Outlook Spotlight

To Achieve Optimum Balance, Development Planning Must Aim To Be Nature & People Centric

Here, Niazi talks of her experiences and learnings in the development sector, how planning and policy has changed over the decades, and outlines the actions and approaches that need to be followed by stakeholders at every level, so that sustainability can be achieved across the board.

Zeenat Niazi, Senior Vice President & Chief Knowledge Officer, Development Alternatives Group (DAG)

Development policies that fail to take into account natural ecosystems and people and their livelihoods, will fall well short of achieving the desired socio-ecological equilibrium, according to Zeenat Niazi, Senior Vice President & Chief Knowledge Officer, Development Alternatives Group (DAG), a New Delhi-based organisation working towards sustainable development. Here, Niazi talks of her experiences and learnings in the development sector, how planning and policy has changed over the decades, and outlines the actions and approaches that need to be followed by stakeholders at every level, so that sustainability can be achieved across the board.  

  1. How has planning for development that is centred on both people and nature changed? 

Modern planning is still not centred on both people and nature. This is a desirable goal and requires an approach that is connected with the social and ecological domains. The economy and governance systems, alongside technology design and options—as the primary means to enable the relationship between these two domains, and not an end in themselves—are required to regulate and facilitate the optimum balance.   

As planning becomes more and more centred around people and nature, we will see infrastructure, production and consumption systems that are much more locally managed, and that prioritise contributions to the local economy, ensure low carbon footprint, and focus on circular resource-management strategies. We will see lifestyles and economies based on sufficiency and not reliant on perpetual growth. Rather than competition, we will see greater cooperation among business models and collaboration across different stakeholders, and also a more equitable distribution of the benefits of development. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.   

There is definitely a growing global and national discourse around development that is centred more on people and nature. However, there is resistance from the capitalist economy, which considers nature as an externality, an infinite source of materials and energy, and an infinite sink of pollutants and emissions, and values financial capital over human and natural capital.   

  1. Tell us about your experience in policy studies, communication, knowledge management and development-action initiatives, at the Development Alternatives Group  

The Development Alternatives Group works on interrelated sustainability concerns, including resource stress, climate change and ecosystem loss, and the need for sustainable livelihoods at scale. We work with stakeholders at different levels, from community groups, small enterprises and local governments in rural areas, to state and national governments, global policy think-tanks and UN bodies.   

Our work encompasses innovation in technology options, institutional design, business models in the housing and green-construction sectors, renewable energy, drinking water and sanitation, rejuvenation of land and water resources, sustainable agriculture, skill-building for employment, and development of inclusive entrepreneurship. We conduct research to address concerns over resilience and also to further sustainability goals in these sectors; to demonstrate development models on the ground, such as community-based water management, group enterprise solutions, rural-habitat models that are local and green, and waste-management models, etc.; and build capacities of partners and stakeholders to replicate these models and scale them up. Additionally, we support national and state policy design and implementation through assessments, advocacy for good practice, and new approaches for development planning and action.   

My own experience in the past 32 years has been in working across the different levels of governance and action:  

  1. At the grassroots level with rural and urban communities in the areas of rural habitat, post-disaster reconstruction, urban housing and urban water and waste management; climate-change communication through community radio; and support to land- and water-management initiatives, and also to small enterprises in the areas of construction, drinking water and waste management.   

  • With Panchayats and urban local bodies to demonstrate good practice models and build capacities to take up sustainable housing, water- and waste-management initiatives 

  • With state and national governments to provide assessments of policy design and implementation, as part of various national task-forces to improve policy measures and government schemes and also to provide training to bureaucrats at the state and national levels   

  • With UN bodies and international research organisations to provide inputs to global discourse on issues around sustainable consumption and production, concerns over the circular economy and green economy, and climate action by non-government organisations 

  • My experience therefore ranges from understanding policy design and development at the national level, and the influence and implication of international treaties and commitments on national polices and sub-national action on the one hand, and an understanding of the social-ecological and economic aspects of technology deployment, development strategies and economic strategies on people’s lives and livelihoods at the grassroots level, on the other.   

    I am now involved in collating and converting the knowledge systems of the DA Group into transferable modules such that the lessons across 40 years of the organisation’s existence can be shared and made available for young professionals, bureaucrats, new startups and governments, both nationally and internationally.   

    1. What key trends have you witnessed in development planning? 

    Development Planning in India has come a long way from the five-year plan processes that ended with the 12th Plan in 2015—from there, and the end of the Planning Commission, to planning based on the national strategic response for issues such as climate, energy security, livelihood creation, housing, water and sanitation, and urbanisation, etc. This is led by different ministries under the guidance of the PMO and supported by research and facilitation by NITI Aayog. The current planning is largely mission-based to address issues of high concern in a timebound manner. However, it is also increasingly centralised and driven by central programmes and schemes.   


    Unfortunately, the evolution of planning into a more devolved, decentralised and systemic process-driven approach—as envisaged by the 73rd and 74th amendments—has not happened. And so, while we do see rapid achievements in targets for toilet construction, housing, renewable energy and digital connectivity, etc., we find a siloed, short-term approach that leaves many concerns unaddressed, including equity, gender parity, ecological integrity, resource circularity, and inclusion in governance. There is a need for balance between ‘process outcomes’ and ‘programme outputs’, which is lacking in the present day. Another missing aspect is a genuine dialogue and consultation process that includes all relevant stakeholders in policy design and development planning. However, we find very rapid corrective responses as part of a continued assessment and redesign process in policymaking and planning.   


    Digitalisation has been a huge step in development planning. Investment in GIS-based mapping and digital databases for almost all aspects—from demography, waste generation and groundwater resources to infrastructure, health and education, etc.—enables a much more objective and scientific planning. This information is available on all government portals for policy-science people, planners and others to use. We see more and more local governments becoming aware of the potential of a trackable digital database, and seeking expertise for support in planning cities, villages, infrastructure, etc.     

    1. Sustainable development is gaining momentum—why is it important to be sustainable now? 

    Sustainability is a critical goal now more than ever. We are in times of extreme uncertainty and rapid change. Globally, our patterns of consumption and production have brought our planet to a stage where today, the very existence of the human species is at risk. Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are impacting our lives and livelihoods and posing immense challenges to our own struggle for poverty eradication, and improving human health and well-being in India. Sustainability calls for development that recognises the dependence of human well-being on the ecological health of the planet; the absence of such an approach leads to social strife and economic disbalance.   


    Today, we have scientific evidence of the havoc that the last 250 years of industrial revolution and economic liberalisation—fuelled by indiscriminate mining of natural resources, fossil energy and human slavery—has unleashed. Climate scientists have predicted that changes in the atmosphere have already unleashed ecological processes that will only exacerbate natural events such as cyclones, flooding, wildfires, spread of disease vectors, and impact of urban heat islands, etc. Changes in temperature and precipitation the world over will have disastrous impacts on agriculture productivity, infrastructure and human health.   

    India is especially at risk and even though historically we have not been the primary contributors to global climate change and biodiversity loss, our current economic strategies and models of production and consumption are not adequately in sync with the desired path. With a population of 1.4 billion that is aspirational with respect to material goods and services—and needs natural resources and energy to meet the basic needs of shelter, connectivity, mobility, food and energy security—we have to look for models of development that are nature integrated and nature positive. We have a responsibility towards ensuring that our development planning responds to not only not contributing to greenhouse gases and pollution of natural ecosystems but also taking active steps to enable our people, habitations and industry to build resilience, to adapt to the imminent change and navigate future uncertainties. While the best time to think about sustainability was 250 years back, the second-best time is now.  


    1. How do we plan low-carbon development strategies? Can you list a few for our readers? 

    Low-carbon and low-resource strategies will need to address energy security through renewables, and resource security through circular-economy principles. For example, we will need to look at the way we design our buildings, such that materials being used are, as much as possible, either bio-based or recycled from previous buildings and reused or processed using minimal energy—compressed earth blocks in construction, bamboo-based structures and materials such as recycled debris and fly-ash from the waste of power plants, and low-carbon calcified cement, should replace much of the fired-brick, concrete-based construction for the growing housing demand. We must replace single-use fossil-based plastics in packaging with bio-based materials, and encourage recycling rather than incineration of plastics. We must look at decentralised wastewater treatment using bio-based zero-energy systems, extraction of nutrients from faecal matter for application in agriculture, and recycling water back into drinking water instead of relying on large, energy-dependent treatment plants that still release pollution back into our river systems.  


    1. How does sustainable development differ in rural and urban areas? Are there any challenges? 

    The principles of sustainability are the same whether applied in rural or urban areas. The basic difference between the two is density of population and primary occupation, the latter being land-based in rural areas and non-land-based in urban areas. Challenges in rural areas emanate from smaller scales and decentralisation, while those in urban areas emanate from high densities of consumption, pollution, and dependence on rural areas for resources. In both cases, solutions may differ with respect to scale, management models and technology options.