Between hope and hell

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IN CONVERSATION Robert Swan, the first man to walk on the Poles, talks about his conservation work in Antarctica and India

Using the usedRobert Swan sitting on a recycled bench at TERI officePhoto: V.V. Krishnan
Using the usedRobert Swan sitting on a recycled bench at TERI officePhoto: V.V. Krishnan

“Iam 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 is the first man to walk on the North and South Poles.

Since attaining the feat, he has been working on conservation in Antarctica. Every year, he takes an expedition of people from various walks of life to the melting icy sphere.

This is to help them understand why sustainable development is the key. He has set up an E-base there powered completely by renewable energy to drive home the point that “if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere in the world.” Swan, who also has been working on efficient waste management in 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 in Madhya Pradesh.

Creating awareness

Swan is in New Delhi as 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 has been conducting awareness and sensitisation drives in schools to instil a habit of recycling among the youth. In phase IV 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 such as furniture and stationery.

Perched on a bench made of recycled cartons, the 56-year-old conservationist says, “I like that word, phase IV, it means hope.”

Money power

Swan underlines 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 working hard on its economy. We do need economic growth. But by merely making a lot of money, we will end up having a lot of rich people but no air, no water, no forest.”

Swan says that visiting the waste dumps in Indian cities gave him sinus and chest problems. A marathon runner, he says, “I took part in the Mumbai marathon thrice and I could hardly breathe at the end of it.” Seeing overflowing waste bins in 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 feels that young people want to know if they can do something to make a difference. So his role “is to inspire them”. He notes, “Bangalore and Mumbai have already run out of garbage dumps. I shudder to think what would happen 25 years from now.”

Swan finds it hopeful that he is trying to show the way to 400 million people in India (the youth). 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, I 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. You will have to be , aim at finishing one goal at a time. These experiences have prepared me to deal with things in India.”



You have to give the communities an alternative. Recycling is the alternative... it can be a huge business opportunity

for India




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