A return to balance

December 2015

By Punya Srivatsava

Can we lead a life that walks lightly on Planet Earth? Can we shrug off the wants that bind us, and find a lifestyle that enables us to lead a rich happy life in harmony with nature? Punya Srivastava offers four inspiring examples of families who have made the curve, and regained Paradise


On a recent vacation in Goa, I happened to stay in Saraya, an eco-stay bed-and-breakfast place with its own organic café and holistic activities-based event calendar. The taste of their organic dishes refuses to leave my mouth – delectable wood-fired pizzas baked in a mud oven and served in a plate made of dried leaves, wholesome pumpkin soup made from home grown squashes, falafel wraps filled with the goodness of organically-made Tahini sauce.

The café nestled cosily amidst patches of green growing herbs and vegetables, and was furnished by stone benches set with bamboo and leaf cutlery. Upturned cane baskets hung down from the roof and decorated with strips of discarded glitter, made beautiful chandeliers. Used wine bottles filled with drinking water obtained from rain water harvesting, were placed elegantly on each table. Living in a mud and tree house with nature for company pumped my blood with a strange vigour. Waking up to naturally filtered cool breeze and bird chirpings, brushing teeth in the company of iridescent butterflies, showering in a baked-mud bathtub – everything about that place made me long for a similar eco-home for myself.

This world that we inhabit is a manifestation of love – that of the Creator towards its creation. A life which has at its core a feeling of love towards all creation and towards the planet that we live on is the only one worth living. When we make conscious as well as conscientious choices towards the welfare of the whole, we pay our gratitude to the Universe for its perennial providence. Nature herself is a matchless example of sustainable living. All her systems, whether it is the way all living matter crumbles into soil over time which then gives rise to life, or how water from the sea is condensed, taken up in the form of clouds, and descends as pure and life giving rain water every year, are miraculous cycles of sustainability that have been going on forever.

Can we also create sustainable life cycles? Can we plant a tree for each that we cut? Can we establish a balance between what we consume and what we produce? In earlier times this was a natural process because our work and lives were embedded in nature. We took from nature and replenished it. We had sacred groves that preserved bio diversity. Farming was organic. Water was pure and so was air. Industrialisation, however, changed all of that. And breached a profound gulf between man and nature. Nature was no longer the foundation of life, but a resource that needed to be conquered and exploited. Industries sprouted all over the world, building cities, and spewing poison into water, air and earth. Paradise lost.

The good news is that India is one of the highest ranked countries in the world when it comes to leading a sustainable lifestyle, despite the increasing consumerism since the last 40 years. But we still have a long way to go before we can return to a perfect balance with nature.

On our way back

A sustainable lifestyle touches every aspect of life, from environment conservation to food choices, from body-mind-spirit wellness to waste management, from economic balance to relationship with nature, from prudent consumption to community living. It is a circle joining many dots. A change in any one of these affects other spheres also, sooner or later. For instance, a friend of my father based in Ahmedabad, is committed to curbing and reducing the use of plastic bags in his life. To ensure this, he refuses to step into MNC-operated supermarkets which lavishly use plastic. Neither does he buy use-and-throw items, packaged water, food or drinks. He makes it a point to shop from round-the-corner kirana stores, buying monthly rations in bulk, customising the purchase quantity to his family’s needs, and ferrying them in reusable cloth bags. His commitment to eschew plastic enables him to eat healthy, fresh food instead of processed junk, saves him the fuel spent on driving to the supermarket, and enables him to build bonds with local shops and service providers.

Moreover, his extended family practises gift economy or community barter. Between these six-seven families, they have just one set of tools, special dinner set, vacuum cleaner, and mechanical and plumbing equipment, all of which are used only once in six months. Isn’t this how we co-existed harmoniously some 60 years back? All these activities save his and his family’s carbon footprint, and are bound to make an impact on the world community in much the same way as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil is said to set off a tornado in Texas. Little differences have a large reach in an interconnected world.

One needs to adopt practices which impact the body-mind-spirit-environment-community positively at the micro level while keeping in mind their effects at the macro level. The most appropriate first step would be to calculate our individual, and our family’s, carbon footprint, and then adopt measures to steadily reduce them. Calculating carbon footprints might come across as a complex and daunting task as it includes every action we take – from consuming three square meals a day, to going on a vacation once a year.

There are many people who have taken themselves completely off the grid in order to lead a holistically sustainable life. Alex Leeor, a British web developer, has made himself a completely self-reliant house called Earthship in Karuna farms in Kodaikanal, which has received liberal media coverage since its construction. Earthship is a concept based on ‘biotecture’ (biologically correct architecture) created by American architect Michael Reynolds. An earthship is a building or home that is built on the principles of thermal or solar heating and cooling, solar and wind electricity, has contained sewage treatment, is built with natural and recycled materials, and has facilities to conduct its own water harvesting and food production. Alex, 41, who lives with his partner and pet cats, started building his house in 2009 and spent approximately Rs 20 lakh on its construction. Alex is free to lead a life according to personal taste, and does not have to be dictated to by the ruling market forces.

According to the Greendex International report (2012) on sustainable living by National Geographic and research firm GlobeScan, India is officially the most sustainability-minded country in the world. Greendex scores are measured according to the four factors of Housing, Transport, Food, and Goods (everyday consumption, plus big ticket items). According to the report, Indians lead the list all through, choosing sustainable transport, despite increase in car purchases, are more likely to eat local, and waste less than consumers in more developed economies.

Wow! Let us give ourselves a pat on our back, and pay gratitude to our ancestors for sowing in us an inherent sense of environmental consideration, and inculcating in us values of austerity and contentment. Unlike the West, most of us are brought up with certain values which are respectful towards nature and its various gifts. Many of us still cringe at the thought of throwing away food, abhor using food as entertainment such as throwing pies at people or smearing cake on their faces, insist on making the most of products, find ways to recycle them, and are utterly careful while using resources. Predominantly, we are not a use-and-throw society but a reuse-and-recycle one. Our leftover food finds its way into our morning breakfast menu, our discarded clothing turn into dusters and mops, our shoes and slippers are repaired time and again by the local mochi, and our newspapers are always sold as raddi.

This story covers a few such evangelists who lead the way in leading a sustainable life.

Dr Anil Rajvanshi

Dr Anil Rajvanshi lives in self-made, self-sufficient stone house based on reusing and recyclingDr Anil Rajvanshi lives in self-made, self-sufficient stone house based on reusing and recycling

“Simplifying your life by dropping your wants and reducing your needs is the way to lead a sustainable life,” says Dr Anil Rajvanshi over the phone. Director of Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Phaltan (110 km off Pune), Maharashtra, Dr Rajvanshi has devoted his life towards rural development through renewable energy, and is a committed environmentalist. He has made an unconventional house and an alternative lifestyle for himself and his family, increasingly off the grid.

He lives in a self-designed house constructed in 1984. It is a stone house with 18-inch thick walls which ensure that the house is passively cooled in summers through wet old jute gunny sacks on the roof. “These sacks are very cheap and cost approximately Rs 15 each. The evaporating water from the sacks cools the roof from where 80 per cent of solar thermal load comes into the house. Thus, when the outside temperature is about 40-45 degree Celsius, the house is cool in the afternoon with average temperature of rooms ranging from 25-30 degree Celsius. The trees surrounding the house help a lot,” he explains.

When beyond use, these sacks are either used as mulch in the garden, or as fuel for the water-boiler. “The water boiler is a grate-type multi-fuel model with about a 10-meter long chimney attached to it. This chimney height gives an excellent draught and hence burns the wood and other material quite cleanly,” he says. The ash from this boiler is used as a fertiliser in the garden either directly or through the composting pit. Their kitchen waste is composted in a pit and provides excellent fertiliser for the garden.

Most of their groceries and vegetables are grown within 10-15 kilometers of their home and the eggs are from free-ranging chickens, milk from cows across the road, and vegetables and groceries from the local market. “Most of these things are grown in Phaltan area. We use safflower seeds produced on our Institute farm for crushing in the local mill for oil. Thus, the oil is fresh and without any chemicals. We also consume some fruits grown in our own garden,” he says. The family planted around 30 trees when they shifted into the house, and today their garden resembles a tropical forest that hosts about 40 different types of resident and migratory birds.

“During my stay in the US in the 1970s, my lifestyle was typically consumerist. But coming back to India and living in rural regions taught me the significance of spirituality and austerity. Both these values are complementary and help me live this lifestyle,” he adds. “I wear mostly khadi or cotton spun in cottage industries. I get my shirts stitched from a local tailor, thus, saving money as well as energy.”

The Rajvanshis own few clothes which are worn till they wear out, and are then reused as dusters and ultimately as boiler fuel. Similarly, all the papers in the office are written on both sides before converting into fuel for the boiler.

His energy consumption is also awe-inspiring. He still uses his 25-30-year-old refrigerator and strives to get most of his gadgets repaired rather than junking them. This reduces his garbage production and his cost of living. “India is rapidly developing into a throwaway society, so it is becoming increasingly difficult to get old gadgets repaired. People today are so addicted to buying. This mindlessness is turning us into a violent, aggressive and greedy society,” he says ruefully.

What gives him the gumption to go against the times? “Our Indian spiritual philosophies inspire me to lead a simple lifestyle. By reducing our greed, we become more compassionate. This raises our quality of life; we lead a joyous life, not a mundane and boring one. The end product of such a lifestyle can only be happiness.”

Anamika Mukherjee

Anamika Mukherjee's mudbrick house is made of bricks made from  the earth dug out during foundation excavationAnamika Mukherjee’s mudbrick house is made of bricks made from the earth dug out during foundation excavation

What caught my fancy about Bangalore-based technical writer and author Anamika Mukherjee’s home was its lovely ‘earthy’ look and feel, courtesy its mudbrick architecture set amidst a lush green lawn.

Though initially apprehensive of a mudbrick house, Anamika soon got sold on the idea when her husband Amit, an entrepreneur and avid water conservationist, found them an architect who specialised in mudbrick construction, in 2012. “The best part was that we saved a lot of money as well as carbon footprints during the construction,” she informs.

A mudbrick house is constructed from the very earth which is dug out when a foundation is excavated. It has a lower volume of cement compared to a conventional type of construction. This has many eco-friendly advantages like onsite construction of bricks, cost saved on ferrying away and dumping the dugout earth and bringing in huge volumes of cement and bricks. Mud bricks are manufactured on the site itself, and are hardened in the sun, reducing the impact on the environment in terms of manufacture and transport. Not only that, mud bricks also help to make the house cool in summer and warm in winter. “The exposed brick surface means that you don’t need to spend time and money in plastering and painting walls either externally or internally. It is such a relief when you have kids running around in a new home, not to have to worry about them leaving dirty fingerprints, paint, or food stains on the walls! And you never have to worry about getting a fresh coat of paint. The exposed brick gives a warm, earthy look that blends wonderfully with natural light and greenery,” says a beaming Anamika.

Apart from this green construction, Anamika and Amit have also implemented several green practices. Their home runs on solar electricity not just for heating water, which is the norm, but also for running all the lights, fans, and light electrical gadgets such as computers and television. “Only the heavy electrical equipment such as water pump and iron run on BESCOM power. In summer, when there is plenty of sunlight, we even run the fridge on solar power,” she adds. Water conservation and recycling is the next major eco-friendly measure. The couple has implemented a rainwater harvesting system, and with the average distribution of rainfall through the year in Bangalore, they collect sufficient rain water for all their household needs for eight to nine months in a year. “Only between February and April do we need to rely upon the Municipal Corporation for water,” says Anamika.

In addition, they also have a grey water recycling system. All the water used for bathing, washing clothes and utensils, and other kitchen purposes, is filtered through a reed bed which absorbs all the chemical impurities including detergents and kitchen spices. The water then collects in a separate grey water tank and is further purified by the ultraviolet rays of the sun, and is finally pumped out for irrigating the lawn and fruit and vegetable garden. “While the fruit trees are still small and some of them have not yet started to yield fruit, the vegetable yield is good. We don’t get sufficient vegetables for all meals for our family, but we have been getting a good crop of tomatoes, egg plant, double beans, and various greens,” she says.

“We also have a very systematic approach to solid waste management,” says Anamika, adding, “All our household waste is separated into categories such as organic waste, paper, plastic, e-waste, and other materials. Organic waste, which is kitchen waste, is composted to create fertiliser for our plants. Paper, plastic, and all other materials are given to a waste management centre. We dispose of e-waste, including batteries, at special e-waste collection centers. Eventually, we send only one small bag of garbage to the BBMP garbage collector every month.”

Her motivation for travelling the road less taken? “We believe that even a single family or individual can make a difference. This lifestyle is not a passing fad for us – each of these measures has become a part of our lives, and helps us manage without external dependencies.”

She also admits that their health has improved significantly over the last three years. “In our previous home, we were getting bore-well water and I noticed for some years that my hair was falling a lot. This is one thing that has vastly improved now that we are mostly using rain water. Moreover, as a family we spend a significant amount of time outdoors, planting, looking after, and harvesting our vegetables and that keeps us healthy too,” says she.

What could be more fulfilling than knowing that you can drink (rain) water straight from the tap; and that the meal on your table consists of vegetables straight from your own garden, grown by your own hands? Factor in the relief of knowing that you are not wasting pure, fresh water on mopping the floor and cleaning the car, and it’s a done deal.

“We can’t make a change at a macro level, but we definitely can at a local level. We know that our children are growing up learning the right things, have sensitivity towards the environment, and will do their bit to make the world a little bit greener. They talk to their friends in school and sometimes kids come over to do some project work. People who are thinking of building a house, or setting up a solar power system or grey water recycling system sometimes contact us. By letting people know that we have done this and that they can do these things too, perhaps our influence can extend a little further than our own circle of friends and acquaintances,” she says hopefully.

GV Dasarathi

GV Dasarathi's house of trash was constructed on the principle of  reduce,reuse, recycle and rethinkGV Dasarathi’s house of trash was constructed on the principle of reduce,reuse, recycle and rethink

“I lead my life with a single thought – to not damage the earth,” says GV Dasarathi, a Bangalore-based mechanical engineer who runs his own software production firm. An avid cyclist, Dasarathi has become somewhat of a local hero thanks to his 4R (Reuse, Reduce, Recycle and Rethink) philosophy based on which he constructed his own house in 2010, and his lifestyle too.

“It is a nice and warm feeling to live in a low-carbon house,” says Dasarathi, adding, “We build our houses to last for many years, but break them down every 25 years. Each generation which comes along wants a different kind of home because space requirements have changed or building technology has changed. So we decided to build a house that would fall down on its 25th birthday.”

Their house, Kachra Mane (House of Trash in Kannada), cost them approximately around Rs 17 lakhs, as against the cost of Rs 40 lakhs for a traditionally built house. The use of cement, steel, and sand was reduced by 80 per cent and the construction was completed in seven months unlike the standard period of 18 months.

This family of three – Dasarathi, his wife and daughter, 20 – designed their house to be light, both physically and on the pocket with emphasis on some basic rules. The first one is the Green mantra of 3R – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Second is to invite the weather in, through more windows and fewer walls, unlike conventional houses that are designed to keep the weather out. “We have also used massive amounts of a fourth R – Rethink,” he quips.

This has resulted in a naturally well-lit and airy house using minimal carbon footprints. Instead of buying new things and putting a load on the planet already hard-pressed for resources, the family bought used and company seconds gadgets, appliances and other home items. For example, all the cupboards in their house are made of old, discarded pinewood crates which are given a linseed oil coating before being put to use. “We chose to go organic rather than introduce toxins like chemical-based paints and varnishes, in our lives. We call our house an ‘urban hut’,” he says. Similarly, their floor is un-tiled and their roof made of corrugated bamboo.

Apart from his green house which has a 20,000 litre pump for rain water harvesting and an under-construction solar panel, Dasarathi is also known for his sustainable living practices. His main mode of commuting is his bicycle since he doesn’t own any car. “My office is 15 kms from my home. I have been cycling or taking the bus to work for the past 15 years. I cycle 90 per cent of the time. I cycle everywhere, not just to my office,” he says. According to him, evaluating your self-worth by the size of your house or car is plain stupid. “We have become a paranoid society obsessing over our material possessions. This makes us fearful, leaching out joy. For me security is overrated,” he says.

However, he is hopeful that the younger generation, with whom he interacts during his sustainability talks in schools and colleges, is enthusiastic about adopting green practices. “I hope at least a handful of them start making conscious choices by opening their minds and thinking about ‘reducing’ and ‘reusing’, which is even better than recycling,” he says.

The Sonejis

Theirs is a story straight out of a film like Swades. Two science degree holders just one year into their marriage decide to exchange their city life in Ahmedabad for a tribal one in Sakwa village that falls under the Narmada district of Gujarat. Dhirendra and Smita Soneji were professors in an engineering college when they started feeling disenchanted by their current lifestyle. “In the cities, you have no choice in your lifestyle. Your water is chlorinated, the chemicals you use pollute the environment, and there is rampant greed,” says Dhirendra about their motivation to opt for a simpler, more natural lifestyle.

With two more friends, they pondered over questions like, ‘Is today’s way of living right? If not, what is the right way of living? How can we combine jnana (knowledge), karma (work), and bhakti (devotion) in life? What is the difference between human life and that of other sentient beings? Based on these questions, what should we do with our own lives?’

“We did not want to exploit or be exploited. In the city you inadvertently take advantage of the environment, and end up exploiting one or other sections of society. We wanted to get away from it all,” Smita says. Thus, in 1986, they bought two-and-a-half acres of land in a tribal area, and decided to live off it.

Of course, friends and family thought they were throwing away their lives, but they knew they were finding it. However, they had to unlearn all that they knew. Their knowledge was of little use when it came to tilling the land and producing sustenance from it. They learned most of what they know from the locals, and slowly developed better farming techniques over the past 30 years.

They built their own house from scratch including all the wiring and a bathroom. For the first six years, they had to live without electricity, after which they got a bio-gas plant run on cowdung. They also experimented with a wind mill and solar cooking and came up with tons of farming innovations, from water development to land management to crop rotation, which increased their efficiency with locally available resources. Today, they produce over 200 kgs of crop annually – oilseeds, pulses, spices, and over 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables, all grown with organic manure. They have mangoes, papayas, lemon grass, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet tamarind, egg plant, and vanilla. Incidentally, in the first five years, they only had enough to fulfil 60 per cent of their needs.

The Sonejis have two sons – Vishven (29) and Bhargav (26) who were home-schooled and taught practical life sciences. Both of them work in their family farm and make optimum use of the innovations envisioned by their parents. For the Sonejis, life is important and has to be lived without causing harm to anyone else. For many, such life decisions are a result of spirituality, but for Sonejis it is a natural progression of their lifestyle. “We want to develop truth, non-violence and love within ourselves and stop the violence, anger, and greed in society. That’s our spirituality,” says Dhirendra. For this family, there is no other way but to spend their lives in perfect alignment with their values and their ideals. It is said that the future is first in the mind and will, and then in reality. So come on! Sustainability is already ingrained in us. We just need to give our lives a vigorous shake and drop every superficial and unnecessary want shackling us. Paradise can be regained!

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