July 6, 2004
Plastic cups can stay in the environment for centuries. In contrast, the humble kulhad biodegrades in 8 to 10 years. Not bad, considering that even food-grade paper survives 5 to 6 years because it is waxed. But this is where the good news stops.
Experts hope that when Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav presents his Budget tomorrow, he would have thought it through more carefully than his decision to serve tea in kulhad on trains.
It’s not as green as Yadav has made it out to be. In its present form, it will probably be rejected by consumers. Above all, it does very little for the rural economy. Their only hope is that one of the decision-makers will tap into the research being done in the 20-odd institutions across the country to bring the kulhad up to scratch.
These include IT-BHU and IIT Kharagpur. The Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institutes in West Bengal and Gujarat have also been researching on pottery for decades. Experts nailed some common myths about the kulhad that have gained ground of late.
• Contrary to common perception, the red kulhad takes nearly a decade to return to its natural form. This is because it is fired and exposed to temperatures of 150 degrees centigrade to make it stronger.
‘‘The water in the clay disappears and the salts melt into a glassy state and bind together making the clay stronger,’’ said D Chakravorty, ceramic engineer at CGCRI. It takes a while before this salt, exposed to vagaries of nature, decomposes.
Experts say there is technology available that can make a kulhad sturdy and also biodegrade faster. Another technology can recycle kulhads.
• Many don’t realise that the furnaces in which kulhads are made can be so polluting. A visit to an artisan colony in Jaipur reveals that most use wood dust mixed with coal dust. They cause so much pollution that most cities have banished these artisans to industrial areas.
‘‘There are new furnaces that are cleaner and more cost effective and can be set-up for the entire community,’’ said Chakravorty.
• Yadav has been in touch with the Khadi and Village Industries Commission to work out the modalities of procuring the kulhad. As things stan, the artisans get just 20-25 paise for each kulhad, while middlemen get most of the money. This can hardly be called a boost to the economy.
Also, seeing the success of the new furnaces, some consultants have got into the act in Bikaner. ‘‘This can take business away from the hands of rural artisans unless something is done to make their production more efficient,” warned Chakravorty.
• The raw material that artisans find suitable for baking comes at a cost. ‘‘We get in from as far as Ajmer and Jodhpur and each tractor costs us Rs 1300,’’ said Mange Lal, an artisan in Jaipur.
With agricultural land getting scarce, it is difficult for these artisans to lease plots that will yield the clay they want.
The answer would be to mix other materials with clay, while still eretaining its strength.
For example NTPC, which produces flyash, has written to CGCRI to ask it it can assess the health impacts of mixing flyash with clay while baking the kulhads.
• Incidentally, no one has done a study yet to see how safe a kulhad is, from a health point of view, when a liquid is poured into it. “The Government should undertake a study of this nature,’’ said Chakravorthy.
The red kulhad may not be as quite as green as Yadav has made it out to be. But with a little help from science, it can get there.
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