided to do it the right way.
For us, the right way to do it was to plant local species. We thought this would be fairly straightforward, but along the way realized that local species mean different things for different people – for example, to many people it meant adapted species and not necessarily indigenous species. It was clear that we needed an expert who understood the Aravalis to understand how the plantation should be done, and that led us to meet Pradip Kishen, a renowned expert on the Aravalis. He referred Vijay Dhashmana to us, who joined the team as a naturalist. That’s really when our journey kicked off.
We faced many obstacles along the way. Planting in a mining site had its own challenges – it had a lot of Prosopis juliflora (also known as Vilayati Kikar) which needed to be eradicated. For planting native species, the biggest issue we were facing was where to find those species! Nobody was growing them in Gurgaon – we could find only two of the two hundred species we had identified. We actually had to go through the gazettes of the British era to identify the species that were seen in those times. Eventually, we figured that setting up our own in-house nursery was the only way forward. And today we have, I think, one of the biggest nurseries in the country for Aravali species, with over two hundred species grown in-house.
We are so elated now that Biodiversity Park really looks like a young forest, and we are watching it grow in our lifetimes. I think in another five, seven, ten years, it’s going to be one of the finest forests in the country. It all probably worked out this way because we didn’t have to prove anything, and this wasn’t that it was a job for us – we were doing it out of our love for our city. We had a vision – to create an Aravali forest – and we stuck to it. Now that vision is a reality, and nothing succeeds like success!
Misty hues at Aravali Biodiversity Park
Saevus: What proportion of the species at Biodiversity Park are indigenous to the Aravalis?
Latika: 100 percent of species we have planted at Biodiversity Park are indigenous. In fact, we just published a piece on 10 Years of Making the Biodiversity Park, and I think it’s a great way to demonstrate what it takes to create a place like this. One of the most important things that we have learnt is that if one plants the right way, the original biodiversity of a place will all come back on its own. The tree plantation got the birds to come in, the grasses got the got insects to return, and the whole ecosystem is now thriving. Talk about butterflies, frogs, animals – everything has emerged just with the right kind of plantation – and we feel so proud of this living laboratory that experts from outside are now coming in to research.
Saevus: Tell us about the challenges that you faced along the way, particularly by virtue of being a woman – we would love to hear a first-person account of what environmentalism in the 21st century by a woman in one of the largest metropolitan cities in the country looks like.
Latika: We live in a male-dominated city. In all of Haryana, they’re not used to women telling them what to do, and everyone has their own views on how things need to be done. My parents brought us up to fight for the right thing, and I have learnt to be a die-hard fighter. The other important thing I have learnt is that whatever you do, you must put your heart and soul into it, and that has happened with iAmGurgaon.
Saevus: In all of your interviews and publications, you’ve spoken about the importance of public spaces. That is refreshing to hear because there is never really a premium placed on public spaces because people are very happy within their own homes and their immediate surroundings. How is it that you started thinking in this way?
Latika: It’s really been something that evolved along the way, especially through some very enriching experiences at Biodiversity Park. We were an integral part of the process on the ground and got many opportunities to interact and communicate with people that we would never have had an opportunity to engage with otherwise.
I remember in our first year, on this really hot day – it was about forty-five degrees – a guy from a local village came up to me with a glass of chaas (buttermilk) and said, “You have been working here alone in this heat for so long and we see you here every day – we have cows at home, and my mother has sent this for you”. This started happening with more and more people – they would stop us as we went about our restoration work and would start chatting with us, inviting us for weddings, celebrations and also solemnities. They have been extremely kind to us and even protective of us on many occasions. If it wasn’t for these experiences, we would have never learnt all that we did and would never have known about the original dwellers of this city – at the end of the day, we are the ones who have migrated into the city, and so it is very important for these interactions to continue.
The other realization was also that disadvantaged communities don’t really have a space for recreation, they really have no place to go. When we took up the Wazirabad-Chakkarpur Bundh, the then Conservator of Forests suggested that it remain closed during the day. But in my head, I had envisioned it to be a mobility corridor and was convinced that it needs to be open for all, and all the time. Public spaces translate differently for different people – for some of us, it would be a recreational space, but for others, it could be a mobility corridor. We accounted for people with disabilities in the planning stage itself, so the Wazirabad-Chakkarapur Bundh has wheelchair access and is also accessible to the visually impaired. Today, I feel most happy when I see people actually using this for commuting, and doing so with dignity. Now the local communities have been able to take ownership of the project, which is really the only way for it to be sustainable and successful. It is things like these that make us believe in the power of public spaces and reinstates the belief that whatever we do, it has to be open to all.
Mobility corridor at the Wazirabad-Chakkarpur Bundh
Saevus: You started off at a time when there weren’t a lot of conversations in India about conservation and climate change. On top of that, Gurgaon’s citizenry has been notorious for being passive, self-involved, and corporate. But over the years, you have received immense citizen support – in fact, you refer to yourself as a citizen-led movement. It seems that over the years, a sense of environmental consciousness amongst the citizens of Gurgaon and Delhi has come about. How has that evolved according to you?
Latika: When people tell me I am an environmentalist, I still don’t know what to say. I am just a resident of Gurgaon, very selfishly trying to make a difference to the city. Everything that we do comes out of ownership of our city, and for me, it has been 12 years of learning. I have always been all about leading by example and actually going into the field and getting my hands dirty. It’s very easy to stand up and say, for example, that we should segregate our waste, or we should plant every year, and so on. Whatever work we have done, we have stood there and done it ourselves. It is this experience that really taught me everything I know today. I would still say I’m not an expert, but because of my practical learnings, there are many areas where I would know as much as, if not more than some experts.
With regard to Gurgaon, what is really exciting is that there are a huge number of people who feel as strongly about the environment as we do. iAmGurgaon’s ethos has always been about involving citizens, residents, civil society, corporates, schoolchildren, and everybody else in our activities. So, for us, the plantation wasn’t just about planting through gardeners and botanists – it was plantation through schools, employees, and so many others. We always ensured that everybody was involved in the process, and I think this is now in the DNA of Gurgaon. There is a large population of people who feel strongly about working towards a sustainable environment in the city. We all have moved into a new city and want to play a role in contributing to the cause of saving it.
A true blue city forest, with the Gurgaon metro in the background
Saevus: And has it gotten any easier, would you say, over the past 12 years?
Latika: No, no, nothing has gotten easier. I think each year we have a different challenge, along with the continuing challenges from previous years. Earlier it was construction in the Aravalis, now we are fighting plans to start mining in the Aravalis. Then there is the air pollution which is at its peak, and water scarcity is looming. We have forgotten about the water channels and have blocked them, which is why our cities are getting flooded. It is all just because of poor planning and insensitivity to the water channels.
Saevus: Yes, this is such an important conversation to have, because all of your work in Gurgaon has to be retrospective in the sense that plans for the city were laid out already and the work was done, like you said, in a haphazard way. Nobody really thought about inculcating sustainability into city planning proactively or prospectively – at the planning stage itself. Across the country now, so many smart cities are coming up and there is a massive push to an escalation of infrastructure. How do you think city planners should account for sustainability and these challenges of waste management, of ensuring water supply, of ensuring an acceptable level of biodiversity and forest cover?
Latika: This is exactly the problem – government agencies do not have an urban planner, a city planner, or even an architect. It’s the civil engineers who are running the city, and civil engineers cannot plan sustainable cities as they will only think of constructing. As somebody who is not an expert and doesn’t come from this background – I can say with conviction that we don’t need to construct anymore. We just need to ensure that what we already have is functional. If we just focus on repairing what we have, we will save our cities. Our constant dream is to construct more and more – whether it is a pavement or a drain, all without thinking. We need to sit back and get urban planners and experts to come in and advise on developmental requirements in the city, whether it is flooding or waste disposal. It cannot be done just by the municipal corporation – it needs an interdisciplinary set of experts who are capable of analyzing the issue from different perspectives.
Saevus: Well said. So, what’s next in your vision? Both for iAmGurgaon, and for Latika?
Latika: Every year I keep saying that this is my last year and we will start winding down in the next two or three years. The next day something new comes along and the whole team gets excited. This goes on and on, and one thing leads to another. We also get huge support from Gurgaon’s corporates and we just can’t let them down. People repose immense hope and belief in us which keeps us going. But that said, everyone at iAmGurgaon works voluntarily and we all belong to a similar age group. We are now looking for some youngsters to come and take over, and take iAmGurgaon to the next level so we can take a backseat. Let’s hope that that happens soon.
In terms of projects, we have another three kilometers to finish at Badshahpur. Second, there is the eighty-acre Sikanderpur forest project, which is half done in terms of plantation and restoration. And we are hoping to be able to find another parcel of land which we can convert into a second Biodiversity Park.
Saevus: Share with us some incidents, some reviews that people may have given you that has really stuck with you and that you go back to every time you’re feeling down and out.
Latika: Over the years, so many elderly people have stopped me and said, “Bless you for creating Biodiversity Park, it has given us the space to walk around freely”. I can’t count the number of blessings I’ve received from the elderly. I can also stand at any point of the Biodiversity Park and point out which sapling has been planted by which individual, group or corporate. I know which area was restored in whose memory, and so on. We’ve planted one lakh forty-five thousand saplings there, so that’s the kind of effort one has put in.
I definitely think that it is divine intervention that Biodiversity Park came up. Somebody felt that Gurgaon needed some kind of green space, and we were the chosen ones to do it. There were no plans laid down, there was no reason for this space to exist – so I really think it has to be divine intervention that Biodiversity Park is what it is today.
Public spaces mean different things to different people and must remain open to all
Saevus: There are so many young women, mid-career professionals, and even the elderly who want to make a difference, who want to contribute to the environmental movement, but they just don’t know where to start and don’t have the confidence to feel that they will really be able to make a difference. What is the message that you would like to convey to them, to give them some hope?
Latika: I personally think that everybody has the potential to make a difference. Everyone doesn’t have to go on the ground. Just do a little bit in your own home, whether it means that you are trying to save water, or you are trying to segregate waste, or you are trying to convince ten more people to do the same. There is no rule that everybody has to do everything – each one of us needs to do whatever little is in our capacity. For example, when we were building our house 15 years ago, we used solar energy, installed a water harvesting unit and so on. We did all this because it was what was in our individual capacity. Apart from this, there is always a role for anyone who is interested in contributing – one can write, educate, agitate; lawyers can help fight petitions; people can help with digital marketing; and so much more. There is always to scope to do more, and everyone must do their two-bits for the cause.
Image credits (for all images): iAmGurgaon