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Vitamins from scum, income from filth

A shelf-full of hope I request Sunita Narain, director of The Centre for Science and Environment, for examples of persons who have made a di...

A shelf-full of hope

I request Sunita Narain, director of The Centre for Science and Environment, for examples of persons who have made a difference at next to no cost. From the recent issues of the Centre’s magazine, Down to Earth, she sends me a shelf-full of hope. From Latur in Maharashtra to Sanganer in Rajasthan to Kalpi in UP to Auroville in Pondicherry, women are using agro-waste and rags to make exquisite art-paper for high-income users, filter paper for pharmaceutical companies. The product and process benefit the environment in many ways: what would have been littering the area is used up; one can start with an investment of just Rs 25,000 instead of the Rs 25 lakhs required for a normal paper mill; the paper is not bleached; the process is labour intensive; it requires almost no skills — and so destitute, disabled women make a good living.

The Hindustan Aeronautics’ uses its 3 tonnes of daily canteen waste to produce 230 cylinders of biogas per year. It harvests rain water — thus saving 3,600,000 litres of water every year. It uses solar energy to heat water and for lighting. One division has cut its paper consumption by fifty per cent by a simple device: it has switched from the 132 column paper to the A4 size.

From Gangtok in Sikkim to the Dal Lake to the Chitaranjan Locomotive Works to Pitthoragarh and other places in Uttaranchal small bands have transformed the environment by persuading shopkeepers, consumers, wholesalers to shun plastic bags, to either opt for paper bags or just bring their own jute bag when they come shopping.

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In Mumbai, in Pune, in Chennai individuals, groups of housewives have brought cheer to their lives, they have relieved municipalities of work the latter were in any case not doing. They have accomplished this by transforming their kitchen garbage into roof gardens. They separate bio-degradable waste from the non-degradable kind. They put the former into composting pits in the localities, or in earthen pots on their own roofs. They introduce earthworm culture into the waste. The earthworms transform the waste into manure: much sooner than would be the case otherwise — ‘‘at the end of a week,’’ says the report from Chennai. Compost for flowers, for vegetables, for shrubs in the pots. On the roofs of evangelist-pioneers, S A Dabholkar in Kolhapur and R T Doshi in Mumbai I myself saw twenty-foot high trees, sugarcane, wheat, vegetables, grapes, guava and other fruit, and much else. All from recycled waste.

The AMM Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre lifts families by spurring them to farm a slimy algae, Spirulina. Apart from Vitamin A, minerals, essential amino acids, Down to Earth reports, this ‘‘scum’’ contains 60 per cent protein as against the 20-40 per cent we find in pulses. The Centre for Biofertilizers in Madurai sells powdered algae for use in combination with inorganic fertilizers. Others in the area distribute vermiculture as a complete substitute for inorganic fertilizers. Farmers report that their yields are higher by a fifth by using these.

A farmer in Sorhanese village, Bangalore district, sets a trend by using a compound of cattle urine and neem steeped in a pit as a pesticide. He uses coconut leaves, husk and weeds as mulch to be put around coconut palms. He plants five curry plants around each coconut tree, and raises coffee plants in rows between those trees. Two school teachers take 8 hectares of degraded wasteland in Agali village, Palakkad district, Kerala, and heal it back into cultivable condition ‘‘through mulching, water conservation and silviculture, without any ploughing, fertilizers or pesticides.’’

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In Pondicherry and again near Mysore, farms are rid completely of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides with ‘‘a mash of leaves, cattle dung and a carefully chosen mix of crops’’; in the Mysore case, the couple establish that ‘‘half a litre of garlic juice mixed with 4 litres of water on a 0.2 hectare plot is enough to protect cabbage,’’ that ‘‘a decoction of vica, an ornamental plant, is also an effective pesticide, while spraying dried cowdung soaked in water for a day on vegetable crops enhances productivity.’’

The headmaster of a primary school utilizes research done at the Centre for Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas to build an improved stove to make jaggery, and enables villagers to cut the use of fuelwood by as much as a quarter, apart from ensuring that the jaggery does not acquire that ‘‘burnt’’ taste, and also preventing harm to their eyes — for the stove emits no smoke. A post-graduate capitalizes on the people’s preference for organic food, and has his produce certified as organic by the Institute of Marketing in distant Switzerland.

Three accounts in particular in Down to Earth lifted my spirits for the day. Implicated in a murder case, a retired colonel, V S Yadav was in Tihar jail for 3 months. His pasion is to change the way we treat garbage. He has organized residents’ associations for this purpose in Delhi. He put his stay in the jail to exemplary use. Tihar had 3,000 inmates. Between them they generated 45,000 kg of garbage every week. The jail was filthy — the Down to Earth writer described it as ‘‘despicable’’. Garbage was collected twice a week by the municipal truck — inefficiently at that, with a good portion of it getting dropped on the way out. Yadav got fellow prisoners to separate bio-degradable from non-degradable waste. He persuaded the jail authorities to allow him and his fellow-prisoners to dig five large pits within the compound. The non-degradable waste was sold systematically to kabariwalas. The bio-degradable portion was put into the pits. Once the pit was filled, it was covered with a thin layer of soil. The particular jail — one of five in Tihar — was transformed. And in the bargain, prisoners earned the extra bit. When Down to Earth reported, the programme was already yielding Rs 11,000 a month — after deducting Rs 300 per head for the eleven prisoners who had been engaged in collecting and segregating the waste. The income would soon shoot up as the compost matured and could be marketed. A goodly portion of the income was being contributed to the Prisoner’s Welfare Fund — through it, families of prisoners that were not able to support themselves because the main breadwinner was in the jail, were being helped. Part of the compost was being earmarked for a tree plantation scheme that the jail had taken up — the jail is spread over 161 hectares. What an example!

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The next story was about Darshan Singh Tabiba, an innovative farmer from Hiatpur village of Ludhiana District in Punjab. His farm ‘‘is unique,’’ the Down to Earth correspondent wrote. ‘‘It is a place where nothing goes waste, not even animal excreta. Waste from one activity is put to use in another.’’ The poultry waste is used as pig feed. The pig excreta and dairy waste are drained into a three-hectare pond as an addition to the fish feed. The pigsty is built near the pond’s edge so that urine, which has nitrogenous compounds such as ammonia, automatically flows into the pond. And the pond water is used for irrigation. ‘‘Thanks to the nitrogen enriched pond water, I use about 25 per cent less urea compared to other farmers harvesting the same yield,’’ says a proud Tabiba.

Tabiba is also using the waste from the nearby sugarcane industry, reports the correspondent. He uses pressmud, a byproduct rich in protein that is available free and for the asking, to feed fish, pigs and cattle. Against the national freshwater fish annual yield of 5-6 tonnes per hectare, the correspondent reports, Tabiba gets thirteen tonnes per hectare per year.

On a much larger scale was the report about the Anna University in Chennai and the mission of its Vice Chancellor, A Kalanidhi. The entire campus is being transformed — access of vehicles restricted; water-harvesting; recycling water from hostels, kitchens, laboratories; sewage treatment plant; vegetables being grown organically in what were barren, empty spaces; trees being planted in large numbers; sale of cigarettes and tobacco banned; the use of plastic bags banned; composting pits…

Groups upon groups have commenced efforts to harvest water. And many have improvised innovations even as they have built the check-dams and ancillary structures. The earthen structures to dam the water are usually built as a straight wall is built. The National Innovation Foundation’s second Award went to Bhanjibhai Mathukia, a 70 year old innovator ‘‘who has been tinkering with machines from his childhood.’’ Just as arches enable a builder to save on lintels and cement, Bhanjibhai built a check dam with a series of semi-circular bunds. The entire structure was completed for just Rs 10,000 — including the cost of labour. No help was sought or received from any governmental agency. An entire village was transformed. But when the reservoir fills, rain water flows over and is lost. In Kutch the villagers improvise a solution: a trench is dug in the riverbed till it touches the impervious rock layer, Down to Earth reports. On the downstream side of the trench a plastic sheet is draped to trap the water, and lead it to the aquifer. The trench is filled.

Why don’t we notice such things, things that are happening all around us? Why can’t we multiply the successes across the country?

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(The writer is Union Minister for Disinvestment, Communications and Information Technology)

To be concluded

First published on: 03-03-2004 at 00:00 IST
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