Eco-warriors to the rescue

TEAM METROPLUS speaks to green activists who’ve led some of India’s most inspiring campaigns this year

December 26, 2016 05:34 pm | Updated 10:34 pm IST

Greendom - Bangalore

A school for gardening

If you thought kids hated vegetables, you must meet this lot. They love them because they grow them. The sprawling 14-acre campus of Bangalore’s Army Public School on Kamaraj Road is home to an ever-expanding school farm and garden, where you’ll find produce ranging from gooseberries and carrots to aloe vera, papaya and mint.

Students at the community garden in Army Public School, Bangalore. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Students at the community garden in Army Public School, Bangalore. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Rectangular plots of dark soil at the school’s entrance hold the promise of spinach, chillies, brinjal and radish. Then there are little patches of herb gardens growing lemongrass, mint, brahmi, rosemary, etc. The campus already has abundant trees planted over the years that yield lemon, chikoo, moringa, and curry leaves.

The school decided to set up a community garden, Greendom, as part of The School Enterprise Challenge — an international awards programme for schools, that encourages them to set up businesses. A beginning was made during Van Mahotsav in July, where every child donated one plant or sapling. A sale of these helped raise seed money for the project; a part was donated to charity. They have had two sales so far, which have helped raise Rs. 32,000. A part of it is ploughed back into the garden.

Principal Manjula Raman hopes to convert the school into a green zone and create awareness among children on the effort that goes into growing food. The school gardener and teachers are the go-to people to learn about plant care. Dry leaves and food waste are made into compost on campus. Many children take the plants home to care for them. And at school, the students weed, water and tend to them.

Garden City Farmers

Bengaluru has been making every effort to turn over a new leaf -- to erase the Garbage City tag, rekindle the Garden City spirit, and prove to the world that the city is ruled by green thumbs.

It is after all a city where people take pride in growing brinjals in pots on their sixth floor balcony, re-creating personal forests around their bungalows in Whitefield, where techies during the week turn farmers over weekends to form farming cooperatives and communities with friends.

The Oota From Your Thota (OFYT) urban organic gardening initiative of Garden City Farmers, is perhaps one of the most enthusiastic coming together of people; and it was so this year too, with new young tech-savvy initiatives added to the city’s passionate desire to grow their own food. 


Many tree/sapling plantation drives like Trees For Free that distributes free saplings, voluntary groups like Say Trees that do Miyawaki plantation drives over the weekend or Afforestt, that uses the Miyawaki method to prepare urban forests in your backyard at a cost - the city has seen them all thriving. Harvesting Love, an initiative of Feed your Neighbour brought in the charity angle to growing food - growing three pots of greens in your home and donating crops to to feed the needy in the city. Apartment communities and Resident Welfare Associations have been able to strike a balance, on one hand creating awareness on waste separation and management, and on the other, composting and furthering the green cover in their localities.


Ameenpur Lake - Hyderabad

Fauna returns to the lake

Early this year, members of Telangana State Special Protection Force (TSSPF), Hyderabad Birding Pals (HBP) and Friends of Flora and Fauna Society (FoFF) gathered at Ameenpur lake, a favourite spot for bird lovers. Their task was to clean up the lake precincts.

Flamingos at Ameenpur lake Photo: K.V.S. Giri

Flamingos at Ameenpur lake Photo: K.V.S. Giri

The teams gathered weekend after weekend, spent hours removing water bottles, plastic bags and even remains of makeshift barbecues put up by revellers. “Gated communities, apartment blocks and temples in the vicinity contributed to the trash,” says Tejdeep Kaur Menon, Director-General, TSSPF.

The lake has now been adopted by TSSPF Training Academy.

According to a report by Telangana State Biodiversity Board, the lake attracts 222 species of birds, 250 plant species, nine fish species, 26 aquatic beetles, 41 butterfly species, 33 species of invertebrates, 12 amphibian species, 33 reptile species and nine species of wild animals.

Encroachments, illegal borewells, use of dried patches in the upper reaches of the lake as motorcycle and car tracks, running of power lines, sand and granite quarrying, and scaring of birds with fire crackers threatened the lake’s biodiversity.

“The only way out was to clean up the lake environs. TSSPF men, who are deployed to guard and secure strategic installations and entities, had to be motivated to forego some of their holidays to remove the litter,” says Tejdeep.

They soon joined volunteers of HBP and FoFF, cleaned the surroundings and educated apartment dwellers, temple authorities and villagers.

A team from the State’s Fisheries Department conducted an orientation on safe fishing methods, villagers were urged to stop dumping trash and immersing Ganesh idols, illegal borewells were shut down.

“Ameenpur lake is not an irrigation project, but there is a proposal to bring the lake under Mission Kakatiya, the State’s flagship project to save water bodies,” says Tejdeep.

Ameenpur lake was recognised as a Biodiversity Heritage Site in November. This, Tejdeep hopes, will help in further protecting the lake.


SOUL’s alternative approach - Hyderabad

Lubna Sarwath of SOUL calls for citizen participation to ensure a system overhaul

An interactive session with Lubna Sarwath is enough to enlighten anyone about Hyderabad’s water bodies, their history and present condition. An economist, ecological activist and a visiting lecturer at Trisakti University, Jakarta, Lubna is co-convenor Save Our Urban Lakes (SOUL).

SOUL was formed in 2010 and Lubna joined the team in 2012. At first an active member and then a vociferous campaigner to raise awareness of shrinking water bodies, she states that her methods may not find appreciation from authorities.

“I don’t believe that citizens cleaning up a lake body can solve the problem. Their efforts are to be appreciated, but we need a system overhaul. As citizens, we pay taxes and have the right to demand that the government take measures to curb pollution and encroachments,” she says.

S.Chakradhar, convenor, SOUL, designed a detailed digital map using the 1975 Survey Of India digital topographic sheet to mark existing and extinct water bodies. The map also points out prominent water bodies that don’t find a mention in the list put out by Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation and Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority. These, says SOUL, include Hussainsagar, the lake in Vengalrao Nagar and Masab tank among others.

“Our lakes are stinking and shrinking,” says Lubna, as she rues the sewage and industrial pollution that passes through inflow and outflow channels of water bodies. This monsoon, some areas in Hyderabad saw heavy inundation and fingers were pointed at encroachments.

A Biodiversity Heritage tag for lakes, she believes, isn’t enough. “Every water body from the past should be treated as a heritage body. The Hussainsagar has shrunk over the decades. So have the Masab tank, Public Gardens lake and several others. Put up signboards detailing area of each lake, mark inflow and outflow channels, protect the feeder channels from pollution and stop encroachments,” she says.

Lubna believes in citizen participation to force authorities take proactive measures. “Wherever I hold panel discussions or address students, I tell them to stand up for water bodies in their vicinity. A large group of residents coming together and making a representation to the authorities cannot be ignored. We’ve helped students file RTIs for lakes in the vicinity of their campuses,” she says.

SOUL has also identified historic wells in the city and proposes to submit a list to the government, to get them notified. “If we have to save water bodies for posterity, we at least need to get it notified so that they are protected,” she sums up.

Syed Kattuva - Coimbatore


Saves grand old trees

“The trees were calling out for help,” says Syed Kattuva. “The Coimbatore-Pollachi Road is like a boulevard with over 2,000 trees. I don’t know why trees are the first casualties whenever there is road-widening work. This has to change.”

Syed Kattuva leads ‘Save the Tree’ campaign in Coimbatore

Syed Kattuva leads ‘Save the Tree’ campaign in Coimbatore

Osai Syed as he is better known, thanks to his association with the NGO OSAI, spearheads the ‘save the tree’ campaign. He approached the Collector to stop cutting trees on the road. “We got a three-month respite to come up with a solution. We selected 51 trees for transplanting,” explains Syed. Over 25 have found new homes across the city, thanks to corporates, and a Corporation reserve site. Syed hopes more institutions will come forward.

Syed says, “These trees are between 10 and 500 years old. It is our responsibility to nurture them.”

Syed has been a tree crusader for over a decade and has people across Tamil Nadu approach him. “I do not make money out of saving trees. But, I have made a lot of friends. I want to save trees for the future generations. People plant saplings in lakhs. But, do they care to nurture them?” he asks.

It’s not easy to cut a tree. “The Revenue Department has to conduct a survey and then issue a tree-cutting order. Driving nails or hanging advertisement boards on trees invites a fine of Rs. 2,000. People should be aware of such things.”

Syed runs his own business, but admits that his tree crusade does not leave him with much time for it. He feels the trees have chosen him. “There is hope. Recently, an auto component company called me to help them transplant four trees.”


Mridula Ramesh - Madurai


Reduces waste generation at home

In July 2015, Mridula Ramesh’s family of four and the staff in her sprawling bungalow in Chokkikulam, Madurai, decided to record for a week how much waste they threw into the municipal bin. It averaged 17.6 kg a day. Mridula, the JMD of Southern Roadways, set herself a target of going zero-waste, ensuring her family became Madurai’s first to not send its trash out.

“I do not cook, and yet I turned out to be the biggest culprit,” she says, speaking of an unmindful and irregular grocery purchase pattern. “In the last 15 months, I have stuck to a shopping list, fully aware of the stock at home and exactly what is required for the kitchen.”

“When we clutter, we tend to forget, and that soon becomes waste,” says Mridula. “Now, our grocery bills have plummeted by 40 per cent, and there is drastic reduction in outgoing waste.”

Mridula Ramesh Photo: S. James

Mridula Ramesh Photo: S. James


The next step was to give the girls in the kitchen open bins to separate biodegradable and non-biodegradable trash. She has now created a major composting system in her backyard and the garden is flourishing.

Her only worry is the less-than-half-a-kilo plastic, cardboard cartons, medicine covers and other FMCG packaging.

The conservation plan has been duplicated at her company too, where 500-plus employees generated 200 kg of waste. Within five months, the canteen waste reduced to less than 10 kilos from 40, and the garden waste of 110 kg goes for bulk composting.

Mridula has combined her eco-friendly action with teaching, and she is a clean tech investor. “It is not enough to just raise awareness,” she says, “a start-up is fantastic to create impact”.

As founder of Sundaram Climate Institute in Madurai, Mridula offers waste reduction tips to students, residents and writes about it too. Videos of her approach to zero-waste at home demonstrate easy steps to turning garbage into black gold.


Thanal - Thiruvananthapuram

Revives indigenous paddy varieties

Intense effort has gone into the ‘Save Our Rice’ (SOR) campaign pioneered by voluntary research group, Thanal. It has resulted in the collection of more than 1,000 indigenous paddy varieties, some brought back from the verge of extinction for the seed bank. The NGO has cultivated 219 of them, of which 164 are variants indigenous to Kerala. “Records say Kerala had almost 3,000 varieties of paddy. We are fortunate to have been able to collect 164 and consumers can buy 25 of them. We sell some of them in our store in the city,” says Sridhar Radhakrishnan, director.

Organic Rice Mela at SOR. Photo: Special Arrangement

Organic Rice Mela at SOR. Photo: Special Arrangement


Thanal’s campaign has been successful in seven states (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh). The SOR campaign was founded in 2004 along with two other promoters of organic food, CREATE in Tamil Nadu and Sahaja Samrudha in Karnataka, to revive the cultivation of indigenous varieties of paddy across the country.

It was a time when indigenous seeds had gone to seed and traditional paddy cultivators were reeling under the pressure created by industrial cultivation of the so-called ‘high-yielding variety’(HYV) of rice. The soil quality deteriorated due to excess use of fertilisers.

“It was clear that the farmers were losing their sovereignty over paddy cultivation. We had to do something,” says Sridhar.

Today, Thanal and all those who are associated with the SOR movement are reaping rewards. Paddy festivals are conducted every year and the participation has contributed greatly in building an understanding among farmers and consumers about the value of traditional varieties. Hundreds of farmers, especially from North Kerala, have become part of the movement. The Rice Diversity Block run by Thanal at Panavally, Wayanad, cultivates all the 219 varieties.


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