Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Changemakers in India

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The Changemakers

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  • Traditional honey collectors. Photo Courtesy Keystone Foundation
    Traditional honey collectors. Photo Courtesy Keystone Foundation
  • Trupti Godbole with the Daily Dump composter. Photo: Special Arrangement
    Trupti Godbole with the Daily Dump composter. Photo: Special Arrangement
  • Affordable, eco-positive practices...Photo Courtesy EcoFemme
    Affordable, eco-positive practices...Photo Courtesy EcoFemme
  • Grow your own greens: Oota from your Thota. Photo: Special Arrangement
    Grow your own greens: Oota from your Thota. Photo: Special Arrangement
  • Children with the rainwater storage sump. Photo Courtesy Biome
    Children with the rainwater storage sump. Photo Courtesy Biome
Five social and ecological entrepreneurs, both individuals and organisations, talk about how they are saving the planet in their own little way.
What does a techie who now sets up rainwater-harvesting systems in rural schools have in common with an urban farmer who advocates growing vegetables on terraces and balconies? Can an apartment owner who composts her kitchen waste identify with a villager who stitches washable sanitary pads, or a traditional honey hunter in the Nilgiris? In a sense, they are all alike; they are changemakers. All of them are social and ecological entrepreneurs. This is how they are making a difference.
Keeping the last forests alive
Halan from Baviyoor village is a honey collector. He has no body suit or protective gear. Instead, he relies on traditional knowledge gained over generations. Halan is a Kurumba, one of the many indegenous communities living in the Nilgiris, part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) of the Western Ghats. Without his knowing it, he is doing his bit to conserve the NBR.
Today, the honey he collects is packaged and marketed to urban consumers under the evocatively named ‘Last Forests’ brand. This initative, promoted by the Kotagiri-based Keystone Foundation, aims to provideg a livelihood for tribals like Halan, while protecting and conserving the forests of the NBR.
Suganthi Thangavelu, a marketing specialist with Last Forest, says, “KF involves tribal communities in areas such as natural resource management (promoting apiculture) and enterprise management (production of food and artisanal products). We work with over 1,000 individuals (honey collectors, craftsmen, farmers).” The biggest benefit to them, she explains, is that they get upfront cash payment and the assurance that the quantities they produce will be purchased .
The Last Forest brand offers nine categories of organic/fair-trade and natural products. This ranges from varieties of honey (raw, bitter, wild, ginger) to spices, coffee and oils, personal care products (lip balms, soaps) and even home accessories (Kurumba craft work) and readywear. These are available at exclusive Last Forest-owned Green Shops located at Udhagamandalam, Kotagiri, Coonoor and Mysore and other stores in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Puducherry.
Beyond the exotic allure of the brand lies a grim truth. The NBR forests, spread over Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, are under threat. On the one hand are human activities such as tourism, poaching, logging and extraction of medicinal plants; on the other, there is climate change. Now, the bees are getting affected too. A May 2011 report in The Hindu noted that bees in the Western Ghats are abandoning their colonies, leading to a sharp decline in honey production. So, the Last Forests brand is not just about “buying organic”. It is about investing in the forests and indigenous communities. For what will happen to Halan if the bees fly away?
From the skies to schools
Avinash Krishnamurthy, executive director of Biome Environmental, a Bangalore-based NGO, is a former techie now into rainwater harvesting (RWH). Over the past year, Biome has installed, and in some cases revived (existing), RWH systems in eight government schools around Bangalore. Located in water-stressed regions, these schools depend on panchayat water. Supply is either erratic or non-existent. There is no safe water for cooking (the mid-day meal), washing vessels or even for use in the toilets.
From 2005, the Government of Karnataka has spent over Rs.77 crore on a Suvarna Jala scheme to install rooftop RWH systems in more than 23,000 schools in the state. Krishnamurthy says the scheme is not working. “In some cases, the schools don’t even need RWH systems,” he says.
So far, Biome has spent Rs 7 lakh on the project. Local support and knowledge is crucial to their success. Ramakrishnappa from Kuruburakunte near Devanahalli helps the NGO identify schools with the worst water shortage.
Given that there is also increasing contamination to contend with, Biome wants to provide testing kits so students can test for fluorides and nitrates in the water.
“The children can then monitor water quality in their villages,” adds Krishnamurthy. For instance, at the Government Urdu School in Vijayapura, some 40 km from Bangalore, Biome spent Rs 11,000 to revive the school’s defunct RWH system. The NGO also showed teachers and the school’s 60-odd students how to maintain the RWH system.
Things are already changing. In August, there were good rains. Nageena, a class seven student, is happy. “We can use the toilets now,” she laughs.
More details at
Treat your trash to terracotta
Trupti Godbole and Sarita Kotagiri are activists, not the slogan-shouting type but the get-it-done kind. In their quiet way, these two women have, for the past four years, converted their apartment building (Sarovar Apartments, LB Shastri Nagar, Bangalore) into a re-use and recycle zone where nothing is trashed. They’ve convinced other apartment owners in the area to follow suit. And they have uploaded YouTube videos about their experience. They are committed composters. They use Daily Dump.
Daily Dump is the brainchild of Bangalorean and industrial designer Poonam Bir Kasturi. Her premise is stunningly simple: convert your kitchen waste into compost at home using a composter. Daily Dump offers ‘terracotta composters (basically, tiered pots) and various other products for both the home and the larger community. Launched in 2006, Daily Dump operates on an ‘open source’ platform — others can “clone” the concept. “There are 15 other clones” operating presently in the country. There’s also a franchisee in Chile.
“When we began, waste management was not as big an issue as it is now,” points out Poonam. As of August 2012, Daily Dump users were responsible for keeping over 7,000 kgs of organic waste out of landfills. At Sarovar Apartments, four big composters handle 10 kg of organic/kitchen waste daily. Impressive as this sounds, this is still a drop in the ocean. Research shows that Bangalore generates upto 4,500 tonnes of waste per day. “Sixty per cent of that is organic,” Poonam says.
To show people what happens to their trash, Daily Dump conducts a day-long tour called Trash Trail. The trip includes interactions with small-scale entrepreneurs, recyclers, sorters and dealers. Trash Trails are organised based on citizen interest. By the end of October, this year, Poonam will launch Recycle Guru , a website to bring citizens closer to their local recycler. “Log on to Recycle Guru, get the number of your local raddiwala/kabadiwalla, and call him to pick up your waste,” says Poonam. Initially, the website will be Bangalore-specific.
More details at
Eat. Grow. Live.
In the mid 1990s, Dr. B.N. Vishwanath, a gardening enthusiast went public with his passion. Grow greens on your terraces and your balconies, he urged his fellow Bangaloreans. Not many listened. Bangalore, then, was a sleepy city of sprawling bungalows and well-tended gardens. As the city grew, the bungalows disappeared and space began to be measured in square feet. What Dr. Vishwanath said all those years ago finally made sense.
Today, the agriculturist is considered one of the pioneers of urban farming in India. Founding trustee of the Garden City Farmers Trust (GCFT), his message is the same: “Eat what you can grow in your garden” or Oota from your Thota (OfyT).
“At organic gardening workshops, we tell participants to set up RWH systems and convert their kitchen waste into compost. That reduces their carbon footprint. And we tell them to buy seeds only for the very first time and thereafter, to grow their own,” Dr. Vishwanath says. Now, seeds of interest in OfyT are being sown in neighbouring cities such as Chennai, Hyderabad and Thiruvanathapuram.
Bangalore being an IT city, OfyT is growing thanks to innumerable blogs, web sites and the GCFT Facebook page. Two former techies in particular, Meera K. and Vincent Subramaniam, have played a prominent role in spreading the word as founder-co-editors of Citizen Matters, a Bangalore-specific community news platform. They are gardening enthusiasts too. Meera has a small terrace garden. Vincent has fruit trees and a kitchen garden.
OfyT came into being as a workshop/exhibition in August 2011, as part of the Kitchen Gardens International Day celebrations. Five editions have been held since. The next OfyT event will be in held Bangalore in November 2012.
Back to basics
Ever wondered what impact menstrual hygiene has on the environment, with all those disposable sanitary pads used and thrown away every month? Can women adapt to healthy, affordable menstrual practices that are also eco-positive?
Eleven women in Auroville, Puducherry, are trying to prove just that. They make up Eco Femme, a women’s empowerment and self-help group, that stitches and sells washable cloth-based sanitary pads. The group’s output is 1,600 pads a month — mostly sent to the U.K., the U.S. and the Netherlands. Now Eco Femme is trying to expand within India.
Founder Kathy Walkling is a long-time Auroville resident who began by designing, using and selling washable pads at Auroville. Eco Femme was born in 2009, when she involved women self-help group members of the Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG), an NGO, which runs various social enterprises in the villages around Auroville.
There are many taboos and gender-based stereotypes associated with menstruation — being considered ‘impure’, becoming a social outcast on those days, and so on. Eco Femme tries to address these issues through educational workshops, mostly with rural women. Plus, the project aims to get both rural and urban women to go back to cloth. Right now, there are three models of 100 per cent cotton pads designed for rural women. “Currently, the rural pads are being product tested with over 1,000 rural women and girls across Tamil Nadu,” explains Walkling. For middle- and upper-class Indian women, Eco Femme has an ‘export’ or international range of all-in-one pads with wings and leakproof layer, adapted from brands available in the West.
“A U.K. survey showed that a woman throws away approx 125-150 kgs of sanitary waste during her menstruating life, which is assumed to be 35 years,” Walkling says. In the Indian context, there are no surveys. “But a survey in the Indian Textile Journal on the market potential of disposable sanitary napkins says there are over 300 million women of menstruating age in India. The article says that if all of them used sanitary napkins, it would result in sales of (and consequently waste from) 58,500 million pieces a year.” Eco Femme pads, adds Walkling, help women save money (a washable pad can last years) and the environment. A single cloth pad represents the equivalent of 120 disposable tampons/pads over a five-year period.

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