Obituary: Sujit Patwardhan, India’s sustainable urban transport champion

Patwardhan founded Parisar in the 1980s out of concern for the rapid changes taking place in Pune leading to environmental degradation

By Zumbish
Published: Saturday 22 October 2022
He vociferously opposed road widening, flyovers and other projects which promoted motorisation and destroyed Pune city’s aesthetics.Photo: Facebook/Parisar.

India has lost one of the most vocal advocates of sustainable urban planning and transport.

Since the mid-1990s, environmental activist Sujit Patwardhan had been working on sustainable people-centric cities. He was recently admitted to Pune’s Manohar Joshi Memorial Hospital after he suffered various health complications.

India’s mobility champion succumbed to his illness October 22, 2022, at the age of 77.   

Patwardhan founded Parisar in the 1980s out of concern for the rapid changes taking place in Pune, leading to environmental degradation, Parisar’s Programme Director Ranjit Gadgil said in a statement.

Parisar is a non-profit working in the field of environmental awareness, education and action. Its area of interest spreads across various subjects, from nature conservation to sustainable development.

“He had been influenced by the changes taking place in Latin America and Europe. People’s movements had forced the governments of these regions to reconsider ‘automobile-centric’ policies — paving the way for a focus on walking, cycling and public transport — or ‘people-centric’ cities,” said Gadgil.

On the sad occasion, Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of the non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, recalled a few lines Patwardhan had written to her in April 2016.

The lines by Patwardhan read:

We need to push more strongly for travel demand management policies, especially because they are the most difficult to grasp. Even more disturbing is the faith in elevated highways to solve traffic problems. Someone needs to explain the futility of trying to please all road users because unless city bosses take on the personal automobiles and put them in their place, congestion, pollution, inequity as well as sprawl will continue unchecked. I know improvement is not going to happen overnight but we have to start in earnest by announcing an end to the policy of personal automobile domination.

These lines define what he stood for, said Chowdhury.

Patwardhan will be remembered for his courage and vision to challenge the misplaced policies that have incited motorisation and automobility — compromising the liveability of our cities, she added.

Parisar, in its early days, organised public lectures by luminaries like Vandana Shiva, Bittu Sehgal, Medha Patkar, MN Buch, Ramchandra Guha, Madhav Gadgil and Amulya Kumar Reddy on a variety of issues surrounding environment and sustainable development.

Patwardhan, an early and long-term supporter of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, saw transport policies being linked to various aspects of human well-being, such as air pollution, road safety and heritage conservation, said Gadgil.

He vociferously opposed road widening, flyovers and other projects which promoted motorisation and destroyed Pune city’s aesthetics. Under his leadership, Parisar fought against the destruction of rivers and hills and helped draft the city’s first Comprehensive Traffic and Transport Policy.

Also, when necessary, it took up cases such as opposition to the river road all the way to the Supreme Court,” said Gadgil.

In his lifetime, he had served on several important committees, such as — the Maharashtra State Environment Protection Committee, High Court Committee for overseeing building permissions granted in Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani, Mahabaleshwar Panchgani Regional Planning Board, Urban Heritage, Development Plan Steering, Non-Motorized Transport Committees of Pune Municipal Corporation — including others.

“I am optimistic that Pune will show the wisdom to choose the sustainable option which is also much less expensive to implement and is in keeping with the needs of our times,” Patwardhan once wrote in a newspaper column in 2019.

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