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Mani Dhingra: "For me, sustainability is an attitude and a way of life"

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Surname: Mani Dhingra
Lives in: Kharagpur, West Bengal
Country of origin: India
Stay in Germany: September 2013 to March 2014
Educational institution: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)
Job: Scientific research (PhD student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India)

After studying the subject area "Urban District Planning" at the Institute "Designing City and Landscape (ISEL)" at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) as a DAAD scholarship holder, Mani Dhingra completed her studies at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur with a master's degree in urban planning. For one year she works as a research assistant at the research institute Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe) in New Delhi in the field of climate change and sustainable development in India and worldwide. She is currently working on a PhD at the Department of Architecture and Regional Planning, IIT Kharagpur. She is interested in traditional cities in India and the question of how sustainable the old Indian branches are.

Ms. Dhingra, the United Nations recently set a series of "Sustainable Development Goals" that should pave the way for a sustainable future over the next 15 years. Do you think we can do that?

Mani Dhingra: These Sustainable Development Goals are the continuation of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Their results could not achieve the goals set for 2015. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) initially appear as the well-known in a new package, with the goals of eliminating gender inequality, hunger and poverty by 2030 appearing even more ambitious. The question of whether the SDGs will actually lead to universal sustainability is very important in view of their large and ambitious formulation. However, I see the express commitment and efforts made by developing countries to make progress as a plus point.

You know the situation in Germany as well as in India. When you look at the challenges ahead, what are the main differences between the situations in India and Germany?

Mani Dhingra: Sustainability presents Germany and India with very different challenges. In India there is still a lack of common public awareness of global environmental and social problems. In Germany one is already further there. There is already a huge step forward towards sustainable development there - the initiative for carbon dioxide-free cities. In German cities, planning is carried out in the smallest units, namely in individual quarters; this enables the plans to be implemented better. In India, this “bottom-up” approach is not yet very widespread.

The fight against poverty must be the focus

Which challenges should one face first of all, especially in India?

Mani Dhingra: The most pressing problem facing India is the increasing demand for energy and access to clean energy and water supplies. Increasing development and changes in lifestyle have caused the per capita energy requirement to rise rapidly. There are also rural areas in India that are not yet connected to the electricity grid and meet their energy needs with kerosene and firewood. Further training and the fight against poverty are social tasks that we urgently need to tackle.

In the major cities, especially New Delhi and Mumbai, air pollution from traffic is one of the major environmental problems. Do you see a realistic way of solving this problem?

Mani Dhingra: In metropolises like New Delhi and Mumbai - with their huge populations and the steadily increasing number of vehicles on the streets - air pollution is actually a major problem. The government and many are working hard to reduce congestion through efficient public transportation and clean fuels. Examples of this are the Delhi Metro and the use of compressed natural gas. One way to reduce the total number of city trips and encourage walking in India would be to integrate urban functions and with each other.

Another, perhaps even more pressing, problem is access to clean water. What solutions do you see in this area - especially for your home country?

Mani Dhingra: A key approach to solving the problem of access to clean water in India would be to educate people about wasting and storing drinking water. At the local level, innovative approaches should be pursued, such as the reuse of water through greywater treatment and rainwater storage.

Adaptation strategies become extremely important

Even if the global efforts should be more or less successful: Climate change is already happening. What about social adaptation strategies? Do you deal with these questions in your work?
Mani Dhingra: In any case, with the global problem of climate change. India is one of the countries that has been hardest hit by the consequences, including natural disasters and food insecurity. The majority of its population is poor and therefore at great risk from the effects of climate change. In this situation, adaptation strategies become more and more important. We deal intensively with these questions in our work. An example of this is a study we carried out on the displacement of the apple belt in the Himalayas as a result of climate change. Local adaptation strategies, such as the conversion to other crops or to other apple varieties, were researched with the active participation of the fruit growers in the region.

Let's talk about “green buildings” and “green cities”. What are the requirements for sustainable architecture and urban planning today and in the future?

Mani Dhingra: “Green” is a buzzword these days associated with our buildings and cities in India, especially by initiatives such as GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). It is very important to understand and implement sustainable approaches in architecture and urban planning. This is the only way to ensure a healthy living environment that is energy-efficient and self-sufficient in the long term. But it is just as important to understand the sustainability of our domestic processes and to use them as the foundation of a strong future.

Finally, a personal question: What does sustainability mean for you personally and how does it affect your everyday life?

Mani Dhingra: For me sustainability is an attitude and a way of life. That's how I want to hand the world over to the next generation. It plays an important role in my life. It starts with riding my bike to work and moving my daily activities to well-lit places. It's not about doing big things in a single day, but rather following a whole series of simple rules, such as turning off appliances when they are not in use, separating waste and using water and energy carefully .

Interview: Andreas Vierecke

November 2015