Changing signs on the Indian horizon

by NVK Murthy

Recently I spent three weeks on a visit to Pune, India. I met family. I met many old friends. I met many of my children’s friends. I met my co-residents in a special housing complex for senior citizens where my late wife and I were living, before I left Pune in 2008, soon after my wife’s death. On this recent trip to Pune I talked to Puneites about events in the country and around the world. What I saw and what I heard left me enthused about the future of India.

Three important signs I noticed of a rising sensibility to pollution and its consequent ill-effects on climate, were (i) a need to increase organic agricultural production to ensure food security, (ii) a sense of the urgency to develop renewable sources of energy, and (iii) the use of environmentally-friendly and locally grown construction materials.

Some of us Puneites had been talking about a clean and green Pune for a long time. What I saw this time was that it seems to have caught the attention of one of the leading developers in the city — Paranjape Schemes, headed by two brothers, Shrikant and Shashank Paranjape. They are pioneers in developing special complexes called “Athashri”, for senior citizens. These housing complexes have been providing security, a centrally-run cafeteria, 24-hour ambulance service, house-hold help service, and most important of all — handicap-access in all bathrooms and in common areas within the complex. There are already four Athashris in Pune, with a new one on the way. More are being developed in other cities like Bangalore. They have created a “no-profit no-loss” trust called the Athashri Foundation to run these complexes. The aims and objectives of the trust also enable the Foundation to undertake developmental work beneficial to society at large. The heartening sign now is that the Athashri Foundation seems to have taken up this aim of a clean and green Pune seriously.

During the first decades of planning in free India great importance was given to large power and irrigation projects. This was followed by the green revolution in the 1960’s with the development of hybrid wheat, resulting in unprecedented rise in the production of food grains. Concurrent with this increase in irrigation facilities, in many areas of UP, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya-Pradesh, etc., many agriculturists adopted a mono-crop culture. Cash crops like cotton, sugarcane and ground-nut were encouraged. After several decades of these practices the country has noticed two things, namely, the silting of these big dams and the falling curve of production in the over-irrigated areas. Leading agriculturists around the world, including Dr. Swaminathan who was at the center of India’s green revolution, are advocating the discontinuation of a mono-crop culture and the re-adoption of the ancient practices of crop rotation. They point out that this has two effects, one is the reduction (if not the elimination) of the use of pesticides and fertilizers which poison the soil, and two, the rejuvenation of soil productivity by increasing its nitrogenous content. This is the central core of organic agriculture. I noticed that a number of farms had sprung up in villages around Pune, farms which are practicing these very methods of agriculture by adopting crop-rotation and by resorting to producing manure from organic waste. What was really encouraging was that the ordinary villager was talking about all these ideas. The sooner the country adopts this on a large scale, the better.

The second important factor for the prosperity of the country is the development of renewable energy sources. For long years vested interests have been discouraging a development of renewable sources like solar power on the basis of the high cost of production and low efficiency. But the recent realization of the ill-effects of carbon pollution has changed the entire scene. The social cost involved in the use of fossil fuel resources for power generation have so devastated climactic conditions that continuation of these practices may very well result in the destruction of our only home, planet earth. If this is taken into consideration, arguments about the cost of production of renewable sources of energy become irrelevant. Materials and device research to improve solar-cell efficiency and energy storage are ongoing in the world. This has led to a significantly lower cost coupled with enhanced performance of solar cells. A higher percentage of energy production in the US comes from renewable energy sources compared to ten years ago. China, the second largest economy in the world, is looking to have over fifty percent of its energy needs met by renewable sources. The Pune University has a whole section in the Physics department devoted to research in renewable sources of energy under the leadership of Dr. S.V. Ghaisas. The National Chemical Laboratories in Pune is performing research in solar energy, specifically in the field of energy storage, headed by Dr. S.B. Ogale. The government of India has also announced research grants for renewable energy development. Added to this is the realization that most available sources of fossil fuels in the world exist in an unstable middle east. Also, fossil fuels are not limitless and are showing signs of depletion. Other sources like the Arctic Ocean are very difficult and expensive to harness.

Finally, coming back to a clean and green Pune, what impressed me most was the enthusiasm shown by the Athashri Foundation. Their immediate plan consists of developing affordable and clean housing for slum dwellers. Here one can think about using eco-friendly building materials based on the pioneering work of a Pune entrepreneur, Shriniwas Khare. He developed a method of chemically treating bamboo to make it flexible while maintaining its inherent strength, and hence made it eminently suitable for the construction industry. This bamboo is now grown in a large area in the back-waters of the Mulshi dam in Maharashtra. Shriniwas Khare has demonstrated that furniture and pre-fabricated building material can be made out of this cheap and easily available resource of bamboo. This pre-fabricated material can be put together within 24 hours to build a small home. If this is combined with the provision of “Sulabh Shauchalaya” (public toilets) or “Wardha-type latrines”, it could revolutionize the life of the slum dwellers. Each slum area could have its own septic tank which can be a source of organic manure by using vermiculture (earthworms). This would eliminate defecation in the open which has been the curse of rural and slum life in India. Only the other day at a meeting with Bill and Melinda Gates, the Prime Minister of India referred to a national campaign for public health and sanitation supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The movement for a clean and green Pune fits in very well with this campaign which attempts to raise awareness of hygiene and sanitary habits in every Indian.

So, the mantra for a bright future in Pune (and eventually in India), seems to depend on three factors: organic farming, renewable sources of energy, and eco-friendly construction. With these, the dream of a clean and green Pune, and eventually a clean and green India, can become a reality in the not-too-distant future.