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The Green Crusaders

Environmental awareness is the need of the hour, and it’s heartening to know of individual endeavours that are trying to rectify the grave situation. This week, we at Guardian20 take a look at five such “green vigilantes”, who are giving it their all to make a difference.

Guardian20  2nd May 2015

Last year, we were sent a review copy of Larry Gonick's The Cartoon Guide to the Environment, a handsome but deeply unsettling volume. On the front cover was a caricature that was so cruelly accurate that it might as well have been a photograph. It showed a castaway family of four, marooned on the tiniest of islands; the disturbing part was what the family had done to this last refuge. The entire place looked like a garbage dump. Out of the half a dozen trees that could have fit into the meagre land, the family had chopped off all but one. The patriarch now stood, axe in hand, waiting to chop off the last one, on top of which animals cowered in fear: a caribou, a bear, an owl, even an elephant.

This is who we are, who we have wanted to be for a long, long time. We guzzle gas, we litter parks and we like to have shiny lights on; we love the feeling of being wasteful, extravagant and just a tiny bit self-destructive. Meanwhile, the earth is bearing the brunt of our ill-advised excesses. Our environment is approaching the point of no return. From here onwards, at least some of the damage it undergoes will have long-term, irreparable consequences. What mankind needs is a bunch of green vigilantes to show us the way forward, to prove that one can make a difference, single-handedly if need be.

Here, in Guardian20's special story on these environmental crusaders of India, there are heroes everywhere you look. We have a firm that has managed to make an eco-friendly office in Nehru Place, that ungodly south Delhi jigsaw where bird souls go to die. We have a couple who own and operate a 300-acre wildlife sanctuary of their own. We even have a man who, realising he was flush out of forests, decided to plant one from scratch, all by himself. Today, that forest is a 550-hectare haven for elephants and rhinos.

Start small, dream big, save some seeds for tomorrow: that's how you make something of your life, that's how you save the environment and craft a better tomorrow. Read, and be inspired.

Recreating forests faster than ever []

With the depleting green cover and the potentially apocalyptic search for "breathable zones" pretty much on the horizon, Afforest comes as a beaming ray of sunshine. It was founded in January 2011 by Shubhendu Sharma, an industrial engineer who, during his tenure with Toyota in 2009, volunteered with Dr Akira Miyawaki, an acclaimed botanist known for restoration of natural vegetation on barren lands. Dr Miyawaki had visited the Toyota factory to plant a forest in order to turn the factory into a zero-emission zone. When Sharma witnessed these fast-growing trees, he felt compelled to create many such forests, thus altering the course of his life foever. Soon after, Afforestt was set up.

Dr Miyawaki formulated the "Miyawaki method", a way of recreating forests on barren land. This afforestation could happen anywhere — in the backyard of a house, in a school ground, in any commercial or public place. Afforestt improvised on this method by creating an open source software with an algorithm that performs a wide range of related calculations, including what species to plant, and in what ratio and sequence. "Ideally, a forest has four levels — the shrubs layer, the sub-tree layer, the tree-layer and, finally, the canopy. The trees have to be planted in a way that, instead of competing for space or sunlight, they complement each other's growth. For instance, a shade-loving, not-so-tall tree should be placed in a way that it can happily grow under a light-loving, tall tree," explains Sharma. Image 2nd

But how they are turning barren land to sustain forests is the real mystery. "The first step is to carry out a soil analysis. It helps us assess what sort of plants can grow in a particular type of soil and what is it lacking. This is followed by a biomass survey that later helps in replenishing the nutrients in soil and, finally, a species survey, which tells us what sort of plantation is suitable in a specific area," says Sharma. All the collected data is then entered into the database, which analyses and assists in ascertaining how to go about planting the forest. Once the saplings are decided upon, the land is dug up to 1m and filled with biomass to achieve improved perforation, improved nutritional quotient and to increase the water retention capacity. "The focus is to enhance the nutrients in soil and compensate for the deficiency by only using biomass and no fertilisers," he adds. Besides detrimental chemical qualities, the effect of fertilisers is also limited in terms of time and impact.

Additionally, using biomass means adding micro-organisms and natural ingredients to the soil, which consequently becomes capable of sustaining forests, while the biomass continues to enrich the soil. This simply implies that every dried leaf and twig that falls to the ground turns into biomass, in turn contributing to the land and forest — creating a loop of regeneration. "Once these forests are established, they will easily stand tall through the ice age," beams Sharma.

Of course, these forests are not at par with natural forests because, irrespective of all else, they are artificially planted. Having said that, the Miyawaki method is one of the best alternatives we have. It is 30 times denser than conventional plantations, grows at an optimum pace, is a chemical-free phenomenon and promises a native forest within three years. Besides, we aren't left with enough time to leave a land barren for 500 years and wait for it to grow back naturally. Further, the forests planted by Afforestt are showing tangible results. Sharma recently visited the oldest forest that they had planted four and a half years ago in Uttaranchal, and spotted exquisite birds, small animals and organic fruits there.

Afforestt is a private limited company with four people and a simple business model. They offer their services in two ways — they can either act as contractors to recreate a forest in a particular given area and charge Rs 3,500 per sq m, or they act in the capacity of consultants where they give out their formula for a one-time fee; you can also get them to supervise the project for a daily charge. "We don't work for free," Sharma laughs. "Non-profit organisations could do it, but we are not dependent on any type of donations. It's a self-sustaining business model." Afforestt has already worked across 18 cities in India, including Pune, Bangalore, Nainital, Faridabad and Delhi. They have also collaborated with organisation outside India and have worked in Muscat, Malaysia, Kansas and more.

Journey from sapling to forest [Jadav Payeng]

Where does a wise man hide a leaf, GK Chesterton's clergyman sleuth Father Brown asked us many years ago. The answer, of course, is the forest. And what does the wise man do if there is no forest? He creates one, just to hide the leaf. India, however, believes in hiding the leaf by incinerating it along with the forest. Since the inception of our nation, we have managed to shoo away more than 80% of our wildlife species (source: WWF India) by setting their homes on fire: our favoured method of that is no doubt called "emergency industrial relocation" or some such monstrosity in a nauseating Power Point presentation somewhere.

Thank god for people like Jadav "Molai" Payeng, who, incidentally, is Chesterton's metaphor made flesh: in 1979, all of 16 years old, he started planting the first saplings of what has now become a forest of 550 hectares, smack in the middle of a barren wasteland in Majuli, Assam, the biggest river island in the world and home to over 1,50,000 people. Payeng's forest is now home to elephants, tigers and rhinos (we would never dream of disrespecting that office sapling picture you put up on Facebook, but all of us are amateurs next to something like that). He has been awarded a Padma Shri, along with a host of other palm fronds big and small. A 16-minute documentary called Forest Man, available on YouTube, is a quite priceless peek into the daily life of this slight, unassuming man.

Payeng belongs to the Mising or Miri people, the second-largest ethnic group in Assam after the Bodos. An agrarian tribe, the Mising, too, struggle with widespread poverty, like the Santhals of Jharkhand or the Gonds of Chhattisgarh. As has been well-established by now (thanks to the work of environmentalists like Anil Agarwal), the poor "have, if anything, a greater stake in the responsible management of the environment." (Ramachandra Guha, The Last Liberal and Other Essays). Image 3rd

Payeng's family makes a living — as do a lot of Mising families in and around Majuli — by rearing and selling animals; chicken, pigs and so on. Since 1947, their island has lost more than half of its landmass due to annual floods in the monsoon, when the Brahmaputra swells, eroding and chipping away at the expanse. Asang ghor, or a typical Mising house, is made of bamboo matrices over an elevated platform, supported by bamboo stilts. Payeng's house is no different, as we see in Forest Man. People who live off their immediate environment are, of course, the ones who stand to lose the most to the development juggernaut. Inevitably, it is here that we also find those with the vision and the doggedness of a true conservationist.

No developing nation today is likely to be untouched by the environmental consequences of industrial capitalism. But when you hear stories like Payeng's, you just wonder if there couldn't be more Herculean efforts like his, improbably stanching the bleed. There may be hope for us yet.

Consider the following facts and what they, in conjunction, imply for us as a species. Make up your mind, whether to give up on us or allow the possibility of redemption.

In 2010-2011, one of the worst periods for India's forests, we managed to get rid of 367 sq km of forested land. That's more than a quarter of Delhi, a little more than half of Gurgaon. We really couldn't have been more efficient had we employed a giant vacuum cleaner with Scary Movie jaw-extensions.

"Delhi, 40 degrees, DUST" is no longer an invalid weather app output. Did someone mention ashes?

If we consider an average tree and a book the size of an average paperback, in the last 10 years we have chopped off, by various estimates, between five and seven lakh trees to publish every book ever sold by Chetan Bhagat. We remain in fond anticipation of the day Amish and Ravinder Singh can claim to have gained similar woodcutter's boasting rights.

New York's Central Park would have to expand by more than 50% to equal the size of Majuli's "Molai forest".

Among other things, Payeng's forest brought back vultures to the region; they had not been seen in over 40 years.

By 2040, India will lose more than half of its "moderate to dense" forests.

Building a home for humanity's survival [SAI Sanctuary Trust]

Would you trust the government?" asks Dr Anil Malhotra, only half in jest. "As an Indian, I can't."

"You have a good government today," says Pamela Malhotra, "and a bad one tomorrow. It is imperative that private individuals and corporate organisations get together and expand — not just protect and preserve — what little we have left. We need to expand that for our own survival, for the survival of humanity." Pamela and Anil Malhotra are co-founders of the SAI Sanctuary Trust, a unique forest and wildlife sanctuary in Coorg, Karnataka, spread across 300 acres and owned privately by the couple. Anil tells us how the Western Ghats in India are a critical region for water resources for the southern parts of India and Maharashtra, and that they're in "dire straits". Major rivers are depleted in size because of deforestation. They stress on the requirement of clean, fresh water, and preservation and expansion of forests and wildlife help consolidate those resources.

"If we don't have a long-term view of how our actions impact the environment, it's going to come back and haunt us... what I call the 'karmic boomerang'," says Pamela. More and more studies are suggesting how deforestation is the number one driver of climate change, and she adds, "Here in India, we're very susceptible to climate change and droughts." The vision, the aim behind their initiative, remains clear: "There is hope that we can pass on a living legacy to the next generation." The two have been imploring wealthy individuals and companies — as a way of putting their CSR programmes to good use — to invest financial resources in the acquisition of large swathes of forest land before they're cut off. "If you give nature just half a chance... she's very resilient and can come back; and the protection of forests is most important. If people take this seriously — make larger buffer zones and group together to purchase these lands — a difference can be made. We're hedging our bets against climate change and limiting animal-human conflict." She envisions migratory patterns for animals and biological corridors across the country that will enhance the ecosystem and ensure distribution of rainfall, remarking on the correlation between dense forest regions and rainfall, which becomes pertinent in India where rainfed agriculture is practised widely.

The process of purchasing the land began back in 1991, with roadblocks aplenty, right from their initial plans to develop land in the Himalayan, Uttarkashi region, where land ceiling laws against private ownership prevented any headway, to the complicated paper work and legal clearances that were necessary before they could fully own the land in Coorg. They had moved from the US, where they owned smaller stretches of land, first in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and then in the island of Hawaii. Directing their attention to India and the environmental problems facing the country, they were clear from the onset about their intention to develop a land with a sanctuary concept in mind. There is a strong spiritual identity to their endeavour — "We view nature as the outer cloak of the creator. When you're protecting nature, you're doing a really spiritual action as well. Both of us have always loved to be in nature, and we feel privileged to be around wildlife, observing them and feeling their trust enough that they'll reveal themselves to us even during the day," says Pamela — but the practical reality is just as essential, if not more. "It's imperative to keep our forests in good shape and expand, because if we don't, we lose all our water sources." They witnessed deforestation in the Himalayas, and Pamela bemoans the spread of commercialisation with no planning or thought to consequences — "dams being built, trees being cut, roads being made". It's one of the reasons that has compelled them to further their initiative, while also stressing on private development. Image 4th

Their conviction in the private ownership model comes, of course, from their own experience. In fact, the sanctuary in Coorg has a crèche-like structure, as Pamela tells us. More and more babies are getting born in the area, with the birth of four elephants — two male and two female — in the past five years. A pack of dholes, with mom, dad and seven pups, has matured into adulthood. "Our explanation is that the animals feel safe here; they feel they can come here and give birth and they won't be disturbed by humans." The sanctuary is home to a wide variety of deer, over 300 species of birds, various species of snakes (including cobras), and tigers and leopards too, in addition to plenty of threatened species, such as the small-clawed river otters and dholes.

The sanctuary has two cottages with a couple of rooms in each. They organise what they refer to as "homestays" as part of eco-tourism, which outsiders can also participate in. Unlike any other wildlife sanctuary or national park in the country, all tours of the sanctuary are done entirely on foot. "We take in those eco-tourists who want to come and have an intimate relationship with nature. I screen the people who want to come, and we're selective about the people here. This is a sanctuary first; eco-tourism is an aid to run finances," she explains, also speaking about its educational aspect as a tool to spread awareness. Beyond tourists, they host scientists, students from colleges and schools from India and abroad, and researchers. They have strict instructions on what tourists can or cannot do, a comprehensive list of which is available on their website. They have guided treks and restrict any chemical usage on the land. "We have an age limit too, but we're flexible with that. We're not a 'tourist resort'," says Pamela. "And the people that come here are the type of people who want to put on their gumboots and get out and have that experience with nature; people who can enjoy sitting and listening to the river flow around them, watching birds, people that are really interested in a unique wildlife experience."

The Man from Earth []

After the earthquake of 2001 in Gujarat wreaked havoc on his factory and inventory, Mansukhbhai Prajapati saw a picture of a broken clay pot with the caption, "Gareebon ka fridge toot gaya" (the poor man's fridge has broken). His father had left pottery, their traditional source of income, in 1972, but that didn't stop Prajapati from picking it back up in 1988. Initially, he made clay pots and pans, which, he explains, are a very common household item in his hometown of Wankaner. He has always enjoyed experimenting with unconventional ways of moulding clay. By 1995, he had managed to build a water filter entirely out of clay. Five years later, when he saw the caption calling the clay pot a poor man's fridge, he decided he'd try to make it as close to a conventional fridge as possible.

However, it wasn't until 2004 and a debt of Rs 19 lakh that he had the finished product; a refrigerator made entirely out of clay and capable of keeping vegetables fresh for five to seven days using water, not electricity. Prajapati mentions Professor Anil K Gupta, Executive Vice Chair, National Innovation Foundation (NIF) India, for lending a helping hand while he gave his all to the research behind the creation of his unique clay appliances.

Now that they had a fridge and the NIF had helped them get enough orders to clear the debt, life was getting comfortable. And then, he visited a shop where the manager tried to sell him the idea that a non-stick pan couldn't be bought for anything less than Rs 450. So he decided to make his own version. He had to reject a lot of factories since their coating wasn't up to the mark, leading to potential toxicity. Eventually, he found a food grade coating that he used on pans, bringing down its price on the market to a meagre Rs 25. Image 5th

Prajapati tells us that cooking in clay is healthier than using aluminium. But one aluminium utensil that was considered irreplaceable at home was the pressure cooker. However, if you've made a fridge out of clay, what's stopping you from trying to build a pressure cooker too? By the time the design was complete, the cooker could build up enough pressure for it to whistle, without destroying the nutritional values of the food, as conventional aluminium do, according to Prajapati.

In the meanwhile, he had also developed a host of other utensils and accessories on the side — lamps, pots, plates, bowls, glasses, water bottles and even some that feature artworks. Thus, Prajapati could boast a line of clay products that could effectively replace everything in your kitchen. His two sons have both studied engineering in ceramics. One helps out in manufacturing while the other takes care of marketing them. After setting up his showroom (in Ahmedabad) and distributorship in 2014, Prajapati went back to his research and managed to make a machine that creates energy out of cow dung. He questions, "Why should anyone have to chop down trees when they have a source for fuel in their backyard? The cow dung machine can be used for daily cooking needs wherever there's a stable."

At first, getting the word out was difficult. However, NIF's support, in addition to a manpower of 50 people, coverage in the press, public events, even praise from the former President of India, helped him set up distribution centres in major cities, and he now even receives orders from across the world. Prajapati, as we've noticed, is a serial innovator, and he doesn't intend on stopping until he's created a self-reliant house that keeps itself cool or warm irrespective of the weather. If it's true that we just need bare necessities to be happy, he's redefining what bare truly means.

Breathing mountain-fresh city air [Breathe easy]

Nehru Place, one of the smokiest corners of Delhi, is not the ideal place to take deep breaths. Yet, if you find yourself within the closed doors of Paharpur Business Centre, right in the middle of its crowded miscellaneous market, you may as well do so, for this is the cleanest air you will breathe anywhere in Delhi. Paharpur Business Centre, a Small and Medium Enterprise (SME), provides luxury office space for over 200 people from different corporate houses within its premises, and they sure make the money spent in acquiring this space is worth it. The entrance is guarded by an army of plants that make you doubt whether you've come to the right place (how can an office look so pleasant?). Paharpur Business Centre (PBC, from here on) is a retro-fitted building that has the rare honour of being ranked Platinum by the US Green Building Council, the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) rating system coveted by architects and designers across the world. As you walk in, rubbing the hand sanitiser provided to every visitor right at the entrance, the air is unburdened (due to the absence of pollutants perhaps?) and all the furniture has been done up in pleasing tones of wood, including the elevator. Moreover, every room and corridor in the building has smart LED lighting, geared to switch off within seconds of there being no people in the room. Further up, each corridor is lined with potted plants of three varieties — money plants, areca palms and the sansevieria. PBC owns a greenhouse on the terrace of the building, a greenhouse that is at the crux of the whole estate's green philosophy.

All credit for PBC's unique green philosophy is all due to Kamal Meattle, the CEO of Paharpur Business Centre. Meattle was an MIT engineering graduate and working in Delhi, and on the board of IIT Delhi over two decades ago, when his doctor told him that to survive, he needed to leave Delhi and go to a greener place. Deciding to fight for it, Meattle decided to control his own environment, at least when it came to indoors, where everyone spends 90% of their time on average. He came across NASA's extensive study of 60 plants to make a hospitable environment that were going to help establish permanent settlements at the moon. "We are speaking of a time that is 25 years ago, where there was no further research material available on this, except that NASA had conducted such a study," Meattle said. He recalls all the ways that the IIT board brainstormed about it. "We thought about various methods such as flushing pure air into the system, and so on, till we finally came across this idea. Twenty-five years later, the office that Meattle had retro-fitted for personal gain is so successful that it has become a business opportunity. Breathe Easy, the company's green arm, looks into providing customised green solutions to individual homes and business houses that do not have apt air quality. Since January 2013, they have completed over 800 home and office projects and Meattle's research has been corroborated by NASA. Image 6th

But is it really possible to cultivate your own oxygen, and control the effects of air pollution from outside? Barun Aggarwal, director of Breathe Easy, tells us how the 50,000 sq ft area of this 40-year-old building has maintained indoor air quality (IAQ) that complies with WHO guidelines and ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) standards. "Nehru Place has a footfall of over 1,00,000 people in a day. Not everyone among these daily commuters use public transport to reach here. A recent study conducted by us where we did CO2 mapping of all of South Delhi indicated the harmful levels of CO2 in certain areas. While indoors it is meant to be not more than 700 ppm, it is 1067 ppm in buildings that haven't been retro-fitted in Nehru Place, unlike ours (488 ppm)." High levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an indicator of the presence of elevated levels of other pollutants in the atmosphere.

PBC has achieved their optimum levels of air quality by concentrating primarily on three commonly found plants. "We ensure that the building has its supply of oxygen 24 hours a day because of our plants. The air that comes in from outside is washed to rid it of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and hydrocarbons and also cooled down with the help of our cooling towers. It is then passed through our green houses and then circulated in the office," Aggarwal tells us.

The Chittaranjan Cancer Research Institute teamed up with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MOEF), the Government of India to conduct a study on the impact an optimum healthy environment had on workers where each and every occupant of the building participated in the survey. The study established factually how working at their office, the employee satisfaction and productivity went up, and there was less absenteeism due to lack of eye irritation or headaches. It was also conclusively proved that if anybody spent more than eight hours in that building, their blood saturation increased by a count. Their PM 2.5 (pollutant found in air) count is below 15 ug/m3, the recommended ASHRAE standard followed globally (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers).

How is thermal comfort maintained without any air conditioning? Barun Aggarwal says, "Our temperatures are maintained at 25 degrees (+ or – 1), and in winter, the temperatures drop to about 20 degrees, give or take." Aggarwal, while showing us around the greenhouse, points us to a bamboo pole and glass structure that houses over 400 plants using hydrophone technology as well as simple money plants in recycled containers using recycled mineral water bottles. The middle of the greenhouse has a sky light, that does not let any light in, but lets out all the heat, so the temperature of the building does not rise, making it cost effective. The polluted air from outside is purified by air scrubbers, high particulate air filters to reduce the level of chemical compounds such as nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide. It is then passed through the greenhouse, where it is rid of formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide before being chanelled into the central air regulating system of the building. "Plants such as areca palm and money plant give out oxygen at night, thus maintaining the oxygen balance in the building at all times. Also, instead of potted plants, we use hydropones that increases the oxygen producing capacity of a plant manifolds," says Aggarwal.

We ask Meatle what he thinks is the way forward, for people to take the environment seriously, and Meatle says, "No one is immune to pollution. Not the Prime Minister, and not the President. No one can afford to ignore its state because if conditions do not improve, sickness will follow everyone right inside their houses." Hence, we have his air purifying plans, since the outdoor air quality does not look likely to improve very soon.

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