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In Kerala, village on path to become country’s first carbon-neutral panchayat

Meenangadi, nestled in the undulating hills of the Western Ghats is looking to become ‘carbon neutral’ — a state of zero carbon footprint achieved when carbon emissions in the atmosphere are cancelled out by an equal amount of sequestration.  

Written by Vishnu Varma |
Updated: February 27, 2018 1:05:31 pm
Banana saplings waiting to be distributed to groups of tribal.women in Meenangadi. (Express Photo)

WITHIN minutes on a Monday morning, the over hundred banana saplings, placed in small plastic cups on the floor of the local agricultural office at Meenangadi village in Kerala’s Wayanad district, are distributed to groups of tribal women. The free distribution, part of the village’s food-security programme, comes with strict riders from panchayat officials: “Don’t throw the plastic cups away. Store them and our workers will pick them up. Also, while using kitchen waste as manure, limit the use of soap to clean utensils. It contains chemicals.”

In any other village, residents could afford to ignore such directions. But here in Meenangadi, where an intensive government-backed project to slash greenhouse gas emissions is underway, every small step counts. The village, nestled in the undulating hills of the Western Ghats and home to tranquil coffee and pepper plantations, is looking to become ‘carbon neutral’ — a state of zero carbon footprint achieved when carbon emissions in the atmosphere are cancelled out by an equal amount of sequestration.

An aerobic compost unit to treat biodegradable waste in Meenangadi. (Express Photo) 

The concept was launched as a pilot project in Meenangadi by state Finance Minister Thomas Isaac in June 2016, months after his return from the climate change conference in Paris. At a gathering in June, 2016, Isaac’s speech struck a chord in these hills. “If our climactic ecosystem is gone, what do we do? When does the monsoon begin? Is there any set pattern to it anymore? If monsoons are gone, will we have tropical rainforests or the Western Ghats? Will Wayanad survive?” Isaac had asked, while underlining that the government had set a five-year target for the village to achieve carbon-neutral status and would use it as a blueprint for the region and for Kerala at large.

A piece of prime land at the centre of the town being developed as a public park with a pond at the centre of it. (Express Photo) 

Isaac had zeroed in on Meenangadi as it has implemented several eco-friendly measures in the past. “Be it conservation of traditional crop varieties or water bodies, the panchayat has worked in these areas. It has always had high public participation, a good team and political stability,” said Girigan Gopi, a principal scientist at the Community Biodiversity Centre.

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Since then, realising Isaac’s goal has been the centre-point of efforts in Meenangadi. The local panchayat first began by taking extensive household surveys to measure the amount of carbon emissions emanating from domestic waste. With the help of officials from the NGO Thanal, students from several universities and scientists at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, detailed audits were undertaken to understand the major sources of emissions in air, water and soil. A forest survey was also set in motion to count the number of trees and to estimate thereupon the vegetation cover that has been lost in recent years.

A view of a street in Meenangadi in Wayanad district. (Express Photo) 

“Our audits have shown that there is an excess carbon equivalent of 14,500 tons (including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane) in Meenangadi that has to be balanced,” says Dileep Kumar, programme coordinator at Thanal. “Our objective is to prepare an action plan by March and then begin implementation.” With the Paris agreement asking countries to take steps so as to keep global temperature rise to well below 2-degree celsius above pre-industrial levels, nations like Sweden have promised to become ‘carbon neutral’ by 2045. India’s action plan doesn’t mention ‘carbon neutrality’ but states that it will aim to reduce growth of its carbon emissions by 33-35% of its economy by 2030.

Officials in Meenangadi have estimated that the major source of emissions is vehicle exhausts, thanks to the steady stream of transport and private buses that ply on the national highway, which cuts through the village. Burning of dry leaves and dumping of plastic waste are other causes. The emergence of teak plantations off late has resulted in severe carbon deficit in the soil and acute dip in groundwater levels.

Beena Vijayan, serving a second term as the head of the local panchayat, says proceedings have begun in earnest to offset the carbon emissions. “A wood-based crematorium in the village now runs on CNG. We have set up a unit which will shred plastic and make it viable for tarring of roads. This month, an aerobic compost unit to treat biodegradable waste will be inaugurated. Using NREGA funds, we have planted 10,000 saplings on 32 acres of Devaswom land. Also, 35 women have been given training to make LED light bulbs that will be used for street-lighting,” Vijayan lists the steps the panchayat has taken so far.

A small banana plantation in Meenangadi. (Express Photo) 

Among the beneficiaries of the panchayat’s green efforts, such as to boost organic farming, is Ashraf, who runs a small tea stall along the national highway and doesn’t quite understand the concept of ‘carbon neutral.’ “Through Kudumbashree (a self-help group), I got seedlings of tomato, chilli, cabbage and cauliflower last week. I just planted them, let’s see,” he says.

In the months to come, aided by a Rs 10 crore state government corpus fund, the panchayat aims to initiate a project called ‘tree banking’ through which saplings of trees like mahogany will be distributed to the 8,000-odd households. After the first three years, each household will get Rs 1000 the first year for a tree and thereafter Rs 500 a year for preserving and taking care of it. “The cash incentive will discourage people from cutting trees,” an official says.

For Vijayan, implementing the ‘carbon neutral’ project, she hopes, would tackle the everyday effects of climate change in the village and Wayanad at large. “Usually at this time of the year, people have to wear sweaters. But, look, it’s already so hot,” Vijayan, sitting in her cabin at the panchayat office, tells The Indian Express. She says, across Wayanad, temperatures are rising and rainfall deficit is becoming pronounced over the years. “Prices of coffee and pepper are going down. Wayanad is turning bankrupt. When farmers face financial difficulties, they will cut trees (in their backyard) to sustain themselves, and forget their principles,” Vijayan adds.

In fact, so rampant has deforestation been in Wayanad in the last three decades that the district has come to be identified as a vulnerable climate change hotspot by the State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC). As per a research paper by the Institute of Climate Change Studies (ICCS) in Kottayam, there has been a sustained decline in the output of heat-sensitive crops like coffee, pepper and cardamom.

It’s precisely for this reason that scientists say the ‘carbon neutral’ project could not have arrived at a better time. “Locals have to be made aware of climate change and how it affects them. There has to be confidence-building measures,” says Pratheesh C. Mammen, a scientist at the ICCS. “To make it successful, you have to integrate (the project) with the development process. It will be great if it spreads to other panchayats,” he adds.

In a phone interview, the Kerala finance minister expressed optimism about the project. “The most important component was to evolve a methodology to mitigate carbon levels. In Meenangadi, we have been able to do it,” he said. He added that he would definitely visit the village in April after the conclusion of the Assembly session for a first-hand look at its implementation.

By 2020, if Meenangadi does achieve its goal, one of its perennial problems – marketing and pricing of its local produce – will get permanently sorted. After all, a ‘carbon neutral’ tag for its pepper, coffee and organic vegetables will fetch its farmers’ high prices and global attention. It can then proudly join the league of countries like Costa Rica and Peru who have expertly marketed such products.

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