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!