Friday, 1 November 2013

Fuming at Festivals

No, I am not a killjoy, but I am definitely a supporter of ‘kill crackers’ – well, because crackers kill.  With Diwali just around the corner, I’m sure we are looking forward to an enjoyable festive season, not a fumes filled festival that leaves us all fuming! 

It’s rather strange, we are not a stupid people, and we know perfectly well the dangerous chemical cocktail that firecrackers are composed of – we can probably rattle off the names of the hazardous stuff they put into the crackers and the ailments they cause – so why then do we spend thousands of rupees (even when the economy is down and inflation is up) on actually harming ourselves? Forget about burning a hole in our pockets, it’s more like they've burnt a hole in our brains!

Probably what we need is a cultural change. Talking about culture is treading on explosive ground, people get all upset and uptight the moment you say something unsavoury about culture. But yes, I repeat: we need a cultural change. Culture is not a static sacred norm; it is a way of life that evolves over time. And in the course of this evolution not everything that becomes part of our life – ‘our culture’ – is right or good or perfect. Firecrackers, for example – to believe that firecrackers are an indispensable ingredient of our festivals, that’s a myth we need to correct, a custom we need to call a halt to.  

Like I said earlier, culture evolves – it’s definitely time to move on from crackers to a more sensible, safer and happier expression of our celebrations. Flowers, lanterns, stars, sweets, gifts, singing, dancing, we have a vast variety of options to choose from. If we introduce a change today, someday soon we’ll be able to say: “No, there are no firecrackers in our celebrations, crackers are just not part of our culture!”    

Friday, 18 October 2013

Meet the Change-makers

While we have scores of people moaning about the mess that Mumbai is in, we have a few others who put their proverbial ‘best foot forward’ and take those necessary steps on the road to changing the situation.  One such group of change-makers is the ALM leaders from Bandra. Their relentless solution seeking attitude is indeed inspiring. Just this morning one of the newspapers carried an elaborate article on how they have been tackling the garbage issue in their locality, especially the composting of the wet waste that they have begun. Here are a few excerpts from that news item, quotes from some of the ALM leaders who are spearheading the project.

Christopher Pereira: “In ALMs meetings, where everyone complains about garbage issues in their neighbourhood, I say I do not have any problems. When they ask me why, I tell them about the compost system. I do not need to wait every day for the BMC truck to take away my garbage. You come and see, I tell them.”

Maria D’Souza: “We have appointed a helper to collect wet garbage from all the flats in the building and deposit it in the tumblers installed in the garden. He gives me updates of residents who do not segregate it and I personally meet them and request them to. Everyone sees that the system works, so no one poses any objections.”

Denzil Rego: “These boards are important to spread awareness about the cause. When members of non-practicing societies see it, they want to find out more and approach us. We constantly monitor societies and buildings that follow composting as a regular practice. There are a few who put up the board, but do not practice composting. In such cases we cannot mollycoddle them, they have to be equally involved in the process.”

Shama Kulkarni: “The BMC has set up a rule where they will fine buildings that do not segregate their garbage. I think it is time they take this seriously; it is the only way people will take garbage separation and composting seriously. They spend a big chunk of money in transporting waste to landfills. This system of composting will take the load off them, if everyone follows a two-bin policy, segregating their wet and dry waste. In the past year, a few households, societies, schools, and institutions in Bandra have not had the need to use the daily BMC garbage trucks. This is a good sign.”

It’s a good sign indeed and hopefully other localities will soon follow their example! 

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Celebrating the Mithi

Across the globe, the last Sunday of September every year is celebrated as ‘World Rivers Day’. Well, I really don’t know if we in Mumbai have any reason to celebrate when it comes to rivers, given the fact that our rivers in Mumbai are in such a pathetic state – especially the Mithi that flows through a significant part of the city. At best, this putrefied flowing embarrassment – that sets out from the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali, and 18 kms later meets the Arabian Sea at the Mahim Creek – can be described as a sewer. 

So what has caused this once delightful river to have metamorphosed into this disgusting sewer? As India’s ‘Waterman’ and Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh pointed out, “It is the collective apathy of the people of Mumbai, absence of political will, and administrative lethargy, that are all responsible for the current oppressive state of the Mithi”.  

“Collective Apathy”, how true – for indeed ‘indifference’ is our middle name. This collective indifference, springs from our Collective Ignorance. I wonder how many of us living in this chaotic megapolis are even aware of the existence of the Mithi. Probably we are just vaguely conscious that some river called the Mithi flows through the city; but do we even know its course, or would be able to actually point it out? Two years back we did a programme called ‘Meet the Mithi’ – on seeing the poster announcing the event, someone wrote to me asking “What is a mithi?” Our ignorance obviously breeds indifference.

And then there is our Collective Indiscipline. We litter, we dump garbage, we pollute, we destroy and we care a damn! In fact this has got so crystallized into our character that we don’t even realize the damage we are causing. And so we go about callously converting the Mithi into a filth stream. From the religious devotee who piously flings the ‘flower offerings’ (plastic bag and all) into the river, to the unscrupulous factory owner who pumps hazardous industrial waste into it; from the hardworking housewives washing clothes of the banks of the Mithi, to the hundreds of nearby inhabitants who blissfully crap into it every day – this gross indiscipline has turned Mumbai’s best known river into a grisly gutter.

But no, we've not reached the end of the road, or rather, the end of the river. People like Janak Daftari, Rishi Agarwal and Gautam Kirtane have been fighting the Mithi battle for long. And on World Rivers Day we celebrate their determination, their fight. And hopefully their fight will become our fight too. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

CSR and the Environment

The Parliament recently passed the Companies Bill, which will now replace the Companies Act of 1956. This new law makes it mandatory for companies to spend 2 percent of their profit on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Of course, this refers only to companies with a net profit of more than Rs 5 crore. It is heartening that even before this law was enacted, companies have been voluntarily spending on CSR projects. While projects related to education, health and women’s empowerment have been hot favourites in the CSR sector, environmental projects have recently been gaining popularity. With CSR now becoming mandatory for corporate biggies, I guess, or at least I hope, there will be even greater commitment towards addressing the social and environmental issues we are facing.

In terms of the environment, I would believe that the first step in exercising responsibility would be for companies to engage in a sincere and serious green audit of themselves. They would need to examine the environmental impact of the goods and services they produce, a review of their production and marketing processes, a thorough assessment of their own ecological footprint. Obviously, the objective of this exercise is not just to know the amount of environmental damage the company is causing (no company is going to put money on the table to dig out its faults), but rather to determine how this damage can be reduced or minimized.

Further, it would definitely be worthwhile for companies to invest part of their CSR funds into eco-friendly technologies. Solar power, for example, would be an area to be explored. Given the fact that all companies consume huge amounts of energy, be it in their production plants or corporate offices, moving over to solar energy would definitely be a step in the right direction. Similarly, in terms of water, creating rainwater harvesting structures or constructing grey-water recycling plants, would be highly beneficial. Investing in good waste management systems is yet another avenue to considered.

And yes, donating CSR funds to meaningful environmental projects is crucial. Often companies approach environmental organizations, asking them to hold some ‘symbolic event’ such as a tree plantation or clean-up drive. Sizable funds are poured into these events that produce no results – except good photographs that can be published in the company’s annual report. It is time to move from the ‘symbolic’ to the ‘significant’, funding projects that significantly impact the environment. These ‘significant projects’ are not ‘events’ that can he conducted in a single afternoon, they need time, but in the end, they make a difference. 

Let's hope we see some 'responsibility' exercised as the companies go about acting on the demands of this new 'Responsibility Act'!  

Monday, 29 July 2013

BMC Flops Again

We are almost at the end of July – the month that was supposed to witness Mumbai sprucing up. But the BMC has flopped again!  

In February this year, the BMC had solemnly announced that it would make segregation of dry and wet waste at source compulsory from July. Flexing its muscles over the issue, the BMC had declared that it would stop accepting mixed waste. Taking an even further aggressive stance, the civic authority had threatened to slap huge fines on defaulters and to punish repeated non-compliance with imprisonment. On its side, the BMC had promised to put in place all the infrastructure needed, press into service additional collection compactors and upgrade segregation centres.

Well, July is almost over, and none of this has been implemented. Instead, as it happens all the time, we have been dished out a new set of promises, another package of plans, and a further revised schedule. We have now been told by Manisha Mhaiskar (Additional Municipal Commissioner) that segregation at source and house-to-house collection of waste will be implemented by March 2014 and that separate disposal and treatment mechanisms for dry and wet waste will be put in place by March 2015.

So what is our reaction to this recurrent delay in implementing a proper waste management system in the city? Are we heaving a collective sigh of relief that we have been spared the task, at least for the present, of segregating our waste? Are we just glad that we can continue to dump our waste as we want and where we want? Or are we seriously upset that we have to wait for another year or two, before we have a more decent and sensible system of handling our waste.

But actually we don’t have to wait. It’s true that the BMC has deferred the enforcement of the law, but what stops us from enforcing it upon our homes and our housing societies? ALMs, for example, could take up the responsibility of setting up workable waste management systems in their respective localities.

And let’s keep the pressure on the BMC to deliver – for unless the infrastructure is in place, our own efforts will only have limited value. 

Friday, 12 July 2013

Reviving Trees, Reviving Synergy

The ‘Tree Revival’ session at Bandra this morning was certainly a motivating experience.  The ‘Tree Revival Campaign’ is a joint effort by the Environmental Management Centre (EMC) and GreenLine to revive an interest in trees among citizens and also to revive Mumbai’s tree cover. The session this morning witnessed the presence of students from six Bandra schools, several ALM leaders, and some of Mumbai’s well known ‘tree experts’, including Rishi Agarwal, Reene Vyas and Katie Bagli.

What I found particularly interesting was the animated interaction among the young students, society leaders and environmentalists.  Watching the lively discussion happening among these different groups, the word that kept coming to my mind was ‘Synergy’.  The energy of the kids, the commitment of the leaders and the passion of the environmentalists blended perfectly together for this cause of ‘tree revival’.  While the ALM leaders were keen on protecting and enhancing the green cover in their localities, the environmentalists were more than happy to provide all the expert insights needed to support this cause. And of course, the kids were thrilled to throw in their efforts, to ensure that this mission is accomplished.

Well, the Tree Revival Campaign has definitely revived the connections among various citizens and groups – now that’s already a good first result! Let’s hope the synergy that has been created takes this campaign zooming forward! 

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Chew and Chuck!

A couple of days back I took the ‘Intercity Express’ to Pune. In fact, it’s a train I usually travel by when I need to get from Mumbai to Pune. The timing is most convenient, you catch the Intercity at Dadar at 7.00 a.m. and you are in Pune just three hours later.  The timing also makes it a ‘breakfast train’ – you have a chain of vendors continually dishing out a variety of delicacies from idli sambar to vada pav. And yes, you have the chai and coffee wallahs briskly pouring their brew from steaming kettles, offering you yet another cup, each time you are done with a sabudana vada or a veg samosa.

As the train hurried along its way, I sat looking at the munching passengers – the clip-clopping of the train had got them into a happy rhythm too, chew and chuck... chew and chuck! Disposable plates and cups, plastic bags and paper napkins, aluminium cans and laminated sachets... all sent sailing merrily through the window!

When the lady sitting opposite me was about to chuck her refuse out of the window, I viciously grabbed it out of her hand. She gave me a horrified look, probably thinking I was some kind of psychopath, who had the fetish of collecting discarded waste!

Well, I don’t want to get into a discussion on how we have developed this appalling habit of compulsive littering, as though the entire country was one huge waste bin. But the question I want to raise is, why doesn't the Indian Railways provide waste bins in every compartment, or at least in every coach? In the total absence of such bins, the only option is to cheerfully chuck your waste through the window. To expect us litterati to cling to our waste till we reach a station, and then go looking for a bin on the platform, is asking for the impossible!

I am contemplating writing to the Railway Minister, requesting him to introduce bins in all long-distance passenger trains, but whether he will pay any heed, is a million dollar question! Any other bright ideas?    

Saturday, 22 June 2013

For Whom The Bell Tolls

The downpour has worn itself weak and has drained down to a damp drizzle. The media will soon lose interest in the story and will cease flaring up our television screens with those dramatic scenes of enraged waters hurling themselves against buildings and bringing them down like the proverbial pack of cards, tearing down temples and tossing around trucks.... so like an infuriated child throwing an uncontrollable tantrum.... ripping and smashing and hurling and destroying! And as we gasped at these Hollywoodian like horror scenes, we had to pinch ourselves into remembering that this frightful flood footage, that roared and rushed across our screens, was not produced on some cleverly crafted film sets – that this was real, this was Uttarakhand, this was happening even as we watched it!

And with the stormy waters came stormy questions. And the answers are strewn all around us like the wreckage left by the floods. Never ending construction of roads to accommodate ever increasing tourism. Rapid multiplication of vehicles plying on those disastrous roads. Frenzied expansion of hydro-power projects promoted by the hydel mafia. Unchecked deforestation stripping the slopes naked. Illegal constructions and encroachments. This sin list has no end. But the details are there in the newspapers and on many a website so I don’t need to enumerate all those man-made factors that fatally aggravated this disaster.  It was not ‘an angry child in a fit of rage’, it was a consortium of crooked adults with greed gushing through their veins who were responsible for this painful tragedy.  

But this is not a story to which Uttarakhand holds exclusive rights. It’s a story that is shamelessly played out in so many parts of our country. Environmental reports scoffed at, norms flouted, figures fudged, EIAs manipulated, disasters manufactured.

And so, as we moan this tragedy, lurking at the back of our minds is the frightening question: could we be next? With the precarious environmental situation that our country has been pushed into, it’s hard to say for whom the bell tolls!  

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Water Woes, Water Waste

The Mumbai monsoon has arrived, bringing with it the anticipated chaos and confusion. The BMC’s pompous pronouncement that the city had been readied for the rains - a claim which no one believed - fell flat and was washed away by the very first showers.

As the rain gods merrily drenched the city, the roads turned into rivers, causing the mess and the mayhem that every monsoon ushers in. Like thousands of other commuters, I too was caught up in one of those frustrating traffic jams at Parel. The area all around resembled a water-park, with dozens of sprightly kids having a blast in the water, which reached up to their waist.

The BMC staff was at work too – I guess emergencies force them into action. They had taken off the manhole covers and were coaxing the water down the drains, desperately trying to rush it away into the sea.

Looking at the commotion all around, I was reminded of the fact that Mumbai constantly has its water woes. While through most of the year we struggle with water shortage and the resulting water cuts, during the monsoon we just don’t know how to cope with the water that inundates us. In this season of plenty, we literally drive the water down the drain – what a waste!

Well, we often talk about urban rainwater harvesting, but rarely get down to doing anything about it. The BMC has made rainwater harvesting mandatory for new building projects since a decade, but I seriously doubt this norm is being followed.

I guess one reason why urban rainwater harvesting isn't popular, is because we believe that it is too costly and complex. Well, there are actually some very simple measures that can be adopted. For example, thanks to the advice given by Ajit Gokhale, an expert in this field, we ‘punctured’ the entire drain that runs around our Matunga campus. Essentially, this consists in digging pits at intervals of 10 feet all through the drain, which allows the water to percolate into the ground. There are several such simple yet effective techniques, that can be used to harvest rainwater in the urban context.

We Mumbaikars claim to be smart... so why aren't we making smart use of all the rainwater that we are blessed with?  

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Think. Eat. Save

The theme for World Environment Day this year is ‘Think-Eat-Save’. This catchy slogan seeks to convey a simple yet critical message: ‘Think before you eat and help save the environment’.  ‘Think-Eat-Save’ is primarily an anti-food waste campaign. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, every year 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted. What we don’t realize is that food waste is an enormous drain on natural resources, since, when food is wasted, it means that all the resources and inputs used in the production of that food are also lost.

But besides food waste, I believe there are two further issues we need to think about when it comes to food: packaging and serving.

The packaging that accompanies the food products we buy is probably something we rarely bother to think about. Take for example the chips that have become extremely popular today. These chips come in attractive packets that immediately grab your attention. But what really needs to grab your attention is the material from which these packets are manufactured. Most chip packets are made from aluminium laminated with polypropylene, also known as metalized polypropylene, or low-density polyethylene film. This material is very difficult to recycle and is also non-biodegradable. Hence, centuries after we’ve eaten the chips, their packets will continue lying around, choking drains or adding to the already existing mounts of garbage.  Besides these packets, many other food products also come with excessive and environmentally harmful packaging, which has today become a menace. So the next time you are picking up a food product, check its packaging, and if it is not environmentally friendly, look for an alternative product.

And how we serve food is again something we need to think about. Today, especially for parties and other large gatherings, we have got into the habit of using disposable plates, cups and cutlery. While this may appear convenient, and it definitely saves you from hours of washing-up after the party, it is far from convenient for the environment. In the first place, the large amount of resources and energy that go into the production of these items are just wasted by this use-once and throw-away style that we have adopted.  Secondly, like with the packaging problem, these disposed items only add to the ever growing garbage problem. Most of the disposable plates and cups are now made from styrofoam (polystyrene) which is not easily recycled, nor is it biodegradable. Further, toxic chemicals leach out of styrofoam products which are harmful to health. The simple solution then is to totally avoid using disposable plates and cups, or if this is absolutely impossible, at least use biodegradable paper products.

So there you have it, some practical ‘food for thought’, as we ‘Think-Eat-Save’, not just on Environment Day, but all through the year. 

Saturday, 1 June 2013

It's June!

Come June and a spirit of expectation fills the air! While it's true that in the first days of June the summer heat reaches its peak, the humidity becomes sadistically oppressive and the sultry weather drives you to desperation, yet, suddenly a new optimism begins to filter into this depressing scene. It’s June and the monsoons will be here any day!

And this realization that the rains will soon be arriving, throws everyone into a flurry of activities. While we in the cities begin to shop for umbrellas and raincoats and rain-shoes, in the villages the farmers shake the bulls out of their summer slumber and coax them into the fields which have to be ploughed and readied for the sowing.

It’s an exciting time too. Kids look up to the skies eagerly; the rains will usher in a whole new season of fun – splashing around in the gurgling puddles, setting little paper boats a sail in the tiny rivulets that rush along with cheerful determination, or just getting drenched in the downpour!

And in the villages the farmers too look up to the skies eagerly. A good monsoon signals a good year. Crops in the fields, grain in the godown, cash in the pocket. If the rains are plentiful, plenty of plans can be made for the rest of the year. House repairs, new clothes, weddings, feasts... all this and even more can confidently be contemplated.

It’s June and millions of eyes are now turned upward, scanning the skies, searching for those fluffy grey clouds that are not just heralds of rain, but harbingers of happiness!   

Saturday, 25 May 2013

March Against Monsanto

Thousands of activists across the globe are expected to ‘March Against Monsanto’ today. Besides the U.S., which will be the main theatre of action for this event, marches are being planned in over 30 other countries in different parts of the world. This movement was the brainchild of Tami Monroe Canal, who says she just wanted to do something to protect her two daughters. “I feel Monsanto is threatening this generation’s health, fertility and longevity. I couldn’t sit idly, waiting for someone to do something.” And so this bold woman created the idea of ‘March Against Monsanto’.

The key reasons behind the March are: “to protect our food supply, support local farmers, spread awareness about the harmful effects of genetically modified foods, promote organic solutions, expose the cronyism between big business and the government. bring accountability to those responsible for corruption”.   

Promoting the ‘March Against Monsanto’, Vandana Shiva calls the “Monsanto dictatorship” a “new form of fascism” that seeks to “outlaw all diversity”. She points out that “Monsanto has become the new centre stage for the destruction of our seeds, our diversity, our food and our freedom”. Hence, she describes this March as a “march for freedom” which is “inspired by our deep love for life on earth”. Encouraging people to take up this fight, Vandana Shiva makes a passionate plea: “let us plant gardens of resistance against this new form of dictatorship”.

In India, genetically modified crops have been at the centre of a bitter debate – a debate which is often connected to farmer suicides. I have just finished reading Kota Neelima’s ‘Shoes of the Dead’, a brilliant piece of investigative journalism on farmer suicides that is well crafted into a fast-paced engrossing novel. While political manoeuvrings and moneylender manipulations dominate the plot, the role of GM crops as one of the ingredients of the fatal concoction causing farmer suicides is well exposed in this book. Sadly, for most us, a tragic tale like this is nothing more than ‘a good book’ – but for the farmers in India’s heartland, it’s quite ‘a different story’.

If the ‘March Against Monsanto’ is happening in your city, do be there. And for those of us who don’t have the opportunity to participate, let’s at least set aside an hour to read up and educate ourselves on this dastardly killer that is stalking our earth. 

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The Apathetic Mumbaikar

The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) has recently completed a survey in six major Indian cities – Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai. The aim of the study was to assess people’s perception, behaviour, awareness and opinions on various environmental issues. About a week back, TERI released the findings of the survey with regard to Mumbai.

So how have we Mumbaikars fared in this eco check-up? What’s our perception on environmental issues? And our behaviour, does it call for a pat on the back?

Ok, I don’t want to play the eternal pessimist, so let’s talk about the positives first.  The study indicates that our awareness levels are high and we have strong opinions on various environmental concerns. Take climate change for example, 79 percent of the respondents were aware that we are already facing this phenomenon. With regard to the air we breathe, 99 percent were of the opinion that pollution has led to the deterioration of air quality and that this in turn is causing respiratory and skin diseases. To remedy this problem, 75 percent suggested conversion of polluting industries to environment friendly units, while 67 percent suggested the imposition of congestion and other taxes to discourage private vehicles. And there are several other stats that I could quote from the report, which, like I said, prove that we are well aware of the situations we are facing and have our own opinions on each of them.

But the study also reveals a sad truth – we are not willing to personally do much to remedy the problems. For example, a shocking 80 percent of the respondents said they were not willing to segregate their waste before disposing it, even though these same persons were of the opinion that waste segregation is an important strategy to manage the problem of solid waste in Mumbai! Not surprising then, 66 percent felt that the responsibility for improving the state of the environment in the city rested with the government, while 40 percent were of the opinion that it’s a problem that NGOs should take care of.

So that seems to be our general attitude – yes we have a problem, but let someone else fix it. Apathy, I guess that’s the word that best describes us, at least when it comes to environmental matters. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Reaching A Scary Milestone

We woke up this morning to the news that a new milestone had been reached – but unfortunately, not a milestone to be celebrated! For the first time in human history, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm). Two independent teams of scientists, one from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the other from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, confirmed that the daily average had crossed 400 ppm for the first time in its half century of recording. According to available data, the last time CO2 levels had reached this mark was probably 3 million years ago, that is, before we humans had evolved. Crossing this scary threshold simply means that we could be seeing many of the predicted impacts of Climate Change even faster than we expected.

"The 400 ppm threshold is a sobering milestone and should serve as a wakeup call for all of us to support clean energy technology and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, before it's too late for our children and grandchildren," said Tim Lueker, one of the scientist at the Scripps Institution.

The question is: who is listening to this wake-up call? While we may point a finger at China or the United States as being responsible for this catastrophe, and angrily demand that their governments immediately take the long overdue steps to reduce carbon emissions, we should not forget that India too is among the top 5 carbon emitters. And it is the daily lifestyle choices that we make – the energy guzzling choices – that have dragged us to this regrettable milestone. It’s a wake-up call especially for people like us in Mumbai, where an energy devouring lifestyle has become a status symbol.  It's a time to resolve that our personal carbon footprints will not lead the world to the next cataclysmic milestone.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Is that a Cow?

A few days back the Times of India carried the story of a survey that was recently conducted in Mumbai. Two thousand children, aged between 3 and 4 years, participated in this brand recognition study. According to the news article, 85 percent of these children were able to distinguish the logos of different chocolate brands; similarly 85 percent were again able to identify the logos of cartoon television channels. Further, almost all the children could recognize the brand logos of fast food and pizza joints. But then comes the shocker! When the survey shifted to birds and animals, 70 percent could not recognize the picture of a sparrow, and 1 in every 5 kids surveyed could not identify a cow!

Reading this story, my mind went back to the session on 'Green Cover' which we did with the schools in Mumbai about a year back. As a fun exercise during that session, we showed pictures of trees to the students and asked them to identify the same. Well, we had quite some interesting answers, like the Banyan tree being thought to be a ‘tomato tree’ and the (false) Ashoka being mistaken for a ‘grape tree’! And close to none of the students were able to name the Rain Tree or the Copper Pod, although almost every street in Mumbai is lined with these trees! And yes, these students were not 3 or 4 year olds, they were all at least 10 years older.  

Obviously there is an increasing disconnect between children and nature today. Discussions on this issue are dispassionately put to rest with the rhetorical question: “but how do you expect children to connect with nature in a concrete jungle like Mumbai?”  That, again, is a clear sign of the disconnect, because although Mumbai has degenerated into a concrete chaos, it still continues to be home to an amazing variety of trees, birds and insects. For example, I was fascinated to know that Mumbai has about 160 species of butterflies!

If kids can easily recognize cartoon channel and fast food logos, it’s because they've been exposed to those brands. I guess our kids need a lot more exposure to cows and birds and butterflies! 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Growing Food, Growing Attitudes

Precisely a month from today – on 5th June – we will be celebrating World Environment Day (WED). Undeniably, WED is the most prominent global environmental event celebrated annually. The theme for WED 2013 is ‘Think.Eat.Save.’ This theme seeks to turn the spotlight on food wastage, which is estimated to be approximately 1.3 billion tonnes a year. Further, ‘Think.Eat.Save.’ is also an invitation to reflect on the environmental impact of the food choices we make.

I guess this theme – centred on the issue of food – sets the stage for the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF-2014). The IYFF, with its catchy slogan, ‘Feeding the World, Caring for the Earth’, aims at promoting family and community based agricultural systems which respect the environment and biodiversity.

Considering these upcoming food and farming focused events, our starting work on a ‘Terrace Farm’ at Matunga this morning, seems to be a step in the right direction. Led by the ever enthusiastic Preeti Patil, of Urban Leaves fame, some two dozen volunteers occupied the morning with laying out bricks, creating beds, filling drums with compost and compostables, planting saplings, fighting the heat, teasing one another, and generally having an enjoyable time!

So do these ‘urban farms’ actually produce ‘food’ or are they mere showpieces? Well, they certainly do hand you a crunchy salad or a bowl of fresh fruit periodically, but I doubt they would keep your kitchen going for 365 days of the year.  

So what purpose do they really serve then?  

In a city like Mumbai, having a farm on your own terrace, which affords you the opportunity to play around in the soil, to plant and transplant and replant, to watch the seedlings mature into handsome young trees, to smile at the ripening fruit and scream at the crows who lustily devour them... is the ultimate de-stressor. To be able to soak our lives – which have literally turned grey with the soot and the scourge of the city – in our own green pools, well, what could be more rejuvenating?

But beyond being a leafy spa, this enterprise has a further value. And that, I believe, is its real value.

This messing around with mulch and manure is not only about cultivating food – it’s about cultivating attitudes. Green attitudes. Green culture. Someone who soaks his hands into the soil, or spends hours pottering around her plants, is eventually bound to get interested and involved in all things environmental. So, clearly, this venture is not just about growing green vegetables, it’s about growing green people!   

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Citizen Science

Citizen Science has been gaining popularity over the past few years. Of course, Citizen Science itself is a fairly new concept, with Rick Bonney – a Director at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, New York – credited with coining this term in the 1990’s. Citizen Science, which involves the general public in research studies, is a win-win for both; it provides the researchers with extensive data, while at the same time it is an exciting opportunity for the public to actively engage in scientific observations and environmental conservation.

The ‘Big Butterfly Count’ is probably one of the best known Citizen Science projects presently underway. Promoted by Butterfly Conservation – the organization headed by the celebrated Sir David Attenborough – this project was launched in 2010 to assess the health of U.K.’s environment through a survey of butterflies. Members of the public were invited to spend just 15 minutes on any bright day counting butterflies, and were then asked to upload their data. Last year (2012) close to 27,000 people participated, counting almost 24,500 butterflies and moths across the U.K. (

India has also seen some interesting Citizen Science projects recently. ‘Citizen Sparrow’, spearheaded by BNHS, asked the public to spend a few minutes documenting the presence or absence of sparrows in localities familiar to them. This project received 10,906 observations from 5,808 people at 8,609 locations. Although the project officially closed on 15th June 2012, people are still invited to send in their observations. (

Two other ongoing projects are ‘MigrantWatch’ and ‘SeasonWatch’. In MigrantWatch, participants are invited to keep a regular watch for one or more migratory bird species around their homes, work places, or other spots that they regularly visit. They are asked to note the date of the first and last sightings, and to then submit this data online. For those who want to go a step further, they can keep a detailed daily log of their sightings of migrant birds. (

SeasonWatch aims at studying the changing seasons by monitoring the seasonal cycles of flowering, fruiting and leaf-flush of common trees. Participants are invited to select a tree and to spend about 5 minutes once a week monitoring it. Their observations, which they then upload, will enable the researchers to better understand how climate change is affecting the lifecycle of trees. (

Many of us want to contribute our mite towards environmental conservation, but have no idea how to do so. Well, Citizen Science presents the perfect opportunity. And with the holiday season presently on, it’s the perfect time to embark on this adventure. So find a project that interests you and get going! 

Monday, 22 April 2013

Angry Earth Day!

Anger has been the starting point of many a great world changing movement. Take 22nd April 1970 for example. The 20 million people who protested on the streets of America that day were an angry lot – they were angry about the polluting factories, toxic dumps, oil spills, loss of wilderness and a host of other environmental scourges that were destroying their land and their lives. And their angry demonstrations not only led to a swift slew of environmental legislations, but it also saw the birth of what we now celebrate annually as Earth Day. And yes, 22nd April 1970 marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

The past several months have seen an angry India. Angry about corruption. Angry about rape. Angry about child abuse. Angry about price rise. Angry about political callousness. But environmental concerns? No anger. No passion.

At a recent workshop I attended, the speaker – the Mumbai bureau chief of one of India’s leading newspapers – pointed out that environment news rarely finds space in the media, since it is considered “soft news”. So does this also imply that those who engage in environmental issues are ‘softies’? Now that’s not just embarrassing, it’s downright insulting. But the frightful part is that it may be true.

Environmental activism has today been largely reduced to symbolic gestures or even to mere tokenism. Joining candle light processions, organizing beach cleanups, making a feeble attempt to segregate waste – that often seems to sum up our entire environmental effort. Soft solutions to tough problems. Obviously much is not being achieved. And so, environmentalists are hardly ever taken seriously.

As we celebrate Earth Day, it’s definitely a good moment to recapture some of the passion of the seventies. And to get angry again!