Notes from India: We Are Poisoning Our Planet

The chemicals we spray on crops harm far more than the pests they are designed to kill. Photo: © kelly marken - Fotolia.com

Our “Notes from…” series features thoughtful essays by people from around the globe. Frequently, the writers present us with a discussion of an environmental problem in their home nations. Through their posts, we see that virtually no place on Earth is entirely free of environmental degradation, toxins, and trash. Writing from India, Dipak Kumar Singh reminds us in today’s post that we can’t begin to find solutions until we courageously face the problems. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


How does one think or write about pollution of water and soil (not dirt, as this website makes an effort to point out) without spreading guilt in the heart of people who take their humanity seriously? It’s not easy, though you will notice I have tried. There isn’t a new fact that I bring to you — but just the fact that we have so much inertia of inaction and perhaps more so in thinking.

All of us use the three-pronged plug for electrical appliances. The third, thicker pin is for the earth. So with any amount of electricity we consume, the earth has to be a party to it. This is fine, scientifically, but it reflects our attitude towards the earth, which we symbolically call “Mother Earth” in most societies. What if, someday, our mother stops taking all the third-pin electricity?

Just now this is a hypothesis of nonsense. But a very similar thing has happened. In many instances, the earth has stopped cleansing itself. If the earth had legs, she would have run away from us by now.

Toxins in the Water

As you take a sip of that wonderful hot or cold tea, think about the tea bush in Assam, India or Kenya that is sprayed with pesticides many times during a single crop season. All that pesticide gets washed into rivers and finally into the sea. The sea will take some time to show a red flag.

The grapes you and I eat could be from a vine that was sprayed 30 times in a single year with pesticides such as Endosulfan. That makes 300 sprayings in a decade. This chemical has nowhere to go, so it just gets washed into the groundwater.

Endosulfan has a half-life of up to 20 days in water and 60 to 800 days in soil. So, think of the accumulation of this pesticide in crop-growing villages. In the Indian state of Kerala, Endosulphan has been linked to the birth of malformed children.

Cotton and Cancer

Welcome to the world’s favorite fabric: cotton. The cotton plant is sprayed with Endosulfan sometimes twice a week all over the world.

In every cotton-growing village on Earth, there is a soil/water pollution problem. I venture to make this sweeping statement to provoke you to tell me about the happy exception, so we can find how to replicate it elsewhere.

In Malwa district of Punjab, a new cancer wing has been opened to benefit patients from the districts of Barnala, Bhatinda, Ferozepur, Muktsa, Mausa, Moga, Faridkot and Sangrun — all cotton-growing districts.

Spoilt for Choice

Have we broken some sacred self-rejuvenating system of Mother Earth?

We have done it before. After World War II, we misused penicillin. In the 1960s, we misused DDT. And now what chemical shall it be?

We are spoilt for choice: Phorates, Monocrotophos, Carbofuran, Dimethoate, Carbaryl, Endosulfan — and some or all of these already have entered our food chain.

Will the next chemical we abuse be Endosulfan? It does have the distinction of being used for a very long time and in huge quantities. India alone produces over 8000 tonnes of it.

The world production of this pesticide must be at least double this quantity. This is shocking, because the first reports of Endosulfan getting into the food chain came in the late 1960s. Endosulfan is a bioaccumulator in kidney, liver, and fat tissues. It is an endocrine disruptor and enhances the effects of estrogen.

Yet, scientists in India and many other countries are still debating if Endosulfan really causes cancer. Can there be a darker black humor?

Endosulfan in the Environment

According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), Endosulfan breaks down into endosulfan sulfate and endosulfan diol, both of which have “structures similar to the parent compound and are also of toxicological concern… The estimated half-lives for the combined toxic residues (endosulfan plus endosulfan sulfate) [range] from roughly 9 months to 6 years.”*

Endosulfan has relatively high potential to bioaccumulate in fish. It is also toxic to amphibians; low levels have been found to kill tadpoles. When Endosulphan is sprayed, it kills all little living things: insects, birds, and small animals. The area smells awful for weeks as the scavenging animals die, too.

Endosulfan travels long distances in the atmosphere from where it is used. It has been detected in dust from the Sahara Desert that was collected in the Caribbean after being blown across the Atlantic Ocean.

Dietary exposure to Endosulfan is 0.015 mg/kg for adults and 0.0015 mg/kg for children. For chronic dietary expsoure, the U.S. EPA reference doses are 0.006 mg/(kg·day) and 0.0006 mg/(kg·day) for adults and children, respectively. This is scary for a very popular pesticide.*

With Endosulfan exposure, humans die at a dose of 35 mg/kg body weight. At higher doses, we will die within an hour, says a WHO report of 1984. Is that an unreachable dose for a chemical with 800 days’ half life?*

As early as 1995, Endosulfan runoff from cotton fields killed tonnes of fish in Alabama rivers in the U.S.^ And it was only last year that the U.S. EPA announced that all uses of Endosulfan will soon be banned. Yet, in India, we are still debating. Why do decision-makers take 15 years to understand what others already know?

Dipak Kumar

Guest Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

*IPCS (1984) Endosulfan. Geneva, World Health Organization, International Programme on Chemical Safety (Environmental Health Criteria 40.)

^This is a very unemotional bottom line for a race of unintelligent humanity. I say this not because I hate humans, but because I value all living beings; so, the tonnes of fish that died in Alabama river in 1995 were 240,000 individual fish. We can begin by reading our own scientific papers and reports and take timely action.

This March 6, 2011 Sunday HINDUSTAN TIMES article describes a health crisis due to pesticides, including endosulfan. Photo: Courtesy Dipak Kumar Singh

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Helps Change Lives through Improved Sanitation

Ian Moise with a villager at a WSP sanitation visit in Indonesia. Photo: Courtesy Ian Moise

“There are 2.6 billion people without access to improved sanitation. And, according to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), that’s supposed to be halved by the year 2015,” Ian Moise [mo-EEZ] told Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL).

Moise is a returned Peace Corps volunteer, who currently consults on a global sanitation project for the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP). “Our project is one of the many projects working on expanding access to ‘improved sanitation’ for a target of roughly 1.3 billion people,” he said.

In our interview with Moise, he explains how WSP is making in-roads in the developing world and gives advice to people who are interested in joining the field of international development.

This is part one of a two-part series. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll find out about ReUse Connection, an innovative service that Moise began on Facebook, and learn how it fits into his views about happiness. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


BPGL: What does WSP’s sanitation program look like from a practical standpoint?

MOISE: Our program combines two tools that were developed separately to work towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) sanitation goal.

The first tool is called Community-Led Total Sanitation, or CLTS. From my perspective, CLTS has changed the dynamic of development assistance for sanitation. Development practitioners used to provide money — and even actual latrines — with the expectation that people would use the latrines because they were good for them. That approach basically failed. As it turns out, people don’t use latrines just because you build them.

The CLTS approach actually facilitates a process where people end up realizing that excrement cycles through their community and that they can make changes themselves. During this process, you guide the community to map where people defecate, where houses are, where chickens and goats roam, and where children play.

In addition, you take them on a walk through the village to see each of these areas. At some point in the process, people suddenly realize that excrement cycles through the community: The chickens and goats walk through the areas where people defecate, and then they walk back to where people are; kids walk all over the place and put their hands everywhere; etc. The flies can also transport germs by landing on the excrement in the open. And the flies come and land on food.

In the end, the community sees that when people defecate in the open, it is eating its own excrement. When people in communities see that, they get charged up. It mobilizes them in a way I have not seen in many years of development efforts.

The second tool, Sanitation Marketing, recognizes that just because people feel mobilized to do something, that doesn’t mean they’re going to carry forward with it.

BPGL: How do you market sanitation to people? Are you talking about holding classes, or putting up billboards, fliers, social networking…?

This Indonesian man is the new owner of an improved sanitation facility. Photo: Courtesy Ian Moise

MOISE: Sanitation marketing takes a lot of the principles of social marketing and applies them to sanitation. It’s quite new. CLTS is more established.

Theoretically, there is a sanitation ladder. At the bottom is open defecation, where people squat in the open. You can move up the ladder to a hole in the ground, then from a hole in the ground to maybe a slab over the hole in the ground, and then a superstructure, and incremental improvements.

It doesn’t quite work like that in reality, but the concept is that people, no matter their socio-economic status, can enter the sanitation game at some level. The idea of sanitation marketing is to provide a market that reaches all segments of the population with different products at different costs.

The basic strategy is to do market research on likes and preferences for sanitation goods and services. Then you develop a mass communication campaign based on people’s likes. For example, if people like sitting down instead of squatting, then maybe you would market a sit-down latrine instead of a squatting one.

Sanitation Marketing also looks at the supply chain and tries to facilitate the provisioning of materials to masons and vendors so they can fulfill the demand created by a communication/marketing campaign.

BPGL:Who developed these approaches for sanitation? Are these recent approaches?

MOISE: Kamal Kar and Robert Chambers are the main figures behind the CLTS approach.

International development has been going on since the 1950s or so. A lot of it was — and still is — top-down. That’s the nature of how money flows out of one person’s hand into another (i.e., from one country’s coffers to another’s).

People who give money often want control over it. It’s somewhat natural. It is hard to let go of that control and let people spend money in the way that they think is appropriate, where you may not share the same value or decision-making principles. But that is what participatory development is about – empowering people.

Robert Chambers is actually best known in international development circles for developing participatory rural appraisals, where you do mapping exercises with people and facilitate their own development. Participatory approaches such as these are utilized in the CLTS approach, which was pioneered by Kamal Kar.

BPGL: How do CLTS and Sanitation Marketing fit together?

MOISE: WSP’s program is one of the lead efforts in bringing these two approaches together. The program works with host country governments in India, Indonesia, and Tanzania to develop and implement marketing campaigns for sanitation. At the same time, it trains CLTS facilitators to catalyze, or trigger, community demand for sanitation and masons to build sanitation products.

CLTS is a great manifestation of what happens when you put development in people’s hands and facilitate that process. That’s why it’s game changing in many ways. And yet, it’s not the panacea. It’s not the silver bullet. It doesn’t make everyone suddenly have a toilet and use it and clean it and have their children use it. There’s still a long way to go.

At WSP, we feel Sanitation Marketing offers a great complement to CLTS. And it’s gaining a lot of currency not just in WSP, but with other partners as well.

An overly simplistic way to describe the combination of the two goes something like this: Mobilize people to want to change with CLTS, i.e. create demand for sanitation. Simultaneously use Sanitation Marketing to market the various sanitation options to them and build up the supply of these options.

On our website, www.wsp.org, you can learn more about both CLTS and Sanitation Marketing.

BPGL: Who provides the money for CLTS? And does the money go directly to the villages?

Villagers in Indonesia gather during a break at a Sanitation Marketing training. Photo: Courtesy Ian Moise

MOISE: One of the major tenets of “pure” CLTS — that changes significantly from previous approaches — is that it is a no-subsidy approach. The idea is that people have money, and it’s a matter of priorities on where they choose to spend their money.

And that’s true. I’ve lived in villages. When there’s a funeral, there’s plenty of money flowing out of the village to make a nice headstone and burial for the deceased. So, it’s not a question of whether there’s money. It’s a question of whether there’s will.

Think about it. People all over the world buy cell phones and fashionable items. They make choices to save up and purchase these items. The challenge is creating the conditions where they prioritize sanitation as a place to spend their money.

All the past 30 or 40 years of handing out subsidies or handing out latrine slabs has failed. The inverse of that is not subsidizing anything and putting the burden of change on the people themselves. You put the responsibility and ownership in people’s hands.

Of course, there are cases where incentives have been found to work, but the major idea is to create ownership. So, the people build what they can afford — and then they own it and care for it.

BPGL: Who pays for the work you do?

MOISE: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) have led funding of the WSP work, along with Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, and the World Bank, though many donors and practitioners are interested in these techniques.

BPGL: Go over the bigger picture with me for just a minute.

MOISE: The big picture:  We operate in three countries: India, Indonesia, and Tanzania. We have teams in each of those three countries.

The program works through governments, so it’s really an effort in sustainable development.

The conclusion for reaching large populations is that you have to use host-country human resources. We leverage host-country governments and nongovernmental organizations. Basically, WSP, in partnerships, has developed the tools and techniques, especially for Sanitation Marketing, and we’ve refined CLTS.

Our country teams then work with the government. That means using the various ministries or departments in the government, down to the district level, whether it’s through the health-care system or through the Ministry of the Environment, etc.

We do a lot of training using a cascading model, where we train a national training group, or a national NGO. Then they go to the district that’s been selected by the government, and they train people at the district level. The people trained at the district level are then responsible to go to the community level and facilitate various processes that ultimately lead to these communities improving their sanitation status.

BPGL: How far along is the project?

Moise visits with a woman in Indonesia about the improved sanitation facility her family recently purchased. Photo: Courtesy Ian Moise

MOISE: Our initial project goal was to reach 4.5 million people with improved sanitation, and we are on track to surpass that goal. The project is supposed to end this year.

BPGL: That is phenomenal. Are that many people actually using toilets rather than open defecation? Or did you just expose them to it?

MOISE: Monitoring is a big challenge, especially when you try to monitor 4.5 million people. We usually use the government’s monitoring system, while also trying to get independent verification.

One interesting thing about this project is its impact evaluation. It is the largest impact evaluation of its kind in the sector, to my knowledge. So, to answer your question, we can wait for the impact evaluation, which will be out in a year or year and a half. We are all very optimistic about the outcomes.

BPGL: We see a lot of young people coming out of college who want to travel internationally and do something good for the world, similar to what you’re doing, but they don’t know where to start. How can someone get started in this kind of development work?

MOISE: I’ve spoken with a lot of people coming out of college, too, and a lot of people are interested in international development, public health, whatever. The best thing I can recommend is to just go overseas.

Peace Corps, which is how I got started, is a great way, because they take care of things for you. You get training, and you get money, and an assignment. It’s not an easy thing to do, and there are lots of personal growth opportunities and challenges, but it’s good, because it is a pre-packaged affair.

There are always jobs overseas too, and if that’s what you want to do, sign up with an NGO that’s doing what you want to do, and start networking with them.

There are a number of different development websites that post jobs. Some of them are in water and sanitation, and some are not. There are a lot of resources on the web, as you can imagine. DevNetJobs.org has general development jobs. Another one is ReliefWeb.int. It’s more focused on relief and disaster response.

There’s a book called Alternatives to the Peace Corps. It lists hundreds of ways to go overseas and volunteer your time (e.g., Doctors without Borders, UN Volunteers, etc.), anywhere from a week to a month or a year. There are all kinds of different opportunities. I would suggest picking that up.

BPGL: Any last words on your international experiences?

MOISE: Working and traveling internationally is an amazing experience, and I encourage everyone who is considering it to do it. It is never too late. You cannot replace the value of learning how to see things through other people’s eyes.

End of Part 1

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Posts

Part 1: Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Helps Change Lives Through Improved Sanitation

Part 2: ReUse Connection – Ideas for Repurposing, Freely Shared

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Project GreenHands – Compensating the Earth

In 2005, drawing extensively on community involvement and large-scale volunteer participation, Project GreenHands planted more than 25,000 trees in tsunami-devastated coastal areas of Tamil Nadu. In 2006, PGH volunteers planted 856,000 trees in just three days, securing the project a place in the Guinness World Book of Records. By the end of the 2008 planting season, PGH had planted a total of 7.1 million trees and introduced a newly designed model of agro-forestry among the farmer community. The Project’s current aim is to inspire and support the citizens of Tamil Nadu to plant an astonishing total of 114 million trees statewide, adding 30% more to the existing level of green cover in Tamil Nadu.

Villagers tend trees planted by Project GreenHands. Photo: Project GreenHands

Villagers tend trees planted by Project GreenHands. Photo: Project GreenHands

Isha Foundation, founded in 1992, is an entirely volunteer-run, international, nonprofit organisation dedicated to cultivating human potential. The Foundation is a human service organisation that recognizes the possibility of each person to empower another — restoring global community through inspiration and individual transformation.

Makur Jain is a BPGL contributing writer living in India. She interviewed Sadhguru, the founder of Isha Foundation, which supports Project GreenHands (PGH).

BPGL: Sadhguru ji, what are the benefits of humans connecting to the natural world that surrounds us?

SADHGURU: Human well-being and environmental care are not two different things. There is nobody who isn’t concerned about human well-being or the well-being of a life. It is just the scale and scope that varies from person to person. Anybody can understand that he needs to take care of the very environment in which he lives. Taking care of well-being, human well-being, does not just mean eating well. One has to take care of everything that concerns our lives. Is there anything on this planet that doesn’t concern your life? Whatever happens to this planet happens to you.

So when we talk of well-being, it is not just about taking care of your physical body. You take care of the very body of the earth because your body is just a part of that. Without taking care of the atmosphere and the ecological situation around us, how can we live well?  This whole idea of “something is human, and ecology is something different,” is a very distorted and polarized idea of life.

We need to understand that everything that you produce, buy, and use in your life is something that you are digging up from the planet. Every little bit, whether it’s a safety pin or a car or a machine, you are only digging it up from this planet. It’s not an endless planet. It is a limited planet. We can use it to a certain extent, and right now we are gobbling it up at a tremendous pace. If there is no compensatory activity on the same scale as we exploit whatever we use on this planet, then we have a recipe for disaster.

When this is so, as we go into this economic possibility, if we have any sense, we need to somehow regulate it ourselves. If human sense doesn’t prevail, then nature will take its own course of action to correct the imbalances. But that’s going to be very painful for human beings when nature takes this action.

So, one of the simplest ways to prevent or to reverse this process is that we bring back sufficient green cover. The aim of Isha’s Project Green Hands is to bring back 30 percent green cover, at least, in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India, to start with.

The goal is to bring back green cover to Tamil Nadu. Photo: Project GreenHands

The goal is to bring back green cover to Tamil Nadu. Photo: Courtesy Project GreenHands

Right now, there is a phenomenal response to the project. Unfortunately, this is happening not because of our love for nature or life around us; it is only because of survival instincts. We realize that if we have to survive, we have to take care of a few things. But now, at least, with the fear of disaster and the instinct of survival, people are beginning to do something.

If you really want to bring about well-being, an important thing is that you don’t think of trees and plants and life around you as just another means to enhance your life. You should see and respect them as life; it’s very important. Biologically, it is said that trees don’t bleed like you, so they are not related to you. See, relationships with family and friends are arbitrary and often inconstant. But every moment of your life, what trees exhale we inhale, what we exhale they inhale. This is a constant transaction. There is a very intimate bond between a human being and plant life. This is a constant relationship that nobody can afford to break or live without. So our closest relative is plant life. If one experiences that, there would be a deep sense of love and involvement with plant life.

Whatever you may be doing, you must plant trees, because you can’t live without oxygen or food or water. In the Indian culture there are temples for trees, people worship trees; it’s a very common practice. It is not a question of a custom. It came from a certain experience and understanding. It is a certain depth of experience and understanding — you understand that whatever nurtures your life is worth worshipping. So, because people understood that trees are very much a part of nurturing their lives, they worshipped them. Every village had a tree that was worshiped at one time. Now, we have become so insensitive that we have removed all that.

A street planted with trees by Project GreenHands. Photo: Project GreenHands

A street planted with trees by Project GreenHands. Photo: Courtesy Project GreenHands

It is not about nurturing nature. You don’t have to nurture nature; it is nature that nurtures you. We think we nurture nature, but we’re only destroying and misusing nature, so we must take compensatory action.

What needs to happen — what is happening — is too little. Much more needs to happen, because the rate at which we are exploiting the resources of this planet is too high. Unless we really do the necessary compensatory acts, we aren’t going to find a solution. So this is the choice that all of us have to make, every generation of people has this choice that you are either a part of the problem or part of a solution. I think as a generation, if we have any sense, if we can pitch in for the solution, it will be a sensible way to live, a more intelligent way to exist on this planet.

BPGL: Have you noticed that the act of planting trees creates community among people to coordinate the effort? If so, are those connections and relationships maintained?

SADHGURU: The process of creating community spirit has to be initiated before the tree planting happens, otherwise the project will quickly find its limitation, as it so often does in many tree-planting projects. Over the past 25 years, at Isha, we have developed a unique way of approaching a rural community through Isha Yoga Programs and Community Games. It revives the spirit of the community and creates the necessary momentum among stakeholders to undertake a community project on a large scale and for the long term. A tree-planting project helps to gather the community around a project that makes sense for each participating group, organisation, or individual. In the long run, activities of post-planting maintenance, livelihood opportunities, other natural resources management, etc., will reinforce and increase the relationships among stakeholders.

Volunteers attend training in their communities. Photo: Project GreenHands

Volunteers attend training in their communities. Photo: Project GreenHands

BPGL: What have been the latest initiatives since 2007?

SADHGURU: By the end of the 2008 planting season, we planted a total of 7.1 million trees and introduced a newly designed model of agro-forestry among the farmer community. Project GreenHands has gained significant support from national and international corporations such as Suzlon Energy Ltd, Yves Rocher Group, EADS, TTK Ltd etc.

BPGL: How do you maintain and care for those millions of trees?

SADHGURU: To create a sustainable green cover, the trees become the responsibility of the tree planters, with the support and supervision of PGH field teams and volunteers. In each location where we initiate planting, PGH ensures that a sufficient number of Isha volunteers are on the ground to support the project implementation and ensure the follow up of post-planting activities.

BPGL: What are the greatest problems and challenges you face in the coming year?

SADHGURU: On the social level, the greatest challenge is to transform awareness campaigns into an urge for action. That is why at Project GreenHands, our work starts by exposing the villagers to tools that will help individuals to reach a higher level of consciousness. Only then can major implementation happen.
At the project level, the challenge is to raise the necessary resources to implement the project in a short time span, in order to create an environmental impact and reverse the process of degradation of natural resources. Tree planting projects need to raise labour, land, and funds simultaneously. Thanks to 25 years of work among the rural community of the state of Tamil Nadu, Isha can raise millions of volunteers and access their land. Labour and land represent about 70 percent of the resources needed for the project. The need for cash (the remaining 30 percent of rescources needed) to fund the production of the saplings, the logistics of the project, and its management is the limiting factor of expansion today.

BPGL: How do you measure the results of your success and impact?

SADHGURU: The result is measured in terms of increase in the state green cover, participation of the community and of strategic partners. Year after year, PGH conducts research studies and pilot programs to improve the monitoring of the project and assessment of its social impact. For example, in 2008, a partnership with Planet Action — the not-for-profit initiative of Spot Image — was initiated to look at the use of satellite imagery and GIS to monitor the development of the green cover over years.

BPGL: Are there models of similar projects being done in other countries?

SADHGURU: There are hundreds of tree planting projects around the world; but so far we have not identified any other initiatives like this that are carrying out any tree planting projects at such a scale through the mobilization of the entire community.

BPGL: Are there plans for planting other types of plants, shrubs, flowers, or food-bearing plants, such as fruit trees or vegetables?

SADHGURU: Apart from timber, trees can provide flowers, fruits and vegetables, spices, medicine, fodder for livestock. We adjust our tree selection according to the planting context; for example, medicinal, fodder, and spice are promoted through our agro-forestry model on farmland; whereas fruit and vegetable trees are promoted in residential areas. In 2009, we will expand the planting of fruit trees on a larger scale by combining the nutrition campaign run by Isha Outreach’s health division with the distribution of free fruit trees for households.

The project depends on volunteers. Photo: Project GreenHands

The project depends on volunteers. Photo: Courtesy Project GreenHands

BPGL: How do you determine which trees to plant in a certain area? Is there research that goes into determining this?

SADHGURU: Botany, cultivation of trees, and management of forest are areas where knowledge has been accumulated for a very long time. PGH has an advisory board including botanists, forestry and organic farming experts, and forestry colleges.   We also get support from international experts and organisations that have experience in tree planting in many different ecosystems all over the world.

BPGL: What advice would you have for communities to duplicate your efforts in their area?

SADHGURU: The capacity of mobilisation of the community and a strong large scale involvement at a grass roots level are key factors for the success of organisations wanting to duplicate such projects. This can be achieved over years or through the establishment of a strong committed network of existing organisations.

We have found success comes through this holistic approach to environmental restoration.  We promote strategies for the sustainable use and management of the land, which are rooted in the rural culture. The result is environmental and socioeconomic sustainability.  Through its activities, Project GreenHands aims to inspire people around the world to appreciate the true value of trees and the vital role that they play within human environments.

For more information, contact marie.rischmann@ishafoundation.org or +91 9443057562.

Makur Jain, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Notes from India: Greenathon Raises Funds for Solar Lights

Notes from India: “Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow”

Notes from India: Greenathon Raises Funds for Solar Lights

The Greenathon brings solar lights to villages that may not have electricity for another 10 years.

“Over 1.6 billion people in the world lack access to electricity; roughly 25 per cent are in India alone. For these people, life comes to a standstill after dusk. Inadequate lighting is not only an impediment to progress and development opportunities, but also has a direct impact on the health, environment, and safety of millions of people, as they are forced to light their homes with kerosene lamps, dung cakes, firewood, and crop residue after sunset.” — Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL)


One of India’s biggest green events, the Greenathon, aired recently on NDTV (a leading Indian television station). The purpose was to raise money to support a program sponsored by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). TERI’s “Lighting a Billion Lives” (LaBL) initiative is working to “provide solar lanterns to villages that would otherwise be without electricity for a decade or more.”

The Greenathon was a 24-hour live event that started on February 7, 2009 and continued through February 8. It was telecast on all NDTV channels “to raise awareness about the environment and find ways to create a cleaner, greener tomorrow.” The event featured India’s leading actors, business leaders, activists, designers, NGOs, teachers, and school children. By the end of the Greenathon, donors had pledged more than Rs 2 crore ($400,000 US) to supply solar-powered lanterns to villagers in remote areas of India.

The event highlighted the efforts of several celebrities, who contributed in different ways toward the cause. Following are a few examples from the official Greenathon website:

  • Milind Soman, an actor and model ran 60 kms to raise awareness for the cause.
  • Other celebrities performed dance numbers, sang, planted trees, “adopted” villages, cleaned the streets, and much more.

“The Campaign aims to bring light into the lives of one billion rural people by replacing the kerosene and paraffin lanterns with solar lighting devices,” according to the LaBL website. “This will facilitate education of children; provide better illumination and kerosene-smoke-free indoor environment for women to do household chores; and provide opportunities for livelihoods both at the individual level and at village level.”

So far, some 2,600 solar-powered lanterns are being used in 40 villages (in India and Myanmar), with 2 more villages in process. The cost of a single lantern is Rs 3600 or $90 US. Interested persons may donate by visiting the LaBL website.

Each solar lantern saves —

  • 40-60 liters of kerosene/year
  • 100 Billion Rupees burned each year in kerosene and wick lamps.”

Things are starting to look “greener” for India.

Makur Jain, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Notes from India: Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow

Notes from India: “Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow”

India has lush vegetation and abundant natural beauty. Photo: Makur Jain

I’ve spent my entire life in India, but have yet to see a trashcan anywhere on the streets. I guess that’s the reason why there’s a big pile of garbage at most street corners, especially in the residential areas. In some locations, however, the government hires street sweepers to clean the streets of garbage. My family, and others in our neighborhood in Lucknow, burn any garbage left on the street so there are no smells, no germs in the air, and no filth outside the house.

The hillsides are littered with trash. Photo: The Small House Society

The hillsides are littered with trash. Photo: The Small House Society

Since we don’t have separate dumpsters for recycling, people carrying large plastic bags on their shoulders pick empty plastic bags and bottles, glass bottles, and other items from the piles of garbage on streets. These items are sold, then recycled. Since most of the empty plastic and glass bottles are used and reused for storing spices, creams, oils, food, and other items, they typically aren’t thrown away unless they’re broken.

Food leftovers are generally given to the maid of the house, or put out for cows, birds, or dogs on the streets to eat. But the sad part about this is that some people discard food leftovers or peelings in plastic bags, and unsuspecting cows or buffaloes eat through the plastic bags to get to the food. This can lead to sickness and death for the animals.

On the brighter side, it’s very encouraging to know that hill stations like Nainital and some others don’t allow use of plastic bags to discourage people from throwing it in the lake, which is the focus of tourist attraction.

City streets are covered with litter, and paan stains mar the walls.

City streets are covered with litter, and paan stains mar the walls. Photo: Makur Jain

Items not thrown out on the street — such as non-composting paper, metal, and some plastic garbage — are sold to a kabari (trash/garbage collector). The kabari then sells the items to someone who can sell them further or recycle them. Some of these kabari ride three-wheel bicycles through residential neighborhoods, stopping and buying recyclable materials, such as old newspapers, metal things, glass or plastic material, old appliances, etc., from people who call out to them.

The animal dung out on the streets continues to be a nuisance to the cleanliness and hygiene of the city. There was a time when the local milkmen would have small houses and pieces of land throughout the city. They kept their cows, buffaloes, and goats there, and used the gobar (dung) as fuel. They’d collect it, dry it, and make flat discs of it to be used as fuel to cook food. It was possible for them to do this, because the dung would be on their fields or on the nearby streets, where they could collect it.

Ever since the government moved the milkmen out of the city, the stray cows’ dung on the streets just ends up on tires and shoes, and becomes a stench. Even if these wandering urban cows belonged to someone, it would be humanly impossible for the owner to keep track of them and collect the dung of his cows from the various streets they walk on. On a more positive note, there are gobar gas plants that allow the gas from gobar to be used as fuel.

Three-wheeled cars share the streets with cows in Lucknow. Photo: Small House Society

One would be surprised to see the dumping grounds here. It’s a huge piece of land where the garbage is left for years to rot! But there’s good news also. Sometimes the government or the city’s development authority, for example the Lucknow Development Authority (LDA), will press the garbage with road rollers into the ground for months, then cover it with mud or concrete. Then they sell that land as residential or commercial property – using garbage as landfill.

Another form of garbage that can be seen all over India on walls, buses, streets, and many government offices is the remains of spit from paan (betel leaf). This tobacco spittle becomes our “social bookmarks.” It’s funny and ironic that every place or wall where it says थूकना मना है। (Do not spit), people make sure they spit on the word मना (not), so the remaining words are थूकना …है। (Do … spit).

The paan stains, as well as cigarette and bidi butts, are littered everywhere. But we’re making progress. The Supreme Court passed a law last year on October 2, prohibiting smoking in all public areas. The Delhi High Court has also banned smoking from being shown in movies.

What’s surprising is that a lot of people contribute toward a “greener India” without even knowing it. Since most cities have small markets in every neighborhood, people just have to walk a couple of blocks and can find almost everything one needs for day-to-day living, thus reducing the pollution from vehicles. Also, Delhi, Lucknow, and other cities have small three wheeler auto-rickshaws that run on compressed natural gas (CNG), which is more environmentally clean.

We are taking small steps in my country, but we are making progress. We are moving toward “Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow” (the slogan painted on numerous railings, walls, buildings, etc.), and thus toward a greener India.

Makur Jain, Ph.D.

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Makur Jain, Ph.D., Contributing Writer

Dr. Makur Jain lives in Lucknow, India, where she earned her Ph.D. in English literature. During the 2007–08 school year, she was hosted by the U.S. State Department as a Fulbright Scholar to teach Hindi at the University of Iowa.

Makur Jain, Ph.D., Contributing Writer

Makur Jain, Ph.D., Contributing Writer

Having an opportunity to compare India and the U.S. gives her a unique perspective on solutions to sustainable living. For example, India is a leader in some areas of environmental innovation, such as using bicycles and small compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles for transportation.

Since Iowa City is home to the Small House Society, during her time in the U.S., Makur had an opportunity to learn about the small house movement and other initiatives for simpler and smaller living. This is how she first connected with Blue Planet Green Living.

Makur Jain

Contributing Writers

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Makur’s Posts:

Notes from India: Greenathon Raises Funds for Solar Lights

Notes from India: “Clean Lucknow, Green Lucknow”

Project GreenHands – Compensating the Earth