On World Earth Day, Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty speaks to Robert Swan, the first man to walk on the Poles, about his conservation work in Antarctica and India, and underlines the need for Indians to think about waste management to avoid “seeing hell”

“I am bad at many things but I am good at staying alive.”

Noted polar explorer Robert Swan’s response to a question on his arduous expeditions to the South and North Poles in the 1980s is as much a description of his persona as his work thereafter — of survival, by keeping nature by his side. Swan, the first human to walk on both North and South Poles, since attaining the feat, has been working on conservation of Antarctica, takes to the melting icy sphere an expedition of people from various walks of life every year to help them understand better why sustainable development is the key, has set up an E-base there powered fully on renewable energy to drive home the point that “if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere in the world.” Interestingly, Swan, who also has been working on efficient waste management in regions like the Middle East, had, about two years ago, set up a similar E-base in India, the only one besides Antarctica, at Pench National Park, Madhya Pradesh.

Swan is in New Delhi these days in the role of an ambassador for a joint initiative of TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) and packaging giant Tetra Pak on recycling of waste. Called Project SEARCH, the programme, since 2009, has been conducting awareness and sensitisation drives in schools across Delhi and Bangalore to instil a habit of recycling among the youth. In phase V now, the project “aims at reaching out to 170,000 students across 170 schools in Delhi, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune.” Swan’s role is to interact with school children and teachers to instil good waste management practices in them including setting up Tetra Pak collection centres in schools for recycling the cartons to make various products including furniture, stationery, etc. This year, the project aims to provide furniture and stationery to six lesser privileged schools of Delhi by recycling Tetra Pak cartons.

Perched on a bench made of recycled cartons at the TERI office here, the 56-year-old conservationist points at a project banner behind him, saying, “I like that word, phase V, it means hope.” With a lot of excitement, he adds, “There is this Bloom Public School in Delhi (Vasant Kunj). Its students have collected 900 kg of used Tetra Pak cartons by visiting places like hospitals, homes, etc. Isn’t it fantastic? It represents our idea very well; the project is about doing something, not just sending an email here, a Facebook message there.” The project “deals with elite schools. These are the future leaders of India. So the idea is to show these young leaders what they can do to make a difference.”

Swan underlines a deplorable fact here, that India has the worst air pollution in the world today (as per a recent study released at the World Economic Forum, Davos). “It is a great nation, working hard on its economy. We do need economic growth but by earning only a lot of money we will end up having a lot of rich people but no air, no water, no forest.” Tetra Pak, he recalls, sponsored a tour for him in India before engaging him with project SEARCH “to see what happens to the cartons, from the beginning to the end of their life.” He comments, “The first man to walk on the Poles is a pretty tough guy. I won’t go down easily. But after visiting waste dumps for some days in Indian cities to see what happens to the cartons, I developed sinus problem, chest problem.” A marathon runner, he says, “I took part in the Mumbai marathon thrice and every time I could hardly breathe at the end of it.” Seeing overflowing waste bins in cities like Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai made him “see hell”. He realised, “These cartons should be on the tables (meaning recycled) and not in the dumps.”

Swan knows, “Young people don’t want to hear the negative stuff. They want to know if they can do something to make a difference.” So his role “is to inspire them”. That he became the first man to walk on the Poles looks to him shallow fame personally “but young people like me because I just did it.”

Negotiating one’s way though the system in India, Swan feels, is no cakewalk. “I would like to engage more with the Government on this but after months of trying, you get an appointment with the Environment Minister (Jairam Ramesh), he sounds interested and next you know is, he is changed.” He notes, “India is beginning to see economic development and already cities like Bangalore and Mumbai have run out of garbage dumps. I shudder to think what would happen 25 years from now.” That through this project, he is trying to show the way to 400 million people in India (the youth) means hope for him but he “doesn’t quite know” how to involve the rest of the population to understand the need for efficient waste management. “I think I will have to work harder there,” he says.

Interestingly, Swan sees a similarity between negotiating his way to the poles and meeting his goal in India. “I learnt three things from my expeditions. One, to learn from mistakes and not to do too many of them; second, to be positive; and third, to take one day at a time. In minus 60 degrees, with 1600 kms to do, for 70 days without backup, walking on ice that suddenly melted, went through a hole in the ozone layer which changed the colour of my eyes and burnt my skin, if I had thought I would die, I would have died. You will have to be positive all the way, aim at finishing one little goal at a time. These experiences have prepared me to deal with things in India.” Since age 11, he says he harboured the dream to walk on the Poles.

About his decision to set up an E-Base in India, Swan has his reason, “You have to give the communities an alternative. Recycling is the alternative. We set it up in a tiger reserve because it is important to underline that tigers need to be saved but tigers can survive if there are forests and water sources.” So the E-base, run by a person who had been on one of swan’s Antarctica expeditions, engages the local community in tiger conservation, habitat protection as well as act as a portal for learning about sustainable living.

Recycling, underlines the co-author of Antarctica 2041: My Quest to Save the Earth’s Last Wilderness, “can be a huge business opportunity for India. You can save so much money on water, packaging, etc.”

And however difficult it might be, Swan signs off saying he would still try and engage more with the Government because “people might crucify the Government but finally it is the Government, they are the leaders.”